” A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”
William Blake`s London is a poem which speaks to the modern ear, and William saw what none other could see, “Infinity in a grain of sand”. Here we have a man who witnessed the archangel Gabriel sitting in a tree on Peckham Rye and saw the souls of fleas. For him, God was all around and in every living thing, be it big or small.
William`s London is a place of nightmares: the “mind forg`d manacles” is explained by seeing the mind as a forge which shackles a person through fear and compulsion, like convicts shuffling their way to prison, or to the ships waiting at the docks, ready to transport them abroad into a life of penal servitude. Blake saw that those left behind were just as enslaved and manacled by social and political control as the doomed convicts.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762 stated that ” Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. Blake sees people in chains, eking out an existence only once removed from animals; indeed, for the ruling classes, the poor were less worthy than an animal that could plough a field, pull a carriage and carry a fine gentleman to meet his lady at the county ball. Social order was imposed by the external authority of the elite, who though constituting only 5% of the population, enjoyed the fruits of 95% of the wealth made for them by the sweat and labour of the very poor they despised and controlled.
The Church should be ashamed that it does not help the poor; it should be appalled at the cry of the child “chimney sweeper”. “Appals” literally means “goes pale” with fear: but the heart of the rich churches, a collective treasure chest of gold and silver ceremonial plate, is black with smoke, soot, greed and apathy. Their money, and compassion stays locked away from those most in need.
The soldier`s blood is an allusion to the French Revolution, where the blood of the rich oppressors of the poor was being freely spilled. Blake was saying that it could happen here if the unhappy British soldier is ignored by his masters; a title and palace won`t offer protection from retribution.
The vision of the child prostitute is one of the most shocking in literature: there is no respectability in marriage here; a new born infant is not a happy event, and the wedding carriage is seen through cynical, unromantic eyes, as the “youthful harlot blights with plagues the marriage hearse.”
William Blake`s London transcends poetry and becomes a searing social commentary not only about the deeply unhappy and degrading lives of a nation`s people, but how every person is miserable in one way or another. It is a crushing indictment of an unjust and unequal system ruled by a social elite who had ( apart from a few notable exceptions) absolutely no interest or concern for the downtrodden poor who`s daily toil made them rich.