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Friday, 19 March 2010

William Blake: London


File:Blake London.jpg

London: William Blake, illustration from Songs of Experience, 1794, in Copy AA of Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1826 (Blake Archive, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd 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-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry

Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most, thro' midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

File:William Blake by Thomas Phillips  cropped.jpg

William Blake (detail): Thomas Phillips, 1807 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

London: William Blake, 1792 (with revisions from notebook draft: ll. 1-2, 'dirty' emended to 'charter'd' = incorporated under royal sanction for charter companies; final stanza added)


TC said...

Blake's revision from his notebook draft, replacing the politically empty adjective "dirty" with the weighted term "charter'd", in representing the observations of his wandering narrator in the opening lines, is crucial to a historical understanding of this poem. To quote a bit from Simon Korner's 2008 essay William Blake's London:

"The use of this loaded word – repeated to sharpen the ironic point that the streets, the very river itself, are privately owned – suggests the oppressive nature of early capitalism, in which the Whig alliance of merchants, rising finance capitalists and some of the most powerful landed aristocrats who did not need to lean on the crown for power, were busy accumulating capital via taxation and the establishment of a national debt, thus transferring wealth from the majority to the minority.

"Thomas Paine had stated in his best-selling Rights of Man the year before: 'It is a perversion of terms to say, that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect, that of taking rights away.' Likewise, even Edmund Burke, generally a defender of the positive aspects of charters, had scrutinised the word critically in Chartered Rights (1784): 'Magna Charta is a Charter to restrain power, and to destroy monopoly: the East India Charter is a Charter to establish monopoly, and to create power'".



Great to see this as orange now comes into the sky above shoulder of ridge. Who owns the Thames, who owns the ridge? The passage from Korner seems especially timely now, in' tax time' (April 15th just around the corner) -- just last night we were speaking of the new keptocracy ( "accumulation of a national debt . . . transferring wealth from the majority to the minority"). Meanwhile, this look at things - - - -


first light coming into sky above still
black ridge, shape of black pine branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

perception of material, all
one describes process

on this basis, all possible
kinds, in many places

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
sunlit green of ridge to the left of it

J said...

Blake presents a pure moral vision, even Kantian in a sense--

unlike, say, the great majority of literature of the last 100 years (including that of the beats, who generally misread Blake as a libertine, or mere mystic...)

most humans are hellbound, assuming Blake's vision holds--including....say UC Berkeley Lit-biz!

TC said...

Let us hold this moment.

We all appear to agree.

on this basis, all possible
kinds, in many places

(Herr Kant, meet Herr Heidegger...)

And to think -- all this blissful communion inspired by the naked guy in his garden with his angels and his visions, Mr. Blake.

(Uh-oh, here come the corporate Blake-haters...)

J said...

I don't detest Herr Heidegger and DaseinCo, but I'm not sure he wouldn't have hated...Blake (or Kant...), along with most things anglo (as did his occasional mentor Nietzsche--who had no wuv for Kant either).

Father Blake as far as I can tell had no love for greek/latin classics--perhaps not much knowledge of--whereas ...Herr Hei. was steeped in that tradition (like most german-heavies)

Then es tut mir leid--verging a bit close to ...disputation...

Anonymous said...

This was the first poem we read in English Literature II at university. We read it with the teacher who infected me with her love for the written word. Reading it aloud has taken me back to 1993. Thank you =)

Elmo St. Rose said...

what is the right mix between
public and private? and where is

by the way quoting John F. Kennedy
"a rising tide floats all boats"

Heidigger and Blake?
give me a brake

Curtis Roberts said...

Before leaving London, I wanted to mention that I first read this poem in my freshman year of high school. We had a very good English department and a very good introduction to poetry course that was taught in the winter term. (Fall was devoted to novels; in spring we studied drama.) London is so powerful that it reached me immediately and has stayed with me since. In my first episode of serious grief, I felt its presence and mark everywhere on everything. (I was fooling myself, obviously; the poem had marked me.) Interestingly, and unusually for that time, in my junior year (1969-70), we read a lot of “New York Poets”, including Tom Clark, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. We had a hip, bright teacher who was a poet himself. The Lethargica video and track are amazing.

TC said...

It's gratifying to know that at least one discerning reader, Curtis, has been curious enough to find his way to the Lethargica music video version of Blake's London.

You can get there by clicking on the still frames. It's worth the time.

And speaking of time... could any poem be more timely, at this moment?

