Blake's poetry is often taught in our schools, but how well students understand it is an open question. Teachers who are using the KISS Approach may find that having the students analyze the structure of Blake's sentences will lead to more meaningful discussions.
The conflict surfaces in the very first line of the poem in the contrast between the speaker's "wander" (to go aimlessly, and without a "plan") and the "charter'd" streets. A "charter" is a human document, implying human planning and approval. The contrast is strengthened in the next line, when the speaker refers to the "charter'd Thames." A river is God's creation, not man's, so the speaker's use of "charter'd" here implies that man has claimed authority over God's world. That he sees this as negative is made clear in the last two lines of the stanza -- he sees "marks of weakness" and "marks of woe" in everyone.
The second stanza makes the idea of the poem explicit. The series of prepositional phrases moves the reader from "cry" to "cry of fear," to "ban." Human rules, human rationality, are "bans." They are "mind-forg'd manacles." Human institutions (civilization) has manacled nature, both in the general sense (of rivers, etc.) and human nature. For the speaker, the results are obviously horrible.
The two primary human institutions are the church and the state. Thus the third stanza focuses on them. The first two lines are devoted to the church. As the note for Level Two suggests, these lines can be read in two ways -- "The Chimney-sweepers' cry appalls every black'ning Church," or "Every black'ning Church appalls the the Chimney-sweepers' cry." The implication seems to be that the Church is appalled because the Chimney-sweepers are crying instead of understanding that the Church is taking care of them. From the other perspective, however, the Chimney-sweepers are appalled because they do not see the Church as taking care of them. The speaker's position is clearly on the side of the sweepers since he refers to the Church as "black'ning." On a literal level, of course, this is a reference to the soot and smoke coming from the churches' chimneys, but figuratively it clearly has the implication that the churches are "black'ning" God's natural world. In the last two lines of the third stanza, the speaker turns to the state, suggesting how political institutions force people ("hapless Soldier's) to kill and to die.
The final stanza is an attack on marriage, which the speaker hears "most." Not being a scholar on Blake, I'm curious about his personal beliefs about marriage. Is marriage really the most serious "manacle," or does he present it so here because it is supported (from the speaker's view, imposed) by both the Church and the State? In either case, the speaker's concern is clearly with marriage as a constraint on natural sexual desires. The church and state can try to constrain sex to marriage, but it doesn't always work. Thus we get prostitution, and then venereal diseases which then infect the wife and the infants, leading to their deaths in "the Marriage hearse." Everyone suffers.
Blake's poetry is not simple and cute. Starting from a fundamental and widely recognized conflict between nature and civilization, "London" raises fundamental questions about if and how human beings let their "mind-forg'd manacles" obscure their perceptions of God's natural world. We may agree or disagree with the speaker's views of the church, the state, and marriage, but the fundamental question is one that, perhaps, we should always keep in mind. Blake went for the big ideas, but perhaps we should often ask ourselves -- to what extent are our views of other people, other races, other religions, other religious denominations, of politicians, of poor people, and even of the opposite sex simply mind-forg'd manacles?
In 1916, perhaps, to an extent following Blake,
Andrei Bely published the first version of the great Russian Symbolist
novel, Petersburg. Petersburg (Leningrad) was founded by Peter the
Great, essentially on undeveloped swampland. Whereas most cities grow "naturally,"
with curving, intertwining, might we even say "messy" street patterns,
Petersburg was built from the start according to a very precise geometrical
pattern of essentially circles that are intersected by straight, long boulevards.
Much more than London, in other words, it is a mental imposition of man's
rationality on nature. Bely, with interesting foresight, portrays it as
a gigantic bomb that is about to explode, thereby destroying at least Russia,
if not the entire world.
-- Ed Vavra (April 18, 2004)