Penitentiary, with Sound and Fury
It would be an understatement to state that William Blake's 1794 poem "London" excels in the foreboding and the dark and the grotesque, as it would be an understatement to say that he is artfully condemning the organizations holding prevalent reign in London City: the Church and the Government. What Blake so poetically achieves in his sixteen lines of wavering iambic tetrameter is not solely the depiction of corrupted and imprisoning organized society, but the duality between the so-written 'chartered' City and its Shakespearean actuality of sound and fury. Symbolically, it is the duality between the City and its' people; the rulers and the proletariat; the lines defining the plight of the common people that a century later would be transposed to Les Miserables and yet will remain as potent throughout all forthcoming years.
Like T.S. Eliot's modernist masterpiece "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," "London" takes readers through the eyes of a wanderer, a transcriber of the City's sights and sounds who functions as a poetic lens revealing firstly, imprisonment. "Chartered street" (1) is the phrase Blake uses to coincide with the "chartered Thames" next to which the narrator strolls. Denotatively, 'chartered' is a bureaucratic term that involves a grant by sovereign power, or powers; powers here represented by both "church" (10) and "palace" (12); respectfully, the organizations religion and government. According to the wanderer, both street and river are permissible only by these powers and Blake's denotation is that both ergonomics and nature are governed, an idea that relates to imprisonment through the conveyance of a lack of freedom. The plight of the aforementioned proletariat is referenced by the faces marred in line four with "marks of weakness" and "marks of woe." Blake expands his idea of imprisonment in stanza two, however the sounds of the people prelude their confinement. And a confinement of sprawling degradation it is: the "mind-forged manacles" (8) a truly horrendous breach of governmental power that is perhaps made all the more disturbing due to the self-imposed nature of the shackles and the realization that the shackling is not due to said governmental power. Who is the culprit then? asks Blake, and presents a worthy verdict with little detail: "fear" (6). The details of the fear, whether it be a fear of hunger or pain or imprisonment or death, is left to the reader's imagination because the author chooses to showcase, alongside another kind of imprisonment, his "mind-forged manacles" with further elaboration. Lines 10 and 12 reveal the bureaucratic powers withholding the citizenry, and they are revealed with disturbing coldness and apathy. The plebeian chimney-sweeper entrapped in his work suffers the repeal of the slanderous Church; the dying breaths of the duty-bound soldiery appear as stains on the lofty towers of noble parliament. This is confinement of the dutiful to contrast with the confinement of the physical, i.e "chartered" and the confinement of the mental: "mind-forged manacles;" and it is a self-obliging confinement that shows organization as not only blatantly ignoring, but mocking. Blake's final stanza is the most powerful of "London" and also its most vivid. He presents, once again, the imprisonment of servitude, yet with the terrible idea of captivity to come for all future generations, as well as the symbol of incarceration via marriage and death. "Youthful harlot" (14) is Blake's most disturbing character and the character most encompassing of Blake's themes; thralldom, degradation, and the hopeless future. A furthering of this depravity continues with the "new-born infant" of the following line, whose singular tear represents the already acquired knowledge of his prison, garnered via the contagious curse of the harlot who expresses disdain at the City that has, in a manner typical to Fantine's descent into whoredom in "Les Miserables," abandoned her to suffer the pangs of life's cruelty. Yet it is the sixteenth line that deals the coup de grace of thematic depiction and completes the established cycle of imprisonment. The "harlot's curse" (14) says Blake" blights with plagues the marriage hearse" (16) and with this, the reader has at last arrived at the literal and figurative end; he has moved from physicality and nature, to human thought, to duty, and finally, to death: all of which reside under the consent of the government in one fashion or another. Yet there is also a supreme irony to be had here. Imprisoning organization has at last stretched its dominion over all that can be domineered; it has destroyed the woman by subjecting her to duty as a destitute and lonesome creature; it has destroyed the child by corrupting it with the knowledge that life is destitution and subjugating it to this idea, and it has destroyed the last true expression of life: marriage, by coupling it with the idea of life's only warden: death. What then is there for the harlot, the quintessential expression of sin and vice, to corrupt that has not already been corrupted by either the "Palace" or the "Church?" Therein lies "London's" true query, one that is easily answerable, yet one that is best understood through the examination Blake's usage of duality in imagery, and in sound.