Raymond Williams has written eloquently on this Blake poem -- along with this passage from Wordsworth's Prelude -- as decisive moments in human perception of historical change in the time of the birth of modern capitalist societies: "a making of new connections, in the whole order of the city and of the human system it concentrates and embodies".

Also: at what I guess could be called "the end of the day," I am made a bit uneasy by my own attempts at being playful -- with Steve, who probably "gets it," while others may not -- on the subject of Heidegger.

The basis of the joke (is it a joke?) is Steve's readings in Heidegger. I should note that "readings in" does not = "approval of", as in "buying into the whole package". The fact that, for example, Heidegger retroactively removed a dedication to Husserl, at a time when that dedication may have appeared politically inconvenient... but then, historical retrospect is always easy, as opposed to real life complex situations.

Anyway, my opinions on this subject are of no more importance than anyone's internet opinions on anything. I.e., they are of no importance. This is an "art blog" not an "opinion blog".

But, I am interested in history as well as art.

For those who may share these interests, I would strongly recommend a 2004 film, The Ister. This magisterial work, long (189 minutes) and also deep, turns on considerations of the thought and writings Martin Heidegger, Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin; and of twentieth-century history.

In an epilogue to the film, Heidegger reads Hölderlin.

J said...

Blake was opposed, in writing and person, to the professors' attempts to subsume poetry (if not...existence) under philosophical or ideological umbrellas--.

There might be marxist or existentialist themes hinted at in Blake's poems (or Christian for that matter), but they stand alone, apart from the usual professiorial reductions (one of the advantages and disadvantages for poesy really)--

really, I consider London (and most of Songs of Ex.) as akin old testament lamentation, Isaiah-like, if not from the Book of Revelation, rather than manifesto, or a Bentham-like call for reform.

TC said...

Blake, J and TC would probably have in common an allergic reaction to professorial reductions, including hunts for themes and isms.

I am myself particularly averse to generalizations about isms, they cause me to break out in spots.

(It is my impression that the first reference in this chain to isms, by the way, occurs in your comment.)

The point about Blake's revision of 'dirty' to 'charter'd' is a useful piece of scholarship that has nothing to do with isms. Paine likewise saw the development of chartered companies as malign. The phrase becomes, indeed, a salient aspect of the lamentation in the poem. The moment of the revision is a historical moment.

The fact that Blake saw certain things, in a certain city, at a certain time, and that Marx, in that same city, a little later, saw those things also, does not chain either one of them into the professorial custody of an ism.

In fact this might be taken as a prophetic inkling on Blake's part, were it not that you don't have to be a prophet to see what is right in front of you. But it takes fresh eyes to realize the perception. And it takes genius of a very high order to raise the perception to the level of a poem that will engage people for centuries.

(It is the failure of that genius for whole long stretches that renders much of Blake's "prophetic books" unfortunately bloated as writing and as such unreadable by me.)

J said...

Yes, Sir-- that's sort of it--(tho' I confess to ism-ing at times)

However much a genius Blake was, he at times verged on a sort of protestant enthusiasm which I don't care for, tho' it's quite above the 'Merican baptist-WASP sort.

Paine may have kept him somewhere near the rational fold. The "charter" discussion somewhat interesting--Paine was sympathetic to French (and American) revs, an abolitionist as well. So is Blake taking on the whigs, who were generally the charter-masters? (including Locke, and his hypocritical son Jefferson) Es posible

leigh tuplin said...

Love me a bit of Blake Tom, thanks for this.

TC said...


Were I able to channel Mr. B., something tells me I'd be telling you that the vision, energy and muscularity of your drawings is... dare I say Blakean?

ExitBarnadine said...

Last year, I think, Tate Britain exhibited a whole room of Blake paitings and books. I revisited a couple of weeks ago to find it had been a temporary exhibit. Now, there are only two small pictures in the whole gallery. I wished that I'd spent more time there. His work is so flat and dense, so insular, that the objects themselves have a life quite apart from his easily-reproducable images.

London seems uncomfortable with Blake, unlike Shakespeare, Dickens, Johnson, and others; I always suspect the decision to place a statue of his Newton outside the British Library is based on a profound misunderstanding. That (I think...) none of his former residences are still standing (Fountain Court, Soho, Hercules Buildings)seems almost a supernatural act of sweeping-under-the-carpet on London's part.

TC said...


That latter omission does seem evidence of a salient disrespect, considering the historic notice given the residences of certain of his contemporaries, e.g. Austen (Winchester), Wordsworth (Dove Cottage), Keats (Hampstead), & c.

