Blake’s “Chimney Sweeper” in “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience”

                                                                                                                                                                                             Farhana Sharmin Gazi

source : Internet

It was a time when the world was undergoing great change with industrial revolution. Blake’s London was not any exception to that.It was a time of great political upheaval and paranoia, resulting in Britain’s powerful and wealthy classes fearful of revolt. The poorer citizens within society suffered the consequences of disastrous political decisions with many families becoming separated, as young children were often made to endure harsh conditions such as chimney sweeping, consequently killing them at an extremely early age. Blake was born in London in 1757 and bought up in a poor working class establishment. Although he had received no form of education he had managed to educate himself from books such as the Bible and Milton’s epic poem ‘Paradise lost’, which may have influenced his opinions and views of 18th century society. Blake was also a talented artist as well as poet but didn’t receive much critical acclaim until shortly after his death in 1827. Blake’s writing reflects the extreme conditions of working class Britain and the surroundings in which he lived. A lot of his views were highly religious as he frequently studied the Bible, in some of his poems however, he is very critical towards the church. Although both poems address the same theme, portrayed images within the poems differ.

William Blake’s two poems named “Chimney Sweeper” in “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” present us with two different pictures.

 “The Chimney Sweeper” of “Songs of Innocence” takes on the point of view of a young boy who works in the city as a chimney sweeper. Throughout the lines of the poem, readers are given a glimpse at the boy’s life. Blake describes the boy’s unique perspective on his own situation. Despite the fact that the boy lives a horrible life, he believes the “story” that he will one day have a better life after death. This “story” is told frequently to oppress individuals who might demand better or equal treatment. Blake tells the story from the boy’s point of view because taking this different perspective allows him to highlight the differences between individuals. Readers would likely have been members of the upper classes. With this poem, they could glance at what life is like in someone else’s shoes.

In the first version of “The Chimney Sweeper” we can also see Blake’s injection of a sense of emotion. The little boy has lost his mother and was sold by his father. He is literally alone, and most likely feels alienated from the rest of society. Clearly, Blake feels that where you are in the city makes a lot of difference with respect to the kind of life and experiences that you have.

Although at the time child chimney sweepers were likely commonplace, this group of individuals were virtually invisible. Blake’s focus on the individual’s story brings what was previously invisible into the light. This idea of taking the ordinary and doing something with it that makes it extraordinary is common during the Romantic period.

Another characteristic of many Romantic era writers is the insertion of nature or natural images into their works. Although “the Chimney Sweeper” is presumably set in an industrialized city where residents would require a chimney sweeper, Blake inserts images of nature throughout the poem. Blake peppers the poem with images that are typically associated with picturesque countryside landscapes such as a “lamb’s back” (line 6), a “green plain” (line 15), and “a river” (line 16). In addition, Blake elicits images of the sky as the chimney sweeper describes the freed chimney sweepers from Tom’s dream as shining “in the Sun” (line 16), rising “upon the clouds” and sporting “in the wind” (line 18).

“The Chimney Sweeper”, in Songs of Experience is very dark and pessimistic. This poem also seems to be very judgmental and gives motives for everything, but unlike Song of Innocence, the sweeper in this poem does not free himself from his misery.

In the first two lines, Blake gives us an image of an anguished child in a state of agony or even in a state of corruption. The color black seems to be very important because it is used to represent sin against innocence, the color of the white snow. Blake also shows the same child weeping, when he really means to say sweeping, because that is what has that child in such grief. This stanza ends by someone asking him about his parents, which later end up being responsible for this child’s state.

In the second stanza, the child is pictured in a very more happier and playful mood. This soon changes when he decides to tell the stranger more about his parents. They are showed to be punishing their child for being so happy by “clothing in clothes of death and teaching him to sing notes of woe.” It is very obvious the sweeper’s feels hate towards his parents for putting him in such sadness, but instead he chooses to hide it by making himself look happy and satisfied.

It is clear in the last Stanza that Blake’s criticizing the Church , especially, and the state for letting a lot of these things happen. During this time many children were dying from being, either, worked to death or from malnutrition. Neither the state or the church did anything to stop this and is obviously why Blake feels so much anger towards them. The sweeper’s parents are really no help towards their own child. This makes the reader wonder, if they are worshiping god, the source of good doings, why do they chose to ignore their own child. They would rather turn their heads the other way and instead of finding love at church.