Monday, May 18, 2009

Blake's "London" (lines 1-4)

It's been a few weeks since I've opened my Blake, but he's the first poet I turn to when the semester is over and I have time to collect my better thoughts. I've been struck this week by Blake's epigrammatic writing. It's such remarkably rich poetry that virtually any couplet would serve as the foundation for a fruitful close reading. That said, I've decided to focus this week on the opening quatrain of "London" from the Songs of Experience:

I wander thro' each charter'd street
Near where the charter'd Thames doth flow
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In pointed contrast to the speakers of the Innocence lyrics (see discussion of "The Lamb," for example), the speaker here is embittered, alienated, pessimistic. He "wanders" through an urban landscape rather than through the pastoral scenes of Innocence, and his view of this space reflects the kinds of selfish exclusion and psychological isolation that are characteristic of Experience in general and modern city life in particular. In the first two lines, the repeated adjective "charter'd" underscores this sense. The word refers literally to some preemption for private use—as one might "charter" an aircraft or a bus, taking it out of general public service and using it for some private purpose. In the present case, both urban space ("each charter'd street") and even nature itself ("the charter'd Thames") have been appropriated to some private purpose and are thus not available—at least not available in the same way—to the speaker of the poem.

One might see this as a familiar complaint about urban life—that private property is held and controlled through legal or financial means, and that this fosters a sense of envy or resentment among those, like the speaker of the present poem, who feel themselves excluded. The speaker's analysis becomes even more emphatic in the next lines. Consider the word "mark" that appears three times in the space of two lines. The first instance is a verb, "[I] mark in every face I meet...." The meaning here would be something like "see" or "notice" or "remark," as in the familiar expression "Mark my words!" In the fourth line, "marks" is a noun which means something like "signs." Following through on this reading, a paraphrase of these lines would be "In every person's face I notice signs of weakness and woe." Putting the whole quatrain together, we get the image of a disaffected and unhappy speaker who feels himself excluded from any real connection with both human and natural environments and who sees similar signs of alienation on the faces of everyone else he meets in London. It's a gloomy condition, a classic expression of Blakean Experience.

There may be some truth to this critique of modern urban life (certainly such expressions of alienation are common enough in literature and popular music), but the poem offers also a novel and distinctly Blakean reading of the possible causes of this condition. Suppose we return to that word "mark" in line three, and suppose now we read the word in a different light altogether, as synonymous with "making a mark" (as one might "mark on a paper" or "mark on a chalkboard"). This changes everything. One assumption underlying the paraphrase presented above is that the speaker of the poem functions like a camera, noting and describing what he sees as he "wanders" the streets of London. If we adopt this second way of understanding "mark" however, the speaker-as-camera idea becomes speaker-as-projector. That is, instead of simply recording signs of weakness and woe that we assume are already and unequivocally evident on other people's faces, the speaker actually projects those signs onto the faces of everyone he meets. This is by no means as far-fetched an understanding as it might first appear—after all, reading the expression on someone else's face is a matter of interpretation not simply a recording of fact, and interpretation is inevitably shaped by the state of mind and the purposes of the interpreter. The alienated speaker, in this view, actually creates his own alienating environment, or, more accurately, the environment he describes is as much a projection of his own alienated condition as it is some pre-existent "reality" that he comes upon in his wandering.

Blake says elsewhere (in "The Mental Traveller") that "The eye altering, alters all." The line could be a gloss on this passage from "London"—the environment the speaker perceives is not some stony "reality" that is external to himself; rather, that environment is itself a function of his mode of perception, of his condition of Experience. And this is perhaps the crucial point of Blake's Songs. The poems illustrate, as the subtitle says, the "contrary states of the human soul." Hence, in reading the Songs, our task is not so much to believe the speaker at face value as it is to see the speaker as exemplifying a particular psycho-spiritual condition of Innocence or Experience. That speaker might, as in "The Lamb" for example, feel himself to be at one with both Creation and the Creator, or he might, as in "London," feel himself isolated, bitter, and alienated. The point is not so much to arrive at some true representation of an external reality; rather it is to exemplify how reality itself is a product of the mental condition of the perceiver. In my view, this reading helps explain one of Blake's most famous phrases, the "mind forg'd manacles" that appear in the next stanza of "London"—but I'll leave it to my readers to explain this intriguing phrase.

As always with Blake, the verbal interpretation is only part of the story. To see several different versions of the illustrated page, consult the Blake Archive.

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