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 Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
This poem is a strong criticism against government and corporations. In the first two lines, Blake describes the London streets and the Thames as both being “charter’d.” It’s not clear whether this is a political or a business charter. What is clear is that he feels all of London is owned and controlled, and that humans are suffering as a result. My personal feeling is that Blake was referring to both the government and the corporations, both of which held an oppressive hold on the citizens during that period.
In the second stanza, we have the image of “mind-forg’d manacles.” For me, this is the most powerful metaphor in the poem. On one hand, it symbolizes the mental oppression inflicted upon individuals by a repressive society, where a person’s creativity and intellectual freedom are restricted. But I also see this as self-inflicted bondage, too. We are all slaves to our own thoughts, fears, and obsessions. It is most often our own thoughts that keep us trapped in our misery. If we could just free our minds from fear and resentment, we would find the freedom and courage to become fully enlightened individuals.
The final stanza was the most challenging for me. After reading it several times and thinking about it, I believe that Blake is describing poor, young women who are forced into a life of prostitution, likely because they had sex out of wedlock and got pregnant, which would be the “youthful Harlots curse.” I suspect that these women were often visited by married men, who would then contract venereal infections, such as syphilis, which they passed on to their unsuspecting wives. As a result, the marriage bed becomes a coffin; sex ultimately leads to death.
This is an extremely dark and viscerally wrenching poem. There is no glimmer of hope in here. In fact, even God appears weary and sick. At the top of the illustration, God is being led through the London streets by a boy. God appears hunched, ailing, about to die. Essentially, government and industrial society is not only killing humanity, but is also destroying the Divine spirit.