Social Issue, Symbols, and Themes of Blake’s “the Chimney Sweeper” Poems

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Manivone Sayasone
Professor Nicoll-Johnson
English 6B 1922
15 March 2013
Social Issue, Symbols, and Themes of Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” Poems During the seventeenth century, people in England substituted burning wood with coal to use their fireplaces to avoiding paying hearth taxes. The burning of coal left soot on the interior walls of the fireplaces that needed to be removed to keep the fireplaces clean. Homes would be polluted with fumes of the coal residue if the fireplaces weren’t cleaned regularly (“A History of Chimney Sweeping”). Since children were small enough to climb inside the narrow interior of the chimneys, they were employed as chimney sweeps that worked in harsh conditions (Nurmi 17). As a result, the lives of young chimney sweeps in London during the eighteenth century stirred William Blake to write two poems that reveal his outlook towards their work experience. “The Chimney Sweeper” poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience contained themes and symbols regarding a severe social issue. The lack of labor laws in England enabled employers such as master sweeps to have their child apprentices work at the age of six or seven. Some apprentices became sweeps at ages four and five (Nurmi 16). Martin K. Nurmi explained, “Unlike the usual apprenticeship, in which the fee is paid to the master, binding children—both boys and girls—to a master sweep usually brought a payment ranging from twenty shillings to five guineas from the master to the parent, if there was one, or to whoever had the child at the time” (16). Orphans, especially, were compelled to work as sweeps. Since the sixteenth century, the sweeps worked extensively for hours yet were still given poor treatment. In “exchange for a home and food and water,” they worked as “indentured servants to their master” (“A History of Chimney Sweeping”). For seven years, the children were apprenticed as sweeps despite the fact they became too big to climb chimneys by their seventh year. The result of a sweep’s apprenticeship did not guarantee them the opportunity to become qualified artisans since work was insufficient. Instead, the sweeps normally relied on the church to support them financially because the injuries and illnesses they received as apprentices disabled them from doing physical labor (Nurmi 16). Nurmi described, “Chimney sweeping left children with kneecaps twisted and spines and ankle deformed, from crawling up chimneys as small as nine or even seven inches in diameter, with ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’ of the scrotum resulting from the constant irritation of the soot, with respiratory ailments, and eye inflammations” (16). Occurrences of sweeps falling from chimneys were common as well (“A History of Chimney Sweeping”). Additionally, the duration of the sweeps’ labor was extensive. They start working before the sun rose by offering their services to people on the streets until noon. When it was time to stop working, the sweeps had to carry “heavy bags of soot” back “to the cellars and attics where they slept” (Nurmi 17). The sweeps slept on the bags they used to collect the soot they swept. Although the sweeps were exposed to soot daily, they often worked six months without washing (Nurmi 17). The treatment of the chimney sweeps was not revealed in Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper poems.” Thus, a reader who is not aware of the treatment of young chimney sweeps would not fully understand the themes and symbols Blake included in his poems. After examining the social issue that negatively affected the chimney sweepers of Blake’s time however, a reader will not only comprehend the poems but, he or she may also appreciate how Blake used poetry to express his perspective on how his society failed to care for its youths as well as his sympathy for chimney sweepers. “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence, for example, was written to appeal to the readers’ sympathy. The first stanza read, “When my mother died I was...
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