A historical analysis of William Blake's poem "London"
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“London” by William Blake is one of the most popular poems among the poetry lovers. The poem was written to depict London during the time of industrial revolution that saw series of political conflicts in Europe, particularly in Britain and France. It echoes the voice of a man who experienced the state of affairs during the turbulent times in London, with the historical injustices that came with industrial revolution. For example, Blake refers to his experience as a poor man roaming the London Street, which he calls “charter’d”. By using the word charter’d, Blake is trying to describe the exclusive economic and social status of the people who lived and worked along the London Street. ‘London’ depicts the historical injustices towards the poor London residents that came with industrial revolution and the subsequent rise in capitalism which, according to Blake, was the beginning of the creation of a wide gap between the rich and the poor.
Written during the turbulent times of industrial revolution in the wider Europe, ‘London’ provides a historical account of events as they happened in the City of London. According to Blake, the rise of capitalism led to the segmentation of London City, to separate the poor masses from the ruling class. The contrast between the two groups is that while the poor lived in deplorable state along the river, the rich roamed the financial street of London with show of opulence. With proceeds from the industrial activities, the rich investors and government officials enjoyed the fruits of industrial revolution, while the poor masses that mostly represented workers in the factories lived in the deplorable states along the highly polluted river bank within London. This kind of segregation irked Blake, and many other London residents who felt that their plights were not taken into consideration despite the expression of discomfort. According to Erdman (939) “Blake indicted the historical Deism, and focused on deists who included the state and the church.” It is important to note that Blake’s use of the word ‘every’ to show that it was not only him who felt disenfranchised, but the entire population who lived like him - ostensibly the majority of the common man. It also critical to note that Blake repeatedly uses the word ‘charter’d’ to express his anger at the political class and the absolute capitalists who thrived during this time at the expense of the “poor masses who mainly occupied the factory labourers category of the population” (Brauer 21).
The French Revolution
One important thing that cannot go without notice is the timing of the poem. Blake critically writes about his personal experience in the City of London, and the oppressions that the ruling class meted on the less privileged members of the society. Coming close after The French revolution, the London ruling class could not leave anything to chance, thus suppressed any freedom of expression from the masses. The overall feeling among the ruling class was that the masses could rebel against them if freedom of expression was left for all, hence the only way the masses expressed disgust was through shows of sad faces. In fact, this dissatisfaction was not age specific, as Blake states, but cut across everyone who lived during the time. The times the author lived in influenced his understanding of the situations as they happened, and his specific focus on the failure of systems suggests a man who saw it all, despite being born in a lower middle class family. The masses could not express themselves, as they were banned from voicing their opinion, a clear depiction of how the country was being ruled in an unprecedented dictatorial manner.
The suffering masses were not comfortable, and this discomfort was not limited to any age group. In fact, Blake chronicles the events in the factories, where small children are exposed to dangerous chimneys which they are employed to clean. The children are exposed to deadly lung diseases from the chimneys. In this scenario, Blake demonizes the church, which he believes is hiding in blackness and fails to protect the masses from being killed by the state. Interestingly, the response from the state and the church towards these disquieting events are messages of condemnation of the French Revolution, as an unfortunate event that led to loss of so many lives. These historical injustices were therefore concealed by making the congregation believe that anything connected to the revolution is unacceptable as far as Christian faith is concerned (Bruce 201). In other words, Blake accuses the church of being an accomplice of the state rather than the protector of the masses. During the French Revolution, the French citizens were influenced by the ideals that emerged from the popular concept of Enlightenment, which specifically related to the idea of sovereignty as well as inalienable rights of the masses. It is thus prudent to state that the state of affairs in London was not that of the will of the people but a conspiracy of the ruling class to oppress the poor citizens.
The deteriorating state of affairs in the living condition of the masses worried Blake, and as Brauer (3) states, Blake “loved London but on the other hand was very depressed by its darkness, the pillars of smoke from the mills, and the degradation of its inhabitants, who were mainly beggars, ragamuffins and prostitutes.” From this statement, it is clear that the author chronicles the genesis of the failed society’s social fabrics such as marriage and humanity. As the industrial revolution took effect, prostitution took off at an alarming rate, and that men could easily buy love from the starving prostitutes of London. The respect for the ideals of marriage as an institution was fading fast, and infants were born with problems and diseases due to vicious cycles of poverty and deprivation. The French Revolution, somewhat left London to rot as no one took the initiative to challenge the deteriorating state of the city, whose streets were invaded by prostitutes. The increased cases of venereal diseases that had no class boundary would later sweep the masses because there was a lack of proper medication. This view of London depicts the author’s historical perspective of the collapse of the city’s moral decadence.
The historical injustices are some of the concerns many artists delved on, with personal experiences taking control of the individual views of the society during their times. Blake’s ‘London’ is a poem that was written with clear sense of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs during the industrial revolution. Coincidentally, the events in London as observed by Blake were just after the end of French Revolution. There is the possibility that the events of the time could have informed Blake’s defiance towards the then British rulers. At the same time, it is prudent to conclude that the problems of London were more or less similar to the events that caused French revolution, hence the frantic effort by the then state and church to discourage any form of forceful revolt. Blake can therefore be seen as someone who sees his home town from abroad with no “mind-forg’d manacles” that can prevent him from understanding the injustices meted on the citizens (Erdman 139). The poem is a clear manifestation of the capitalists’ approach to business, supported and protected by the state during the industrial revolution, destroyed the economic and social fabrics of the society. This kind of segregation defined the City of London, and the nation as a whole. It is therefore an outrage from a man who saw it all, as it was perpetuated.
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