William Blake makes a pointed critique of the society and institutions of the English Government in his poem, “London.” Throughout the poem Blake presents an image of man against society. He directly accuses several institutions and society itself of creating the tyranny that is controlling the people of London. He alludes to the struggle of the classes, the upper-class controlling the lower, as being the reason for the problems in London. This conflict of classes is the reason for the oppression and tyranny that the people of London are forced to live under. The upper-class has to control the lower classes by subjugating them and forcing them to live by their rules. Blake writes the poem using a speaker “wandering” through the streets of London and observing what is going on. The speaker himself does not seem to be connected to the society but just someone going through it.
In the first stanza Blake starts out with creating an image of man against society, “I wander through each chartered street” (Line 1). The image presented is that of a man “wandering” through the “chartered street”, structured society. This society is the cause for the “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” (Line 4) that the speaker sees in the faces of the people that he meets. The people, which are the blue collar workers, the lower class, are weak and woeful because the society is dominated by the upper-class and they are being exploited with long hours and low wages, creating a cycle that forces them to stay in the lower class while allowing for the ruling class to continue its dominance.
Blake continues his attacks in the second stanza by showing that every man is affected by the oppressive nature of the capitalist Government, a Government…
…hat is overcome by control and conflict is destroying itself.
The poem as a whole clearly illustrates the struggle underlying the English society of the 18th century. It’s also clear to see why that would be a major theme in Blake’s poem, as it was at this same time that America itself was revolting against the tyrannical rule of the English Government. The fight between the rich and the poor in “London” does not take the form of physical violence, but more of the suffering that the lower classes have to put up with because of the controlling upper-class. Blake gives voice to a people that didn’t know they had a voice. He uses his poem to try and make evident the pains that his people are suffering because of the structured society of the English Government.
Abrams, M. H. , gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th edition