I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A 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-forged manacles I hear:How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.
I quoted this poem in my last post about Auden’s Their Lonely Betters, so I thought I would write about the whole piece.The phrase “mind-forged manacles” is one that I’ve never forgotten since I first read it. I think it must be inspired by Rousseau’s statement, “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”. It expresses beautifully the idea that it is man’s own mind that limits and emprisons him.
This poem describes the London that Blake (1757-1827) knew when he was alive. However, there is a timeless and universal truth to it. Blake begins by describing the “charter’d streets” and the “charter’d Thames”. That word “charter’d” gives a sense that everything is mapped out; that every stone is named and accounted for; that there is no room for mystery in the world anymore. This reminds me of Keats’ famous “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings, unweave a rainbow”.
The tragedy of poverty, the hypocrisy of the Church and the injustice of the class system are all present in this poem. They are dissatisfactions that lead to revolution. The poet describes the chimney sweeper’s cry ‘appalling’ the Church, and this really gives us a sense that Blake perceived a jarring incompatibility between what the Church preached and how it treated the many impoverished of the city. The “hapless Soldier”‘s blood running down Palace walls also amplifies the notion of injustice…
Most noticeable, according to Blake, is the “Harlot’s curse” blighting “with plagues the Marriage hearse”. This is really interesting to me, because the poet seems to consider society’s conventions surrounding Love as the most obvious contributors to human sorrow. It is true that Victorian mores really corseted women in particular with regard to marriage and having children. To call marriage a “hearse” is very extreme, and very dramatically effective, I think.
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
I read The Fly today and it reminded me of a line from King Lear, when Gloucester says: “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods,/ They kill us for their sport.” Like that line from Shakespeare, Blake’s poem (from his Songs of Experience) explores the idea that man lives constantly under the shadow of the “blind hand” of death, just as a fly is subject to the whims of the “thoughtless hand” of man.
The way Blake creates a parallel between the fly and the speaker, by likening the fly’s “summer’s play” to his own merriment of dancing, singing and drinking, creates (I think) a powerful sense of the fleetingness and fragility of life. In the face of the ephemeral nature of existence, the fly and the speaker are equal. There is something very egalitarian about this poem, because it seems to suggest that all creatures are equal in the face of mortality.Below is the etching that Blake did for this particular poem, (he created these for all his poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience.) This etching seems to me to fit the poem perfectly. Like the poem, the image of the children and the mother figure seems perfectly innocent, just like the sing-song, nursery-rhyme tone and rhythm to the written piece. However, on closer inspection, the image becomes more sinister, and we can see that the children playing are very fragile; one plays merrily with a racket and shuttlecock, and the other needs the help of the mother as he attempts to walk. The trees that frame the image are bare, skeletal and oppressive, as if to remind us that death is never far away.
Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.
In my little book of selected Blake, this is the first poem. It is from his ‘Poetical Sketches’. It is a poem to the evening star, which is described in the first line as a “fair-hair’d angel”. This star, that watches over the evening, is addressed as though it were God, or some great Being overlooking the world in its twilight.
For me, phrases like “thy bright torch of love” and “thy radiant crown” reinforce this sense of a deity; this is religious language. It is even the star, according to the poem, who “drawest the/ Blue curtains of the sky”, and brings the evening. Blake continues with his prayer-like language as he invokes the star, asking it to “Smile on our loves”, “scatter thy dew/ On every flower”, and “Let thy west wind sleep on/ The lake”. I love that line about the west wind.
But this star is of the evening, not the night, and “Soon, full soon,/Dost thou withdraw.” Once the star is no longer visible, and it is true night, the “wolf rages wide”, and the “lion glares”… and the speaker’s flock is in danger. Blake ends the poem with a final supplication: since the fleeces of the sheep are “cover’d with /Thy sacred dew”, he asks the star to “protect them with thine influence.”
I think this is just a beautiful poem. You can read it as a shepherd superstitiously supplicating the evening star to protect his sheep in the night, or also as a man asking God (or whatever means the Good [thank you, Auden]) to protect those he loves. I love the image of the wolves and lions being kept at bay by their knowledge that the star is watching them — by the fact that they can see it, bright in the sky, observing their actions. As soon as they do not think that they are being observed — as soon as total darkness falls — they go for the sheep. They become monsters. I think that some human being are like that too; we need to believe that our actions matter — that they are being witnessed, considered, even judged.