Thursday, September 7, 2017

"London" by William Blake (1794)

First there is this poem, "London" by William Blake, from today's edition of The Writer's Almanac:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

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

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

William Wordsworth said William Blake was a mad genius. I agree. I was introduced to Blake rather late in my life -- just about 20 years ago -- when I took a semester-long course on Blake's poetry and art; I continued studying Blake after the course, and I have read most of Blake's poetry, I have viewed most of his art, and I have read the biographies by William Gilchrist and Peter Ackroyd.

As for "London," one of Blake's poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience, don't let the easy-going rhythm and rhyme scheme lull you. The poem is to my mind one of the most vivid and disturbing poems ever written. I read it as a harrowing portrait of urban life and poverty, an indictment of government and the church, and a lament on the far-reaching scourge of sexually transmitted diseases.

I offer the poem to you without further comment.

However, I encourage you to comment.


  1. That is a powerful poem, Tim. To me, it speaks to the underside of urban life, and gets past the veneer of 'gentrified' London.

    1. Blake was never among the gentry class. His long poems baffle the mind because of his symbolism and inevented mythology; his short poems are much more accessible, often powerful, and sometimes disturbing. Blake was a strong contender as a subject for my thesis; he lost out to Flannery O'Connor.

  2. powerful words... Blake deeply understood universal suffering; he saw it in all it's complexity and ubiquitousness... imo, his seeming incursions into madness were part and parcel of an attempt to deal with it... i've thought how unfortunate it was that he never got a chance to study some of the eastern philosophies that ostensibly try to deal with human suffering in a somewhat practical way... meditation, et. alii....

    1. Mudpuddle, at least he had something that helped: he liked beer.

  3. I like what Mudpuddle said. Blake is one of my favorite poets and artists. He does seem crazy at times. I would like to read those biographies of his life.

    I read Songs of Innocence and Experience years ago. It seems to be a tragic but common formula that all of us start off life as a child, brimming with enthusiasm, only living for the moment and able to experience complete joy.

    Then we get hurt and become mistrustful of people, events...or some of us get downright cynical.

    And then there are those who despair...

    How to overcome it all? I believe it is a test for pure gold. The hardships burn off the dross.

  4. Sharon, if you want a real challenge, try some of Blake's longer works. If you want to read about Blake, I recommend the Ackroyd biography; the Gilchrist is very good, but it is a 19th century book and lacks the benefit of bigger historical perspective.