As to the palpable "object" character of the preserved works, I do recall, from my time at Cambridge (now nearly a half century ago, speaking of deep pasts), the pleasure in repeated visits to the Blake exhibits in the Fitzwilliam. The physical realizations of that lost vision, floating up under glass, remarkable indeed.

ExitBarnadine said...

Yesterday afternoon I walked with a friend from Broadwick Street to St James Piccadilly (where Blake was baptised), to Hercules Buildings then the site of Fountain Court. The font in St James is shaped as the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve stand at its base. Blake was baptised in it. There is a relief of a pelican over the altar - we later passed the pelicans in St James's Park.

The onyl notable memorial is a series of mosaics of Blake's pictures and poems on the walls of a tunnel running under the train lines close to Hercules buildings. It's grimy and dark and entirely fitting. 'London' is included.

Zephirine said...

I fear that many British people are aware of Blake only as the author of a song called 'Jerusalem', which has metamorphosed from something warbled by large ladies at village fetes to something shouted by large men at sporting events. Oh, and there are some sweet poems about lambs and tigers which you learn as a child, aren't there? I don't think British official or mainstream culture has ever known what to do with Blake.

They're quite proud of him in Felpham, where his cottage still exists, but I understand it's a private home (probably expensive) and not a museum of any kind.

TC said...


The tunnel does sound about right. Fit for a chimneysweep at any rate.


Well, one notes that under the (albeit extremely small) yellow directional sign pointing toward Blake's Road, there is at least the tiniest wee patch of Green and Pleasant.

(You have made me imagine that private home as perhaps a bit like the cottage of the recently deceased dowager in An Education, whose framed antique map is made off with by the elegant blaggards... in this fantasy, we might even insert a WB watercolour, left behind in a broom closet, into that frame...?)

ExitBarnadine said...


I saw Trilogy at the Barbican in January. The close of the performance was an audience-wide rendition of Jerusalem. Apparently it was one of the songs sung by Suffragettes on their marches and the performers wanted to reclaim it from the proms/rugby crowd. Certainly, my first thought when thinking of the song will now be several dozen naked women booming the song from the Barbican stage. It was a stirring end to a moving, funny, very clever show.

They have a project from their site inviting women to record their own versions of the song, although very few seem to have taken up the challenge.

TC said...

...oh, and Z, judging by his name I thought that enterprising Felpham photographer might be a useful adjunct to your Circus. (Assembling a feline album perhaps?)

TC said...


Ah, maybe it's just as well. Considering the possible effects on the Marriage hearse & c, were there to be any misunderstanding of the lyrics, what with the uproar.

TC said...

And did the second-prize potato shine forth upon our clouded hills?

Zephirine said...

I like the song 'Jerusalem' but I think it's the triumph of C Hubert H Parry over William Blake. As the youtube clip aptly shows, once that stirring intro starts up we're plunged into whatever remains of the Spirit of Empire... our national anthem is deadly dull and sometimes a rousing patriotic chorus is required, but was it at all what William B had in mind?

Here's Blake's cottage at Felpham with fences to keep literature tourists from peeking at the herbaceous borders.

Zephirine said...

Tom, re the photographer, yes indeed!

Zephirine said...

By the way, that portrait by Phillips is well worth clicking on and seeing at closer quarters.... What is Blake looking at, exactly?

TC said...


Thank you for the view of Blake's cottage. Those remarkable Geograph file photos of "every grid square" of England always inspire me anew with respect for a land which, whatever else may be said about it, finds something in itself to respect. They provide a remarkable image source for public use. I was delighted (and overwhelmed), for instance, to find that, in seeking an image of a specific bit of riverside to illuminate a particularly wonderful bit Marvell, I was offered no less that 1,144 public domain images of the River Wharfe. The fact that these photo postings have been made for love and not for profit bespeaks an attitude upon which one may usefully dwell.

About the Blake hymn, the most moving rendition of it I can recall came long ago, in the Tony Richardson film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I found that scene quite stirring when I first saw it, in 1962, a year before I had ever set foot in your land. Of course, that scene, in its bitterly ironic use of the hymn, evoked not so much the green and pleasant as the black and white -- but is there not inevitably a bit of truth always to be found in that aspect of things as well?

And finally, what is Blake looking up at in that portrait? That was my question also. To answer it for myself I tried to find images at which he might be thought to have been gazing. I found those images of the video of London Is Burning. If you click upon them you will see the images which I was imagining he "foresaw".