November 5 William Blake: London

I’m still talking about revisions this week. The textbook only listed two complete poems. But finding famous unrevised poems to compare with the final draft is challenging – to say the least. It’s the sort of thing a person has to go to a museum dedicated to the estate of that particular poet to find.

The textbook does provide excerpts of several poets’ poems, so, with that in mind, I’ll post the original poem as published (or its latest publication) and then the excerpt.

Yesterday’s post was Yeats’s “The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner” and discussed an earlier published draft of the poem called “The Old Pensioner”. Yeats apparently was very adamant about revisions. He said that poetry benefited from revision and he used the “dream poetry in ‘Kubla Khan'” (an unrevised poem) as an example. “Every line, every word can carry its unanalyzable, rich associations; but if we dramatize some possible singer or speaker we remember that he is moved by one thing at a time, certain words must be dull and numb.” Once corrections have been made to bring about the right words to create the right image or atmosphere and the right variations of rhythm in the lines, the poem becomes more potent and vivid; it can more accurately and clearly express the poet’s ideas.  The textbook quotes critic A.F. Scott who said, “the work of correction is often quite as inspired as the first onrush of words and ideas.” But more often than not it is the honing of those ideas, the crafting of the words that make the poem a work of art.

William Blake’s London is one of the poems that appeared in his book Songs of Experience, and one of the only poems that did not have a companion poem in the companion book Songs of Innocence. It’s a dark poem about the city. It speaks about the urban plight that had manifested there at that time. It starts with the poet’s travels through the city’s streets, of the violence, the pollution, the poverty, of prostitution that he sees.

I only have the revision of the final stanza, but it is enough to show the improvement from the one draft to the next.


by William Blake

I wandered through each chartered 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 Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackening Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

The original stanza read:

But most the midnight harlot’s curse
From every dismal street I hear,
Weaves around the marriage hearse
And blasts the new born infant’s tear.

I think that the second is more powerful. The second has a youthful harlot which is more shocking and more lamentable; a young girl has had her youth stolen to be soiled by and sold to the streets. Putting the infant at the end of the stanza is a nice touch, but too sentimental for this hard-hearted poem, especially since having the infant’s line next to the young harlot’s gives the stanza an inner logic, one thing negatively affecting another and another (the one dragging the other down). He changed the wording for the curse that affects the marriage hearse from “weaving” to “blights with plagues”. For negativity “blights and plagues” definitely wins. The word “weaving” is beautiful, often associated with gold and lovely pastoral scenes, and this “London” is anything but. “Blights and plagues” made the marriage hearse seem sickly and stricken and more akin to a different kind of hearse; it certainly left an eerie image in my head. I felt very effected just by reading the second version of this stanza.

But read the two yourself and come to your own conclusions. There are some revisions I read where I thought that the former sounded better and some where I thought neither were better or worse. But it did give the poem a much different context, perhaps it was a context that the poet meant to give.


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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