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Compare and Contrast “London” by William Blake and “Island Man” by Grace Nichols. Consider How Each Poem Conveys Alternative Attitudes To Life And Society.
The poem “London” written by William Blake (1757 – 1827) is a clever poem. Although we can appreciate it, and understand William Blake’s ideas, it was not understood or valued when it was written all those years ago. In contrast the poem “Island Man” written by Grace Nichols is a contemporary poem. The single idea that brings these two poems together is that they are both about the city of London.
“Island Man” is in language that we understand today, Blake’s poem uses the English language of the 18th century.
Brief Historical Background
William Blake was born in a district of London called Westminister on the 28th November 1757. His obvious artistic talent lead his draper father to enter him into Par’s Drawing School in the strand. This lead on to him later being apprenticed to James Basire, an engraver who worked for the Royal Society of Antiquaries.
He married Catherine Boucher in the August of 1972 when he became a freelance engraver. Blake was an accomplished artist in many areas, not only did he write novels and poems, he was also interested politics and religion but he could paint and engrave to a very high standard. Blake was introduced by Joseph Johnson to other radical thinkers of the day including Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine. In his books such as The French Revolution 1791, and America: A Prophecy 1793.
He developed his attitude of revolt against authority, combining political belief and visionary ecstasy. The political situation of the time was such that some of his work was printed anomalously because he feared government persecution. In 1800 Blake moved to Felpham where he began work on his epic poem, “Milton” and “Jerusalem”. In these poems Blake reveals his social criticism combined with prophecy and biblical legend. In 1803 Blake was charged with high treason on the testimony of a drunken soldier named John Scofield fortunately he was acquitted and moved back to London. Blake died in obscurity in 1827 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields.
The poem “London” is obviously drawn from Blake’s own experiences of the London in which he lived. He saw London for the hell hole that it was through the eyes of a man that seemed to feel all the poverty and degradation of everyday life that ordinary people understood. His religious beliefs embraced Unitarianism a very simplistic form of Christian worship which was in direct confrontation to the Church of England and all its values. This sensitive artistic man saw all the horrific abuses in society, and this poem was his way of making people confront the problems. Even though he did not have a solution to the problems, he wanted people to face up to the problems and try to work together to make their society a better place.
Main Criticism of “London”
Blake chose the simple title “London” to engage his reader’s interest about their capital city. London was the heart of the country, the city of government. It was a symbol of power and majesty. As the reader would examine the poem however they would realise how ambiguous the title really was. Blake was preparing the reader for a powerful poem, but the power of the poem was in showing the reader how sordid their beloved city really was.
Type of Poem
This poem is warning the whole of London’s population just how hideous the real face of the city was. Blake was behaving like a prophet advising that people should fundamentally change their way of life. “Runs in blood down Palace walls” is a caution to people in authority that if they continued on their course of closing their eyes to the poor and the conditions in which they lived, what had happened in France namely the Revolution and the slaughter of the Monarchy making France a republic would happen in Britain. The theme of constraint and social control runs through the whole of the poem. People could not choose how they lived their lives.
Subject of Poem & Its Treatment
The subject of Blake’s work includes the exploitation of people and their eventual corruption in every conceivable part of society. “How the youthful Harlot’s curse”. Blake explains here that these young people had no choice but to resort to prostitution. Society corrupted them and they then in turn became sinful and corrupted.
The poem is written through the eyes of one person, but this person wants you to experience all the oppression and social injustice that is all around. This person has strong beliefs and is prepared to stand up and speak out for those who are less fortunate than himself. “I wander thro'” begins the poem and so sets the reader on their own personal journey through the disgraceful city of London.
Mood & Tone
A desperate and hopeless mood runs through the whole of this poem, it is negative and offers no solution to the terrible torment that the people suffer. “And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness marks of woe.” Blake makes no secret of the fact that he sees misery, illness and oppression in every individual that he meets.
Form & Structure
The structure of this poem consists of four stanzas each of which contains four lines, this is known as a quatrain. Blake chose this arrangement to reflect the idea of control and authority with great effect. The monotonous structure of this poem reflects the way in which life is played out. This poem is very much like a ballad in that it tells a story of a walk through London and the terrible sights to be seen. Blake shows his genius in the third stanza when every first letter of the line spells the word “hear”, this being the last word of the second stanza. This technique is known as an acrostic, and is usually used in romantic poems, however in this case the poet uses this skill to underline the message of the poem, being that society must listen to his warning of approaching doom.
