Attitudes to London in William Blakes ‘London’ and William Wordsworths ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’
William Blake was born in London in 1957 where he spent most of his life until his death in 1827. Blake belonged to the romantic poets and he believed in writing about the natural world as he saw it. He was a visionary poet, as he seemed to interpret what he saw around him and look at what it would lead to in the future. Everything that Blake wrote had his intense belief in God surrounding it. As a child he claimed that God, “Put his head to the window” and that he saw “a tree filled with angels”. From a young age Blake was interested in poetry.
At the age of fourteen he was an apprentice to an engraver so he learnt to engrave and illustrate his own work. Blake was a communist and many people thought he was mad as he criticised the church and the things that it stood by and let happen, like child labour. Blake’s two most famous pieces of work were written in 1789 and 1794. These were titled ‘songs of innocents’ and ‘Songs of experience’. ‘Songs of innocents’ is about joy and happiness and how Blake visions life should be lived. ‘Songs of experience’ is a much grimmer and bleaker look on life. It is about corruption and the social problems in today’s world.
It asks questions about God, brutal reality and how we equate God with today’s society. Even on Blake’s deathbed he was still singing about all of the wonderful things that he saw in heaven. The romantic poet, William Wordsworth shared Blake’s passion for God, he was a pantheist. Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth in the Lake District in1770 and he died in the Lake District in 1850. He enjoyed a good childhood, despite being orphaned at the age of thirteen. He always loved the hills, lakes and the rural atmosphere in his hometown, which was later to become the inspiration for his poetry.
Blake attended Hawkshead Boarding School in 1779, where he enjoyed studying until he left to study at Cambridge University in 1787. His Uncle pushed him into studying for a career such as a clergyman or a lawyer, but as Wordsworth had no interest in this, his grades were consistently low. In the summer of 1790, before beginning his final term, Wordsworth went on a walking tour of Europe with his good friend from school named Robert Jones in order to try and educate himself. They were in France in time to witness the French revolution. Wordsworth received his degree in 1791.
Later that year, a legacy led Wordsworth to settle in Summerset with his sister Dorothy. While living there Wordsworth worked with Samuel Colleridge to produce their most famous collections of poetry. These were entitled ‘Lyrical Ballads’, and they described incidence of common life and ordinary people. They were written using simple language so as to make the poems accessible to everyone but they were not published until the fourth of October 1798. In 1779 William and Dorothy moved back to the Lake District where they settled in Dove cottage in Grassmear.
Some of his greatest poetry was written around this time. He saw God in the natural world around him so he created spots of time in his poetry, like in his poem ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’. William Blake’s poems were often much different to Wordsworth’s as he wrote poems about the world as he saw it. These were often full of criticism and predictions of what was to come because of them. A good example of such a poem is Blake’s ‘London’. It is written from an insider’s perspective as Blake lived in London for most of his life so he knew the city well.
He will have wandered through every street and seen every side to London, that an outsider would not know about. The poem is written in first person narrative. It is clear that this poem is criticising London right from the start. The first line starts, ‘I wander through each chartered street’, the word ‘chartered’ gives the feeling of enclosure and entrapment as the streets are all owned by somebody so nobody can have freedom. This word is repeated in the next line when the poet refers to ‘the chartered Thames’, this is saying that not even the river is free and that everyone and everything is trapped in this place.
The next line contains the phrase, ‘every face I meet’. This means that the poet has seen and spoken to the people in this area and in all of them he sees ‘weakness’ and ‘woe’. These are negative words meaning the people are miserable, unhappy and distressed. They help to start to build a picture that London is not a pleasant place to be. In the second verse the word ‘every’ is used 5 times, ‘every cry’, ‘every Man’, ‘every Infant’, ‘every voice’ and ‘every ban’. This is to show that every single person is effected in some way.
