A Tale of Two Chimney Sweepers

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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...
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