March 22, 2015
Children in Poetry
William Blake was an engraver and poet throughout his lifetime. Even though his poems were not successful during his lifetime, he is considered as a great Romantic poet presently. Common themes among his poems are children and their treatment. Songs of Innocence was published in 1789 and Songs of Experience was published in 1794. In both of these texts children appear frequently and together the collections show the two opposite conditions of the human soul. Songs of Innocence express nothing but innocence itself. Blake shows the happiness of childhood which is in harmony with nature and God. Innocence is a state of bliss, but this bliss cannot last forever. An individual has to go through life and he is tested by his sufferings and his experiences, which Blake shows through the Songs of Experience. He uses the concept of innocence and experience to link both of these works together. All of the poems included in both collections have deep meanings on life and society, which we often see with the help of children. Blake's poetry is not directly considered literature for children, but the simple language of the poems as well as the characteristics of the poems make it appear to be. The children presented in his poems serve a thematic as well as a social purpose for the more mature readers. He highlights the mistreatment of children in society through his poems, as they have a social reform tone. He shows how society has become corrupt, which allows readers to see how the imagination, innocence, physical and emotional needs of the youth become compromised as a result. While he does show this, the main purpose of these poems are not to express the tainted psychology of a child, but to distinguish that he believes the world is becoming more unprincipled and unethical. Several of his poems show that children's innate behavior and innocence has become ruined because of their parents, and other forms of authority, who accept their miserable fates for them. During the Industrial Revolution it was very common for young children to work such excruciating factory jobs. England was transforming from a rural society to an urban one. Because of this, poverty rates increased tremendously. As society suffered, many individuals realized it was time for a social reform. Michael Sadler is an example of an individual who brought about change. He is the author of the Sadler Report, issued in 1833, which includes hundreds of testimonies about the horrific conditions factory workers endured. Matthew Crabtree is one of the many people who contributed his testimony. He began working in a factory at the tender age of eight. He would work fourteen hour shifts which resulted in him being, "very much fatigued at night, when I left my work; so much so that I sometimes should have slept as I walked I I had not stumbled and started awake again; and so sick often that I could not eat, and what I did eat I vomited" (Thomas, pg. 179). Working such long hours had a major negative effect on Crabtree's health as he could neither eat nor sleep. The children were expected to be very efficient as they worked. Their supervisors cared very little about their wellbeing as they only cared about making money. Because of this, they would beat the children excessively with a strap. The children would get beat if they were late to work, if they were slow with their work, or if they did not listen to every single instruction they were given. Crabtree stated that "I was generally beaten when I happened to be too late; and when I got up in the morning the apprehension of that was so great, that I used to run, and cry all the way as I went to the mill" (Thomas, pg. 181). These children lived in fear every single day; they did not get to live a happy childhood. Supervisors were convinced that these brutal beatings were necessary because they believed that beatings were the only way to keep children in control. The health and mental stability were not the only things that deteriorated among these children; education and faith also suffered. Because of their hectic work schedules, children were not able to go to school or attend Sunday school. Sunday was the only day off Crabtree had and as a result he, "very often slept till it was too late for school time or for divine worship" (Thomas, pg. 184). Values that were once given such importance were compromised as the youth were not taught the significance of these values. A direct result of the publication of the Sadler Report was the Factory Act of 1833. This law set limitations on the total amount of hours children could work, and set up regular inspections. The Sadler Report is not the only example of a published work that revealed the horrors of child labor. William Blake's poems also focused on the mistreatment of children during this time period. Songs of Innocence and of Experience both contain poems about youthful chimney sweepers. During Blake's lifetime young children born into poverty would often be sold and apprenticed to the trade of chimney sweeping. Young children would be sent up dark and dangerous chimneys to clean them; not only was this traumatic for the children, but this also proved to be a major health issue. Due to the excessive soot exposure, many different forms of respiratory diseases and stunted growth affected the children. With these two poems, Blake dictates what he saw what was happening in London, by providing two different perspectives of the social plight of the children. In the first Chimney