The Art of Paradox in William Blake’s “London”

July 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

The concept of universal human suffering permeates through William Blake’s dolorous poem “London,” which depicts a city of causalities fallen to their own psychological and ideological demoralization. Though the poem is set in the London of Blake’s time, his use of symbolic characters throughout the piece and anaphoric use of the term “in every” in the first and second stanzas indicate that Blake’s backdrop of London is a connotative representation of all the world’s cities, whose inhabitants represent all the world’s people. In this sense, “London” is a poem about the universal human condition. It would be impossible to paraphrase “London” into prose, for its poetic meaning derives from the ambiguity of connotative language and from the necessity of unresolved paradox. The poem’s beauty and power result from concrete and specific images of London that evoke the ecumenical idea that man is suspended between the society he lives in and his own indeterminate nature. Man is helpless; hovering between these diametric poles, he cannot even escape his own distress. Blake’s theme unfolds through two central paradoxes in the poem—the fundamental and obvious paradox between man and society, and the underlying and enigmatic paradox between man and nature. The paradox between man and society is evident in Blake’s portrayal of social and political institutions as the purveyors of mankind’s philosophical angst. In fact, this despair is the consequence of the impenetrable paradox that arises when Man creates the very institutions that enslave him. The human characters in “London”—the Man, Infant, Chimney-sweeper, Soldier, and Harlot—simultaneously embody humanity’s cruel establishments as well as its individual experiences. For instance, Blake’s line “In every Infant’s cry of fear” means both a fear of perils lurking in “each charter’d street” and of the loss of vernal innocence. “And the hapless Soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls” has the dual meaning of society living under a tradition of war and death, as well as the danger of submitting to vicious custom with nothing more than a “sigh,” because war’s destruction results equally from compliance and combat. These symbolic characters are deeply conflicted, because Blake indicates that they are shackled by their acquiescence to their own brutal oppressors. Paradox arises from the irrational, unexplainable propensity of mankind to surrender. In “London,” people become willing parts of a corrupt system, evidenced immediately in the opening stanza: “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.” The manmade streets are chartered, decreed and created by men, but so is the River Thames. How can a river be chartered? In altering his natural state by constructing society, man has somehow repressed his own nature; the Thames, a natural river, is chartered because it is bound by the city, not free. Blake first emphases the “weakness” of man, and afterward the “woe,” implying that human suffering arises first out of human weakness, that there is a causal relationship. “The mind-forg’d manacles” reinforce this notion of self-enslavement—and paradox, for man cannot be mutually beholden to society and to himself, when the demands of both seem so innately incongruous. Yet somehow, within the framework of the poem, Blake’s contradictory suggestions gain conviction and generate a singular, universal concept. “London” consists of four short stanzas of four lines each, but a secondary paradox runs through the poem, nestled within the poem’s primary paradox, that shows startling complexity for so concise a work. At its crudest interpretation, “London” can be construed as social criticism, but Blake’s combination of connotative language and paradox lends the deeper emotive meaning essential to the realm of art. It is critical that the reader avoid intentional fallacy, since Blake’s positions on the societal problems of his day are irrelevant in the reading of “London”; the poem is poetic because it combines social criticism with seemingly contradictory ideas that force the reader to work through networks of paradox. If the obvious paradox in “London” is between man and society, then the latent one is between man and nature. Blake focuses on the divergences between human biology and emotion through the metaphors of sex and disease—both recurring motifs in the poem—and intertwines biological particulars of sex and disease with the intangible emotive corollaries of the human heart. Sexuality and disease are coterminous entities in “London,” and Blake portrays lasciviousness as both a social and personality disorder. The final stanza of the poem is telling: “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.” Here, Blake refers both to infant blindness as the result of venereal disease, proliferated by prostitution, and jealousy as a sickness of the heart, proliferated by infidelity. The disease imagery of “blights,” “plagues,” and “hearse”—death being the ultimate product of disease—is used to emphasize the epidemic of carnality. The covenant of marriage is inevitably doomed when prostitution institutionalizes sex as a profane act, invalidating the sanctity of monogamous human relationships, and Blake alludes to this in the second stanza as well, in the lines “In every cry of every Man/ in every Infant’s cry of fear.”These moral lessons, however, seem almost contradictory to the pervasive theme of human freedom advocated throughout the poem, for marriage, even if sacrosanct, is another binding social convention. Does prostitution exist because monogamy is oppressive and unnatural or does sexual temptation defame the purity of love? “London” is thought provoking because it is never readily apparent whether human nature is innately virtuous or corrupt—and if people are naturally corrupt, then they cannot possibly be blamed for the folly and vice they are biologically predestined to encompass. Blake depicts concupiscence as destructive, but he does not make it clear whether it is natural or unnatural; he leaves the integrity of human nature in suspension and paradox. The tone of the second and fourth stanzas, therefore, is inconsistent with that of the first and third. Blake’s two central paradoxes in London are even paradoxical to one another, and his poem is so forged by and of paradox that these paradoxes create a language of poetry, so that meaning cannot be divorced from the poem’s form.Blake’s language is developed as the poem develops, so that the poem, at its end, becomes an independent verbal artifact—or as Cleanth Brooks puts it, “a well-wrought urn”—that can be stated in no other language than the poem itself. As Brooks writes in his essay, “The Language of Paradox”:I am interested rather in our seeing that the paradoxes spring from the very nature of the poet’s language: it is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations…The poet, within limits, has to make up his language as he goes.Blake takes the entire length of “London” to formulate a language capable of carving meaning out of his paradox: man is both a slave to society and to himself. The uncertainty of Blake’s poetic language is in itself a concrete universal, an account of the desperate entanglement of human fate and accountability that can only be expressed through the divine irrational. Though “London” is a work of paradox, the poem is in no way incomplete; it is, by its conclusion, a work of art upon in and of itself.

Read more
Leave a comment
Order Creative Sample Now
Choose type of discipline
Choose academic level
  • High school
  • College
  • University
  • Masters
  • PhD

Page count
1 pages
$ 10