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London is a poem by William Blake, published in Songs of Experience in 1794. It is one of the few poems in Songs of Experience that does not have a corresponding poem in Songs of Innocence. These poems are aimed to show the "Two Contrary States of the Human Soul". The Songs of Innocence section contains poems which are positive in tone and celebrate love, childhood and nature. The Songs of Experience poems are obviously intended to provide a contrast, and illustrate the effects of modern life on people and nature. Dangerous industrial conditions, child labour, prostitution, and poverty are some of the topics Blake explores. Blake lived and worked in London, so he was well placed to write clearly about the conditions people who lived there faced.
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.
It was originally fully illustrated and hand-printed by Blake.
Blake suggests that the experience of living there could encourage a revolution on the streets of the capital. This could have been influenced by the recent French revolution. The use of the word "Chartered" is ambiguous and goes against control and ownership. It may express the political and economic control that Blake considered London to be enduring at the time of his writing. Blake's friend Thomas Paine had criticised the granting of Royal Charters to control trade as a form of class oppression. However, "chartered" could also mean "freighted" and may refer to the busy or overburdened streets and river or to the licensed trade carried on within them. In the original draft, the word used was simply "dirty" ("I wander through each dirty street / Near where the dirty Thames does flow").
Ralph Vaughan Williams set the poem to music in his 1958 song cycle Ten Blake Songs. The poem was set to music in 1965 by Benjamin Britten as part of his song cycle Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.