Sweeper, which is found in Innocence, the narrator loses his mother when he is an infant, and his father sells him off. Thus the narrator is left to live in a life where, "..chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep" (Blake, pg. 89). Even though the poem is in the perspective of the narrator, the main focus is Tom Dacre. Blake expresses innocence and purity through Tom. Like the narrator, Tom is also a chimney sweeper, even though he is younger. When his head is shaved, he starts to cry. The narrator tells him not to as, "...when your head is bare, / You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair" (Blake, pg. 89). Even though these boys do not have a true family or know what it means to have a family, they care for each other. Blake also compares a bald Tom to a lamb. Lambs are the best representation of purity as Jesus himself came to the world as a Lamb of God who would take away the sins of all mankind. It is here that Blake starts to incorporate religion into his poem. Religion is incorporated again in the poem when Tom has a dream. In his dream he see's "That thousands of Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack/ Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black" (Blake, pg. 89). Blake gives these names to the thousands of children who clean chimneys as these names are very generic. He is trying to show that there are so many children living a hard lifestyle, especially since they do not have any adult figure who cares about them. In Tom's dream, angels come and open these coffins and introduce the boys to a new, wonderful life. "Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run, / And wash in a river and shine in the Sun" (Blake, pg. 89). The Angel promises Tom that if he is a good boy, he will be rewarded with this life. The Angel tells him that "he'd have God for his father & never want joy" (Blake, pg. 89). Tom will find the happiness and the father figure he yearns for in God. Tom awakes happy, no longer upset about being covered in soot and having a bald head. He has new hope and a new perspective on life. This shows his innocence and purity, as he accepts God so readily. Even though he has not received the lifestyle he was promised yet, just the idea of it makes Tom more happy than he has ever been. However, these lines show the reader how easily the innocent can readily accept reasoning without questioning it first. Tom accepts the fact that God will save him in the next world, but he does not ponder upon the fact that he still has to suffer in the world he is currently living in. Blake uses this part of the poem to show how easily brain-washed the innocent can become. The innocent put all of their trust in the ones who they believe are wise and principled, and they are not aware of what difficulties may arise as a result. The Chimney Sweeper found in Songs of Experience is dramatically different from the one that is found in Innocence. The latter highlights innocence and hope while the former is much darker and more dreary. The child in the poem is aware just how complex and hopeless his situation is and he knows exactly who to blame. "Because I was happy upon the heath, / And smil'd among the winter's snow; / They clothed me in the clothes of death, / And taught me to sing the notes of woe"' (Blake, pg. 92). His clothes are described as death, as the soot has changed the color to complete black. Black is the color of mourning; the soot that has altered his clothing, is going to be what will kill him. He puts the blame for his hardships on his parents. Because he seems to be happy, his parents think it is acceptable to place him in such horrible conditions and, "They think they have done me no injury, / And are gone to praise God & Priest & King, / Who make up a heaven of our misery" (Blake, pg. 92). His parents go to Church to pay tribute to their Creator, who is the All Mighty and source of happiness in order to achieve eternal salvation but they fail to see their hypocrisy. How can they be saved by God if they have forgotten their responsibilities as parents? The last line of the poem also suggests that the child sees fault in the Church. He is suggesting that the Church benefits from his suffering which allows it to "...make up a heaven of our misery" (Blake, pg. 92) by founding its stability on pain. Often when individuals are in a dilemma or are in pain, they turn to God. The Church will benefit if these chimney sweepers become devout believers throughout their lifetime. While the children mentioned in the first poem are naive and believe any reasoning they are told, this child does not. He sees the contradiction between his situation and the reality of society. Because there is no hopeful imagery of Paradise and assurance that life will be better, this version of this poem rightfully belongs in The Songs of Experience. The child who is mentioned does not see innocence or hope in anything; rather his hard experiences have taught him a hard truth about life, and society. When these two poems are compared, readers can distinguish the differences between innocence and experience. The child in Innocence does not actually understand the life he is living. He does not question why his life is the way it is because he accepts it. He is in fact innocent because he does not have a true understanding of life. The child in Experience does and that is why he seeks for control and knowledge. He sees that society and the Church are controlling his life completely and it is as if he does not have