Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

28 November 2015

William Blake and London

To celebrate the birth of the visionary poet and artist William Blake #onthisday in 1757, I’ve chosen to write about one of his most beautiful yet bleak poems, London.

    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 black’ning Church appals,
    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

I always seem to turn to this poem just after the clocks go back and London seems particularly dark, damp, busy and cold.

London was first drafted in 1792 and published in 1794 as part of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience which showed ‘two contrary states of the human soul’.


Title-page to Songs of Experience by William Blake, London, 1794. Plate 29. Relief etching with hand-colouring. British Museum 1856,0209.365. Creative-commons-logo_304x106

The poem forces the reader to follow narrow, dark and unfriendly London streets while contemplating the brutal nature of the city. Streets and rivers alike are ordered by man, blackened churches loom while palace walls run with blood.  Soldiers sigh, harlots curse and babies cry: even the sounds described allude to desperation and woe. Blake’s London is a near-apocalyptic vision of the rotting heart of a nation.

The British Library owns the original manuscript for London which shows Blake developing the imagery within the poem. Here, Dr Linda Freeman explores the manuscript further.


The notebook of William Blake (Rossetti Manuscript) showing the draft of London in the upper left-hand corner. 1792. Add MS 49460. Noc

The published poem was accompanied by one of Blake’s relief-etched illustrations which depicts a blind and aged man led by a small child. This version in the British Museum is hand-coloured and printed in a red-orange ink.

London, plate 46 from Songs of Experience by William Blake, London 1794.  Relief etching with hand-colouring. British Museum 1856,0209.382.Creative-commons-logo_304x106

Blake’s place of burial is marked in Bunhill Fields which despite once being semi-rural, now sits between the financial district near Liverpool Street to the south and the oppressive Old Street roundabout to the north.


William and Catherine Blake’s gravestone in Bunhill Fields, London. Photograph taken by the author.

William Blake's London has inspired so many artists, writers and musicians but probably the most heart-breaking and beautiful example is Sparklehorse’s London of 1995. Sparklehorse was led by the musician Mark Linkous who tragically committed suicide in 2010. The combination of Blake’s words and Sparklehorse and Tuli Kupferberg's haunting melody bring the poem alive.

#WilliamBlake #London #OTD #OnThisDay #Sparklehorse #Linkous

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1601-1850 @AlexandraAult @BL_ModernMSS


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