Compare the three romantic perspectives of London, and show how each poet’s attitude towards his subject is reflected in his poetic style.
Blake, Wordsworth and Byron are all romantic poets, and characteristic of the movement, their poetic style reflects their reaction to not only the physical world, but the political world as well. During the romantic era, 18th to 19th centuries, there was much political upheaval and conflict, including the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution, which ultimately led to a conflict between industry and nature. It is this subjectivity for the subject that adds depth to the romantic style, and as the three London poems show, wide variation.
William Blake gives a very negative description of London with it’s “charter’d streets”, “youthful Harlots”, “weakness” and “woe”. The dark imagery he uses such as the “Marriage hearse” all contribute to a general picture of death, depravity and corruption. Blake also makes his views clear by using strong political undertones, and his disgust at what London has become.
In his view, nature has been ousted from the city and replaced by the authorities, who have “charter’d” the Thames; and this image that a strong, unstoppable river can be taken over by men shows the power of the authorities. Blake also implies that despite the power these people have, they are unwilling to do anything to help the general public; no matter how much blood runs “down palace walls”. Blake means that even though the government knows that many people are dying they are not concerned enough or too ineffectual to take any action. Blake also compares London to a prison, although the inmates are held by “mind-forg’d manacles”; and although they want to move away, they are too poor or weak.
Blake is very critical of the situation in London but in order to support his negative views he creates a very dark and unsightly picture of London. The poem has an ABAB pattern and the rhymes are very clean which adds a structure and inevitability to the poem leading up to the end. The last words “marriage hearse” are almost like an oxymoron in that a marriage is supposed to be a joyous occasion and a hearse is a funeral cart. The symbolism could be that despite people seeing marriage as a way of improving life, it is simply another way of living until inevitable death.
The fact that Blake hears most the “youthful Harlot’s curse” means he is most affected by this, which takes away the normally happy events such as “new-born Infants” and “blights” marriages.
There is also a significance in the “blackning Church”, because the church, which is supposed to help people and make lives better is actually in decay. Instead of giving London’s inhabitants something to be proud of, it is merely an obsolete object of a once great power, and another authority Blake is critical of.
Byron looks at London in a more objective way, but like Blake also criticises the city. Instead of bitterness with the authorities, he is more dismissive, and implies that a “mighty mass of brick, and smoke” is a poor symbol of man’s achievements. He says that London is merely “a wilderness of steeples peeping on tiptoe through their sea-coal canopy. As in Blake’s poem, we are given an image of a “dirty and dusty” city, “as wide as eye”, a city covered with a blanket of smog. This “huge, dun cupola” acts as a “foolscap crown, on a fool’s head”. Although the poem is not political in the sense of Blake’s poem, it is more satirical, and Byron dismisses the town, and although acknowledges the vastness of the city, describes it as a fool, and merely a collection of “alchymic furnaces” and “tax and paper”. During the Romantic era, Byron was very critical of other poets, and you can see the direct contrast between Wordsworth and Byron, in the description of smoke from London. Wordworth’s “magic vapour of some alchymic furnace” is a very over-complicated description of what Byron sees as “wreath of smoke”.
Wordsworth views London from the same perspective as Byron, looking across the town through the masts, domes and towers, whereas Blake is writing from the streets, among the people and the poverty. It is the distance from the people that results in a more descriptive, general view of London from Byron and Wordsworth. Wordsworth has caught London early in the morning, when the city is silent and sunny. He does not see the dirt and smoke that the other poets see, and we get an image of a romantic city; “mighty” and “majestic”, “bright and glittering”. He uses the natural image of the sun, newly arisen, “beautifully” steeping the city in splendor to highlight the appearance of the city, almost like a natural entity, opening “unto the fields, and to the sky”.
There is also the antithesis between Blake’s “charter’d Thames”, controlled by the authorities, and Wordsworth’s river, gliding “at his own sweet will”, thus the conflict between nature and industry has different outcomes. In Wordsworth’s view, nature has prevailed, whereas Blake remarks on the taking over by man of nature, and the control we believe we have over our environment.
Wordsworth also treats London like an organic object, and like Byron acknowledges the “mighty heart”. Rather than dismissing London as a “fool” however, Wordsworth says that “Earth has not anything to show more fair”, and he sees a certain amount of beauty in the city, unlike the other poets. Whilst Wordsworth and Byron concentrate more on the physical appearance of London, such as the masts, domes and steeples, Blake focuses on the sounds and smells of London. Sound plays a crucial part in his description of life in the city, and we are given a picture of chaotic din, with infants crying and chimney sweeps calling.
The three poems engage the audience very differently, and poetically the Wordsworth and Byron are longer, more prose-like poems. The difference between Byron’s Ottava Rima structure, Wordsworth’s octet and sextet against Blake’s four short stanzas helps to show Blake’s strong feelings for the town as it is clearer and breaks the poem up into separate descriptions and opinions. Indeed Byron can include more information on the subject in his structure of Don Juan (“who saw not all this [London]”), and to an extent can concentrate on information and sentiment, whereas Blake and Wordsworth concentrate more on feeling.
Although the poems are all from different perspective and individual experience, it is more the poet’s subjectivity that creates the difference between the three poems, whether it is strong political views or an admiration of nature.