William Blake’s two versions of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in Songs of Innocence (published 1789) and Songs of Experience (published 1794) depict the harsh reality of the titular child laborers in England during the onset of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Blake in his poems uses a variety of techniques to explicate his themes of exploitation, oppression, and dominance by both church and state; these themes, however, are treated differently in each of the poems, through his subtle use of contrast and image juxtapositions, both of which we will explore in the following paragraphs.
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‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Songs of Innocence, opens the poem by stating:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep. (Lines 1-4)
In the above line, the Chimney Sweeper directs his statement to the ‘you’ of society, the ‘you’ that has relegated this young orphan to a soot-filled existence. The play on the word “’weep” conjures in the reader’s mind a child’s voice as he chants the chimney sweep’s cry, as well as the literal meaning “weep.” The black associated with his profession, becomes a symbol of innocence marred when juxtaposed against the hair of ‘little Tom Dacre,’ (Line 5) which ‘curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved.’ (Line 6). The Narrator consoles the bereaved child, saying:
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that soot cannot spoil your white hair.” (Lines 7-8)
Both the color white and the imagery of the lamb are compound symbols correlating to the Religious themes found in the poem’s succeeding stanzas, where in a dream Tom encounters
…thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
…all of them locked up in coffins of black. (Lines 11-12)
Again Blake tethers black to death by way of the coffin imagery. The inclusion of names here –common English names- gives the work the semblance of a children’s rhyme, which during that time commonly invoked names; this also concretizes the ‘thousands of sweepers’ in the reader’s mind, giving names to the boys whose actions occupy later lines. The succeeding stanza sees an angel freeing Tom Dacre and the other chimney sweeps from their black coffin prisons:
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun. (Lines 13-16)
In the above lines we see that the Angel holds the ‘key’ to happiness: the harsh reality of existence is dispelled by the lush green plain of the dream, where the children, laughing, frolicking, in the arms of joy and glee, bathe in a river, symbolizing the Christian concept of baptism: a cleansing of ills and despair.
Then naked and white…
They rise up on clouds…
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his Father, and never want joy. (lines 17-20)
The above depicts a resurrection of spirit, and a promise that after death comes peace and a respite from the suffering of life amidst the white clouds of heaven. The ‘naked and white bodies’ contrast sharply against the soot introduced in the first stanza; the angel also offers Tom a surrogate father, one who will provide joy, unlike the one who sold him into a life of sadness.
Upon waking ‘in the dark’ (line 21) Tom is ‘happy and warm’ (line 23), taking solace in the fact that ‘…if all do their duty they need not feel harm.’ (line 24). Here a sense of Christian morals ends the poem; if one is good, he goes to heaven; thus are the children placated, their despair and anguish allayed.
Blake masks the harsh subject matter by using a simple, iambic based meter in the poem, as well as a rhyme scheme of AABB, these two techniques combined make the poem sound like a children’s rhyme, further adding to the irony of the piece entire, and further elucidating the ‘message: there is respite for the sweeps in this Songs of Innocence poem; Religion offers salvation and refuge from the cold reality these children suffer: we will see how Blake approaches this theme in Songs of Experience.
Use of black and white symbolism to portray Innocence and its corruption is the first concept that strikes one upon reading ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Songs of Experience. The 1794 poem opens:
A little Black thing among the snow,
Crying “’weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe! (Lines 1-2)
The imagery connects the two versions of the poem instantaneously. The Black against the snow, the repetition of the chimney sweeps cry and the corresponding act the word invokes: all resonate and resound the themes found in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Songs of Innocence. The Religious symbols follow two lines later:
“Where are thy father and mother, say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray. (lines 3-4)
Here the child is no orphan, but may as well be; religion plays a role here, as in the earlier version of the poem; but here belief binds not the child, but the parents. The Narrator states,
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe. (lines 7-8)
Hear again Blake contrasts the white of snow with the black cloth worn by chimney sweeps; a contrast further enforced by juxtaposing a smile with the phrase ‘the notes of woe’ (repeated from the second line of the first stanza, as well as the third line of the poem of Songs of Innocence).
An interesting reversal in this version of the poem is the role the parents play in the Chimney Sweepers life. Whereas in the earlier version the Tom Dacre and his peers are orphans, the Chimney sweeper here is not, stressing the role religion plays in the social make-up of the time:
“And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.” (lines 8-12)
The above lines may be contrasted with the ‘heaven’ Tom Dacre dreams about in the earlier incarnation of the poem. Again we have imagery of dancing and singing, like the ‘leaping and laughing’ in Songs of Innocence. We also have here a heaven; however, this ‘heaven of misery’ is more sobering, as no respite from the reality does it provide, only grim acknowledgment of the cruel fate the sweeper must endure in this lifetime, as ‘God and His Priest and King’ are shown to be the architects of the sweep’s existence
Again in this poem does Blake use a deceptively simple AABB rhyme scheme, as well as an iambic based meter, with some trochaic feet thrown on for emphasis and variation. Fitting that this poem from Songs of Experience ends with the word ‘misery;’ for that indeed, is what comprises the sweeps’ lives: for Tom and Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack, misery and suffering tinge their cries of “‘weep” with woe.
In both these poems the driving forces are society and religion: in the first, poverty forces the child to perform his grim task, and he gains some measure of peace in religion, thus numbing him to the reality of his existence.
Thus is his innocence preserved, albeit in the realm of belief-induced fantasy. This ties into the title and main theme of the collection: Songs of Innocence. In the second version, elucidating and tying into the collection title Songs of Experience, no such fantasy is present to safeguard the child’s innocence; his parents act in accordance with the Church (‘God and Priest) and Society (King), thus is the Chimney Sweeper fated to his duty, always to be a “…black thing among the snow,” ever to “sing the notes of woe.”
Blake, William. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ Songs of Innocence (1789) Project Gutenberg. 10 Jan 1999
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