the opportunity to change this. He boldly states the truth about his life without being interrupted by dreams or promises of salvation that are seen in the first poem. Another poem found in these collections that is similar to the nature of The Chimney Sweeper is called Holy Thursday. Like the children in "The Chimney Sweeper" poems, the children in Holy Thursday are orphaned and suffering. The title refers to the Catholic belief that the Thursday before Easter is considered a holy day because it commemorates the Last Supper which was held by Jesus. In the version found in The Songs of Innocence seems just as pure and faultless as the other accompanying poems, but below the surface it highlights the hypocrisy of the Church. This poem contrasts the "innocent faces" (Blake, pg. 89) and the "grey headed beadles" (Blake, pg. 89). The children mentioned in this poem are poor, and they are brought to St. Paul's Cathedral as an act of charity and kindness. It is understood that these children are poor because "their innocent faces [are] clean" (Blake, pg. 89), which implies that their faces do not appear to be this way regularly. "O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!/ Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own./ The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,/ Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands." (Blake, pg. 89). The use of the word "multitude" three times notes the high number of children that are living in poverty in England, but they bring "radiance" on the Church as they are "multitudes of lambs". While this seems like a positive attribute, this shows the hypocrisy of the Church. They are taking advantage of these children by feeding them and cleaning them, just to show them off. The narrator sees this hypocrisy and he reminds the Church to practice what they preach by saying, "...wise gaurdians of the poor;/ Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door" (Blake, pg. 90). He implores the church leaders to show compassion towards the poor, hungry children that crowd the streets of London. He states that they should not turn a cold shoulder towards them, but they should feed and comfort them similar to how Jesus fed the poor and hungry. While the deceit of the Church is an underlying factor in the Songs of Innocence version, it is clear and straightforward in the version found in the Songs of Experience. This version of the poem starts off with the lines, "Is this a holy thing to see, / In a rich and fruitful land,/ Babes reduced to misery,/Fed with cold and usurous hand?" (Blake, pg. 91). In a land that is so abundant with useful resources, how can young children be so neglected and treated insensitively? This is Blake's way of showing that society has become so sidetracked by material possessions that it does not pay attention to issues that deserve attention. The use of the word "holy" shows the hypocrisy of the Church. It has been tradition for the Church to be a source of kindness and hope to those who truly need it. Blake notices that the Church has become so distracted with acquiring power that it is allowing children to suffer. The children are cared by individuals who are neither kind nor charitable. Blake uses the selfish nature of those who are willing to exploit others in order to express the faults of the ones in power. It is also ironic that in a land that is so "rich and fruitful", children live in a land where "their sun does never shine,/ And their fields are bleak & bare" (Blake, pg. 91). They are forced to live in a land that is filled with misery, which leads to the destruction of their innocence. To live in a land that is "rich and fruitful" is an opportunity that is given to the wealthy and educated, not to children who live in slums. Both versions of Holy Thursday are different from both versions of The Chimney Sweeper. Holy Thursday does not contain any dialogue from children; this prevents the readers from directly understanding their mindset and their feelings regarding their present situation. The poems are "narrated" by an unknown reader. While the poems do focus on the lives of children, they focus more on forms of power. Both poems highlight the duplicity of the Church, an institution that should be pure and holy at all times. Blake shows us that society cannot succeed when poverty rates increase to such high levels. The Chimney Sweeper and Holy Thursday are compliment each other as they highlight the flaws of society in their own way. Children should not be spending their childhood suffering and adults and other forms of authority should not be ignoring and abusing them. Without poems of this nature and reports like The Sadler Report, the current system at the time would not have been reformed. With the help of the Factory Act of 1833, children had ceased to work dangerous jobs in factories and as chimney sweeps. The abusive forms of authority Blake mentions in his poems also ceased to endorse child labor as laws were passed to protect the ones who suffered. Works Cited
Blake, William. "Songs of Innocence." Honors Literature Anthology Brooklyn: Honors Program, Spring 2015. 89-90. Print
---. "Songs of Experience." Honors Literature Anthology
Brooklyn: Honors Program, Spring 2015. 91-92. Print
Thomas, Michael. "The Sadler Report". Sources of World Civilization. Eds. Johnson, Oliver and Halverson, James. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2008. 179-192. Print.
Booth, Charles. Life and Labour of The People in London. Vol. 1. AMS, 1970. Print.