London - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Blake paints a nightmare vision of social and urban decay, where anguished sounds reverberate, darkness prevails (‘black'ning Church', ‘midnight streets') and death stalks the streets (the ‘blood' of the ‘hapless Soldier', the ‘hearse' that contains those stricken with ‘plagues').

Charter'd - Blake uses the image of the charter to represent the Charter of Sandbach Tiwn, photo by Lantresman, available through Creative Commonsabsence of freedom for the common people of London. Royal charters were issued to towns and cities, ostensibly giving them freedom. However, Tom Paine (see Social / political background > The spirit of rebellion – politics > Tom Paine's The Rights of Man) argued that charters simply allowed those cities possessing one to create their own mini-state, governed by its own hierarchy. They did not give freedom to the people but made them subjects of the wealthy or the aristocrat:

‘Every chartered town is an aristocratical monopoly in itself'

Mark - Blake uses biblical imagery when he refers to ‘Marks of weakness'. In the New Testament book of Revelation (Revelation 7:3-4), those who are saved for eternal life are marked with a seal on their foreheads. The damned bear ‘the mark of the beast' (Revelation 13:16-17). Marks may also suggest the brand of a slave. The image suggests, therefore, how everyone's fate is sealed and how they have become slaves on account of their ‘Mind-forg'd manacles'.

In the third stanza, the cry of the chimney-sweep and the sigh of the soldier make their own mark on the church and palace. This brings the rulers into the same circle of bondage as their subjects and further underlines the common involvement in perpetuating the system, whether victim or culprit. Similarly, in the last stanza, the harlot makes her mark on the bodies of baby and customer, in transmitting disease.

Manacles - ‘Forg'd' suggests the power and strength of the human mind that can produce such strong shackles. These manacles are produced by the fallen human mind. They produce an oppressive system of religious and monarchical power which keeps the poor in poverty and destroys brotherhood. They produce an attitude to sexuality that makes such activity a thing of shame, to be repressed and controlled by marriage. They also render sexual relationships prone to possessiveness and jealousy, distorting and perverting them. (See The Human Abstract > Synopsis and commentary)

Blood down Palace walls – Blake was writing in a revolutionary era, where tales by émigrés of the Terror after the French Revolution were a very real reminder of death and suffering imposed by despotic leaders.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • How effective do you find the imagery of ‘marks'?
  • What is the impact of describing the Thames as ‘charter'd'?
    • What does this suggest about freedom in the city?
  • In a group, create one of the following:
    • a sound-scape of the poem
    • a story board of the speaker's vision
      • What light do these interpretations throw on London?


The effects of ‘fallenness' on repression of sexuality and other emotions

Blake believed that inhibitions lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy. These institutions oppress the people and maintain repressive social hierarchies.

The vulnerability of innocence

Innocence is especially endangered when it is ignorant of the ‘woe' in life and of the possibility of failure and betrayal. This poem links exposure of the social evil of the child chimney-sweep and adolescent prostitute with the theme of the exploitation and vulnerability of innocence. The innocence of the young bride is also devastated by the disease her promiscuous husband will infect her with. A pictorial representation of this can be found in Hogarth's series of paintings Marriage a-la-mode (

Investigating themes

  • In what ways is London still relevant to 21st century life?
  • London is one of the most famous of Blake's poems
    • How would you justify this fame?
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