London: a commentary

Today I tackle Blake’s Via Dolorosa, London. This is one of my favourite poems to teach from the anthology. My thoughts, in commentary form, are below.

London: a commentary

Today I tackle Blake’s Via Dolorosa, London.   This is one of my favourite poems to teach from the anthology.  My thoughts, in commentary form, are below.

I wander thro' each charter'd street,

Like Ozymandias, this poem opens with the first-person pronoun; unlike Ozymandias, we are on much firmer ground.  Blake’s opening line is strikingly declarative and grammatically simple, yet — as we’ll see throughout this commentary — this simplicity is surface-level.  Throughout this poem, Blake plays with meaning, especially meaning attached to sound.  Many of the words in this poem are phonologically evocative, or the words are rife with extra meanings.  Take ‘wander’ — here, it is about physical journey, but we are one vowel away from the true ‘wonder’ of the poem: man’s capacity to wonder about the world, and gaze in wonder at it.  Why Blake picks the former over the latter isn’t just for literal or practical reasons.  He picks it because that is what he — and the denizens of London — have been reduced to.  Their freedoms have been restricted by ‘bans’; ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ choke off any hope of free-thinking.  It is Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rosseau’s worst nightmare.  ‘I wander’ isn’t the statement of freedom that it seems to first imply.  Each street is ‘charter’d’ — meanings here include ‘owned’, ‘mapped out’ (thanks to a phonological similarity with ‘charted’ and ‘freighted’.  Like a beam of light hitting a prism, Blake communicates with one word that London’s streets are owned and accounted for, that the natural landscape has been tamed and urbanised, and the streets are chaotic with commerce.  It is worth noting here that, in terms of ownership, ‘chartering’ specifically refers to the 18th century process of transferring public land to private hands.  Opponents of it, such as Blake and Thomas Paine, saw it as a crisis of democracy, with Paine declaring that ‘Every chartered town is an aristocratical monopoly in itself.’

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.

‘Charter’d’ is now applied to the Thames.  It is not enough for London’s authorities to control the streets; they must also control the river, too.  The Thames’ chartering is again a reference to London as a hub of commerce — money, not human decency, drives this city.  Going back to Paine, we can see that the crisis has deepened. Nature itself is now a commodity — even life-giving water is a product to be monopolised.

And mark in every face I meet

By the waters of the Thames they sat down and wept.  With a slight Biblical nod, Blake looks upon his fellow citizens.  The lineation is significant: what the speaker ‘mark’s isn’t revealed until the next line.  Why?  There is a slight sadness to the line break; it creates a space in which hope can be snatched away.

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Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

The line break also allows Blake to balance this sentence symmetrically with anaphora.  By doing this, he creates an implied causal link between ‘weakness’ and ‘woe’.  Being weak causes misery.  Nothing yet is revealed as to the cause of the weakness, but the previous lines do offer some hints: the ‘charter’d’ city is a place that robs the individual of their strength.

When Blake mentions ‘weakness’ here, and later in the poem, one must think of it in terms of 1793.  This weakness has its roots in society, in that men are weak because the social constract that grants them rights and freedoms has been broken by those in power.  Man is a social animal; how strong or weak his is is contingent upon society.  If society denies man his fundamental freedoms, he will simply sink into despair and helplessness.

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

I’m grouping these lines together because, thanks to deft deployment of anaphora, Blake does too.  Note the progression — Man, capitalised, is mankind, so the struggle and pain is universal and total.  Why, then, would Blake specifically mention infants?  One must remember that children — infants especially — are symbolically significant in Blake’s work, because they hold within them an innocence that makes them closer to God than at any other point in their life.  This, if you’ll permit me an NB, is why Blake’s poetry can read as quite child-like: it is his attempt to encapsulate and preserve that childlike sense of awe and wonder and joy.  However, we know from Songs of Experience that there is a consequence to this innocence — the world is not so, and will prey upon and destroy the innocent and meek.  So, Blake’s specific singling out of infants here is to make the crisis plain: man’s closeness to God is in grave danger.  The third of the triad, stopped joltingly by the colon caesura, references the root cause (the ‘worm’ in the ‘sick rose’, if you like) of this crisis of innocence — ‘every ban’.  Here, Blake makes the previously implicit (see ‘charter’d’ earlier) explicit: man cannot be Man if his very nature — his capacity for thought, reason and emotion — is restricted, owned, and sold.  The bans are specific — real curfews and restrictions that were put in place due to governmental paranoia in the fallout of the French Revolution.  Blake was initially a supporter of the Revolution, though he became disillusioned with it once it turned particularly violent, but in 1792 he walked the streets of London wearing a ‘bonnet rouge’, a red cap that symbolised freedom from tyranny.

