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Friday, February 25, 2011

Blake, "The Chimney Sweeper" (both poems)

R. Norwood

It will come as a surprise to students who have yet to study William Blake that “The Chimney Sweeper” is actually the title of two of his poems. Standing alone, both of these poems are equally simplistic and impressive. However, upon understanding Songs of Innocence and of Experience readers realize Blake’s brilliance in “The Chimney Sweeper” as the two poems serve as almost perfect reflections of one another.

The two poems titled “The Chimney Sweeper” serve as an excellent snapshot of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Throughout the work Blake compares the “songs” of a person’s life and how over the course of it, those songs transfer from ones with a tone of innocence to ones with a tone of experience. This is a realization that most people have made by the time they are young adults. Blake does not believe this realization to be such an awful thing; however, he does not believe it should be realized by six and seven year–old children as it is in “The Chimney Sweeper.”

As most any western civilization history class will teach you, child labor by the end of the seventeenth century was grotesque. Child labor, in particularly chimney sweeping, is the subject of both of Blake’s poems. In the footnotes of “The Chimney Sweeper,” the Norton Anthology details this epidemic: “It was common practice in Blake’s day for fathers to sell, or indenture, their children to become chimney sweeps. The average age at which such children began working was six or seven” (Lawall). Both of the poems are from the viewpoint of one of these adolescent chimney sweeps.

A young boy named Tom Dacre is the subject in “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence. The poem is narrated by one of his fellow chimney sweeps who is most remembered for describing how he cries “’weep! ’weep! ’weep! ’weep!” (Innocence). As UA English professor Andrea Barton points out, the poem actually starts out with a very dark tone, almost like it should be a song of experience. The narrator speaks of how “little Tom Dacre” had a dream that “thousands of sweepers… were all locked up in coffins of black” (Innocence). However, in Tom’s dream an angel comes to the rescue and releases all of the chimney sweeps before telling Tom that “if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father and never want joy” (Innocence). The angel’s visit to Tom causes the poem to end in with a sound of hope. In other words, all one must do is lead a good life and God will watch over them.

“The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience takes the opposite path of its predecessor. Unlike the first poem, this poem does not begin with the story of a young boy being sold into child labor, but instead by informing the reader that this boy’s parents have gone to church to pray. However, there are tones of darkness and the reader realizes the boy is just putting on an act (Barton). The narrator explains, “And because I am happy, and dance and sing, they think they have done me no injury” (Experience). After detailing his parent’s misery, he mentions “God and his Priest and King” and their “heaven of misery” (Experience). In an almost perfect reflection of the poem from Songs of Innocence, this poem ends with the narrator claiming that one cannot even look to the heavens for hope. His parents are ignorant as to what they have done to him, but not even “God and his Priest and King” can be turned to for help. This was more than likely not a much different song from the one this chimney sweepers “co-workers” also sang by the time they became “experienced” in their work.


E. Ferrell

William Blake writes about two different Chimney Sweepers. One poem comes under his Songs of Innocence and one in Songs of Experience. Both set a setting, yet in different lights, of a young child who is a chimney sweeper. The first chimney sweeper, from the songs of innocence, is forced to sweep chimneys through necessity. “When my mother died I was very young, and my father sold me…” The other Chimney Sweeper, from the songs of experience, gives the illusion that the child was forced into the profession not by a mother’s death, but of a mother’s greed.

Obviously the “innocent” chimney sweeper was forced into the occupation by poverty. The child has a very optimistic way of coping with the hardships. He helps his friend along as he tells little Tom Dacre after he is forced to cut his hair, that now “the soot cannot spoil your white hair.” The reason as to why the other child is a chimney sweeper is less obvious. It does not seem it is through poverty, as the parents have time to go to “church and pray”. The reason is most likely that the parents are greedy and don’t respect the child. That child puts on an act to make them think he is fine. “And because I am happy and dance and sing, they think they have done me no injury.”

There is imagery in both poems. In Songs of Innocence, the child says, “In soot I sleep.” This could mean that the boy didn’t have any other clothes and had to sleep in his ashy clothes, or it could mean that he was so tired he actually fell asleep on the job. There is also imagery is the use of names. In the Songs of Innocence poem, names such as Tom, Dick, and Joe are used because the boy is a lighthearted and seems to have friends in the business. It makes the child seem as if he doesn’t view chimney sweeping as a terrible job. However, in the Songs of Experience poem, no names were mentioned giving the idea that this child sweeper doesn’t view the job as hanging with his friends. It feels more like an imprisonment type situation, not as light and playful. This contrast is not so much seen in the individual poems, but in a comparison of the two.

I feel that Blake tells the story from the child's point of view in both poems because taking this different perspective allows him to highlight the differences between situations. Readers would most likely have been members of the upper class and with this poem they could glance at what life is like in someone else's shoes and bring light to child labor and the possible struggles and stories of those children.


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