July 19, 2006

BLAKE'S "LONDON," III: CHARTERING NATURE, MANACLING MINDS



Caption: This stream hasn't been too charter'd...yet.

This is the third post in a series about William Blake's "London" and how poets often reveal more about society than an army of statisticians or pundits. If this is your first hit, please consider scrolling to the last two entries, particularly the poem itself in yesterday’s.

Blake’s "London" is a comprehensive critique of what theologian Walter Wink called the Domination System of his day. The Domination System consists of the intertwining of political oppression, economic exploitation, and ideological justification.

The Domination System of Blake’s time was a little less brutal than that of the Roman Empire, just as that of the United States today is a less brutal than Blake’s. But some things abide…

The grip of the system makes itself felt in the opening lines:

I wandered thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow…


What Blake called “charter’d” we might call “incorporated” or bureaucratized today. To be chartered is to be regulated by an alien and impersonal power indifferent to the well being of human individuals. He was acutely aware of the historical connection between the “conquest” of nature and the conquest of other people.

What was once a free flowing river becomes “the charter’d Thames.” Today, many of the mountains in El Cabrero’s beloved state of West Virginia are being “charter’d” to the point of non-existence due to the mountaintop removal mining methods of absentee coal companies. Most of the Everglades have been charter’d for some time now, just as people are now in the process of chartering the rainforests. Come to think of it, much of the earth is pretty well charter'd.

In the poem, the effects of chartering on people is just as violent. The poet finds in every face “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.”


The manacles are those of ideology by means of which people come to accept their lot in a given social order. In general, systems of inequality don’t maintain power solely by violent means but as much as possible try to make people accept social conditions as natural by means of education, socialization, and propaganda.

The great African American educator Carter G. Woodson—who incidentally had significant and positive West Virginia connections—summed it up best:

If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one.


As Dostoevsky wrote in Crime and Punishment, “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel.”

Next time: Chimney sweeps and soldiers

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