After reading Songs of Experience by William Blake, the poems have a collective darker tone in contrast to the previous works, Songs of Innocence. Specifically the Poem London on page 46 creates a tone of imprisonment and victimization through the content and language. The combination of the language, repetition of words emphasizing and dramatizing the pain is evident throughout London, however the actual image and what is represented questions the disparity the poem shows. The physical image reveals the struggles and hardships the people of London face. However the combination of the presence of youth and warm coloring in the image creates a disjunction between Blake’s words and imagery. This ultimately causes ambiguity between the text and the imagery.
The poem has four stanzas, and halfway through the poem Blake’s focus changes. The first part creates a feeling of suffocation, an inability to escape. His focus then shifts to personalize and universalize the victims, (the people) of London. In the second stanza there are three lines where there is a repetition in the language emphasizing these tones the poem creates.
“In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,”
Blake makes this sense of suffocation universal by making it broad and impersonal by showing there is a sense of low morale throughout the entire people of London. The word “every” universalizes the actions in each phrase, and the simplicity of the language makes no room for questioning this despair. In addition he uses the words “man” and “infants” showing this darkness effects everyone. To emphasize this, the last of the second stanza states, “mind forg’d manacles” alluding to the enslavement of infants. There is an overall feeling of suffocation in London because everyone is suffering.
Blake goes on in the last two stanzas personalizing the victimization of the people of London. His focus changes here to personalizing from “every” to giving specific examples of how the people of London suffer. Specifically, looking at the children, in the third stanza it is said,
“How the Chimney-sweepers cry”
The allusion of the slavery is now tangible, exposing the mistreatment of children during this time. Although the reader cannot easily vision these people, Blake emphasizes their emotions. He does the same in the fourth and final stanza as well articulating,
“Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse”
While many celebrate a newborn child and are overjoyed, this is a stark contrast of what one would expect. The use of the word “tear” shows the unhappiness that this child was brought into this world, the misery the mother has will soon be shared by the child. The word “plague” is associated with death, and here it is as if the child has entered or been introduced to their death. There is no hope for the child in this world he or she was brought into and Blake depicts this through the small selection of words he has used.
Blake makes his point of the injustice that occurred in London through his poem, fully describing the dirt, disease and death throughout it. There was a great emphasis on the children as well, and in the International Handbook on Juvenile Justice supports the atrocities committed onto the youth. Blake published Songs of Innocence and Experience in 1789. London in the late 1700’s was not an ideal place for children to grow up. For example in the International Handbook on Juvenile Justice: Chapter 6: England it is stated that, “In 1735, a 10-year old girl was an apprentice stole some money and was sentenced to die (Radzinowicz, 1948). Radzinowicz notes that 18 of the 20 people executed in London in 1785 were under the age of 18. Although rare, there are recorded instances of older children being executed well into the 1800’s. Young offenders under the age of seven could, then receive lenient treatment” (Hirschel Wakefield 93). This statement shows clear evidence of events that occurred during this time Blake was writing. Even though it does not show the poverty taken place in London during the time, it shows the injustices that were enacted onto children. It shows that Europe’s youth was working and there were reasons that the children needed to work and steal from those in their communities.
The text confidently shows the darkness and despair that took place in London. While some of the physical features in the image support this struggle the use of children and color question the darkness Blake displays. First, looking at the top of the image one sees an elderly man walking through the night with a small child. The body language of the two obviously shows the misery. The man physically looks exhausted and helpless, slumping over, reflecting how Blake described the people of London in the poem. However it is interesting that the child instead of looking miserable like the elderly man is looking up at him into the light, reaching out for the old man almost a if the child is reaching for hope. In addition the young boy is painted in green, which is associated with growth and youth. It is as if the boy is yearning to protect the elderly man, and provide him with the warmth he has lost but the boy still has. The coloring and lighting is important in this image because when reading the poem one would expect the image to be more dark, powerful and disturbing but that’s not what is presented here. The warm browns, orange and red throughout the painting contrast the darkness of the poem. In addition the light shinning in on the image takes up the majority of space, leaving only the corners with dark shadows makes me wonder if Blake is trying to portray that light overpowers darkness. This particular image coincides with and reinforces the image below.
The image below displays a young boy kneeling next to the fire for warmth. The boy is obviously cold and is in need of the warmth and protection. However the boy is painted in gold, which is associated with triumph and wealth. If Blake is so cynical towards the situation in London during this time why is this young boy painted gold. It seems counteractive to the language in the poem. In addition the use of a young boy is causing disjunctively with the poem just stating the awful lives children have. The boy could be struggling to find that warmth and protection, to overcome this darkness. The child is facing the light, which has warm reds, oranges and blues. The strokes look soft and full of body, contrasting something that could be hard and rigid like the dark times the poem was referring to. By doing this Blake reveals that even though the situation in London is awful and he is cynical about the current state something needs to change. It is apparent that Blake has some hope for London’s future, because he would not create the disjunctivity between the words and imagery for no reason at all. Blake is bring and causing attention to the current political situation.
The Purpose of writing newspaper articles, books, painting and poetry is to relay a message or learn something from it. Blake’s entire book Songs of Innocence and Experience, specifically his poem London is has many political undertones. The time period, and the place Blake was surrounded by would define him as a reformer. In the British Library there was an article written about him, it stated, “Blake’s view of philanthropic responses to poverty was probably always ambivalent. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 gave a new political urgency to his views. In London a range of new radical groups emerged, demanding major changes to the political system” (Lincoln). This supports and explains why the imagery in Blakes poem London questions the words he says, and solidifies that light overpowers darkness. This undertone of light reveals that Blake believed London needed a political reform and that is why her created this disjunctivity. His literal words show the lack of freedoms and suffocation and pain the people of London face but his imagery is about overcoming this struggle. Reformists of this time, including Blake went against traditional church thought and their great influence in society. Instead their beliefs supported civil liberties and fought for greater democracy. Therefore Blake’s Poem London is him simply shedding light to the social injustice that occurred and revealing the atrocities that were committed onto London’s own people. London shows how the Church and State failed their people. Blake shows this through the feelings of suffocation and victimization of the people. Blakes imagery relays that his people are suffering, and struggling but the colors and analysis show that there can be a brighter future with freedoms but reform and revolution needs to take place.
Blakes piece London is ambiguous. His poem states and exemplifies the hardships the people of London face every day. However his imagery counteracts what is written. It physically shows the struggles, but his use of innocent children and color create the possibility of a brighter future. Blake did this to shed light on the injustice occurring in London; as a reformist he specifically vocalized his negative views toward church and state through his works of Songs of Innocence and Experience. He hoped for reform and revolution but it was only possible if people vocalized their views.
Hirschel, J. David, and William Wakefield. "Chapter 6: England." International Handbook on Juvenile Justice. By Donald J. Shoemaker. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996. N. pag. Print.
Lincoln, Andrew. "Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians: William Blake's Radical Politics." The British Library. The British Library Board, n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.