“The Chimney Sweeper”from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience
These poems offer perspective into the oppressive, dangerous work of London’s 18th century chimney sweeps
Blake’s poems were created in response to the British Government’s failure to protect children forced into this dangerous line of work. The children were often taken from orphanages but some families sent their young boys (and occasionally girls) to work for chimney cleaning services.
Britain’s Act for the Better Regulation of Chimney Sweepers and their Apprentices in the late 1700’s stipulated that sweepers “should not begin work until they are eight, they should be washed once a week, and they should not be made to climb chimneys with fires in them”, but this law was loosely enforced, and Blake felt greater emphasis should be placed on the safety of these sweeps. It was not until 1875 that criminal charges against the exploitation of children were enforced, long after Blake’s death in 1827.
Blake, fired with the ideals of equality and justice for all, was appalled by this type of social evil and saw it as a reflection of the sickness of his society.
We will start with Songs of Innocence Pay attention to: • The innocent, naive tone of the child narrator • Dark and light imagery • General mood of optimism • Diction: what language would you use as evidence to prove that the speaker is a child?
With a partner, record notes on the following stylistic elements within the poem: • Tone • Mood • Diction • Rhythm and Rhyme Scheme • Imagery
Tone • In spite of the terrible conditions, the narrator displays an innocent acceptance of his fate. • As a result of his innocence and ignorance, he is unable to question or protest. • He cannot look at his plight with insight and therefore he accepts his fate.
Mood • Ironically, the general mood is optimistic. • The speaker does not become enmeshed in misery and self-pity but rather clings to the positive, the dream in which the Angel with the “bright key” “set them all free”.
More on the positive mood: • As an experienced sweep, the narrator consoles a new recruit, Tom Dacre, who “cried when his head…was shav’d”, a common practice, since hair would collect large quantities of soot. However, the speaker reassures Tom that the shaving of his head is a good thing, for “the soot cannot spoil your [his] white hair”. The speaker’s ability to find the silver lining of every cloud embodies the tragedy of the poem—the children’s ability to remain innocent and optimistic in such a hopeless, oppressive environment.
Diction • The words “’weep, ‘weep, ‘weep” are written with an apostrophe before the “w” indicating incompletion. Is the boy so young that he cannot say the “sw” sound and so his message is ironically delivered as “weep” instead of “sweep”? • Blake uses the child’s inability to form speech, a problem associated with young children, to show the injustices of putting such young children in such a dangerous line of work all the while invoking pity in the reader.
Rhythm and Rhyme Scheme • The rhyme scheme is regular and creates Blake’s typical musicality. • Iambic pentameter with a multitude of significant flaws make up the metrical form. For example, “mother”, “father”, and “chimneys” are all trochees which disrupt the rhythmic pattern and allude that these three subjects are connected.
Imagery • Contrasting dark (“soot” and “coffins of black”) and light (“bright” and “shine”) • Simile used to describe Tom Darce’s hair “that curl’d like a lamb’s back”. • An angel of mercy unlocks the sweepers coffins thereby liberating them from their oppressed lives (Tom’s dream embodies the incredible coexistence of innocence and experience that Blake describes throughout his collections of poems).
Two important questions:1. How does Blake question religion in “The Chimney Sweeper”?2. Explain how the pronoun “your” in the fourth line affects the reader’s experience.
The Angel’s focus on being “a good boy” and doing “their duty” brings about Blake’s questioning of religion and the accusation that it brings about false hope. In context of the poem, “being ‘good’ means continuing in Tom’s enforced labors” (Essick 54), presenting an open-ended conflict in the mind of the reader. Though Tom is reassured by the speaker’s efforts and the Angel’s promise that if they “all do their duty, they need not fear harm”, the Angel is acting as an agent to quiet revolt against the injustice of this oppressive labor. In essence, Blake is showing the downsides of innocence, for “the comforting sentiments of innocence will have terrible consequences for these boys” (Essick 54).
2. In addition to blaming religion for giving the sweeps false hope of a better life, Blake, as a part of his social commentary, also blames humanity in general for allowing and encouraging such a dangerous and inhumane practice. By using the word “your” in the line “so your chimneys I sweep”, Blake “implicates the reader in the circle of exploitation” (Essick 53). Blake claims that by supporting the sweeping industry, society as a whole is perpetuating and encouraging the oppressive conditions in which the young sweeps live. “The sweeps’ trust in the justice and benevolence of the very world that has injured them is terribly pathetic” (Leader 46); Blake invokes a feeling of guilt in the reader by juxtaposing Tom’s dream with subtle accusations of society’s betrayal of these young children.
Black and white –only two… Tom’s dream…
“The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience • In this poem there is a pressing issue that was only hinted at in “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence. What is it? • Comment in the irony present in the poem. • How do these poems relate to “London”?