The poetry of William Blake gave a voice to a generation of England’s Children. Blake questioned the treatment of children used to clean chimneys in a public way. In both poems he wrote entitled “The Chimney Sweeper” Blake confronts the sadness that children dealt with during the 18th century. Although the first Chimney Sweeping Act was passed in 1788, it was not enforced. Blake wrote his first “The Chimney Sweeper” in 1789 and began the groundwork for the long process of protecting children from unsafe working conditions.
Unfortunately Blake died in 1827 and did not live long enough to see the Chimney Sweeping Act of 1875 which finally ended the work of the climbing boys (Cullingford 28). Blake’s poetry features the unbreakable spirit of childhood, directs poignant questions to parents, and drew attention to important social issues of the time. Poetry of the Romantic Period is marked by similar themes and subjects. During this time children were thought to be sent from heaven and were written about often according to Heather Chapman, an instructor of English Literature at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute.
In both of William Blake’s poems entitled “The Chimney Sweeper”, Blake looks at the conditions surrounding child labor in England. Another theme that can be seen throughout much of the writings of the time was the idealization of nature. In the poem written in 1789, Blake wrote “And wash in a river and shine in the Sun” (Blake 85 line 16). The capitalization of “Sun” or of any piece of nature was an unmistakable sign of Romantic Period poetry. It gave nature its own identity and showed the importance given to nature at the time.
During the time period that William Blake wrote both of his poems entitled “The Chimney Sweeper” England’s Industrial revolution was well underway. Before the industrialization of England, the work children did, helped the family economy more directly. In Women, Work, and Family by Louise A. Tilly and Joan W. Scott, the family economy is defined as the “interdependence of work and residence: of household labor needs” (Tilly 12). In other words the use of child labor was always a part of life but usually was closer to home helping on family farms or with other domestic duties.
With the move to industry, the jobs that employed children ranged from hauling coal out of tunnels to working on machinery in factories. However a rapidly growing occupation was working as climbing boys for chimney sweeps. According to Barbara and John Lawrence Hammond in their book The Town Labourer, working in chimneys was dangerous, unhealthy, and barbaric. The job required very small boys to clean the flues of the chimneys because the flues were very compact openings of usually no more than seven inches by seven inches.
Not only did the child need to be small but they often needed to work naked because their clothing could get caught in the tight quarters of the chimney. The dangers of being a climbing boy included suffocation, burns, and deformity. Blake lived in a time when chimneys lined the evening sky on nearly every home. The images that Blake depicts in his poems must have been very close to what he saw in his own neighborhood. As a passionate man concerned with social issues of the time, Blake may have hoped to be a part of a change for the betterment of the children of England when writing both poems.
William Blake brought attention to the depravity and despair these boys faced with his poetry. In 1789 Blake wrote his first “The Chimney Sweeper” and published it in Songs of Innocence. The tone is not quite as dark as his later piece but it still carries a message of sadness and injustice to the audience. Blake paints a picture of a dark world these children were forced to live in. Cleaning chimneys was a job usually done at night and the soot blackened their worlds even more than the night did.
Blake wrote a single line that described the life the sweeps lived, “So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep” (Blake 85 line 4). In this poem Blake introduces his audience to children like so many during this time. The initial speaker of the poem lives through his mother’s death and is then sold into the life of a chimney sweeper by his father. The audience is also introduced to the character of Tom Dacre. His hair is shaved off and the initial speaker tries to comfort him by telling him “Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare, You know that the soot cannot soil your white hair” (Blake 85 lines 7-8).
The children written by Blake had an amazing capacity to find hope and joy in the smallest of things and the most unlikely of places. The poem continues with Tom having a dream in which he sees “thousands of sweepers…lock’d up in coffins of black” (Blake 85 lines 11-12). In the dream an angel then appears and frees the children from their coffins. With their new freedom they return to children being able to run and play in the “Sun”. The angel offers Tom and the other sweepers the knowledge that if they were good children they can “have God for [their] father and never want joy” (Blake 85 line 20).
Tom wakes up and shares the news with his friends. The audience is left knowing “Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm; So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (Blake 85 lines 23-24). In somewhat of a contrast is Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” written in 1794 from Songs of Experience. No individual child is really identified. The character is instead described as “A little black thing among the snow” (Blake 90 line 1). Blake chooses to address the role of the church in being a guardian for the innocence of children in this piece.
The “little black thing” is asked where his parents are and responds that they have gone to church as he has been left to search the streets for chimney sweeping work. Blake calls the advertising calls of the chimney sweeps looking for work “notes of woe” (Blake 90 line 8). The child is also said to be wearing “clothes of death” that acted as a mark of a child who would more than likely not reach adulthood (Blake 90 line 7). The child explains that because he is still able to find joy in life, his parents don’t think the job of chimney sweeping is hurting him.
