William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” offers a graphic portrayal of a particular cultural aspect of England in the 1790s. By examining my interactions with the poem, I will attempt to analyse and contrast my own belief system against that which is presented in the text. Blake’s poem was initially very striking to me.
While reading the first stanza, I was shocked and horrified by the imagery presented by the young narrator. I felt compelled to cry for the poor boy, and then became angry at his father for placing him in such a situation.
In the second and third stanzas, I empathized with ‘little Tom Darce’ and pictured how frightened he must have been because of his nightmare; he seemed to be in great need of care and love, both of which I wished I could provide him. The imagery in the fourth and fifth paragraphs struck me as bright, beautiful and very innocent, thus causing me to wish that all the boys could live in such a wonderful environment.
My reaction to the final stanza was a sense of distress; the boys had nothing to hope for, but were forced to perform a task which would eventually kill them. After reading the poem I was left with several impressions in my mind. The young and innocent portrayal of the narrator seemed to be a powerful influence on my emotional reactions to the poem. I was left with a sense of helplessness and frustration that I was not able to help the boys out of their oppressed state, and because I possess some knowledge of this period of history and culture, I know that the events described in the poem actually took place, and thus the poem becomes even more emotionally moving.
It is the value system of the people of England in the 1790s which comes into sharp opposition with my own, especially with the issues that are in relation to the way that children should be treated; these people would essentially condemn their children to death so that they themselves could live. Noteworthy is the poem’s notion of counter-dominance: the poem’s depiction is consistent with England in the 1790s, however it is counter-dominant with today’s North American societal norms. Several elements in the text have an effect on the reading of the text.
The theme of the poem, children who are sold to die cleaning chimneys, produces a negative emotional reaction; there are powerful metaphors used, such as: ‘all of them lock’d up in coffins of black’ which evoke emotions surrounding my own previous experiences with death and coffins; the poem also uses striking images, such as the depiction of the boy in the first stanza. My personal literary and general repertoire are also key to my interaction with the poem. The main element in my personal literary repertoire which relates to this poem is the story of Mary Poppins which provides my positive view of ‘chimney sweeps’ with which the poem collides. Elements in my general repertoire which conflict with the poem are: I value children very greatly, I condemn slavery, I believe in healthy and safe working environments and my great value of the family unit.
Personal reading strategies are also a factor in my interpretation of the poem. In the case of this poem, I read it first of all to react emotionally, then to understand the meaning, search for a theme and finally a purpose. I am consciously assuming that the narrator is a reliable source; however, I am also aware that the narrator is very young and thus possesses a much more innocent view of the world than my own. After taking into consideration my initial reactions, effects the text had on myself, effects the text had on reading and the effect I had on my own reading, I am able to analyze my response to the text and understand how it is that I read this poem.
It is clear that I am acting under the influence of the culture in which I was raised. “The Chimney Sweeper” alerts me to my own feelings and values toward the treatment of children. Because of my own experiences and value system, I am able to sympathize with the children and condemn the conditions under which they were forced to work. I believe that this poem is a societal statement of England in the 1790s, made by Blake to express his disgust with the treatment of the children in his community.
The poem is successful in relaying Blake’s feelings to an individual such as myself, several centuries later: an indication that pertaining to the treatment of children, Blake shares values which are common to many people of today.