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The Theme of the Suffering Innocent in Blake’s London

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The poem “London” by William Blake paints a frightening, dark picture of the eighteenth century London, a picture of war, poverty and pain. Written in the historical context of the English crusade against France in 1793, William Blake cries out with vivid analogies and images against the repressive and hypocritical English society. He accuses the government, the clergy and the crown of failing their mandate to serve people. Blake confronts the reader in an apocalyptic picture with the devastating consequences of diseasing the creative capabilities of a society.

Choosing the first person form in the first and fourth stanza, the poet reflects his personal experiences with the city of London. He adheres to a strict form of four stanzas with each four lines and an ABAB rhyme. The tone of the poem changes from a contemplative lyric quality in the first to a dramatic sharp finale in the last stanza. The tone in the first stanza is set by regular accents, iambic meter and long vowel sounds in the words “wander”, “chartered”, “flow” and “woe”, producing a grave and somber mood.

The verb “wanders” connotes contemplative walking without specific destination through streets that are described as “chartered”. But the word “street” is ambiguous. While it could be the home of people, a neighborhood and a place for emotional refuge, the streets and the river Thames are “chartered”; they are defined as commercial entities where business and cold cash dominates. The scene is set in which the poet sees the unhappy citizens of London. Their faces reflect the common man’s physical and spiritual suffering through “marks of weakness, marks of woes”. The repetition of the…

…ld of art and literature. Since the “marriage”, the parent generation, is already dead or dying, therefore every new creation is now also afflicted with disease and condemned to death. Consequently this means the end of hope for a renewal of society, but since the stanza begins with the word “how”, this is also a voice of accusation and a demand for change.

The theme of the suffering innocent person, dying and being diseased, throws a dark light onto the London seen through the eyes of William Blake. He shows us his experiences, fears and hopes with passionate images and metaphors creating a sensibility against oppression hypocrisy. His words come alive and ask for changes in society, government and church. But they remind us also that the continued renewal of society begins with new ideas, imagination and new works in every area of human experience.

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