The Comparison of The Chimney Sweeper Poems by William Blake
The Chimney Sweeper poems by English Poet William Blake are two poems that reflect the cultural realities of the 18th century in England. They are unfortunately real depictions of young people from down and out working class families who are trying to cling to any sign of hope. They are climbing up the chimneys of well-off families to clean the soot by hand, as society and the government watched unaffected.
One would think that being a romantic poet helped to inspire William Blake’s ability to describe and write about the awful circumstances that the chimney sweeps dealt with, while using such imagery and staying so fluid with his words. He easily conveys to readers the social reality, that chimney sweepers back then were young and not aware of the dangers that were associated with their jobs, or that the labor was being forced upon them by their elders and society.
William Blake first wrote The Chimney Sweeper as part of a collection called Songs of Innocence in 1789 and a few years later wrote the second one, which is from Songs of Experience in 1794. One of the main similarities of the two poems is that they both evoke strong emotion and are beautifully written. References are made to family, God, death and the afterlife in both poems. Also in both the 1789 and the 1794 versions, the author has a very disapproving attitude towards the chimney sweeping business. Readers can see such dislike in such lines as “thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack, were all of them locked up in coffins of black” from Songs of Innocence and “A little black thing among the snow: Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!” (“The Chimney Sweeper poem-William Blake”) from Songs of Experience. These verses show visuals of innocent children being subjected to harsh working conditions. The government dealt with these issues later on by passing legislations that still were not followed for some time. Black is used in both poems to symbolize a sense of evil and danger that may eventually fall on the young sweepers. White is likewise used in both poems to symbolize the innocence of the sweeps, whose helplessness due to their family’s trouble and the social circumstances surrounding the time are taken advantage of by the chimney sweep business owners. Repetition of words, specifically the word “weep,” is used in both poems to stress the sad and grave conditions that they were subjected to. Besides the emotions brought on by color, there is also symbolism expressed in a dream by the sweeps in the Songs of Innocence version, especially in the following lines:
And by came an Angel who had a bright key
And he opened the coffins & set them all free
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun (Songs of Innocence) This stanza celebrates life, or the way it should be for kids. These verses jump out at the reader and suddenly you can identify with a carefree child, who can freely play in the fields and enjoy nature, without being confined to a job or any labor intensive activity. There is joy and optimism in this stanza, even if it is a dream. The Chimney Sweeper from the Songs of Innocence also includes lines like “They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind” which is lighthearted and airy and again references nature. Then the tone shifts dramatically in the last stanza, when the chimney sweepers stop daydreaming and continue cleaning the chimneys. In the last stanza, Blake shows still inner optimism in the young sweeps, even as they buckle back down to do work that sends shivers down their spine. In some way, the ending sends out the message that even though these children are practically being abused and forced into this line of work, that they can always find a way to cope, by having a positive mindset that they will someday move past this horrible time can keep them going.
In contrast to the Songs of Innocence, the Songs of Experience sends out a message of despair, bitterness, and sadness. It begins with Blake’s depiction of the typical chimney sweeper as “A little black thing among the snow” (“The Chimney Sweeper poem-William Blake”) using contrast and symbolism. Snow refers to the cold feelings being felt by the young and helpless children who must work in such harmful work conditions. The author then places the attention on the parents neglect and abandonment. Blake drives home the point that subjecting kids to child labor especially when it is as risky as cleaning chimneys is shameful and infringing on their rights. His feelings are that the parents should be nurturing these children and facing their responsibilities not just in the way they do with the church or the community but to their own children. Irony and sarcasm are evident from the beginning of this poem and are some of Blake’s trademarks when it comes to pointing out the wrong doings of society or the government. The lines, “They clothed me in the clothes of death, and taught me to sing the notes of woe” (“The Chimney Sweeper poem-William Blake”) clearly expresses the deep negative feelings which the author feels for people an institutions that subject poor, innocent kids to work that is very dangerous. In the last stanza of The Chimney Sweeper (Experience), the author condemns the clergy or church for being so complacent and irresponsible when it comes to letting the parents subject their kids to terrible and often deadly chimney sweeps.
The main difference between the two poems is that while the first version from Songs of Innocence sounds hopeful and optimistic in the midst of everything, the second version from Songs of Experience is a bitter and sad take on the same subject matter.
The poems portray how during the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution, that London saw the rise of chimney sweeps. They were usually children who were sold or orphaned mostly by their own parents. They were perfect for the job, as they were small enough to fit into the chimneys and do the risky cleaning job needed. “Because many children got stuck and died in chimneys that narrowed at the top… the Queen of England supposedly offered a reward for a better way of cleaning the chimneys” (“Chimney Sweep Story”).
As only a person who experienced first-hand what it was like to be poor and work, William Blake wrote about his beliefs and sentiments, especially Victorian England and their government and society. He battled for social reform and people’s rights. The reality though of the 18th century in England, was that it was a tough time, without government or religious scrutiny. Poverty, moral and ethical issues and the unjust treatment of children were common and prevalent themes that Blake felt needed to be discussed in The Chimney Sweeper poems, and for good reason.