Today (November 28) in London History – the greatest London poem

The great poet – and Londoner – William Blake was born on November 28th, 1757. Blake authored the greatest London poem of all: London. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale and takes you through the poem.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

November 28th. 

For our purposes here, November 28th, 1757. 

But while we’re at it, a couple of other November dates. November 25th, the day I’m writing this.

And November 28th, 622. Fourteen hundred years ago.

Though in 622 – in Anglo-Saxon England – they wouldn’t have called it November. They called it “blut munth”. Blood month. Blood month because that was the month they slaughtered most of the livestock. The cattle and swine were at their fattest, there wasn’t going to be much food in the coming months. The animals were only going to get a lot skinnier and weaker and sicker. It made sense to slaughter them at this time of year, when there was a lot of meat on their bones.

Ok, that marker laid down, let’s fast forward to today. November 25th, 2022. I’ve just watched a little bit of the Ecuador-Netherlands World Cup match. At one point a Dutch player and his Ecuadorean opponent had a verbal dispute. And it suddenly dawned on me that the Dutchman and the Ecuadorean and the Algerian referee would all have been speaking English. And whoosh, I was back 1400 years, back in Blut munth, back on the 22nd of Blut munth. 

How many English speakers were there then? Well, it wasn’t English, it was Anglo-Saxon. But it was the forerunner of our tongue. And not many people spoke it. Maybe a few thousand. In the year 622 more people spoke Cherokee – one of the native American tongues – than spoke English. If you’d said to an English speaker in 622, “1400 years from now your tongue will be the most important language in the world. It’ll be the lingua franca of the world,” they would have looked at you uncomprehendingly, is this person mad?

I mention all of that in passing because this tongue of ours is the very essence of this podcast. But not plain, ordinary spoken English – rather, the English of great poetry. In fact, the English of the greatest poem ever written about London. That poem has swum into our ken today because the poet who wrote London – that’s the name of the poem – was born on this day, November 28th, 1857. 

Yes, William Blake. And he was a Londoner through and through. You could almost make an A to Z of London from his biography. He was born at 28 Broad Street in Soho. He was baptised in St James’ Piccadilly. When he was a little boy he walked on Peckham Rye and beheld “a tree filled with angels.”

As a teenager he was apprenticed to an engraver who lived at 31 Great Queen Street. Blake lived with him and his family for the traditional period of seven years. 

He made drawings of the mediaeval monuments and wall paintings in Westminster Abbey. He was a student at the Royal Academy of Arts. And later he exhibited there. 

He witnessed the storm and burning of Newgate prison during the Gordon Riots. He was married at St Mary’s in Battersea. He and his wife, as newlyweds, took lodgings at 23 Green Street, near Leicester Square. They later moved to Poland Street in Soho. And then to a fine terrace house at 13 Hercules Buildings in Lambeth. It was there that a visitor famously found the couple nude in their garden summer house.’“Come in!” cried Blake; “it’s only Adam and Eve you know!” The couple had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character.

They later moved to 17 Molton Street in Westminster, on the edge of Mayfair. A great walker, Blake regularly walked up the hill to Hampstead to visit a friend. 

His last address – he’d fallen on hard times – was in two cramped rooms in Fountain Court, off the Strand. It was there that he died. A friend who was with him said he “Died in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ—Just before he died His Countenance became fair—His eyes brighten’d and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven.”

He’s buried in Bunhill Fields, the dissenters’ cemetery, in Finsbury.

The immediate, obvious conclusion we can draw is that Blake knew his London the way Dickens knew his.

Now let’s hear the poem first. And then I’ll take you through. See if I can increase your appreciation of it, just a little bit at any rate. 

London, along with The Chimney Sweeper, these are lyrics of social protest. Though the word lyrics hardly does the poem justice. 

Here we go.



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

Now by way of Qatar and the world cup I took us to Blood Month in the year 622 at the beginning of this podcast. Took us to the beginning of English. And if the English spoken then was a ram’s horn, after 1400 years of refinement and in Blake’s hands – though ear is a better word – it’s become a Stradivarius.

Let’s see how this poem works its magic, its artistry.

And to do so let’s lay down a couple of principles. And maybe fetch a magnifying glass or two that will help us see it better.

Principles. Well, primus inter pares, great poetry is the best words in the best order. Second principle, in great poetry sound reinforces sense. Another way of putting that is the sense of sound and the sound of sense.

What else? Well, in relation to sound, cadence is very important in great poetry. As is word position. the most important position in the line of verse is the last word. The second most important position is the first word. And just generally, you don’t read poetry the way you read the newspaper. You don’t read it silently. You read it out loud. You’ve got to your ear into play as well as your eye. And you savour it. I used to say to my students, you need to take a bubble bath in the language. Soak in it, soak it.

What else? Well, you’ll see this immediately – you’ve already seen it, or heard it is a better way of putting it – when a poet repeats a word, that should give pause. There’s something going on there. Something important. And finally, Keats’ great line, “poetry should surprise by a fine excess.” We see that again and again in this poem.

Ok, so those are our tools, our surgeon’s instruments if you will. 