It is sound that provides a structure for the expression of "London" as a city, and the proletariat, the most appropriate depiction of the city, is best understood through the use of the previously stated Shakespearean maxim: sound and fury, for this is precisely how Blake's working class appears. Examples are found in nearly every line in which the working class appear, from "every cry of every man" (5), to "chimney-sweeper's cry" (9), to "youthful harlot's curse" (14), and even in instances where the working class is not explicitly referenced, such as in "every sound and every ban" (7). This idea as the people existing namely as sound is in direct contrast to the two organizations presented in the poem: Church and Government, which coexist, respectfully, as the images "black'ning church" (10) and "palace walls" (12). Thus, whereas the people and the organization is the principle duality existing in "London," sound versus image is the fulcrum upon which this idea is expressed. Moreover, fuller fruition of the sound and fury concept is brought to light when the sounds associated with the people are examined and realized in their violence: "cry" (6, 9), "curse" (14), and "blasts" (15) being the principal sounds. By this examination, the people have become literal sound and fury; it is from this point on that the reader must find how the people become the city. Fortunately, however, Blake has already made the job easy by relating each of his citizens with sound, and the job is made even simpler when the sheer dearth of characters who are not associated with sound are considered. Once these characters are studied, it becomes gradually more apparent that "London" is attempting to represent the city through the use of blunt yet resourceful characters: the "every man" (5), "chimney-sweeper" (9), "hapless soldier" (11), "youthful harlot" (14), and "new-born infant" (15). The characters are not grand and they are not bourgeoise, yet they are industrious and hard-working and loyal; characteristics often associated with backbone and labor. Notwithstanding "black'ning church" and "palace walls," "London" is a poem comprised of nothing save characters and character description. To Blake, his City must have been comprised of many more laborers than palace walls; more hard workers than bourgeoise; more soldiers than appalled churches; else there would be no reason for him to represent "London" with so many more lines of gritty reality than noble palaces. And here at last can one see the City as Blake meant it to be seen in all its terror and brutality and grittiness: the citizenry rising to the foreground of London and the churches and palaces removed from all but two lines; overridden by sound and fury.
"London" is an interesting concept and surely a strange one for its time. It strips the City of nearly all its flair and grandeur and shows its citizenry under the dilapidating and "chartered" control of both Government and Church; and in like fashion, strips the citizenry of all but its symbolic representations and depicts it in its raw harshness, which is sound and fury. William Blake is both brutally masterful and marvelously efficient in his work: rendering the city into sixteen lines of fluctuating iambic tetrameter and yet fitting in enough characters to provide a more than stable proletariat as well as two images of control, overridden by the citizenry, and yet nonetheless, holding mastery. What Blake is asking his reader via the prostration and enfleshment of his "London," is why. Why does the loyal soldier suffer to be a bloody smear on palace walls? Why does the backbreaking laborer settle for the condemnation of the slandering church? Why would the people choose to be imprisoned literally and mentally by a loss of freedom and an unnamed fear? Why would the people choose to curse the City and corrupt their own newborn? As subsequent generations undertake "London's" queries, numerous results have arisen: the heart-rending defeat of the populous but not its ideals nor sense of freedom from Hugo's "Les Miserables," the triumph of the citizenry over their constraint and the triumph of ideal over the evils that plagued it with Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," the utter defeat of the people and the collapse of their ideals with Orwell's "1984." Blake has presented a timeless outline and timeless inquiries. How the outline will be fulfilled he leaves to be answered by the future generations.