September 4, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

Songs of Innocence and Experience Copy L 1795 - The Chimney Sweeper.jpg
The Chimney Sweeper[1]
By: William Blake (1789)

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me[2] while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ’weep! ’weep! ’weep! ’weep![3]
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.[4]

There’s little Tom Dacre,[5] who cried when his head 5
That curl’d like a lambs back, was shav’d, 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, & that very night,
As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight! 10
That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black;[6]

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free:[7]
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run, 15
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.[8]

Then naked & 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 & never want joy. 20

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty,[9] they need not fear harm.

Notes & Commentary

  1. From Songs of Innocence, 1789. Compare this poem to its contrary, the “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience.
         In Blake’s time, children, aged four through ten, were used to clean chimneys by hand: “The average size of these vents was something like seven inches square, and the small child was prodded or pushed into the even smaller spaces within; sometimes they were encouraged with poles, or pricked with pins, or scorched with fire to make them climb with more enthusiasm” (Ackroyd 1995, p. 124). It was dirty and unhealthy work, and it had many negative effects on the children, like suffocation, stunted growth, and developing parts of the body, like eyes, lungs, and sexual organs (“many others suffered from what were known as ‘sooty warts,’ or cancer of the scrotum” (Ackroyd 1995, p. 125)), could be permanently effected (Tomlinson 1987, p. 34).
         “The Chimney Sweeper” offers a subtle but mordant critique of authority figures and the victims of their imposed social and political systems; it’s a “a text, in short, that all but begs for ironic and subversive readings” (Makdisi 2015, pp. 84–85). Or, it could show that innocence is a spiritual state that transcends the moral righteousness and physical torments of the everyday: “Innocence is not easy,” but necessary (Gardner 1969, pp. 79–80).
         Finally, Ackroyd suggests that this poem might have a more general appeal for humanity in that we are all trapped in our earthly bodies and long to be free (Ackroyd 1995, p. 125).
  2. Parents or guardians would be paid “from 20 shillings to five guineas” for children to take as “apprentices” to a master sweep for seven years (Tomlinson 1987, p. 34). The speaker here, then, is an apprentice sweep. This might also connote illicit sexual acts that take place in the dark, as sweeps were easy marks for predators and pedophiles (Ackroyd 1995, p. 125).
  3. The child is lisping the sweeper’s “calling the streets,” which they did while banging their brushes and sweeping tools from before dawn to midday, of “Sweep! Sweep!” (Greenblatt & 20218, p. 51 and Ackroyd 1995, pp. 123–124).
  4. Literally, children would collect soot in bags and often have to store it where they slept (Tomlinson 1987, p. 34).
  5. A fonudling’s name, likely associated with the Lady Ann Dacre’s Alms Houses in Westminster (Gardner 1969, pp. 78–79), an example of a poor house that sold children between the ages of four and seven Ackroyd 1995, p. 124).
  6. Imagine getting trapped in a chimney: it might seem to be a claustrophobic coffin. This is a very real horror: the father in line 2 has sold the sweeper into a death sentence. Tom’s subsequent vision, then, could be of the rewards that he and all of the other sweepers will receive in the afterlife (Gardner 1969, p. 79). The suggestion seems to be that Tom is nearing death, perhaps he like the thousands of sweepers are nearing the ends of their “apprenticeships,” broken and feeble: “He is now twelve years of age, a cripple on crutches, hardly three feet seven inches in stature . . . His hair felt like a hog’s bristles, and his head like a warm cinder . . . He repeats the Lord’s prayer . . . ” (Ackroyd 1995, p. 125).
  7. The Angel symbolizes youthful innocence and imagination that can free the chimney sweepers from their harsh reality. The spiritual life could improve the quality of the material life (Tomlinson 1987, p. 35). The Angel replaces earthly authorities that have failed the sweepers, like the dead mother and the capitalist father.
  8. Images of nature call to mind joy and freedom in Blake’s poetry and even to us today, versus a dirty city, see “London,” or a cloistered and guarded garden, like in “The Sick Rose.” America would come to symbolize this freedom for Blake (Gardner 1969, pp. 49–50).
  9. When duty is brought up by Blake, it is often used by slavers and taskmasters (surrogates for parents), like Urizen to demand obedience and loyalty (Makdisi 2015, p. 83). These latter lines could be interpreted as a mainstream Protestant idea that suffering in this world will be rewarded in the next, as Ackroyd suggests “the innocence of the speaker, and of Tom himself, is a destructive and ignorant innocence because it actively complies both with the horrors of the climbing trade and of the society that accepts it without thought” (Ackroyd (1995, p. 125)). Indeed, this attitude might be the happiness that the more experienced voice in this poem’s contrary speaks about.
         However, Makdisi warns that we should not read Blake as a proponent of evangelical ideas of the eighteenth century (Makdisi 2015, p. 84). Interestingly, a conventional reading would provide an ironic support for a system that essentially enslaved and sentenced children to unhealthy and short lives. This poem might be best read as satire (Gardner 1969, p. 70), but it could show the children transcending the evil of their situation through submission (Gardner 1969, p. 79), though that interpretation leaves me a bit cold.

Bibliography

  • Ackroyd, Peter (1995). Blake: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Battenhouse, Henry M. (1958). English Romantic Writers. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
  • Bloom, Harold (2003). William Blake. Bloom’s Major Poets. New York: Chelsea House.
  • Frye, Northrup (1947). Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Gardner, Stanley (1969). Blake. Literary Critiques. New York: Arco.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Makdisi, Saree (2003). "The Political Aesthetic of Blake's Images". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 110–132.
  • — (2015). Reading William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Paulin, Tom (March 3, 2007). "The Invisible Worm". Guardian. Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  • Thompson, E. P. (1993). Witness Against the Beast. New York: The New Press.
  • Tomlinson, Alan (1987). Song of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake. MacMillan Master Guides. London: MacMillan Education.
  • Wolfson, Susan J. (2003). "Blake's Language in Poetic Form". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 63–83.

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