In his poem ‘London’ William Blake explores poverty, revolution and the power of the imagination. Dr Linda Freedman examines the original draft manuscript, to discover the meanings behind this iconic poem.
One of the major political events of William Blake’s
lifetime was the French Revolution. For Blake, it was a moment of radical hope turned to violent disillusion. He was initially a supporter. In the summer of 1792 he wore a ‘bonnet rouge’ to show his solidarity with the revolutionaries abroad. The ‘bonnet rouge’ was a pointed red cap that had its roots in classical antiquity. For the ancient Romans, the cap symbolised freedom from tyranny. It was first seen publically in France in 1790 and it became an icon of the Revolution and continued to be a sign of revolutionary support throughout the Reign of Terror. When Blake walked round London with the cap on his head, he left no-one in doubt as to his revolutionary sympathies.
A world in turmoil
In that same summer of 1792 Blake wrote his first version of the poem ‘London’, which he included in The Songs of Experience. The draft appears in the notebook owned by the British Library and can be viewed below. In this early draft, the famous ‘mind forg’d manacles’ were ‘german forg’d links’, a reference to the Hanoverian and Hessian mercenaries brought in to withstand a French invasion or maintain public order in the event of mob rule. In the first version of the poem, Blake described the streets of London as ‘dirty’. ‘Dirty’ was quite an accurate description as the late 18th-century London streets that he knew so well were piled with filth of all kinds. It also suggests the fallen state of contemporary society. Blake saw a world in turmoil: blood running down palace walls, prostitutes suffering from sexually-transmitted diseases, children forced to become chimney sweeps and innocent babies born to mothers who couldn’t look after them. ‘Dirty’ describes this state of moral and physical degeneration but it doesn’t have the political weight of the later term: ‘charter’d’. Chartering was an 18th-century process of corporate ownership, effectively transferring public land to private hands. Blake’s readers would quickly have recognised the political implications of the word. Supporters of chartering claimed that it gave people rights over the land. Those against claimed that it took rights away from the many in order to give them to the few. The English-born, American writer and revolutionary, Tom Paine, declared: ‘Every chartered town is an aristocratical monopoly in itself.’ He felt strongly that chartering was anti-democratic and unnatural.
The changes from ‘german-forg’d links’ to ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ and from ‘dirty’ to ‘charter’d’ indicate several important shifts in Blake’s political sympathies. By replacing ‘links’ with ‘manacles’, Blake made the poem more subversive. ‘Manacles’ was one of the code-words directed at oppression by the authorities.
Radicals used it to convey their sense of an enslaved society. Equally, by replacing ‘dirty’ with ‘charter’d’, Blake proclaimed his affinity with radicals like Tom Paine, who was also a great supporter of the French Revolution.
William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience
‘London’ from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1794. Blake emphasises the injustice of late 18th-century society and the desperation of the poor.
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The Political Works of Thomas Paine
In this 1817 edition of The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine writes about the essentially excluding nature of the idea of the charter.
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People make their own chains
However, Blake’s revisions also indicate a slightly contrary shift in his political sentiments. The French Revolution had initially caught Blake’s attention as a dream of real progress, but as he witnessed the bloodshed and violence across the channel, he increasingly came to see it more as a symbol than a realisation of possibility. The change from ‘german-forg’d’ to ‘mind-forg’d’ reflects a shift in emphasis from externally imposed political oppression (in the form of hired mercenaries paid to suppress revolutionary spirit) to internally imposed restrictions on the mind. This does not lessen the social relevance of the phrase. In the revised version of the poem, the individual carries the same responsibility for his own liberation as the society in which he lives. People make their own chains, Blake insists, when they refuse to open their minds.
Reason and imagination
In many ways Blake was a very different kind of radical to Paine. Paine was the champion of reason over what he called ‘the vapours of imagination’ and, like many other late 18th-century radical thinkers, he advocated a form of rational dissent. Blake’s sense of mental liberation favoured imagination, though this is not to say that he necessarily discarded reason. In ‘London’, Blake gives us one of his more sympathetic portrayals of reason. The image at the top of the plate shows a young child leading a crippled old man by the hand. The old man is reminiscent of Blake’s figures of Urizen, whose name is a pun on reason. Urizen is usually presented as strong and controlling but here he is vulnerable and needy. He seems to embody the ‘weakness’ and ‘woe’ of London and, at the same time, he suggests that his own obsessively reasoning stance might be a possible cause of society’s crippled condition. By contrast, the young child seems to know the way forward. In this image of youth leading age, we see Blake suggest the wisdom of the child’s fresh way of seeing things.
An over-dependence on reason at the expense of imagination is Urizen’s major failing. Drawing a parallel between Urizen and London suggests the city is somewhat to blame for its own benighted condition. But, at the same time, Blake’s picture of the old man is quite sympathetic. This could well be reflective of the affinity he felt with radicals like Paine at the time. The image is not without hope. The young child gestures towards an open door through which we can perceive a beam of light. The old man looks trustingly down at him. Blake implies the possibility, here, of redemption: a marriage of age and youth, reason and imagination.
The sounds of the city
The poem gives some indication of how this redemption might come about. We are constantly reminded of the need to listen. The verb ‘hear’ appears three times in emphatic positions. The rhymes are heavy and repetition is frequent, creating echoes in the middle as well as at the end of lines. Blake’s London is a noisy place. The sounds of the city reverberate throughout, ranging from the chimney sweep’s ‘cry’, to the harlot’s ‘curse’ and the soldier’s ‘sigh’. The voice that sings this song is not that of a child but that of the bard, who, we are told in the ‘Introduction’ to Experience, ‘present, past and future sees’. By opening our ears and our eyes, Blake suggests we may also open our minds. Here, as always, lies the key to his vision of redemption.
 Thomas Paine, ‘Rights of Man’, The Political Works of Thomas Paine: Secretary for Foreign Affairs to the Congress of the United States of America during the Revolutionary War (Springfield: Tannat and Co., 1826), p.48.
 Peter Ackroyd, William Blake (London: Vintage, 1996), p.162.
 The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. by Philip S. Foner, 2 vols. (New York: The Citadel Press, 1969), i, p.56.