As foreigners to London, we generally associate the city with antique, yet captivating architecture along with rich history that defines the renowned city. Blake, however, cuts the city open like a cake to focus on the inside, bringing the horrors of the subjugation of the people by the government to light. Disregarding the ideas and energy that comes to mind when people think of London, William Blake in London paints a rather somber picture of oppression through metaphors, dark imagery, and repetition in order to highlight the restrictions and rules the government imposes upon the people, creating an environment full of endless hopelessness.
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Blake begins the poem by metaphorically walking through the city, starting his journey from the heart of London – the Thames River. Strategically and ironically, Blake highlights the enclosing nature of the city by transforming the river, usually regarded as free flowing and endless, into the “charter’d Thames”, redefining it as restricting. Along with the river, Blake describes the streets as enclosing in the same manner as he “wander[s] thro’ each charter’d street”, which further solidifies his viewpoint on the pessimistic feelings of the people of London as they feel bound to the government. Blake uses this dark imagery to highlight the oppressive nature of the government. To illustrate, he describes the faces of the people in London as “marks of weakness, marks of woe”, furthering his establishment of London as a place of darkness rather than full of the light and energy we generally perceive the city to be. In the next stanza, Blake builds upon this theme of darkness by repeatedly emphasizing the unhappiness and suffering of the people in London.
Along with dark imagery, Blake incorporates metaphors to induce people to see his point of view. In the second stanza, he posits “every blackening church appalls” in order to emphasize the death associated with church instead of the holy and positive connotation churches tend to have. Shaping “black” to not only be a verb, but more specifically a present participle means that it is an ongoing process and the church is increasingly becoming more darker, thus these issues of oppression and subjugation will only continue to worsen if no change is enacted. This blackening church is in reference to the “chimney-sweepers [who] cry” which is symbolic of death. Chimney sweeping years ago was a job children were left to do because of their ideal size and adherence to figures of authority, but was treacherous to their safety and often led to imminent death. Through this Blake labels the church as an institution tied to death and destruction rather one of hope and prosperity which further cements his overall theme.
In addition to dark imagery and metaphors, Blake solidifies his theme surrounding misery and distraught by embedding in a simple, yet impactful technique commonly known as repetition. He takes this to the next step and writes about “the mind-forg’d manacles [he] hear[s]” which alludes to the fact that the people imprison themselves by submissively going along with everything the government does. He argues that the people should not be satisfied with this treatment and deserve better, therefore need to rebel and fight for the freedoms and rights they deserve as the people of this city.
History has always taught us that initially the oppressed do not consider themselves as victims of harsh environments, but when people start to speak out and show them that they deserve justice, the oppressors come together and unite. Blake aims to bring change, although he provides no specific way to enact any, by bringing light to the conditions the people of London assent to. He realizes that they are not consciously aware of their mistreatment or if they are, they are not motivated to actually take action to bring about change, so through this poem Blake strives to ignite the spark that will bring the Londoners together.
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