The rhyme scheme of this poem is ABAB. It is regular and gives a sense of control. The narrator is obviously sure of his ideas and completely confident in the knowledge that he holds the moral high ground.
The rhythm of this poem reflects the rhyming scheme in that it is very controlled in order to make the poet’s point of view quite clear. There is a continued steady beat, which seems to reiterate the poet’s ideas.
Imagery features throughout this poem from beginning to end. Feelings and ideas are evoked by Blake’s particular choice of language. “Every blackning Church appals”. How can the reader not fail to appreciate the distressing nature of this poem when this line is read. A Church should be a place of God, holy and pure. This Church was black, which suggested unholyness, and ungodliness. The blackness underlines the feelings of despair and helplessness A Church should be welcoming, it should not repel people.
The blackness of the Church contrasts deeply with the red of the blood that runs down “Palace walls”. The blood is an image of the violence that is all around. A very strong image is “The mind-forg’d manacles I hear”. Obviously the people’s thoughts were being controlled; they had no freedom of thought. The image of the physical manacle is powerful when it is used in the context of people’s minds and thoughts being constrained. “And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse”. We see in this image the death of marriage and the death of family values, marriage is under threat. Married men were known to visit prostitutes.
In this final line many ideas are represented, one would not expect the word “hearse” which represents death and the ceremony of a funeral in the same line as the word “Marriage” which represents life and the ceremony of a wedding. The word “plague” in this line conjures up the idea that it is inevitable that society will fall apart, it is inescapable, and the very fabric of society was rotten. “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”. In this line thoughts of oppression appear on individuals faces. It is noticeable that social injustice has made them weary and downtrodden. The word mark is used to convey two different meanings, firstly how he notices these people, and secondly the physical marks of oppression on the peoples faces.
The poet chooses the words he uses very carefully to invoke very specific ideas. “Plague” is a word associated with suffering and helplessness. “Woe” is used to convey feelings of distress and oppression. “Runs in blood” makes us think of violence and the brutality of life. “Harlot’s curse” shows us the negative side of the sordid life in which they lived. These words appear throughout the poem, powerfully showing the ideas Blake feels is his duty to share with society.
“In every” and “cry” are repeated. This is to get the point across very forcefully. The effect of the terrible conditions in which people lived stretched across the whole of society. “Cry” in this context shows their fear, they are not screaming, they are experiencing internal agony. The full spectrum of people were “marked”. Blake is quite revolutionary in the line “In every Cry of every Man”. He uses the word “Man” to mean every ordinary man, they were important. Alliteration is used to great effect in the phrase “Soldiers sigh”. The words are bound together intensifying the feeling of the desperation that these royal servants felt. In the line “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” the alliteration strengthens the repetition technique. “How the youthful Harlot’s curse Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear”.
This is an example of enjambment, the rhythm and thought are continued from one line to the other and is reflective of the flow of the Thames that runs through London. “Runs in blood” is a very powerful metaphor, the idea of oppression is cleverly communicated through this technique. “Mind-forg’d manacles” is used to illustrate just how oppressed people felt not only in body but also in spirit. The poem starts with the personal pronoun “I”. The poet wants us to understand that he has strong personal beliefs contained within this poem. He is prepared to stand by these beliefs and try to make the reader understand his views on society and social justice. Blake puts the words “Man”, “Chimney-sweep”, “Church”, “Soldier” and “Palace in capital letters. Here he is emphasising the importance of every section of society, and how each word symbolises every section of that particular status.
The poet appeals to our sense of sight and sound in his poem. In stanza one the sense appealed to is visual talking about the river Thames and the streets of London full of business activity. Blake concentrates on the physical surroundings. One stanza is in direct contrast to the other. The word “cry” is repeated several times, this together with “Soldiers sigh” gives the reader an understanding of the pitiful sounds that surrounded the poet as he journeyed through London. The poet wants us to listen to everything he says, he emphasises this in the third stanza with the first letter of every line spells the word “hear”. Our sense of sight cannot help but be engaged by “Every blackning Church”. Black is a colour associated with evil and bad happenings.
