1794 – Songs of Experience
by William Blake
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 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
“London”, by William Blake, allows us to eavesdrop on the thoughts of a midnight wanderer who stalks the streets of London laying judgment to all he sees. As part of his book of poetry, written in 1789, “London” was included in the section named “Songs of Experience” (as opposed to “Songs of Innocence”). Every poem of the book has an “experienced” and an “innocent” counterpart, save this one. The mind of Blake’s wanderer is the mind of a sociopath. The narrator of the piece is disgusted with all around him and all that London represents. He seems to hold the babies, the soldiers, the whores and the church accountable for the state of the city. He displays the abnormal tendencies of what would be considered, in modern psychology, an antisocial personality. Perhaps there is no innocent counterpart to this poem for the man in this poem has lost his innocence. There is no complement to the mind of a person who, for all intents and purposes, has lost touch with the his fellow man.
The fact that the narrator in this piece is wandering, rather than walking or strolling, is significant. The act of wandering is associated with a lack of purpose, or destination, to a journey. The wanderer in this story states no intention for his activity. He feels no compulsion to explain why he is walking the streets of London at night, gazing at all the faces of all he sees. When he says “and mark in every face I meet” (LC p52 .3) he is saying that he is watching, noticing, and examining, every other person that is out in the city with him. It is not customary for most to do this sort of thing, but the wanderer of London feels no sense of remorse in doing what, by most standards, is abnormal behavior. Blake portrays a city of delicate and broken souls where there are those who walk the streets with no purpose or intent, lost in the madness of what the place is becoming. The wanderer, in his aimless endeavor, is acting out the antisocial tendencies which are manifested by a lack of clear purpose to most activities.
The wanderer is threatened by authority. He hears the cries of the people of the streets “in every voice, in every ban.” (LC p52 .7). He feels the threat of a “ban”, or a law that is imposed upon the citizens, as such a threat that it takes on the human quality of having a voice that can be actually heard. The narrator begins by saying “I wander thro’ each charter’d street” (LC p52 .1) The word “charter’d”, as used in this first line, indicates the creation through a form of legal order in the 18th century. It indicates that the streets of the city were designated by powers other than those who live in them, and the contempt in the wanderers words ring clear as one who resents this authority. In the reference to “every black’ning Church appalls” (LC p52 .10), the malice that the wanderer demonstrates towards the authority of the church is clear. He views the establishment, not simply the building, as an appalling, sooted entity, and this only serves to further illustrate his antisocial tendency to repel any institution that he deems a threat. Antisocial personalities will rebuff authority in every aspect of their lives,. They hold contempt for anything that resembles a threat to the freedom from rules they believe they deserve as someone who lives outside the realm of all the others. Blake’s wanderer hates the authority that he perceives as being so pervasive in London, which is another manifestation of his sociopathic tendencies.
The point that Blake hits with insightful accuracy is in his depiction of the wanderer as a person without empathy for others. This man watches others in the night and comments that “In every cry of every Man, In every Infants cry of fear” (LC p52 .5-6) he hears nothing but the “mind-forg’d manacles” they possess. He is accusing those who are suffering in the streets, and even the babies who cry from fear, of simply suffering from self inflicted discontent. He feels no mercy for the men who cry. He feels no compassion for the babies. He simply, without equivocation, states that they have brought this on for themselves through their participation in the worldly ventures he finds so abhorrent. This man seems to enjoy the cries he hears, for it makes him feel elevated to be merely an observer while he revels in the self satisfaction that he is not one of those with “mind-forg’d manacles.” Blake depicts a wanderer who exhibits the antisocial belief that he is above all others, and that in being so, does not need to posses the natural empathy for his fellow man that most feel an obligation to do. The antisocial person is unable to connect with other people and cannot view themselves as being a part of the society in which they exist. Like most classic antisocial personalities, the wanderer of London can only observe the pain of those around him with a distance that allows him to avoid experiencing the anguish that others feel.
The wanderer does make a point of establishing what it is that strikes him the most in his nocturnal observations and that is “how the youthful Harlots curse” (LC p52 .14). The antisocial person is usually the one who is most resentful of moral offenses, which is ironic as they resent authority and have little regard for social norms. However, feeling that they are above the rest, they are very comfortable with dispensing judgment and the wanderer does just this in his last line by saying that the Harlots curse, “And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.”(LC p52 .15) This is a disconnected sentiment that is indicative of a sociopath. He doesn’t like to be held to any sense of obligation himself, and yet he hates the prostitute who yells obscenities in the streets at night and spread venereal disease to men who will undoubtedly pass it on, eventually killing, their fair young brides. The antisocial personality often has these conflicted emotions where they don’t feel an obligation to adhere to norms, yet resent those who do not. Blake’s antisocial wanderer has experienced such a sense of alienation that he is unable to reconcile his morals, that were ingrained into his psyche in early in life, and his self evaluation as being separate from the rest of the world.
Blake is making a statement of social protest with this work. A reformer and social commentator of his time, is works were, and remain, a source of reflection to those who find themselves disillusioned with the civilized world and it’s complicated system of mores. The church, the government, the class system; nothing escapes the scrutiny of this reflective artist. “London” was a vehicle for Blake to give warning to his readers as to what the industrialization of his home city was creating. According to the humanistic viewpoint of psychosocial theory of personality disorders, when a person becomes so disenchanted with the world around them, they will regress into a world of their own and disconnect with society. This is what has happened to the wanderer of London. He has lost touch with his world. He came to believe that he is of little importance and of little consequence. He has removed himself from London, not physically, but emotionally and mentally. Blake’s mistrust of the social reform of the time gave him the insight to recognize that this will happen when the world becomes too overwhelming for some. He gave a glimpse of what the poison of “progress” would create in the minds of those who were incapable of conformity to the quickly changing world. He is presenting to his audience what the new London is creating and warns that the city is self destructing.