The narrator wanders through London and finds even the streets and the river suffering under political oppression. In everyone he passes, he sees signs of misery and moral weakness. In fact, the narrator doesn’t just see the misery of the sweep, the soldier, the prostitute or the baby, he also hears it in their cries, sighs, curses and tears. He visualises the cry of the chimney-sweep covering the churches like a pall draped over a coffin, and the last breath of the dying soldier running like blood down the walls of the royal palace. In the depths of night the ‘Harlot’s curse’ (venereal disease) blinds the new-born baby and turns love itself into a disease-infested shortcut to death.
London is one of Blake’s most powerful political poems. That power is achieved in good part through repetition. Notice how ‘charter’d’ appears twice, ‘mark’ three times and ‘every’ a total of seven times. This – coupled with the repeated use of ‘and’ – gives an atmosphere of relentless oppression to the poem. London singles out the Church and the King for their part in this oppression: the Church is a dark force of evil, while the soldier’s blood is a direct indictment of the King who sent him off to die. Though the poem is rich in symbolic meaning, Blake’s victims are also real people: the ‘Harlot’s curse’ is no tame euphemism for syphilis, but the shout of a ‘youthful’ prostitute against the society which abuses her. But what are the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’? They may represent the deeply ingrained respect for tradition and institutions that stopped the people of London from following the example of revolutionary Paris and overthrowing their oppressors in Church and State. After all, London was published in 1793, four years after the outbreak of the French Revolution and the same year as the execution of Louis XVI, the French King.