In this essay I am going to explore Blake’s Chimney Sweeper poems from the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. During this essay I will cover Blake’s life and times and the way chimney sweepers get treated around that time and what Blake attempts to do about it.
Blake was born on November 28 in the year 1757. His parents where strict but understanding. Blake’s parents realised early in his life that Blake was gifted. He had an extremely active imagination and he often got visions.
At only four years old he claimed he had seen God in one of these visions. Another time when he was with one of his friends he envisaged angels filling a tree. He horridly told his family what he saw but the response he got from his father was quite negative. His father threatened to whip him because he believed it was time for him to grow up. However his mother took Blake’s side and when she asked him about it he stated that the angels took the form of his thoughts.
This vision was stuck with him and was extremely influential in his life.
Blake obviously had a gift for seeing things with his eyes and in his imagination. He used his artwork to express his experiences. When Blake turned ten years of age his parents decided to enrol him into a drawing school. Later on in his life Blake used his talent as an artist to become a apprentice engraver.
Throughout Blake’s life he had a dislike for nasty, unfair people especially towards those that had power and money like those in the government, and those that where associated with the church. Blake also could not stand power abusers and bad unfair treatment towards the poor, young and elderly.
In the time of William Blake chimney sweepers went through a torrid time, it was as if they where young slaves. The age of the infants varied between five years old to the age of eight or nine if they could be fit up the chimneys. They where often bought off parents for as little a ï¿½2, in some cases however they may be purchased for ï¿½5 but it is still a despicable price to pay for a young child. In the extreme cases the chimney sweepers where stole from family’s. When the sweeps had lost the use around the age of seven they get passed over to the church.
Blake despised the serious health problems the sweeps got from this demanding life of threatening work. Most sweeps after only a short time of working in the chimneys end up with twisted kneecaps, ankles and even spines from crawling up the extremely cramped chimneys. There was even such a thing as “chimney sweeps cancer” which they got from the soot irritating there skin.
Again we can see why Blake hates the idea of chimney sweepers and there treatment, they are forced to do inhumane things that even animals would never be told to do. The master sweeps imbedded fear into the young brains and subjected them to clean chimneys. They where made to live in the most inhabitable of conditions. They often slept on soot bags in dirty wet cellars. The sweeps where forced to clean the chimneys if they refused or could not fit up the chimneys they where punished by the fire being lit, slaps, prodding with poles and various other instruments and pricking of the bottoms of their feet. All this just so the master sweep can make an easy living from the poor misfortune of innocent children. Blake strongly disagreed with the treatment of the sweeps so much he wrote two beautiful poems about their treatment, these featured in two separate books, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
The first chimney sweeper poem is from the Songs of Innocence, Blake shows a strong message through his poems, and they sometimes come across light hearted like nursery rhymes. But often, if not all the time they have a dark sinister meaning.
This is the beginning of Chimney sweeper 1 and straight away Blake invites the reader to feel sympathy for the situation the family is in. It shows how poor the family is, it gets so bad the father has to sell his child to get some money to keep the rest of the family going. This reflects on the state of working class people of that time.
“When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue.”
The boy is sold so young that it has not even developed the ability to speak properly; in the poem he “Could scarcely cry “weep! weep! weep! weep!” The boy could be crying in this passage or he could be trying to say the word sweep but is unable because of his age. This is clever by Blake because the passage has a double meaning; this carries on throughout the poem. The effect of the first stanza is to bring the reader into perspective of what lengths of desperation the families go to, to earn a small amount of money.
In the second stanza the audience is introduced to Tom Dacre, his hair is shaved off and Tom is very upset about this. Blake feels very strongly about the dehumanisation of people and shows this in his poems.
Blake compares Tom to a lamb because a lamb is innocent like the chimney sweeps and is also a form of sacrificial animal so it is showing there inability to have there own personality and independence.