The words, ‘Man’ and ‘Infant’ both start with capital letters, this is partly to show that Children suffer as much as adults because of the state of the city, and partly to show the poets concern at the situation. In the last line of this verse the phrase, ‘mind forged manacles’ is used. This is a striking and unusual image as Blake connects hand chains with the mind, so he is saying that the people are imprisoned because of mental chains. Hear he is merging physical with metaphorical. The last two verses change from talking about the city in general to talking about specific things within the city.
It starts with ‘chimney sweepers cry’. They are crying because they are small children who are thin enough to go up the chimneys to clean them, this is the worst form of child abuse in which most of the children will eventually die. Blake describes the church as ‘blackening’. This could mean that it is blackened from all of the pollution in the city, or it could mean that the church sees the state of the city, and is appalled by what is going on but it doesn’t do anything about it. This is moral corruption. It then goes on to say ‘hapless solders sigh’, hapless is saying that they are unlucky and without hope.
A sigh is not normally used as a strong word but hear its meaning has changed and it represents extreme anger. The final phrase in this verse says ‘Runs in blood down palace walls’. This could refer to the soldier’s blood that is sacrificed to protect the palace. The word ‘Runs’ tells us that the blood is continuous and there is lots of it. It could represent everyone in London’s blood, as they are suffering while the royal family is inside the safety and security of the palace walls when it is there responsibility to sort the mess out, as they are the figures of authority. They are hiding away from the reality of what is going on outside.
The blood could also represent the guilt of the people in positions of authority. It could also mean that the people of London have had enough of the Royal family not doing their job and the blood could be that shed in a revolution. The final verse starts with ‘But most’, this means that Blake wants the reader to pay most attention to this verse as it is most important. He says ‘through midnight streets’, so the streets are very dark, he hears ‘youthful harlots curse’. This is another terrible form of child abuse and harlots are considered the lowest form in society. The poem says ‘blasts the new born infants tear’.
This is saying that the young prostitute has a child who she is swearing at as she hates it so much where as she should be loving it. Because she has a child, the girl will probably never have a happy family life which is why the baby ‘blights with plagues the marriage hearse’. This is juxtaposition as marriage and deaths are not normally associated with each other, but in this case Blake is talking about the death of the harlots marriage. The two words are placed side by side for a more dramatic effect. This poem is about the people who live in London and the poverty that they suffer.
The writer is trying to say that they are trapped in their minds so they can not escape their class in society. The people like soldiers, prostitutes and chimney sweeps don’t realise that they can lead a better life but they are manacled in the life they are in and nobody is doing anything to help them. In a change to Blake’s ‘London’, William Wordsworths ‘Upon West Minster Bridge’ is a much more praising poem of London. It was written on September the third, 1802. It is a sonnet that starts off as third person narrative, but then changes at the end of the third verse to a first person narrative.
The poem is a moment in time that Wordsworth wanted to capture; it is one of his spots of time. It expresses his love for the city and throughout the poem he is telling the reader that there is no scene better in the world than this one upon Westminster Bridge. The first line of Wordsworth’s poem is a lot more praising than Blakes. ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’. This is a hyperbole, as Wordsworth has not seen the whole world so he can’t say that there is no better site in the world. The word ‘fair’ is followed by the word ‘dull’ in the next line.
This is Juxtaposition as fair is opposite to dull. Fair’ is talking about the site and ‘dull’ is talking about anyone who would not stop and look at the site that Wordsworth thinks is so fantastic. He described the site ‘in its majesty’, this makes us think of royalty, the highest point of human authority and wealth, which for Wordsworth is a good thing, but Blake criticised the royal family for London being in a bad state. ‘Now doth like a garment were’, The garment talked about hear is the morning. It is a simile. The word ‘now’ shows that this is all happening as Wordsworth is writing the poem, which again shows his fascination with the site he is looking at.
The second verse begins ‘The beauty of the morning’ The word ‘beauty’ is the first in a long line of positive descriptive points. Blake’s poem was mostly negative. In the ‘morning’ there will not be all that many people around so the site will be a lot more peaceful and tranquil, ‘silent and bare’ than if Blake had written the poem a bit later in the day. This shows that Wordsworth was concentrating purely on the agriculture and the view, not the people of London and how they acted, like Blake. The first indication that the view being described is an urban landscape is when the ‘ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples’ are mentioned.
