The Symbolism of Blake’s ‘London’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Along with ‘The Tyger’, perhaps ‘London’ is the best-known of all of the poems by William Blake (1757-1827) which he published under the title Songs of Experience. This volume, which is the companion-piece to his earlier Songs of Innocence (indeed, the two volumes should be viewed as one larger work), sees Blake addressing some of the darker aspects of late eighteenth-century society, such as slavery, poverty, and the deadening effects of industrialisation.

Much of Blake’s poetry uses powerful and suggestive symbolism and imagery to help him to put across a particular view about the topic he is writing about. In his poem ‘London’, we find imagery relating to the misery of life in the city, and the cries of desperation of those who dwell in the capital.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the major symbols in this quintessential Blake poem – a poem which might be linked with the literary movement known as Romanticism.


The reference to ‘each charter’d street’ and the ‘charter’d Thames’ in Blake’s opening lines reveal a London thoroughly mapped out and restricted, and this immediately establishes the capital as a city that is claustrophobic, physically restricting, and stultifying – in contrast, say, to the relative freedom and openness of the country beyond the city (such as in the open countryside).

In this context, a ‘charter’ is the constitution of a city. This constitution outlines how the city is to be governed and organised. We may expect that streets would have charters given they are man-made structures and require organisation, but the fact that even a natural waterway such as the River Thames is governed by such a legal document suggests a city in which the bureaucrats and lawyers are in charge. The natural world has been given over to the lawmakers and governors.


In the first stanza of Blake’s poem, he shows us a London where the degradation and misery of the city appear to have left a visible, physical mark – or marks, plural – upon the people who live there.

There is no exception to this: every face bears the mark, or scar, of the city’s corruption and decay. Everyone looks worn down by the city’s deadening effects – hence ‘marks of weakness’ – and everyone looks thoroughly miserable and unhappy (‘marks of woe’).


Manacles are metal bands, joined by a chain, which are used to fasten a person’s hands: the word is derived from the Latin manus, meaning ‘hand’, whence we also get words like ‘manufacture’. Historically, they were used to restrain prisoners or, in many cases, slaves.

But in Blake’s ‘London’, the manacles are ‘mind-forg’d’: in other words, they aren’t physical, but imaginary, or mental. Blake is suggesting that Londoners have restricted themselves by narrowing their mental horizons and allowing themselves to become mentally enslaved by the society in which they live.

Note how Blake uses the word ‘ban’ in this stanza: like those charters in the previous stanza, we’re in the world of law-making and bureaucracy. London, to Blake, seems to be governed by laws restricting our behaviour – and our freedoms – by telling us what we may not do.

In another of his poems, ‘The Garden of Love’, Blake treats this issue in more general, allegorical terms, describing a chapel whose gates are shut, with the words ‘Thou shalt not’ written over the door, with those three words echoing the laws of the Ten Commandments from the Bible.

Cries and Sighs.

Blake uses the word ‘cry’ three times in ‘London’: as well as the ‘cry of every Man’ and ‘every Infants cry of fear’, we find ‘the Chimney-sweepers cry’. These cries are cries of desperation, fear, and despair, and once again they symbolise the misery at the heart of life in the industrial capital.

The Chimney-Sweeper’s Cry.

The cry of the chimney-sweeper – who, typically, would have been a young boy who was small enough to climb up inside the chimneys of houses – blackens the walls of the city’s churches. Chimney-sweeping was not only hard work but dangerous work, too, and numerous medical complaints, as well as deaths through accidents, befell the children who were forced to work at the job. The nineteenth century would see a series of acts passed by the UK government to address this.

Once again, the chimney-sweeper’s cry is symbolic: Blake is not literally suggesting that the soot the boy coughs out into the air, whenever he lets out a cry of despair, is capable of turning the churches black.


Instead, the church – which is supposed to stand for charity, kindness, compassion, and moral rectitude – is being degraded and obscured by the suffering of the chimney-sweep, because the church is allowing such suffering to happen.

The Marriage Hearse.

Blake ends ‘London’ with a powerful final image: a young girl, sold into prostitution, has given birth to a child out of wedlock. Without a husband to support her, she will be reliant on whatever poor relief there is in her parish, and may have to give up the child; the infant may end up starving to death.

As with the chimney-sweep’s cry blackening the church (symbolically), the youthful harlot’s curse against her miserable fate makes a mockery of the institution of marriage. But how?

The key lies in the word ‘plagues’, which suggests disease – and here, venereal disease. The married men who pay women for sex, Blake suggests, destroy and degrade the institution of marriage because they take home all sorts of diseases to their wives.

This, in turn, turns marriage from a positive institution celebrating life and love into something akin to a funeral, mourning the death of something (here, love, and the commitment and fidelity enshrined within the marriage service), hence the ‘hearse’.

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