London - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone


Blake uses repetition to convey the speaker's belief that everything is a possession of the ruling system and that no-one is free. The language itself experiences the same restriction. Blake's thudding repetition reflects the suffocating atmosphere of the city. Even ‘mark' has to be both verb and noun. Yet the same word underlines the difference between speaker and those he observes. S/he is outside, free to note or mark what s/he sees. Those s/he marks i.e. observes are not free, they are indelibly marked or branded. If marks are a sign of judgement, then s/he, too, is judging those s/he sees.

The repetition of ‘every' in stanza two reinforces the universality of human misery. The speaker can see and hear nothing but the products of ‘mind-forg'd manacles'. In some ways, s/he seems as constrained by this vision as London's victims are by their manacles.

Emotive diction

Whilst the speaker observes neutrally, increasingly emotive terms are used to sum up the vision London presents:

  • ‘woe' becomes ‘cry of fear', a cry that ‘appalls', ultimately the ‘curse' that ‘blasts' the weeping ‘Infant'
  • The strong positive connotations of ‘youthful' and ‘new-born', with innocence, health and fresh hope, are overturned by ‘blights', ‘plagues' and the death symbolised by the ‘hearse'.

Tangible misery

Notice the way in which intangible things in the third stanza become tangible. The soldier's sigh becomes blood, the sweeper's cry, a black stain. Human responses of pain in this system taint or ‘mark' everything, spreading the contagion and captivity.

Sexual and marital union should be signs of life and hope. Here, they are tainted by the blight of venereal disease. Thus the closing image of the ‘Marriage hearse' is one in which love and desire can produce only death and destruction. It would also tally with Blake's belief that the institution of marriage killed free love.

Structure and versification

The poem has four quatrains, with alternate lines rhyming. Repetition is the most striking formal feature of the poem, and it serves to emphasize inability to escape the all-encompassing effect of the ‘mind-forg'd manacles.

Blake frequently uses alliteration to link concepts:

  • The weak are in ‘woe' / misery
  • The ‘mind' is ‘manacled'
  • The sooty ‘Chimney' is equated with the ‘black'ning Church'
  • The ‘Soldier' is not proud but sighs

The strength of the speaker's feeling is particularly conveyed by the plosive alliteration of:

  • Palace' and ‘plagues'
  • Blood', ‘blasts', ‘blights'

When the regular iambic tetrameter changes to trochaic metre, as in l. 4, the third stanza and l.14-5, the lines gain in intensity and pace

Investigating structure and versification

  • Do you find that repetition, together with the regularity of the rhyme, is effective in suggesting the all-encompassing effect of the ‘mind-forg'd manacles?
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