The poem was written in the present tense. All the sights and sounds he experiences are happening now and need to be addressed immediately. Society needs to examine itself and change. Punctuation is used by the poet to control the rhythm and the pace. The commas are used to list the many problems that are witnessed “In every voice, in every ban”. The poet also uses other techniques of punctuation such as a colon in the line “Every blackning Church appals:”. This is to differentiate between two different subjects being the Church and the Monarchy, it is to make clear who he is accusing of being hypercritical and who he is accusing of being violent.
The Effects on the Reader
The effects on the reader are quite profound, we are left reflecting and wondering what is really going on in society. Blake hoped his poem would make a difference and reach people who could make society a happier and fairer place to live. He offers no solution towards the end of the poem, but hopes that others would think about the problems that he sees and make some effort towards change for the better.
Brief Historical Background
Grace Nichols was born in Gorge Town, Guyana in 1950. She grew up in a small coastal village and moved to the city when she was 8 years old. As a child she lived through the countries struggle for independence. She has worked as a teacher and a journalist and has a strong interest in Guyanese folk tales. Grace arrived in Britain at the age of 17, bringing with her the warmth of her Caribbean sensibility. Her poems celebrate sensuality and generosity, and attack petty mean-spiritedness. She has won many awards and prizes and is especially noted for her contribution to children’s literature.
The poet spent her informative years in the Caribbean and so sees London in a different perspective from someone who has lived there all their lives. Grace Nichols also has a completely different cultural background to someone who has been brought up in London.
Main Criticism of “Island Man”
The title represents solitude and isolation, an island represents a place of escape and provokes feelings of a natural environment. “Man” is universal; it is anonymous and could mean any single man. We see here the similarities with Blake’s poem London in that his poem is from the perspective of an anonymous man.
Type of Poem
The poem is about a man who has a dream about a beautiful island, he would love this island to be his reality, however his reality is “Another London day”. The theme of pleasant solitude and peaceful isolation runs through this poem. There is a free lifestyle and a sense of liberty that combined with naturalness makes this poem easily readable. The poems are both concerned with the reality of London life. They maybe set at different times, but they both set in the same city and both are dissatisfied with London life.
Subject of Poem & Its Treatment
The subject of Grace Nichols poem is the wonderful quality of life on an island compared to the “dull” lifestyle of contemporary London. More than half the poem is taken up with the description of the island, we wonder therefore if the poet would rather be on the island than in London. The poet has experienced two different ways of life and seems to prefer the island life. In Blake’s poem however, Blake doesn’t seem to have experienced another way of life, his poem just concentrates on the appalling conditions f London.
This poem is written through the eyes of one person. This person wants you to understand just what its like to live on a beautiful island and then come back to the “dull” reality of their life as it is now.
Mood & Tone
The mood of this poem is one of longing. The poet wants to escape into her fantasy of island life. The fantasy is in stark contrast to her life now. Her sense of hope emerges when she describes the island; “breaking and wombing” is a phrase that reflects on nature and natural happenings, it gives hope. Despair seems to return when she describes London. The sadness appears in the poem when the dream ends, and he wakes up to reality, “island man heaves himself” he is weary before the day even begins. This is in stark contrast to Blake’s poem where desperation and hopelessness for everybody runs through the poem. In Grace Nichols poem, island man feels sorry for himself because he hasn’t got the quality of life he wants.
Form & Structure
The structure of this poem is random; it is obscure and has no particular form. It is purposefully freestyle and reflects a modern poem. The distinct irregularity and variety of each line length is planned. It reflects island life which isn’t planned. This is in distinct contrast to Blake’s poem which is in the form of a quatrain.
The part of the poem that deals with island life has no rhyme, however when we come back to London in the third stanza we see one rhyme “soar” and “roar”. This suggests that there is some structure and control to reality of city life. These words have an aggressive violent sound, they seem to symbolise the aggressive life of London. This is a contrast with Blake’s poem which has a rhyme scheme of ABAB which helps him to convey a sense of controlled aggression throughout his poem.
The rhythm of this poem reflects the poet’s thoughts. A dream follows no set pattern, and neither does this poem. This contrasts with Blake’s poem which is very controlled and obviously not a dream but a living nightmare.
