September 5, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy Z, 1826 (Library of Congress) object 37 The Chimney Sweeper.jpg
The Chimney Sweeper[1]
By: William Blake (1794)

A little black thing among the snow[2]
Crying ’weep, ’weep, in notes of woe![3]
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.[4]

Because I was happy upon the heath, 5
And smil’d among the winters snow;
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy, & dance & sing,[5]
They think they have done me no injury, 10
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.[6]

Notes & Commentary

  1. From Songs of Experience, 1794. Compare this poem to its contrary, the “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence. Unlike the earlier poem, the narrator has little patience for a narrative of redemption through duty (Makdisi 2015, p. 85). This narrator does not condone the systems that brutalize him and straight-up condemns them for their neglectful complicity and hypocrisy.
         In Blake’s time, children were used to clean chimneys by hand. Until they were too large or too sick to do so any more, they were sent up into the chimneys to clean them by hand, usually from age four through ten. It was dirty and unhealthy work, and it had many negative effects on the children, like stunted growth; developing parts of the body, like eyes, lungs, and sexual organs, could be permanently effected (Tomlinson 1987, p. 34).
  2. The first line offers a strong and stark contrast between the black thing and the white snow. The word thing dehumanizes the child sweeper, and black seems to associate him contamination—with something dirty and impure, perhaps morally, against the white purity of the snow. Perhaps, in some way, by cleaning the blackness from the churches’ chimneys, the sweeper has somehow taken on the sins of the church (Wolfson 2003, p. 81). Rather than a comment on race, this could be a comment on class and occupation (Makdisi 2003, p. 113). Or black aligns the sweep with Blake’s little black boy as a symbol of the fallen humanity, both confined and oppressed (Frye 1947, p. 212).
         Ackroyd writes: “They finished their work at noon, at which time they were turned upon the streets—all of them in rags (some of them, it seems, without any clothing at all), all of them unwashed, poor, hungry. It is really no wonder that they were typically classified with beggars and with vagrants, considered to be criminals” (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. Pray seems to suggest prey in light of the whole poem: in that the social and political realities of the day depend on the servitude of the sweepers. Instead of offering solace and the promise of a spiritual life, the church only supports the status quo. In praying for a fantasy life—the heaven in the last line—they are complicit and allow the abuse to continue.
  5. The happiness here is of the sweeper’s own making, not in the narrative structures and ideologies supported by the authorities that oppress the sweeper. This might be read as a “a kind of resilience . . . to endure exploitation” and a defiance of the power that would continue to exploit the sweepers (Makdisi 2015, p. 86). Compare these expressions of happiness to the pastoral vision at the end of the poem’s contrary in SI.
  6. Unlike the Angel in this poem’s contrary, the spiritual life here is nonexistent, hidden behind “hypocritical practices of a church that supports the social and political establishment while being indifferent to the sufferings of the weak and helpless” (Tomlinson 1987, p. 35). Only through the sweepers’ continued suffering, this last line seems to say, can others find their worldly heaven, one must assume.

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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