William Blake’s Criticism Of The Industrial Revolution In His Poem London

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The poem London, included in the Songs of Experience, was written by William Blake. In it, Blake implicitly shows the dismal experience of living in a city as well as the bleak, depressing atmosphere. As one recognizes at the beginning, the title of the poem denotes London as the geographic space. Thus, to entirely understand Blake’s poem, it is essential to consider its historical background. The piece was written in 1794 during the Industrial Revolution in England, which was defined by “a rapid development of industry, chiefly as a result of the introduction of new or improved machinery and large-scale production methods”. The poem mirrors the misery of those living in London and their poor social conditions through its morbid tone and strong imagery. The persona in Blake’s poem perceives this, while “wandering thro’ each charter’d street”. It is the aim of this essay to present Blake’s criticism of industrialization by demonstrating its harmful effects on people’s lives. Firstly, the drawbacks of monotony are presented through Blake’s use of repetitive language. Secondly, Blake’s use of various stark images illustrates not only issues with child labour, but also a lack of institutional interest.

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The first social ill in London that is criticized by Blake is the monotony. Referring to the time period of the Industrial Revolution, there was a “crushing monotony of labor controlled by the rhythm of the machines”. This monotony can also be seen in the poem’s structure, especially in the rhyming scheme and meter Blake uses throughout the poem. Through alternate rhymes and the use of iambic pentameter, he deliberately stresses the monotony. As the strongest formal feature, Blake employs several elements of repetition, mirroring the regular working routine of Londoners. These recurrences involve words with negative tones. As a first instance, by using “mark”, Blake highlights the suffering of weak, woeful workers (line 4). Further on, the persona of the poem hears in the “cry” of men and infants the manacles of their captivity. Further on, with “the Chimney-sweepers cry”, not only is the word ‘cry’ repeated, but also the misery of living in fear and repression. Later, there is the four times repeated and verse-initially anaphora “In every” in stanza two, which stresses the fact that the whole society is affected by monotony. Therefore, Blake criticizes monotony and its negative impact on English society through repetition.

A second instance of social ills Blake’s critiques is the use child labour and lack of interest from institutions, which Blake shows through imaginary. In the third stanza, Blake presents an example with “How the Chimney-sweepers cry” and “How the youthful Harlots curse”. Through the repetition of ‘how’, the two lines can be compared and regarded as a pair. Using the word “youthful”, Blake addresses children who were forced to work during that period, which he then links to chimney-sweepers. Blake makes this connection, as children primarily did chimney-sweeping work due to their small size. Furthermore, Blake attaches the cry of the chimney-sweeper to the “blackening Church”, in that the cry is converted, literally, into black carbon on the church walls. Black is contrary to white, and in this sense, Blake shows that such institutions were neither pure nor innocent, since they made no effort to prevent child labour or by extension children’s deaths. Additionally, the image of the soldier morphing into blood on the palace walls implies, literally and symbolically, the death of children through the rough working conditions. Blake conveys the failure of institutions to prevent these repercussions and also highlights capitalism. During that period, children were forced into labour and therefore to sell their bodies. Blake shows this not only through his use of the “Chimney-sweeper” image, but also the image of the “Harlot”, or prostitute. Blake shows that these once powerful institutions do not bother to stop child labour and the miserable circumstances in the city.

In conclusion, this deep analysis of the poem, London, shows Blake’s criticism of the Industrial Revolution in England. Blake’s narrative transports readers, and as the heading of the poem, Song of Experience suggests, they can indeed feel themselves experiencing these inhuman circumstances. The earning of money was more important than people’s wellbeing. The Revolution was about much more than the superiority of machines, since the society itself became a machine. Therefore, the monotony, selling of bodies, and lack of interest from institutions clearly shows the externalization and dehumanization of people. Hence, Blake’s writing style and his use of images and examples enables him to unite literary language and criticism. This opinion is also shared by literary critic Jerome McGann, who considers Blake’s Songs “the best examples of ‘primary’ Romantic works”, since they possess “an unusual confidence in the mutually constructive powers of imagination and criticism when both operate dialectically”.

Bibliography

  1. Hindman, Hugh D. World of Child Labor: An Historical and Regional Survey. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2009. Print
  2. “Industrial Revolution.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 10 April 2019.
  3. McGann, Jerome J. The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Print.
  4. Royston Pike, E. Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution In Britain. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.
  5. Upshur, Jiu-Hwa et al. World History, Since 1500: The Age of Global Integration, 2nd ed. California: Wadsworth 2002. Print.
  6. White, R. S. Natural Rights and the Birth of Romanticism in the 1790s. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Print.
14 May 2021

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