Poetry News

Blake's "London" is our New York

By Harriet Staff

If you want to know the moral state of America today, then look no further than late 18th century London. William Blake's "London," that is. Mark Edmundson makes a convincing case for why Blake's depiction of the sordid and soulless London of the past fittingly describes today's New York or Washington.

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"London" is spoken by a poet-prophet wandering through the imperial city, stunned by what he sees and feels. Human misery is everywhere around him: "I ... mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe." There are a number of sources for this misery, but maybe the main one—or at least the one Blake cites first—is the locking down of human consciousness. The people Blake sees are miserable in large part because their minds are radically restricted by oppressive ways of thinking. They are the victims of "mind-forg'd manacles." That is, they are imprisoned by their own mental limits and by the limits imposed upon them by others.

As for our wars, "the hapless Soldier's sigh/Runs in blood down Palace walls:"

I suspect that if Blake wandered down Pennsylvania Avenue today and looked at the White House and then went on past Congress, he would see much the same thing. Our soldiers fight in foreign wars and often fight valiantly. But in the field, they have been undersupported and undersupplied. And they return to the general indifference of their government and frequently of their fellow citizens. Often they can't get the medical treatment they need for their wounds. More often they can't get the psychiatric care that's necessary for the traumas that war has inflicted on them.

Read more on Blake's mind-forg'd manacles.

Originally Published: November 4th, 2010