The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

Here, Blake creates an incredible image that almost didn’t make it into the poem: originally, the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ were ‘German-forg’d links’.  The change allows his to allude to Rousseau’s Social Contract: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’  Rousseau’s ‘sovereign’ was the people, whose authority over public matters was absolute.  Man was in chains when that right was violated by those who would control (‘the chains’) matters of public concern and freedom.  Blake, however, applies a poet’s touch to the sentiment: the manacles have been created by the prisoners themselves.  He touches on a real psychological truth: when one is abused, one can become so conditioned to the abuse that one will ultimately keep oneself prisoner.

There’s more, though.  Blake’s image seems visual, but it isn’t: he hears the clanking of these chains.  In the first of several transformations, Blake takes the unheard suffering cries of Londoners and transforms them into something else.  In this case, he hears the ghastly clanking of chains echo through the streets, evoking the sounds of the gaols.  These men are not convicts, but they might as well be.  We must open our ears if we are to open our minds.

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Chimney sweeps were tiny.  If you were tiny, and trapped in the dark, hot and noxious confines of chimney, you’d cry too.  The innocence they embody is choked off by the restrictions of the chimney (which would belong to houses owned by the rich); their white innocence is blackened by the sin of soot.  Their screams are amplified by the chimney, and London air crackles with the sound of crying children, which mingles with the cries of the citizens on the ground.

Every blackning Church appalls,

The trouble is, nobody is listening — it is as though nobody is crying at all.  Part of this is the lack of communication: the cries are beyond language.  They are primitive verbal stabs of pain and frustration.  But also, nobody with any means to change anything is listening because they aren’t outside — they’re inside.  Those who should help are in the church.  Instead of going there to become better Christians — i.e. to embody Christ’s values of charity and kindness — they hide away sanctimoniously. This is why the church is ‘black’ning’ — it is rotting from the inside out.  In order for this ‘cry’ to be noticed, Blake has to metamorphose it, so he transubstantiates it into the very soot that would end the sweep’s little life.  However, Blake creates this image with a knowing irony — in a city this polluted, there is no way anyone would pay any more attention to a dirty building.

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls

They ignore the cries and they ignore the soot.  Blake raises the stakes and metamorphoses more violently.   This time, a mere sigh — of exhaustion? — coats the palace in blood, in a line very evocative of the Revolution.  But the blood here is the soldier’s, representing that of all those who die in someone else’s war.  And yet, the blood washes down the wall, and has no impact.  Image after neutered image.

Note, as well, that the poem is begging to be heard.  There is an acrostic in this stanza, spelling out ‘HEAR’.  Wherever one looks, there is the exhortation to listen to the vox populi.  The word ‘hear’ appears in this poem in three emphatic places; combined with the rhyme scheme and frequent repetition, the poem evokes the echoing noise of London, but also the echoing sounds of human suffering.  The echoing of this suffering makes its volume and therefore its intensity increase until it is unbearable.  It is the echoing noise of the voiceless.  In poetry, things that are silenced can be given voice by other means: poetry is a way to manipulate the fabric of reality.  For example, in My Last Duchess, the duchess may be completely and permanently silenced, but her portrait still speaks volumes.  Poetry endures because it always finds a way, against the odds, to say the unsayable.

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But most thro' midnight streets I hear

‘Most’.  Despite all that has gone before, the worst happens after dark.  On the stroke of midnight — the liminal point between day and night, the old and the new day, death and rebirth, things truly fall apart.

How the youthful Harlots curse

Children grow up and lose their innocence — they sell their bodies and they learn language with which, like Caliban, they can only curse.

Blasts the new-born Infants tear

A child — innocence personified — is born, and cries: there is an allusion to Infant Sorrow here.  It — likely the child of the harlot — cries out, and the verb that greets it all but obliterates it.  The child stops crying.  There are can be no room for emotion.  Mankind hardens its collective heart.

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

And everything rots.  Marriage — that contract of love that begets innocent children — is now coupled oxymoronically with hearse. It leads only to the grave.  The death here is figurative — it is the death of innocence.  The poem ends with no hope whatsoever.  London is now a blackened, corrupt wasteland.  Only a revolution would do, but there seems to be no hope in sight.  As in War Photographer, there is an impassive distance between human beings; Blake urges us, as does Duffy, to reconnect with our fellow man.  But we cannot: none are named, and none are known, like Owen’s band of anonymous freezing soldiers, all will be lost to the ravages of time.  If even Ozymandias — ‘King of Kings’ — cannot leave an indelible mark, what hope has the common man?  It is not to be found in this poem.  Perhaps it can be found in the future, in Tissue or Checking Out Me History.  In our modern world, not so dissimilar to Blake’s, we must carve out our own identities.  We must find out what can alter things.  We must live in those precious moments of human contact, those skin-on-skin intimacies, before it is too late.

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Thank you for reading,

Alex