Let’s go back to the poem. More or less a line at time. Or a short burst of lines.

It opens:

I wander through each chartered street near where the chartered Thames does flow. 

What jumps out at us? Well, the repetition. The word charter’d twice. And the word mark or marks three times. 

And what’s the other kicker word in the first line? Chartered is one. The other, surely, is the verb wander. 

And here’s another principle, the most important words of course are verbs and nouns. 

But I said poetry is the best words in the best order. And I said you need to take a bubble bath in the language. Well, have a good soak in that word wander. Try to improve on it. Go to your thesaurus. Look up the word walk. All the different words that convey the sense of moving, on your feet, from one place to another: walk, run, stagger, shimmer, hop, skip, jump, perambulate, stroll…there’s any number of them. But the right one, the best word, is the word Blake’s chosen. Why? Because of the off-rhyme, that’s why. You can hear the word “wonder” in the word wander. Our narrator – it might be Blake – is stunned, dazed by what he’s seeing in this city. So much so that it’s not a purposeful, get from A to B walk. He’s wandering. And he’s wondering. How can this be? What he’s seeing. He’s almost lost. He’s certainly dazed. He’s lost in thought.

And then our other kicker word, the one that gets repeated: chartered. The streets of London are chartered. They’ve been bought and sold. Each one belongs to a given trade. They’re locked up and locked away from people who don’t have the license, don’t have the charter to practice that trade.

In another work Blake once referred to London’s dungeons dark. And that with a little stretch of the imagination is whither he’s taking us, it’s what his London has become. It’s locked up, locked away. Those who are a member of the guild, well, they’re privileged. They can practice their trade. If you don’t have the charter, forget it.

And then in the second line he talks about the chartered Thames. And it’s the same thing, the ferrymen and boatmen have secured their right to work the river. But if you think about it, the idea of chartering a river – it’s actually preposterous and indeed runs counter to nature. A river flows. As Blake tells us in the last word of the second line. I wander through each chartered street near where the chartered Thames does flow.

Chartering a river is, in a sense, akin, in that famous phrase, to putting a meter on everybody’s nose and making them pay for the air they breathe.

And then what about the second half of the first stanza. And mark in every face I meet marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Our kicker word – well, one of our two kicker words – is the word mark.

The narrator is observing. He’s marking. But maybe it’s not just passive observation. Maybe that word mark is an active verb, a verb that takes a direct object. The narrator is making them. And since we’re seeing London through Blake’s eyes – or the narrator’s eyes – we’re in a very real sense complicit with that action. And finally, of course, there’s the biblical echo, the mark of Cain.

Now mark is the obvious word, it’s the flashing red light word. But remember I said word position is important. How does the stanza end. It ends with the word woe. And again, play the thesaurus game. Try to find a better word than woe. In pain, hurt, sorrow, sad, lamentation, etc. There’s no better word. And why is woe so perfect. Well, first of all, it’s just older. It’s biblical. And just like that Blake is suggesting – with that one word – that the London malaise goes back forever. And finally, sound reinforcing sense. In great poetry, consonants carry the meaning, vowels carry the emotion. This is why you have to say the poetry, hear it. Woe. That comes from deep inside. That’s not a superficial sound.

And now I want you to count syllables. Blake’s line is not iambic pentameter, hot ten syllables and five beats. It’s octosyllabic verse. Eight syllables and four beats. But counts the syllables in that last line of the first stanza.

…marks of weakness, marks of woe.

That’s not an eight-syllable line. It’s seven syllables. Here’s another guideline for you: great poets write the silences. With that seven-syllable line ending with the word woe, it, the word, just hangs there. It gets an extra beat. In bell-ringing terms, it’s a strike tone…and it reverberates. Because of the missing syllable – because Blake has written the silence – the word woe is given extra emphasis. It’s just a little three-letter word but it’s a show-stopper moment. And it’s cadence that makes it a show-stopper moment. 

Second stanza: 

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

Well, it’s every every every – that adjective sounds like a tocsin. And what are the cries of every man? For starters, they’re the cries of street traders, hawkers. Gingerbread, get your red hot gingerbread. But we have a nagging sensation at the back of our minds that they might simultaneously be a deeper cry, almost an existential cry, a cry of quiet desperation. And the infant’s cry, well, there you’re getting the Keatsian surprise by a fine excess. Babies should be crying because they’re hungry or sleepy or their nappy needs changing. There’s something very wrong with a place where the infants’ cries are cries of fear. 

And then that, in every voice, in every ban – the word ban is in that most important position – at the end of the line – and it’s charged with ambiguity. It’s bans as in ordnances forbidding people from doing this or that. But it’s also the banns of marriage. They’re read out in a church for the three Sundays running prior to a wedding. They’re read out to announce the wedding and give anyone in the congregation the opportunity to say that wedding should not take place, because, for example, the groom is already married. Or some such. 

