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William Blake's short poem "London", from his Songs of Experience collection (which you can read online), starts as follows:

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

What does "chartered" mean in this context?

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My sense is that Blake is talking about ownership, and the idea that the natural rights of people to the land and its resources is restricted by the artificial laws of man.

Charter (noun) formal written instrument bestowing privileges and rights, serving as legal evidence of them," c. 1200, from Old French chartre (12c.) "charter, letter, document, covenant," from Latin chartula/cartula, literally "little paper," diminutive of charta/carta "paper, document"
SOURCE: Online Etymological Dictionary

This was a huge issue in the industrialization of England, where peasants were ejected from the land as herding replaced farming in many areas, and were forced into the cities to find work in restrictive, unnatural, and generally horrific, conditions. "Blackened walls" is surely a reference to the soot of the London factories, as London itself was literally "blackened" in the industrial era.

I also suspect that there is a wordplay on "chart", in the sense that everything in the modern world is mapped, and that this rigid formalization restricts the sense of newness and wonder associated with discovery. Maps are, likewise, artificial representations, a means of definition and restriction.

Chart (verb) 1837, "to enter onto a map or chart," from chart (noun) 1570s, "map for the use of navigators," from Middle French charte "card, map," from Late Latin charta "paper, card, map". Charte is the original form of the French word in all senses, but after 14c. (perhaps by influence of Italian cognate carta), carte began to supplant it. English used both carte and card 15c.-17c. for "chart, map," and in 17c. chart could mean "playing card," but the words have gone their separate ways and chart has predominated since in the "map" sense.
SOURCE: Online Etymological Dictionary

It all falls under the theme of the "mind forged manacles", which is the key line in the poem, thematically and rhythmically.

SEE ALSO: The Garden of Love


Great question, btw. The use of "chartered" in this poem is something I think about not infrequently. :)

  • Thanks for this! The idea of artificial laws restricting natural rights is definitely a recurrent theme in Blake's poetry - it comes out strongly in "The Garden of Love", as you say (And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds / And binding with briars my joys and desires), and also in Blake's attitude towards the Church, being deeply religious himself but rejecting the organised religious establishment. – Rand al'Thor Feb 2 '18 at 23:21
  • Re "mind-forged manacles": my next question was actually going to be about the meaning/significance of that phrase. Should I incorporate that question into this one and ask you to edit your answer, or post it separately as planned? – Rand al'Thor Feb 2 '18 at 23:22
  • @Randal'Thor My preference would be for a separate question, because the theme in relation to manacles is wider than "chartered" I think. A question on the manacles wouldget to the heart of the poem. – DukeZhou Feb 5 '18 at 23:02
  • Your wish is my command. – Rand al'Thor Feb 5 '18 at 23:54
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In W. H. Stevenson's edition of Blake's poems, the editor explains that the charters (see the definition in DukeZhou's answer) used to represent a source of freedom. One of the charters that are relevant to London is the charter that William the Conqueror granted to the city in 1067, "which upheld previous Saxon rights, privileges and laws" (Wikipedia: Norman and Medieval London).

Stevenson does not mention any particular charter but points out that,

these charters have not granted liberty or privilege to most of the city's people.

  • Thank you for posting! I was unaware of this history, and it adds a great deal of depth to the understanding of the poem. – DukeZhou Feb 16 '18 at 20:24

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