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William Blake


Some challenging questions!

Lorraine Knickelbein
Grens High School
Updated: 18 January 2014
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While wandering through the depressing streets of London, the poet is acutely aware of the signs of pain, misery and sorrow in the faces of the people.

In the poem, which is a good example of Blake's social criticism, he refers to the reasons for their suffering and the social injustices.

Worst of all is the young prostitute, cursing the newborn baby, and the effect she has on marriage.


William Blake was born in London in November 1757. He lived most of his life in that city.

When he was 10 years of age, he attended a drawing school and thereafter made engraving his profession, graduating from the Royal Academy at the age of 22.

He was then employed as an engraver to a bookseller and publisher, where he was responsible for creating the metal picture plates for making illustrations in books.

In 1783, Blake published his first volume of poems and thereafter established his own engraving business. This enabled him to publish poetry in a way in which no other poet was doing: by incorporating his text into engraved picture plates.

This would have remarkable consequences. First, the pictures were artistic renditions of the theme and were not meant to be accurate. Second, each and every picture appeared in a slightly different shade of colour so that it is difficult today to determine which colour was the original.

Move your mouse over the picture below to see an example of his engraving for "London".
Blake's best poems are found in just two collections: Songs of Innocence which he published in 1789; and Songs of Experience although this was not published on its own.

Indeed, his complete works was published in 1794 and was called Songs of Innocence and Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.

Blake was regarded in his time as very eccentric, if not somewhat mad. In fact, his ideas make more sense to us today than they did to his contemporaries.

He was an unorthodox Christian who was heavily influenced by mystical groups. He felt that the state was abandoning the needy. Indeed, it is this disillusionment with the suffering he saw in London that comes through in this poem.

But what is he trying to tell us? Is it, in the words of his anthology in which this poem was published, something about "the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul"?

Blake died in August 1827. He was then 70 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe."
  • Explain the differences in the meanings of the word "mark". (2)

[Need help?]

  • What are the conditions responsible for these signs of "weakness"? (10)

[Need help?]

"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."
  • Why does Blake start words like "Man", "Infant", "Chimney-sweeper", "Soldier", "Palace" with capital letters? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Account for the poet's use of HYPERBOLE throughout stanza two. (2)

[Need help?]

"How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls."
  • Why, do you think, does Blake specifically refer to the chimney-sweepers in his poem? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is the literal and figurative meaning of "blackening"? (3)

[Need help?]

  • Why are the soldiers described as "hapless"? Discuss how these lines illustrate the plight of the underprivileged. (5)

[Need help?]

  • Examine the points Blake makes in the words"the hapless Soldier's sigh | Runs in blood down Palace walls". (5)

[Need help?]

"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."
  • What are the meanings of "blasts", "blights" and "plagues" within the context of the poem? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Explain the double meaning of the word "curse". (2)

[Need help?]

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