And then the last line in that stanza…

the mind-forg’d manacles. All those repetitions of the word every – each of them could be the clanging of a blacksmith’s hammer. And there’s a very disturbing link that’s forg’d between manacles and marriage. And then that further extraordinary idea that all the bans and manacles and restrictions and tying ourselves and one another up – that’s all in the mind. It needn’t be. We’re doing all of those bad things to ourselves. And then finally, the somber, profound depths and richness of that word forg’d. It’s a forge as in a blacksmith’s forge. But something that forge’d is counterfeit. Is false. Isn’t real. 

This is why you take the bubble bath – have a good soak in the language. You’ve got to let yourself marinate in language this rich and redolent and powerful.

And then that astonishing third stanza.

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls

The Chimney sweeps are hawking for business. 

Their business is sending frightened, despairing little eight or nine-year-old boys up filthy chimneys – 

they’re breathing all that soot and getting it into their skin because they climb with their elbows and knees and of course the stuff is carcinogenic. But then look where he goes with it. The coal fires are making the churches black. But those cries are also appalling the churches. Inside the word appalling is the word pall – a pall is a cloth that covers a casket or coffin at a funeral. It’s related of course to the word pallbearer. So those cries in a sense are a pall flung over the church. But then there’s the further sense of appalling that means to greatly dismay or horrify.

To shock, to unnerve. And sometimes something that’s appalling can drain the colour out of a person’s face. Whiten it. So the blackening church is also being blanched with the horror of that cruel trade, what it does to little kids, the price little kids have to pay to keep the chimneys of rich people swept.

And then finally that stunning image at the end: and the hapless soldier’s sigh runs in blood down palace walls.

That’s Blake at his most visionary. The poor soldier is bored and cold and tired. And he sighs. Blake hears that sigh and hearing it he sees blood running down palace walls. Strictly speaking, that’s what synaesthesia. The dictionary definition of synaesthesia is a condition in which someone experiences things through their senses in an unusual way, for example by experiencing a colour as a sound. But of course what the image does is mainline us into that really disturbing and in all too many cases entirely true thought: behind every great fortune is a great crime. How many poor soldiers died so that kings could amass great treasures.

And that brings us to the last stanza:

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

It’s a vision of hell and damnation in four lines. It’s midnight streets. It’s the darkest hour. It’s a youthful harlot, a child prostitute. She’s already hardened. 

And do the usual word check. There are any number of words for prostitute. Harlot is absolutely the right one. Why so? Because it’s ancient, it’s biblical. 

And you can see – well, you can hear – how that word curse is charged with meaning. It’s bad enough that a child prostitute cursing like a sailor. But it’s also curse in the other sense, the biblical sense. And of course it turns out to be an efficacious curse. The idea is that the bridegroom has slept with the child prostitute. He’s caught a venereal disease from her. He’s passed it onto his bride. She’s passed it on to her newborn child. 

And that brings us to that last line. Once again we weigh up the words – or perhaps are weighed down by them. Blights. Plagues. Plagues – well, we know about them in our time, don’t we. But a plague is also biblical.

And finally, that astonishing ending:

the marriage hearse. It should be carriage of course. Newlyweds are driven off in a carriage. But in Blake’s poem – in his London – the bride and groom aren’t in a carriage, they’re in a hearse.

I’ll leave you with Keats’ line again, “poetry should surprise by a fine excess.” Hearse instead of carriage, that’s a fine excess. Fire engine wouldn’t be a fine excess. Dump truck wouldn’t be a fine excess. Train engine wouldn’t be a fine excess. 

Hearse is. It surprises. And it holds us. Stuns us into quietude. And maybe – just maybe – deep thought. 

This is a great poem. It’s disturbing, it’s unsettling, it’s harrowing. It gives pause – both at the thought of what Blake’s London was. And indeed at the thought of what civilisation and social and economic relations are. And it also gives the other dimension of pause – we are lost in admiration at Blake’s creative genius.

Well, this is the 338th Today in London podcast. I aim for the series to run for a year. So there aren’t many more to go. I’m pretty confident that this will be the longest one of the series. That’s because of the power and richness of the poem – and because it’s what I was trained to do. I was a literary historian. And it’s what I’ve always been passionate about and still am passionate about.

One thing that’s come of this writing session – I think we’ll put on the London in Poetry walk over the Christmas Week. We usually double-team you. I basically guide it and do most of the literary analysis. And my colleague and friend, the great Royal Shakespeare Company actor, Stephen Noonan performs the poems. And I’ve produced a handout of my favourite London poems. You’ll each get one. 

The walk always starts, by the way, with this poem. 

Anyway, if you’re interested – if like me and Steve you’re a literary London aficionado – look out for the walk. Be nice to see you on it. Do some pieces, see some London. See into London and see the London that our great poets saw. And indeed at one stage even do a joint reading. It’s a scene from Shakespeare. I think it’s a four-hander. So some of the walkers can go home and tell their family and friends, “I was on stage with, I performed with Royal Shakespeare Company actor Stephen Noonan.” Who incidentally has been flown to Chicago for the Thanksgiving weekend. He’s playing Doctor Who in this latest audio version and the Chicago Tardis flew him over for their Doctor Convention.

Anyway, that – the London in Poetry walk – is your Today in London recommendation for this podcast.  

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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