William Blake was a genius. Whether he was mad genius or a sane, albeit eccentric one is up to debate, but it’s impossible to deny the depth of literary device that he poured into every single one of his works.
Born in London on November 28, 1757, Blake grew up reading the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare, and numerous Greek and Latin classics that have fallen by the wayside in modern times. The most amazing thing was that he was largely self-taught; poetry was merely a hobby to him amongst other passions of art and engraving.
Blake was one of the first to adopt the writings of the Romantic Period in Britain, going against recent history by concentrating more on the content of his work rather than form. Among his best known works are of course the Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1793) as well as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93) and The Book of Thel (1789).
Being a fan of William Blake, it’s virtually impossible to pick a favorite poem of his, especially since it’s so crucial to read the entirety of his works in order to explore how each poem is intertwined with the others. Rather than choosing and analyzing more renowned pieces such as “The Tyger” or “Auguries of Innocence,” I’ve chosen “The Chimney Sweeper,” a poem from Songs of Innocence.
I enjoy “The Chimney Sweeper” because of its unmasking of social evils as well as its connection to the rest of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Before going any further, I will say that one of the many themes surrounding these works is of innocence versus experience. Innocence is characterized as the imaginative ideal while experience is more of a somber reality of what has passed. Now, “The Chimney Sweeper” chronicles one’s poor child’s lament of the deplorable conditions of chimney sweeper. This was a detestable job-boys squeezing through chimneys rubbing away the skin on their knees and catching all kinds of sooty diseases. By employing such an innocent voice, Blake effectively speaks out against the evils of child labor and eventually helped to pass legislation leading to important child labor reforms.
The poem itself begins:
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 & in soot I sleep
By chanting “weep! weep!” Blake is already calling to mind the chant that will become “sweep! sweep!” Furthermore, we are introduced to the poem’s great irony: here Blake comments that white victims are turned black by the soot and so they become in others’ eyes mere creatures, the very people that they previously persecuted.
The second stanza goes:
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curl’d like a lamb’s 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.”
Children are stripped down and naked, one of the most innocent beings on Earth. Again Blake creates an exact opposite of the naked white cleanliness of a healthy child by immersing him in the dirty black soot. Furthermore, the boy, Tom, is stripped of his hair and ultimately his humanity. One might say that now the rest of his innocence has been stripped away, which creates a harder shell of a person in order to survive the harsh realities of his world.
Two stanzas later Blake writes in the fourth line in a dream that “He’d have God for his father & never want joy.” Blake portrayed God as the ultimate innocence, while the father character was the experience, and the child the innocence. By having God as his father, the boy would always know innocence and he would be forever euphoric.
The last stanza goes:
“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 and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
The last stanza provides the most chilling revelation to me. Essentially, Blake argues that if a person adapts to inhumanity by subsisting on dreams of innocence (“He’d have God for his father”), then it might be possible for that person to retain his or her humanity. Dreams are portrayed as thoughts of innocence as since it’s impossible to live humanely in real life, the only way a child can survive is if they retain their innocence through dreams. To me, that is a moving argument for an end to social evils.
Nurmi, Martin K. “Fact and Symbol in “The Chimney Sweeper” of Blake’s Songs of Innocence.” Blake; a Collection of Critical Essays. By Northrop Frye. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966. 15-22. Print.
“William Blake (1757 – 1827) : a Short Biography.” Manny & Suzanne Klepto: You Won’t Find It Cheaper Anywhere Else! Web. 18 Apr. 2011.