Analysis of William Blake’s The Chimney Sweeper

The two chimney-sweeper poems in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience belong to the explicitly paired poems in the two books. In most of these pairings, the later song mounts a fiercer and more overt critique of the forces that have brought innocence into the disaster of experience than does the earlier song. But for just this reason the earlier song tends to be subtler, and the contrast between them also suggests that one of the losses in the move from innocence to experience is that of the subtlety— and the understanding by others that subtlety depends on—that characterizes the Songs of Innocence.

This contrast is particularly true in the “Chimney Sweeper” songs. Both purport to be in the voice of a child chimney sweeper. Chimney sweepers, or sweeps, were particularly egregious examples of the child labor endemic to England at the start of the Industrial Revolution; children were used because they were small enough to scramble up and down the poisonously soot-choked chimneys they cleaned. They would go around advertising themselves with their cries. In both poems Blake makes those cries of “Sweep sweep!” into lisps, to derive the grim irony by which they call out, “Weep weep!”

The latter version, in being explicit, is psychologically less creditable. The poem puts into the child’s mouth words that he could never say and indeed could not think. He is happy, he says, and does dance and sing; and part of what is heartbreaking is the fact that he does not know how heartbreaking he is. But of course, this means he cannot say it, as he does in the poem. The “Experience” version of the song speaks for the chimney sweep but does not show him, nor does it give us a representation of him, as the “Innocence” version does. The “Experience” version tells us how to understand the “Innocence” version and offers a kind of interpretation of it. But the interpretation it offers is itself affected by experience and is partial in the sense that it only attends to the bitterness of the situation, not the sweetness of the sweeps themselves.

Before turning to the “Innocence” version, it should be noted in passing that the two sweeps cannot be the same person, since in the earlier poem the sweep’s mother has died (and his father has sold him into labor), while in the later song the sweep’s parents are both at church. This is a grim and bitter piece of irony: The form of their piety comes at the cost of genuine love and duty. Blake’s critique of the established Church of England is as clear here as it is in the “Experienced” version of “Holy Thursday” and, especially, “London.” Both “Chimney-Sweeper” poems deplore parental nontenderness, but their lack of tenderness differs. In the later poem the parents are less devastated by poverty than by an illusion which they must bear some responsibility for complying with and therefore sustaining.

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The “Innocence” version of the poem also criticizes hypocritical piety, but in a subtler and far more devastating way, a way that its speaker is not aware of. It is just because he is not aware of the way what he says is bound to affect any decent adult reader that this version is so powerful. The child sweep accepts with an angelic mildness all the horrors that he has experienced, though he does not know that they are horrors. (Charles Dickens will produce the same effect in novels such as Oliver Twist.) His song ends with a chilling moral: “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” The moral is chilling because it is false: He believes a false promise made by the self-serving adult authorities who exploit the children’s trust and hope.

The tone with which the child describes himself and his fellow sweeps is matter of fact, from the poem’s first line. That mothers die is a sad truth he already knows— for him the only question is when. More strikingly, he accepts it as an equivalent truth that fathers sell their children (into apprenticeship), as though this, too, is a natural fact and not a social disgrace. Part of what makes him so winning, and so heartbreaking is that he displays no self-pity: Whatever sorrow he shows is for his fellow-sweep Tom Dacre. Again, in describing Tom, he is matter-of-fact about the way Tom’s lamblike hair has been shorn away, and we are to think (though the child does not) of another song of innocence, “The Lamb,” which represents Christ as a childlike innocent. He comforts Tom, just as he himself deserves comforting, and his comfort seems to stay with Tom, who has a wonderful and telling dream. The chimneys, we find, are actually coffins—which is Blake’s point, though the child himself does not make the connection. An angel comes and sets the sweeps free. Tom’s dream shows him to be as generous as the speaker is himself: They want freedom for their friends, for all the sweeps, and they want the love of their friends.

The real depth of the poem is in the representation of the angel, who is by no means a figure of whom we should think well. It turns out the angel has not really freed the sweeps but has given them a vision of future reward. If they are good, they will be granted joy. But in this context, being good means being docile—obeying the social authorities that command the sweeps to their labor. This is why the angel offers the chillingly ambiguous promise that if the sweeps behave, they will have God for a father. Because we remember that God should already be a father, we recall how the poem represents fathers: “. . . my father sold me.” The song (though not its singer) represents God as being just as evil or greedy or cruel a father as the sweep’s father, and what the sweep thinks is a promise is in fact a threat. It is not a threat the sweep has to understand: All he has to understand is that he should do his duty now in order to hope for a reward that will only come later. And the dream sent by the angel, or by the church, or by religious authority in general, works: The sweeps awaken before dawn to go back to their horrendous work.

The speaker explains their ingenuous willingness to work with the moral already quoted, but it is worth noticing what the implicit converse of the moral is: “Harm will come to those who do not do their duty.” We see that the threat of harm or violence is what ultimately keeps the sweeps, and the poor, in line. They do not realize that it could be otherwise: They think the authorities are protecting them from the harm with which they are, in fact, both causing and threatening them.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Romanticism

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