This second week’s selections of Romantic poetry written by William Blake are taken from Songs of Experience (1794). My favorite is The Chimney Sweeper. The poems in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience exhibit the two contrasting existential states of Paradise and the Fall. Poems in Songs of Innocence deal with infant joy, youth and vitality. In Songs of Experience, there are depictions of social and political corruption, loss of innocence, fear, resignation and powerlessness.
Bear with me, people. Today I present two poems. Because the story behind The Chimney Sweeper is presented in a poem of the same name in Songs of Innocence. I don’t think that it is necessary to read the first in order to appreciate the second. But why settle for one excellent poem when you can have two!
The two poems are about child labor. Specifically, children forced to work as chimney sweepers in 18th Century England. Most unfortunately, child labor is still practiced today. UNICEF estimates that there are as many as 150 million children used as labor and slaves worldwide. In Ghana, many children are forced to work in the cocoa and fishing industries.
The Chimney Sweeper (from Songs of Innocence)
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, –
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
In this poem, little Tom dreams of an escape from his plight. But he does not forget his fellow sweepers, who like him, are “locked up in coffins of black”. The initial tone of accusation – “so your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep” gives way to a sense of hope, of the ability and desire to deal with their plight. Now to the second one:
The Chimney Sweeper (from Songs of Experience)
A little black thing in the snow,
Crying “‘weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? Say!”–
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.
“Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
“And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”
The tone is more indignant in the second poem. The speaker attacks his parents, the church, the king and the priest. It also attacks the Christian concept of heaven. The child, hardened by his experience and years of abuse, no longer entertains flights of escape. His responses to the adult are heartbreaking. Also, note the growth in the boy’s voice and his awareness, both emotionally and socially, of his condition. Blake is really good now, isn’t he?