They continue to go to church and “praise God & his Priest & King” who the child says “make up a heaven of our misery” (Blake 90 lines 11-12). In both poems Blake depicts the children sweepers as being happy simply because they aren’t dead, a sentiment that was probably a very accurate portrayal of the times. The voice that Blake chose to give to each poem used both the points of view and the identity given to the subjects of the poems. In the poem written in 1789 the point of view begins in first person through an unknown child. This child was sold into work as a chimney sweep by his father after the death of his mother.
Between the first and second stanzas the point of view shifts from the unknown child to a child named Tom Dacre but remains in first person. The use of the first person point of view places the reader into the shoes of a child. It should be pointed out that although the names of the young boy’s friends are given throughout the poem, his name is not. With this anonymity the poem can be applied to the generation of children forced into poor working conditions and not with a single child in particular. In the later poem written in 1794, Blake continues using first person but uses it in a different way.
In this poem he uses an adult speaking to the child who is said to be “a little black thing among the snow”. In doing so he points out the responsibility that belongs to adults to take care of children. Blake does not give names to either the adult or the child. This again can place any child and any adult into the roles of the poem’s characters. In the third stanza the child replies to the adult’s questions and reveals that they are more aware of their misfortunes than their parents know. It can only be imagined what a shock this would have been at the time to read.
Beyond the strides Blake made in opening up the social conversation of child labor, he also created vivid images telling the heart breaking stories of the child laborers. In the poem written in 1789, the first stanza takes the reader to a place of sadness and empathy for this unknown child through the quick story of the child’s life. All before he can even form the word sweep with his small mouth, this child experiences the death of a mother and being sold by his father. The second stanza introduces readers to Tom Dacre and his hair “that curl’d like a lamb’s back” that was shaved off against his will (Blake 85 line 6).
The mentioning of a lamb is significant because lambs are traditionally thought of as being pure and innocent, just as the children acting as chimney sweeps. The third stanza begins Tom’s dream and has one of the most powerful pieces of imagery. Blake writes that they were all “lock’d up in coffins of black” (Blake 85 line 12). The coffins of black were the dark chimneys that would be the death of many of them. The fourth and fifth stanzas are the description of Tom’s dream. Blake creates a simple childish heaven where boys are free and in the sun.
He writes “Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run, and wash in a river and shine in the Sun” (Blake 85 lines 15-16). All children want is to play and Blake depicts that in a beautiful scene. In the sixth and final stanza, Blake brings the children back to reality saying “And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark. And got with our bags and our brushes to work” (Blake 85 lines 21-22). These lines show the truth of their lives. In Blake’s later “The Chimney Sweeper” written in 1794 the imagery is darker than in the previous poem. Blake begins by calling the chimney sweeper “a little black thing in the snow” (Blake 90 line 1).
The soot from chimneys blackened the skin and clothes of the small workers leaving them as black things in the world. Again Blake shows the age of the child in this poem with the lisp of a small child unable to correctly pronounce the word sweep. The child cries out “’weep, ‘weep” instead (Blake 90 line 2). The poem continues in the second stanza “Because I was happy upon the heath, And smil’d among the winter’s snow; They clothed me in the clothes of death, and taught me to sing the notes of woe” (Blake 90 lines 5-8). Blake creates a picture of a child who finds joy even with nothing but snow falling.
His parents then make him a chimney sweeper and teach him how to search for work in the streets. In the third and final stanza Blake writes “And because I am happy, & dance & sing, They think they have done me no injury, And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King, Who make up a heaven of our misery” (Blake 90 lines 9-12). The child in this stanza is far more aware of his surroundings than his parents would have thought. The child is aware that church and church goers should be caring for children not making them work. William Blake used his art and his genius of poetry to bring attention to a social issue of the time.
While other Romantic writers wrote about the beauty of nature, Blake chose to write about the ugly truths of life in his poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. He gave a voice to the thousands of small boys climbing in chimneys and breathing in soot when their own mouths could barely speak. In either of “The Chimney Sweeper” poems, Blake allows the audience to see the simple joys of childhood, to take responsibility for the innocence of children, and Blake points out the injustices bestowed on the children of England. Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper. ” Greenblatt 85. Blake, William. The Chimney Sweeper. ” Greenblatt 90. Chapman, Heather. The Romantic Period, Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute, North Carolina. 20 Aug. 2012. Lecture. Cullingford, Benita. Chimneys and Chimney Sweeps. Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd, 2003. Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Ed. New York: W. W Norton & Co, 2006. Print. Hammond, John Lawrence and Barbara Hammond, The Town Labourer: 1760-1832, The New Civilization. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. , 1911. Tilly, Louise A. and Joan W. Scott. Women, Work and Family. New York: Routledge, 1987.
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