“There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curl’d like a lamb’s back, was shav’d”
The final part of this stanza represents the pureness of Tom Dacre. The soot represents the master sweeps trying to make him impure but the white hair represents how innocent Tom is. The effect of this stanza is to bring across the innocents of the sweeps to the audience.
“Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your heads bare,
You know the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
The third stanza is when Tom has a dream; in his dream he has visions of thousands of dead sweeps. The coffins of black represent a enclosed environment with dead sweeps covered in black soot. Blake involves the fact that thousands of chimney sweepers died to once again show the audience what really goes on.
“That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black.”
In Stanza four Tom Dacre is still in his dream and an Angel comes to set him free, this represents the chimney sweeps being liberated from their life of peril.
“And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free”
Then Blake goes on in the conclusion of this stanza to contrast there life when they are trapped being made to go up chimneys, to being let to run free and be there own boss. It is everything they can not do when working as a chimney sweeper. Blake mentions that they wash in the river, this symbolises that they have left that dark past behind them and are moving on. This stanza has a light hearted mood and shows everything that the chimney sweepers can not have.
In the fifth stanza Blake brings his feelings about the church through. The unfairness and manipulative abilities the church is shown in this stanza.
“And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, & never want joy.”
This means basically that if you do not sin you get to go to heaven. The angel represents the heartless church who manipulate through fear. This is what Blake is strongly against.
In the final stanza of the first poem the boys go back to work after Tom wakes and have to work in poor conditions.
“And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.”
In the end of the last stanza Blake makes it seems as if it has finished on a high note, however Blake doesn’t believe in this naive belief.
“So if they do all their duty, they need not fear harm.”
That was the first of the two chimney sweeper poems, throughout this poem Blake says one thing but if you look deeper into it, it has a much deeper sinister meaning.
The second chimney sweeper poem is from the Songs of Experience this poem has a different angle that the first poem.
Stanza one, The Chimney Sweeper 2 begins like this;
“A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father & mother? Say””
“They are both gone up to church to pray.”
Blake represents the chimney sweeper in the first part, calling it “A little black thing among the snow,” To Blake the “black” represents the sweep all dirty and tainted. And calling it a “thing” dehumanizes the sweep. Blake wrote, “A little black thing among the snow” because the chimney sweeper is tainting society which is the white snow. Blake uses the same words from The Chimney Sweeper 1, in this poem for the same effect, to show the young boy upset, confused. “Crying “weep! ‘weep!””
At this point in the poem the audience can not tell who is speaking. I believe it is the poor people; they are represented as chimney sweepers. The chimney sweeper is lost in society, represented by the snow. The government which is represented by the chimney sweeper’s parents is ignorant to reality. Blake has used the situation in the poem to express his feelings about politics of that time.
“Because I was happy upon the heath.
And smil’d among the winters snow,
The boy in the second poem has had more experience chimney sweeping and has come to terms that there is nothing he can do about it. He puts on a brave face and gets on with it, when compared to Tom Dacre in Chimney Sweeper 1 he doesn’t have the naivety that Tom had. Once again I think Blake had another meaning that poor people represented as the chimney sweep are happy and they smile in society.
“They cloth’d me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.”
The parents of the chimney sweeper in this poem clothed there son and sentenced him to death when they decided to sell him to a master sweep. They made the boy cry when he had to leave and now he is alone and knows it. I think that Blake had another deeper meaning. I think the chimney sweeper represented poor people, they got clothed in the clothes of death by the chimney sweepers parents represented as the government.
In the final stanza Blake goes on the attack at the church and the government he does this by provoking anger towards them through the unfairness of it all.
“And because I am happy & dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
In these lines Blake is how the chimney sweeper feels after his ordeal, putting on the front everything is ok when it is not. Going deeper into what Blake is trying to bring across is representation that the chimney sweep is the poor people again.
The final two lines Blake attacks the church and the government, the chimney sweep is wise and is experienced and realises that the church and government exploit the poor so that they can make their own heaven out of the money from the society.
And we gone to praise God & his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery”