“London” is a poem in which Blake criticises the contemporary society which has become the symbol of oppression. The so-called liberty of which his countrymen are proud is nothing but “a chartered liberty” the natural and free growth of man is impossible. The evils of the then society have been exemplified by the chimney sweeper’s miserable life, helpless deaths of the soldiers and the exploitation of the harlots. Thus, the child chimney sweeper, the soldier, and the harlot are Blake’s types of the oppressed- characteristic victims of a system based not on brotherhood but on fear.
Blake is not the only poet to condemn the society of London. After him, Wordsworth speaks of the collapse of humanity in London and so he urges Milton to come back to redeem England from the deterioration it has undergone. Even in the present century, T.S Eliot has compared the city with a wasteland in his famous poem, “The Waste Land.” In the poem “London”, Blake attacks the hollowness of the society and the helplessness of the church.
The poem presents a real picture of the society of London. The river Thames flows quietly by the side of London bearing witness to all the ugly and crushing scenes of London. He finds in the cries of children and men the replica of men’s own sinful deeds. The poet hears the cries of the chimney-sweepers which appall the helpless church. The sight of the dying soldier whose blood drops down the palace walls is audible to the poet. At midnight the curses of the young harlots are heard in the streets. This unnatural life spoils the holy tie between the wife and husband in their marital life. It is the result of the marriage devoid of lover and so a man seeks a harlot to satisfy his passion. Besides, the children, born out of the loveless marriage and out of adultery pose a great problem to the society.
The target of the attack is the church, society, and man. In the “Songs of Innocence,” the poet’s attitude to society is mild. He simply states a thing or a condition but does not hold anyone responsible. But in “London” we can find a progression in terms of both feelings and thoughts. The boy, who was born into a dangerous society, now has to face the problems of existence. The poet notices woe and weariness in the faces of the Londoners instead of joy and pleasure. Blake has given a picture of the society with sketches of three corrupt practices as embodied in the chimney sweeper, the harlot, and the soldiers.
The phrase “mind-forg’d manacles” is important to understand the theme of the poem. The people are in chains everywhere. Every face in the city is melancholy because of his misery caused by man, all the so-called industrial progress has brought about misery for most of them. This poem is the criticism of the society and the whole trend of the contemporary society. It is a protest against the exploitation of the poor by the rich.
It is a short poem of four-lined four stanzas but is full of ideas within a short poem; he has put a universal problem the solution of which lies in universal love for all.