William Blake was living and writing poetry in the late eighteenth century when tremendous social and technological change was sweeping through England with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. A flavour of this is included in his most famous poem, “Jerusalem” when he talks of England’s “dark satanic mills”. Today’s poem, London” takes as its theme the scenes of deprivation and distress which could be observed in the biggest city of the country as people came in from the countryside faster than the city could reasonably absorb them, leading to crowding, unsanitary conditions and all sorts of vices. (Of course, the flip side of this is that equal if not worse deprivation and distress could be found in the countryside, only more dispersed).
Blake’s vision of conditions in London could be described as pre-Dickensian and, of course, writings such as this contributed to the rise of social reform movements and great progress in improving living conditions over the next 50 to 80 years. So this is a great example of poetry as a tool of social progress.
BY WILLIAM BLAKE
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
So in this poem, Blake’s vision of London is made up of faces of distress and suffering, neglected and fearful children, the privations of chimney sweeps ( who were usually young children small enough to climb up the inside of chimneys to remove the soot and ash), and then of course poor women driven to prostitution to support their children, women who were probably not married or who had been abandoned by their families. It is a depressing vision of London life at that time, and certainly not a complete picture, but it rings true – similar scenes can probably be found today in rapidly expanding countries in the developing world.
The poem is written with a fairly simple rhyme scheme; and with words truncated in several places to make the poem’s rhythm work better. But the subject matter lifts it above the level of doggerel and I think it is a good example of a poem with a purpose.
The Poetry Dude