The reader will now get a picture of the scale and volumes that Wordsworth is describing hear. He describes how the city is ‘open to the fields’ and ‘sky’ which compares the site to a rural atmosphere. Blake said that the streets were all ‘chartered’ which made a feeling of entrapment not one of openness like Wordsworth description. Wordsworth said there was ‘smokeless air’, this could be due to the time of day as the sky will be free from all of the smoke from the factories and the houses with wood burning fires. Blake described a ‘black church’ which was from the amount of pollution in London.
The site was described as ‘bright and glittering’, a complete opposite to what Blake would’ve said. Wordsworth is generally a rural writer so he must think an awful lot of the sunrise on Westminster bridge if he says ‘Never did sun more beautifully steep’. He is saying that even a rural sunrise could not beat the one he saw, it was ‘first splendour’. ‘I never felt, a calm so deep’, this is the change to first person narrative. When talking about the river, Wordsworth say that it ‘glideth at its own free will’, this means that it is free to do as it pleases and make its own decisions instead of being ‘chartered’ like in Blakes poem.
It is personified as it is talking, as if the city has a life of it’s own. When Wordsworth says ‘houses seem asleep’, he means that all of the people spoil the setting. The last phrase reads, ‘that mighty heart is lying still’, this is referring to the heart of London that is asleep. The whole of this poem is written in very simple language, which is how Wordsworth always writes his poetry to make it accessible to all. It is simply about his love for the site that he is seeing from the bridge. So we see that Blake and Wordsworth both had very different views of London.
In fact the main point of similarity was that they were both talking about London. If I had not known the titles of the two poems, I would not have thought the two poets had written about the same place. The two poems start completely differently, ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ starts positively, ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’, where as ‘London’ starts negatively ‘I wander through each chartered street’. ‘London’ is made up of four stanzas and ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ is a sonnet, which is traditionally about love and the poem is about Wordsworth’s’ love for the site he is seeing.
We must bear in mind that they were both written in different circumstances. Wordsworth’s poem was written in the morning of September the third, 1802, while standing on Westminster Bridge, watching the sunrise over the river Thames, ‘a site so touching’. Blake wrote his poem about London in general on no particular day at any particular time. He mainly referred to the people of London, ‘every face’, and the society they lived in, ‘Chimney sweepers cry’, ‘Soldiers sigh’, ‘harlot’s curse’.
William Blake was born and bred in London so he knew every thing about the city, every back street and things that the average tourist would not know. Therefore, his knowledge of the city would be greater and so more reliable than an outsider like Wordsworth. However Blakes poem may be bias, as if he has that much against the city, he will want to make the poem make London sound very bad so he may exaggerate. For example, ‘every face I meet’, surely not absolutely everyone would be full of ‘weakness’ and ‘woe’.
Wordsworth wrote his poem as the sun was rising, but any sunrise tends to be quite amazing so anywhere would look more beautiful at that time of day. The site would not be so fantastic if it was seen in the afternoon when the site was packed with people, noise and smoke. Blake looked at London from a dark point of view and the language shows this, ‘cry’, ‘sigh’, ‘curse, this shows progression as a curse is worse than a sigh and a sigh is worse than a cry. The language in Wordsworth’s poem shows that he looked at it from a much more open point of view, ‘beautiful’, ‘bright’, ‘glittering’, etc.
Blake also makes the point that every street is owned so everyone is trapped, ‘each chartered street’. Where as Wordsworth gives the feeling of freedom and liberation in saying, ‘The river glideth of it’s own sweet will’. We can now see that the two poems have completely different perspectives. Both poets have their own view of the city, one good, and one bad. I would not like to visit Blakes London but Wordsworth’s view of the city seems very inviting and I too would like to witness that sunrise that he claims is the best in the world.