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By applying a Marxist critique to William Blake’s poem ‘London’, the reader is able to gain insight into the human condition, corruption of society’s institutions and subjugation of the lower class. In attempting to understand these ideas Blake chooses to scrutinise ‘the politics of class’, through which he observes the ‘socio-economic circumstances’ of individuals, societies and ideologies. A study of the critical anthology allows us to conclude that authors are ‘constantly formed by their social contexts’ and in this respect Blake is no different, demonstrated by the impact of the French Revolution upon the poem. In ‘London’, he examines how the Government attempts to exert its influence in order to halt a similar uprising, evidenced by its control of the ‘charter’d streets’. Furthermore, as a poem written in the children’s book ‘Songs of Innocence’, Blake elects to examine the world through the eyes of a child. Consequently, his vision is unfettered by societal expectation, empowering him to reveal the harsh reality of humanity. Additionally, the poem alludes to the notion that his empathy and childish naivety enables him to challenge the apparatus of power without prejudice. So, he is able to explore the difficulties of the lower class by presenting his own image of London.
When exploring social denotations within ‘London’, the concept of limitation is foregrounded in the Government’s control over the City. By describing the streets and river as ‘charter’d’, an association with legal rights and privileges, Blake shows how London is placed under the ‘legalised’ control of the aristocracy. Furthermore, Blake juxtaposes the notion of freedom and limitation within London through his description of the river, stating the ‘Thames does flow’ through the City, offering the suggestion of freedom, whilst yet submitting to being ‘charter’d’. This indicates that even the river has restrictions enforced upon it by the upper class. Therefore, Blake uses the idea of the Government’s control over nature as a means to highlight the powerlessness of the lower class.
Blake also explores the circumstances of ordinary Londoners within his poem. Through the use of anaphora, Blake’s repetition draws our attention to the imagery of ‘the mind-forg’d manacles I hear’, implying they are created within the mind of the poet, not merely a physical constraint upon the Londoners. The manacles are not real, but are a metaphor to highlight the repression of the lower class, inviting the listener to observe how society has imposed its ideas and prejudices upon the poor. Like the ‘charter’d Thames’, the ‘manacles’ show us that the people have submitted to the control of the Government. This is reinforced by Bertens who states ‘it is not the consciousness of men that determine their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness’. Blake is suggesting that the people of London are unable to have autonomy, but instead they are following the intellectual and political ideas that are imposed upon them by the ruling class. This control is evidenced by the rigid structure of the poem and its alternating rhyme scheme. Thus, the mind is no longer presented as a source of freedom; rather it is used by society as a way of controlling and affirming class boundaries. Conversely, Blake’s presentation of the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ can suggest that people are able to release themselves from this control. By showing how tyranny imposes its strength through enforcing its control over the lower class’s minds, Blake presents the notion of rebellion as a way to free minds from societal expectation. Yet, Bertens undermines this, writing that ‘minds aren’t free at all, they only think they are’.
To assist us in exploring the connotations of the human condition, Blake uses a choice of words that have great significance in how they engage the listener. Through his use of double entendre and metaphors, the speaker is able to highlight the hardships of the poor. The ‘Marks of weakness, Marks of woe’ ‘in every face I meet’ is presented as having both metaphorical and literal importance. We know that to mark, means either to make a scratch, or closely observe. Therefore, Blake may be observing the literal marks of age on every face, emphasising the physical hardships they endure. Alternatively, it could be suggested these marks are not physical, and by observing the people he imprints the marks upon them within his mind. Thus, Blake portrays both the physical hardship and the mental pressure society exerts upon the poor, a point that is reinforced by Bertens who states that ‘the way we think and the way we experience the world around us are either wholly or largely conditioned by the way the economy is organised’. Consequently, we can understand that the lower class is unable to free themselves from the powers that supress them.
Analysis of the poem suggests that Blake uses metaphor as a tool to attack corruption within the institutions of London, primarily the Church and Royalty. By emphasising the use of child labour in the Church, a source of contention within society, Blake is able to challenge the institution and its commitment to the people. In stanza three, the speaker notes ‘how the Chimney-sweepers cry, every blackening Church appals’. In a direct reference to the Church’s use of orphans in chimney sweeping, Blake raises the notion that through this practice the Church has become corrupt. The blackening of the Church is both a metaphorical and literal description, in which the ‘blackening’ raises awareness to its loss of innocence and purity. This proposes that the Church is dying ‘morally’ through its practice of child labour. In a literal sense, the soot from the chimneys blackens the skin of the orphans, so portraying the physical blackening of the Church.
Blake also uses the poem as a way to explore the effect of the corrupt institutions upon the people of London. Bertens tells us that ‘Capitalism… thrives on exploiting its labourers’. In stanza three, the speaker shows us that the Palace is no different through the exploitation of the soldiers. By applying Marxist criticism to the metaphor ‘And the hapless Soldiers sigh Runs in blood down Palace walls’, alternative meanings are revealed within the poem. One interpretation of this metaphor perceives the Palace as having ‘blood on its hands’ through its endeavour to maintain control. Like the orphan chimney sweeps, the soldier is a slave to an institution that is using him to do its dirty work. Alternatively, the soldier’s sighing can be seen as an expression of his discontentment in his lack of power and authority to do anything about his situation. Like the chimney sweep, he is unable to take action against the institution that controls him. Instead, he must enforce the violent demands of the Palace that ultimately ends in the blood running down the Palace walls. Bertens explains how the soldier’s ‘thought is subservient to, and follows the material conditions under which it develops’. He further reinforces this point, stating that ‘all of us function as objects and become alienated from ourselves’. However, an alternative interpretation of the soldiers sigh reveals revolutionary potential in the blood on the Palace walls. This ‘graffiti’ is a sign of discontentment in which we see that the soldier’s thoughts are not subservient to the Palace demands and he is able to gain independence from the Palace.
In the last stanza, Blake uses contrast and incongruity within society to explore the worsening conditions within London. Through the speaker, the difference between fallen women and their innocent children is revealed. In a world where ‘the youthful Harlots curse blasts the new-born infants tear’, we are exposed to the disaffection of society where these fallen women are ‘attacking’ children with their curses. Either unwilling or unable to comfort these crying children, the Harlots have been labelled with societal prejudices. Blake suggests that the conditions faced by these people have caused them to decay physically, morally and spiritually. Thus, he places blame on society for pushing fallen women toward corrupt and immoral practices such as prostitution. The harlot’s curse, a metaphor describing her life and fallen status, allows Blake to suggest it is society’s fault that the harlot ‘blights with plagues the Marriage hearse ’. Hence, the institution of marriage is tarnished both by the diseases her profession may bring into her marriage and also her status as a Harlot. This ‘blight’ is further explored through the semi-oxymoronic phrase ‘marriage Hearse’, which contrasts a symbol of life with death. By challenging the institution of marriage upon which society is based, the speaker presents the institution as being impure through its loss of innocence.
Marxist criticism is a useful technique that allows the listener to develop meaning and is particularly relevant due to the social issues raised within Blake’s writing. His deliberate use of metaphor enables the listener to gain valuable insight into the concerns of the time and is helpful when interpreting the significance of social inequality that existed.
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