London (poem)

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For the 1738 poem by Samuel Johnson, see London (Samuel Johnson poem).
This image is a digital repercussion of his hand-painted 1826 print of "London" from Copy AA of Songs of Innocence and Experience.The item is currently in the in the Collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum.[1]

London is a poem by William Blake, published in Songs of Experience in 1794. It is one of the few poems in Songs of Experience which does not have a corresponding poem in Songs of Innocence.


As with most of Blake's poetry, there are several critical interpretations of London. The most common interpretation, favored by critics such as Camille Paglia[2] and E. P. Thompson, holds that London is primarily a social protest. A less frequently held view is that of Harold Bloom; that London primarily is Blake's response to the tradition of Biblical prophecy.

The use of the word 'Chartered' is ambiguous and portrays control and ownership. It may express the political and economic control that Blake considered London to be enduring at the time of his writing. Blake's friend Thomas Paine had criticised the granting of Royal Charters to control trade as a form of class oppression.[3] However, 'chartered' could also mean 'freighted', and may refer to the busy or overburdened streets and river, or to the licenced trade carried on within them.[4]

In Thompson's view, Blake was an unorthodox Christian of the dissenting tradition, who felt that the state was abandoning those in need. He was heavily influenced by mystical groups.[5] The poem reflects Blake's extreme disillusionment with the suffering he saw in London.[6]

The reference to a harlot blighting the 'marriage hearse' with 'plague' is usually understood to refer to the spread of venereal disease in the city, passed by a prostitute to a man and thence his bride, so that marriage can become a sentence of death.[7]

The poem was published during the upheavals of the French Revolution, and London was suffering political and social unrest, due to the marked social and working inequalities of the time. An understandably nervous government had responded by introducing restrictions on the freedom of speech and the mobilisation of foreign mercenaries.[8]

Within the poem that bears the city's name, Blake describes 18th century London as a conurbation filled with people who understood, with depressing wisdom, both the hopelessness and misery of their situation.


The poet William Blake was a poet and artist who specialised in illuminated texts, often of a religious nature. He rejected established religion for various reasons, including the failure of the established Church to help children in London who were forced to work. Blake lived and worked in the capital, so he was arguably well placed to write clearly about the conditions people who lived there faced.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience Published in 1794, this collection of poems, fully illustrated and originally hand-printed by Blake, aimed to show the "Two Contrary States of the Human Soul". The Songs of Innocence section contains poems which are positive in tone and celebrate love, childhood and nature. The Songs of Experience poems are obviously intended to provide a contrast, and illustrate the effects of modern life on people and nature. Dangerous industrial conditions, child labour, prostitution and poverty are just some of the topics Blake explores.

The French Revolution In 1789, the French people revolted against the monarchy and aristocracy, using violence and murder to overthrow those in power. Many saw the French Revolution as inspirational - a model for how ordinary, disadvantaged people could seize power. Blake alludes to the revolution in London, arguably suggesting that the experience of living there could encourage a revolution on the streets of the capital.


  1. ^ Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi (ed.). "Songs of Innocence and of Experience, object 46 (Bentley 46, Erdman 46, Keynes 46) "LONDON"". William Blake Archive. Retrieved June 10, 2014. 
  2. ^ Paglia, Camille. Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems. Vintage. ISBN 0-375-72539-3. 
  3. ^ Stephen Bygrave (ed), Romantic Writings, Routledge, 1996, p.20; The Invisible Worm, Tom Paulin, The Guardian', March 3, 2007
  4. ^ E.P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p.176
  5. ^ BBC: Blake's 'London'
  6. ^ Edexcel GCE English Language and Language and Literature Poetry Anthology Teachers' Guidance, pg 4.
  7. ^ Bygrave, p. 20
  8. ^ Erdman, Prophet Against Empire, p. 214

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