Imagery features throughout the poem. Feelings and ideas are evoked by Grace Nichols particular choice of language. “Morning” this is the first line of the poem, just one word. “Morning” conjures up images of a hopeful start to the beginning of a new day; there might be new opportunities in the new day ahead. “Wombing” is a word that invokes feelings of a safe environment. He is surrounded by the sound of “blue surf” and is in a womb of his own making. Feelings of the continuing cycle of life are reflected by the use of this word. “Wild seabirds” is written again on its own line to emphasise the importance of nature, they were completely free. However nature worked in harmony with inhabitants of this island, fishermen were a fond memory of “island man”. The poet highlights the fact that the sun rises in the “east”; the sun is a symbol of life giving and newness, the light of a new day. The “east” symbolises an area of beauty and mystical ideas.
Some religions pray facing east, this is a very positive idea. “His small emerald island”. Emeralds are very precious gems, they are beautiful and unique like the island to the island man. The island is his treasure, his to own, he belongs there. The memory of his island enables him to exist in the realities of city life. His frequent dreams and thoughts always bring him back to where he believes he really belongs. When the poem comes back to reality the images are of “grey metallic” sands, these are not natural. We are reminded of the grey and dismal polluted streets of London. It was not a natural environment. The use of the word “North” has connotations of coldness and harshness. The “North Circular” is a road that the inhabitants of London travel around, it is a controlled motorway and symbolises the hectic pace of city life. A circular road around the city makes the reader think that island man is now in a life that he can’t get out of.
In Grace Nichols’s poem there are many images of nature, quite unlike Blake’s poem where even the river Thames is exploited and controlled. The seabirds were “wild” they were completely free, quite unlike Blake’s poem where there were “mind-forg’d manacles”. In Blake’s poem there is no escape from the realities of life, of the helplessness and despair that surrounded him. In Grace Nichols’s poem she has an escape, she escapes into her dreams.
Grace Nichols uses the language of today. She uses modern words such as “groggily” and “muffling”. Blake would have had no idea what these words would have meant. She uses words to contrast ideas such as the “east” representing island life and the north representing London life. Grace Nichols is not as detailed or aggressive as Blake but they do have the same attitude to London life. “Blue surf” represents island life whilst “grey metallic” represents London life. The whole of Blake’s poem consists of negative language over half of Grace Nichols’s poem, the part that deals with island life consists of positive language.
Grace Nichols uses the repetition of the word “groggily” to move from one part of the poem to the other, it is a turning point; it separates island life from reality. Island man does not want to leave the island, it is an unpleasant experience in which the island man is confused. Repetition is again used in “Muffling muffling” to emphasise the fact that although his dream was clear, real life is confusing. Blake also uses a repetition technique, but he uses it to convey his ideas. An example of alliteration in Grace Nichols’s poem is “sun surfacing”. This paints a picture in the reader’s mind of the sun rising over the water, a very powerful image of island life. Blake again uses alliteration in the same way to evoke effective images. Enjambment is used to great effect, the poem is at random with irregular lines to reflect the randomness of a dream and the confusion felt well awaking. Blake’s poem also has thoughts running from one line to the other.
The poem “Island Man” is written in the third person, it communicates a sense of detachment and could well be someone else’s experience, there must be many people in London who are away from home and feel a sense of isolation even tough they are surrounded by hoards of people. In comparison Blake’s poem was written in the first person making “London” a more personal poem. The same senses are evident in both poems, each of the poems only deal with sight and sound, but are treated in different ways. The poem “Island Man” sights and sounds are linked “sound of blue surf” gives the reader an idyllic image of a perfect island beach. In the poem “London” the whole of the first stanza is concerned with sight and the whole of the second stanza is concerned with sound.
The poem “Island Man” is written in the present tense in modern-day London. In comparison the poem “London” although also written in the present tense is concerned with 18th century London.
Grace Nichols’s technique of using absolutely no punctuation what so ever is very effective, it communicates the idea of freedom and a dream like state. There are no rules in this poem, thought continues from one line to the other. “His crumpled pillow waves island man heaves himself”. This is in direct contrast to Blake’s poem which is ruled by punctuation. The poem has either a comma, full stop or colon.
Effect on the Reader
“Island Man” in the first half of the poem is very bright and cheerful and shows a very natural and free way of life, which every reader could identify me with and would hope to aspire to. The second part of the poem deals with the reality of London life again, which many people can identify with. In contrast Blake’s poem “London” is a very gloomy poem all the way through.
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