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From "London", a short poem in William Blake's Songs of Experience collection (free to read online):

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

What are the "mind-forged manacles"?

I think understanding this should be the key to appreciating the whole poem. The first verse is mostly scene-setting, and the last two are about specific examples of misery in London. The phrase "mind-forged manacles" seems to be the core of this poem. How are the metaphorical manacles forged by minds - and by whose minds? The people's themselves, or their oppressors'?

  • You cannot have missed the colon at the end of that verse. The "mind-forged manacles" are presented in the next verse(s). (I'm still trying to puzzle out what it means, myself.) – Shokhet Feb 6 '18 at 0:36
  • @Shokhet Hmm, are the next verses examples of the "manacles" themselves, or of the "voice[s]" and "ban[s]" (?) in which the narrator hears those manacles? – Rand al'Thor Feb 6 '18 at 0:38
  • Hmm. I see how you might read it that way. But I'm not sure if it actually makes a difference in understanding the poem; the voices and cries may be the manacles. I need to think about this some more :) – Shokhet Feb 6 '18 at 0:54
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    @Shokhet: there's a colon? Really? I don't see it in the original. – Peter Shor Feb 6 '18 at 3:01
  • Interesting. I hadn't seen the original. The excerpt that Rand has here and the Gutenberg version he linked to both have a colon. @PeterShor – Shokhet Feb 6 '18 at 15:44
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The original punctuation of the poem seems to be:

I wander thro' each charter'd 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 Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

where I'm using commas everywhere, because I can't tell Blake's commas from his periods in his punctuation.

It seems to me that the colon after voice requires that there is a comma at the end of the first stanza, i.e., after woe. And then, the first 2½ lines of the second stanza are all describing where the poet hears marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In this case, the mind-forged manacles are mainly connected to the bans. That is, when people are forbidden from doing something. I would thus interpret the mind-forged manacles as being forged by the people themselves, and forcing them to follow the bans.

I would interpret the next stanza as the Church (the building, not the institution) feeling guilty when the oppressed chimney-sweepers clean it, and the Palace (again the building) feeling guilty when the soldiers guard it.

And I think you should look at Blake's poem The Garden of Love for help in interpreting the last stanza, but I haven't reached a satisfactory interpretation of it yet.

  • "It seems to me that the colon after voice requires that there is a comma at the end of the first stanza" - that's one interpretation, but wouldn't it be equally valid to interpret the first 2½ lines of stanza 2 as somehow describing the "in every ban" that follows the colon? It seems a bit odd for "marks of weakness, marks of woe" to describe both the "in every face" before it and the "in every cry" etc. after it. – Rand al'Thor Feb 11 '18 at 22:55
  • @Rand al'Thor: That would be an unconventional use of colons. I'd expect a comma instead of a colon for that interpretation. On the other hand, this is Blake, so maybe you're right. But let me add that we don't know whether that's a colon or a semicolon. – Peter Shor Feb 11 '18 at 23:21
  • Nice answer. I always felt the "runs in blood down palace walls" was a reference to the carnage of history in relation to the pawns. The bloody British civil wars were not that distant, and even today there are still vestiges. (The Orangemen, for instance.) – DukeZhou Feb 16 '18 at 20:32
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According to W. H. Stevenson's edition of Blake's complete poems (in the series Longman Annotated English Poets), the original phrase was "german-forged manacles", "suggesting the strength of skilled workmanship" (Stevenson, p. 220). By contrast, "mind-forged", according to Stevenson,

[emphasizes] that the fetters are not inevitable, but created in the twisted minds both of the oppressor and of the sufferer who accepts the chains.

So what Blake hears in people's cries and voices are expressions of these fetters that are a product of oppression.

With regard to the punctuation (which was discussed in several comments): Stevenson's edition doesn't have a colon but an m-dash (). Stevenson provides a modernised text, since the original doesn't have a punctuation mark at the end of that line.

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