This lesson stands as a one off. We focused on exploring language through Blake’s use of iambic tetrameter (four iambic beats per line – unstressed/stressed) and how the metre was broken by trochees to draw our attention to particular words/lines. We also looked at Blake’s original version which contains some capitalised nouns that are not present in the anthology version.
We began with some background – no need for a huge biographical exposition but it’s important to note some of the following:
Stories of Blake parading through the streets of London with his ‘bonnet rouge’ to declare his sympathy for the French revolutionaries have become legendary but there was real concern amongst the leaders of other European nations that the revolution might spread, so Blake’s actions were not empty rhetoric. Only a few years earlier, in 1776, the American Republic was born, freeing itself from British rule. Concern about the French revolution however was so great that authority figures such as Edmund Burke (an MP and great orator) compared the revolution in France to a monstrous beast that threatened to undermine social stability. When Blake wrote his first version of London in 1792, the Reign of Terror in France was just around the corner: public executions of dissenting figures led to the streets of Paris running with blood ( and leading to the execution of King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette in 1793). The French revolutionaries believed that this was necessary in order to maintain control and uphold the principles of the revolution (Animal Farm anyone?) So by the time the poem was published in 1794, news from across the channel of royal blood being spilled and the summary executions of nobility and dissenters caused the ruling classes in England to quiver. In an earlier poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake suggested that “without contraries [there] is no progression” – in other words, for society to move forward, conflict is often necessary: however even Blake would have recognised, in the extreme bloodshed that the revolution had unleashed, a betrayal of its original principles.
Blake’s ‘London’ is a call to arms: he sees London as a symbol of oppression and within the poem, he criticises just about every institution for the ‘mind-forged manacles’ that it places on men and women:
“Blake saw a world in turmoil: blood running down palace walls, prostitutes suffering from sexually-transmitted diseases, children forced to become chimney sweeps and innocent babies born to mothers who couldn’t look after them.”
The poem is one of Blake’s most famous and its simplicity of rhythm and rhyme conceals its intensity. (It’s so good even The Verve, a nineties indie band, lifted most of it for their single ‘History’ in 1994 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jmf9UQ3YIs)
Stanza one positions Blake as an observer. The repetition of ‘charter’d’ is a reference to the mapping out of public space, the imposition of boundaries (see also Tissue in your anthology). The juxtaposition of ‘charter’d’ with ‘Thames’ draws our attention to physical and political control over nature: even the Thames was subject to laws and prohibitions, especially as it became ever more important as a commercial route. Notice the irony of wander and flow, fluid processes, against the idea of constraint contained in ‘charter’d and ‘marks’. Rhetorical features such as repetition (‘charter’d’, ‘marks’) reinforce Blake’s message that the people of London are subject to control – but as he will reveal later in the phrase ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, we make our own chains and as the French have shown, change is possible although not easy. Notice the shift to a trochee in the fourth line of the first quatrain – drawing our attention to the noun ‘marks’ which continues the theme of physical oppression.
The second stanza kicks off with three lines that employ anaphora to emphasise the utter pervasiveness of this misery – it affects every man, every infant, every voice. References to sound are introduced here and these are repeated throughout the poem. This is a noisy poem. Not only in this stanza but also in the cries, sighs and curses in the subsequent ones. The noises are unpleasant: it is a cacophony of sound and this is also replicated in the trochees which jar against the ear, like a hammer striking an anvil – see here (http://www.academypublication.com/issues/past/tpls/vol03/09/15.pdf) ‘Marks’, ‘blasts’, ‘blights’ are all emphasised by Blake. This is a very discordant poem but also rhythmic – one can imagine it as a revolutionary song (again, listen to The Verve and those first stanzas will stick in your head). Interestingly, this is a poem about voices and noise and yet the very people whom Blake refers to – the poor, the dispossessed – have no ‘voice’ in that they are powerless. The soldier’s ‘sigh’ is his dying breath perhaps; the chimney sweeper’s cry falls on the deaf ears of the church. Only Blake ‘hears’ the harlot’s curse but there is something futile about the way she ‘blights with plagues the marriage hearse’. Blake as a revolutionary poet is trying to give a voice to the voiceless and the disempowered.
