[First posted on MyT]
This is a poem by William Blake (1757–1827), from Songs of Experience. I like a lot of Blake’s shorter work because it is so vivid, dramatic and mercurial – his longer poems can be stodgy and inaccessible.
This poem suggests to me the human condition (weakness and woe) – I’m particularly fond of the phrase ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. People have not changed since Blake’s time … we still forge manacles for our minds and wear them unconsciously. And we ought not to idealize the past, which was populated by humans much like ourselves.
The poem also reminds me of working and walking by the Thames, and of a happier vision of London than Blake portrays here. I can’t help being an optimist … it’s in my nature.
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 Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.
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.