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 appals;
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.
Well, I have been grappling with William Blake’s poetry all my life. I can remember when I was about 12 or so, asking my mother to explain why he used such simple words. I guess I thought there was supposed to be this thing where the really great writers used big words, or were “hard” or had long sentences. But I read him, and I was confused: because the lines are short, the words are short, and the images are POW! What is he talking about!
Today Simon Barraclough (whose first book, Los Alamos Mon Amour, was shortlisted for this year’s Felix Dennis Forward Prize for Best First Collection) (I hope I’ve got that right) led a discussion of this highly-charged, bell-clear yet challenging poem, in the members’ bar of the Royal Festival Hall. Hats off to Poetry International for hosting such a great, low-key event. About forty people came, and all sat in a circle of about three rows, to think and talk about this poem.
Naturally, I was a little bit late. I missed the beginning and whatever the talk was of that interesting word “charter’d”. I think it is remarkable, though. I came in around the mind-forg’d manacles. We talked about the imagery, and the near-synaesthesia, of the sounds Blake hears as he wanders through London. How can you hear mind-forg’d manacles? They don’t clank like metal, forge-forg’d ones. We talked a little about the previous meanings of the word “ban” – is it like “to ban something,” is it like “wedding banns,” and did it used to mean – following on from the wedding banns – any kind of public announcement? If so, it could mean all those pamphleteers, like Daniel Defoe, with their political cries on the street-corners. Though I doubt that Defoe himself was wearing many mind-forg’d manacles.
We talked of the chimney-sweeps, and the use of the word “appals,” in an archaic sense whereby it would mean, not that the Church as a benevolent institution is appalled by child labour; but that the soot of the sweeps, who of course swept the church chimneys as well, gave the lie to and literally blackened the edifice of Christ’s teaching. And, for those of you who are born-again Millennial atheists, to what it stood for.
We talked about the hapless soldier, and how the sigh is an exhalation that becomes blood and runs down the very walls – rather like the red paint of the political slogans that did appear on buildings at that time. And we talked of Blake’s hatred of the Army and what it stood for, and the power of his word “hapless.” How this is important, because of what follows.
What follows? The youthful harlot’s curse. Simon had read these two lines as the curse, as in of the poor harlot being under one, blighting her relationship with her young infant. I had seen it, probably from my very earliest reading of it in childhood or adolescence, as being a damnation of the Harlot, as a symbol, whose curse overheard from within the family home blights even the infant within. But the discussion threw up details like the “youthful”ness of the Harlot – a condition which predisposes to sympathy – and the fact that syphilis, for example (“plagues”) has the effect of drying out the tear ducts – “blasts the new-born infant’s tear.”
And then there is this stunning last line, finishing in the Marriage hearse. Well, even allowing that “hearse” – like “ban” – may have evolved over the years, I think Blake was well aware of his meaning here. I think the word meant what it does todayk, if not also other conveyances. He is saying something huge here about the death that comes from hypocrisy, and marriage (a la Mary Wollstonecraft) being a form of prostitution under the auspices of the blacken’d, or besmirched, Church.
Members of the group saw a deal of tenderness in the imagery, as in the line “marks of weakness, marks of woe” (these are not marks of actual evil). The poem is actually about Blake’s love of the people in London, the people he sees as he walks its streets.
Let’s see. We talked about attitudes to London itself – both ours, and those of the day – and Peter Ackroyd’s identification of chimney sweeps as a “disruptive symbol” charged with iconography and myth even back then (they apparently had a sort of all-fool’s day of sweeps, when the poor bent things were allowed to stoke up on gin and run rampage with impunity, once a year. And let’s not forget how badly society needed them. They were vital.)
All this in half an hour or forty minutes!
Simon will be discussing the poem again on Monday evening at 7. It’s a marvellous opportunity, I think and it feels quite special to be sitting in this fantastic place with its views of the river – the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye jostling for window space on one side, and oh the rest of it on the other – talking about this quintessential London poem. London – we are so lucky to be able to share this city. But anybody can share Blake; that’s a form of freedom in itself, if you think about it. If you can’t be here, let me know what you think in the comments box.
I think this material barely opens the can and I’m hoping I can make it along for the second round on Monday. And tomorrow is Blake Sunday – so there’ll be lots more Blake if you’re in the area and in the mood.