It is in the last line of this stanza that we are introduced to the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ – the word forged itself is powerful – suggesting something created from the irons of industry and of course it is appropriate considering the shadow of the modern world – industry and capitalism – that hangs over Blake’s world. For a man who believed in the power of the imagination, and who saw angels in the trees of Peckham Rye, the brute of modernity was a monstrous beast that threatened to swallow the weak, the poor and the suffering (see also The Tyger). But these mind-forg’d manacles are just that: chains of the mind that we create for ourselves: we believe in institutions and ideologies – we are controlled by them (I invited all my class to get up and leave the room at that point – none of them did. Just an example of our subservience to ideas!)
Stanza three is an full fronted assault on the institutions which create these manacles of the mind. Notice here the capitalisation (which we’ve also seen in stanza 2 with Man and Infants). Here, Blake draws our attention to these nouns as symbols of oppression or their consequences. In stanza 2, Man is capitalised, as is Infants. Here the significance is clear – it is humanity that is the victim; but Infants is also important because Blake links childhood to innocence (see The Schoolboy) and as we grow, our innocence is lost. In the third stanza, ‘Chimney-sweeper’ draws our attention to the poor treatment of children: their exploitation by society. Blake uses SYNECDOCHE to refer to these institutions: synecdoche is where a part of something refers to the whole with which it is connected. So: the soldier reminds’ us of the army whilst ‘Palace’ refers to the monarchy. ‘Church’ therefore refers to the whole of organised religion. The final powerful image of ‘the hapless Soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down Palace walls’ is a damning indictment of the monarchy in its willingness to shed the blood of its subjects in its hunger for power.
The final stanza is the noisiest of them all.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear/How the youthful Harlots curse/Blasts the new-born Infants tear/And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
The Harlot (prostitute) is again capitalised, drawing our attention to its importance as a symbol of sexual exploitation in a patriarchal world (My Last Duchess? An Inspector Calls?) Her curse on one level is a profanity; on another it is the curse of her life – forced into prostitution and misery. It could also, on another level, be a sexually transmitted disease which she will pass on to her child and thus set in motion a cycle of disease and despair. Curse, blasts, blight, plagues are all harsh sounding words – notice bl and pl are plosive sounds which echo the violence of the words themselves. One of my students also suggested ‘tear’ can be seen as a HOMONYM – ‘tear’ as in cry but ‘tear’ as in ripped apart. This makes sense as it continues the violent theme of this stanza. Finally, the OXYMORON ‘Marriage hearse’ is another criticism of institutions: this time the patriarchal one of marriage which Blake criticised (although he was married, he wanted marriage to be an equal relationship). The Harlot’s curse at the ‘Marriage hearse’ can also be seen as her realisation that such security is not for her and as she watches it go by she recognises her own misery and hopelessness. This final image also suggests that marriage is an institution blighted with problems and that, unless we can create a world without misery, then it will be perpetuated through the cycle of birth, marriage, procreation and death. A hearse carries us to our grave and within these final four lines, Blake has taken his reader on a journey through life, shown us our own mortality and reminded us of a world of misery that we ought to do something about.
Once we’d gone through the poem (perhaps not in the depth that I have done above!) I gave the class these starter sentences. I wanted them to choose one to use as a starting point for their own analysis and they worked effectively. I deliberately used a variety of starters to differentiate – some just ask students to engage with ‘visual imagery’ for example which enables pupils a wider choice of examples. Some require students to begin their analysis with an AO3 statement (something which I’m really trying to push – see here)
I also gave them a few examples to look at before writing (but kept these from most of them)
As always, I’ve taken some examples of students’ work. These are actually from my middle set and I am really proud of the way they’ve engaged with the ideas in the poem:
I was glad that some students had a go at the rather challenging idea that the poem was a call to arms: here is Oliver having a really good go…
Here is Molly having a go at exploring the metre of the poem:
That’s all for now…