Friday, 26 June 2009

London - William Blake

Last week, I suggested that the heart of WB Yeats's "No Second Troy" lay in the Helen of Troy image at the end. There could be no doubt that Yeats was comparing Maud Gonne to Helen of Troy. But it was only by exploring that comparison in detail that the poem's full implications could be understood.

Today's poem has a similar feature. We need to expend a bit of effort to understand what the "mind forged manacles" are that William Blake is referring to.


I wander through each chartered street,

Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.


There are strong elements of social protest at conditions in 18th century London in this poem. The people described have their faces marked with woe. The image of the chimney sweep speaks of oppression. Right at the end we have that extraordinary image of a young prostitute pushing a pram. She has venereal disease and her child has inherited it. Moreover, prostitution is so rife that this young girl is going to pass on her disease to her clients who will get married and pass it on to their wives.

However, the central image here is that of the "mind forged manacles". This must be some sense of inhibition that creates artificial, not real, constraints. The key question posed by this poem is what is the relationship between the "mind forged manacles" and the images of human suffering.

All suffering in the poem is described in a graphic and visual way. The soldier's blood runs down a palace wall. The prostitute wheels her child in a pram. Each image of suffering is accompanied by a sound. The soldier "sighs" before he is shot. The chimney sweep cries and the harlot "curses". Each of those sounds carries the echo of the mind-forged manacles because the sound of those manacles is heard in "every voice". This poem is not just about the suffering (or why have the "mind forged manacles" at all). Rather, the central message of the poem is that the suffering is awful, and terribly real, but that there is something that is contributing to that suffering.

That "something" is not an external factor; Londoners are born with it. (Note that the "mind forged manacles" can be heard in even a child's cry, perhaps an inversion of the Catholic doctrine of original sin). They carry it around everywhere, much as a convict dragging his chains around him would constantly be reminded of his fate by a continuous clinking sound. I believe that Blake's message is that the people of London are not being true to their nature. If they cast off the mind forged manacles, the soldier would refuse to serve the master for whom he dies, the chimney-sweep would refuse to do his dangerous job and the prostitute would devote herself to the care of her child rather than plying her dangerous and unhealthy profession.

The contrast between the graphic visual images, and the images of sound therefore emphasise that this is not just a poem about the awfulness of London life. It is a mystical and spiritual poem about human nature.


This poem is too easily glossed as a protest poem, a kind of Bob Dylan for the 18th century. The truly special thing about it is how the central image of the "mind forged manacles" invites a question of what the root causes are of the suffering described.

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