Poet's Pick April 18
William Blake: "London"
Selected by Arthur Sze
National Poetry Month 2017

Letter from the Editors

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Thank you so much for your support! Enjoy today's special poem and commentary from 2010!

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Don Selby & Diane Boller
Editors


Arthur Sze's Poetry Month Pick, April 18, 2017

"London"
by William Blake (1757-1827)

 
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 blackning 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.

        

* Arthur Sze Comments:
Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1794) remains, for me, one of the great works of poetry. Blake unified text and image: he first drew with an acid-resistant substance on a copper plate and then applied acid to create text and image in relief. After printing, he added watercolors by hand. In the image above “London,” a child leads an old man, with a flowing beard, on crutches through the street, while, to the right of the second and third stanzas, another child (or the same child at another moment in time?) is trying to warm himself near a billowing fire.

If the visual images are cues, one can think of physical cold but also spiritual cold as permeating the city, and if the aged man is hobbled over and in need of guidance, a child (youth?) appears to offer some assistance. But, in the poem, is there actually assistance rendered? The unfolding of the poem presents a harrowing journey that culminates in “the youthful Harlot’s curse / Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear, / And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” The last line is usually considered to refer to the spread of venereal disease from harlot to man to bride, so that the marriage bed becomes a funeral bier. And, with “the new-born infant’s tear,” youth is trapped in the cycle of suffering.

Pages of commentary have been written about this poem’s social and political implications, but I haven’t encountered before discussion that tries to show how the gap between text and image is rich in implication. Although the motion of the poem is intensely dark, it’s also endlessly provocative. Who is the speaker of the poem? In my experience of reading it—and, in my twenties, I frequently read and reread Blake’s Songs, along with his longer works—the speaker is able to “cast a cold eye on life, on death.” If the speaker is able to hear in every man’s cry, “the mind-forg’d manacles,” he has a consciousness that is unshackled. In his voice and vision, poetry becomes a form of liberation.

Arthur Sze:
Arthur Sze’s latest book of poetry is Compass Rose (Copper Canyon, 2014). He is currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.


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