A great writer, or poet, will make their readers feel as if they are a part of their story. The reader will feel happy when the character is happy, or sad when the character is sad. This is achieved by various rhetorical strategies that writers use. Some of these strategies include imagery and word diction. Sometimes it is one sentence that really gets to the reader. Other times it is simply one word that can make the reader feel anything from warm to sad.
In William Blake’s poem, “The Chimney Sweeper,” from Songs of Innocence, there is an important transition in which the reader’s sense of emotions change from negative feelings of darkness, death, and misery to positive emotions of happiness, hope, and salvation. This transition in emotions reflects the child’s innocence and oblivion to his victimization whereas in the same poem from Songs of Experience the child is aware that he is the victim and therefore only reveals feelings of bitterness and sarcasm.
This contrast is important to my understanding of the Innocence poem because it reveals a softer and more innocent perspective than the poem of Experience does. In the first half of the poem Blake uses word diction that gives off negative connotations in order to illustrate the horrible conditions the young chimneysweepers live in. The chimneysweeper says, “And my father sold me while yet my tongue/Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ’” (2-3). Not only does the word “weep” clearly give off a sense of sadness and depression, but the fact that it is repeated four times puts an emphasis on the sadness that the chimneysweeper feels.
The quote implies that the father sold his child at a very young age. As a result, the child was still too young to weep and therefore could not refuse to be sold. Another quote says, “So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep” (4). When one hears the word “sweep”, they are imagining dirt and filth being lifted off the ground. Moreover, the phrase “in soot I sleep”, if one imagines it in a literal sense, shows that the child is literally sleeping in soot, which is the black debris that the smoke from the chimney creates.
As a result, this quote illustrates a dirty and filthy setting that these chimneysweepers are forced to live in. A phrase that, without a doubt, gives off a sense of death and hell is “coffins of black” (12). The chimneysweeper uses this phrase to describe where the other chimneysweepers are locked in Tom’s dream, which is still filthy and almost suffocating. While these quotes and phrases observe and reveal the terrible conditions that these children are living in, the chimneysweeper in the Experience poem reasons why he is living in those conditions by blaming his parents.
This comparison makes evident the different perspectives from each poem. Hints of hope are first revealed in the Innocence poem where Blake uses the child’s sarcasm to show that in moments of darkness and unhappiness there is still space for optimism so as not to suffer so much. This is revealed when the chimneysweeper reassures Tom to “never mind it, for when your head’s bare/You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair” (7-8). In a way this would make Tom feel hopeful because with a bare head, the soot cannot ruin his hair.
But in a metaphorical sense, it implies that darkness (the soot) will not prevail over everything, which gives one hope. What follows this sense of hope is Tom’s description of his dream: And by came an Angel who had a bright key/And he open’d the coffins & 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. (13-18) This stanza contains numerous amounts of words and phrases that all give a positive connotation of hope, freedom, warmth, and happiness.
Words such as “Angel”, “bright key”, “laughing”, “Sun”, and “white” give off a feeling that is too good to be true, which explains why it is a dream in the first place. But that hope and happiness is so strong that when Tom awakes, he continues his work happily. This utopian perspective clearly shows the innocence of these children, while the child in the poem of Experience has no sense of hope because he is aware of the reality he is living in. While the children in the Innocence poem use religious words and phrases to give them something to look forward to, the child in the Experience poem condemns religion.
Blake shows how religion is used to almost condone the treatment and conditions of these chimneysweepers when he writes, “And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy/He’d have God for his father and never want joy” (19-20). This quote implies that obedience and sticking to your duties will bring happiness in the afterlife. The same thing is implied when the chimneysweeper says, “So if all do their duty they need not fear harm” (24). In other words, as long as these chimneysweepers continue with their gruesome work while refraining from complaints, they will be happy and will be rewarded in the afterlife for their good behavior.
This mentality seems to convince the children that it is acceptable live in these horrible conditions because they will be rewarded once they pass. In contrast, the child in the Experience poem does not see the afterlife or God as something or someone to look forward to because he blames God for the position he is in. He mocks God by saying, “And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King/Who make up a heaven of our misery” (11-12). The child’s parents are praying in the church and believe that they have not caused their child any injury.
In this case, it is the parents that are condoning the brutal life of their child. This major difference between the two poems is important because it reveals how differently each child views the situation they are in as chimneysweepers. Blake’s use of word diction and imagery in the poem of Innocence and in the poem of Experience differentiates the two opposing perspectives of each poem. Because the Innocence poem transitions from darkness and hopelessness to freedom and hopefulness, my understanding of this poem is extremely different from the other.
It is clear that the chimneysweeper in the Experience poem is aware that he is the victim; therefore, his feelings of sadness and despair block him from seeing any hope. Instead, he blames God and his parents for the life he lives. In contrast, I am given the sense that the chimneysweeper in the Innocence poem is completely oblivious to the fact that he is a victim, and therefore it is easier for him to see the light in the darkest moments; in this sense he is still innocent of any hard feelings towards his father or God.