The poem "The Chimney Sweeper," in both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, protests the living conditions, working conditions, and the overall treatment of young chimney sweeps in the cities of England. Martin Nurmi discusses the plight of the chimney sweep extensively in his essay "Fact and Symbol in 'The Chimney Sweeper.'" In 1788, there was an attempt to pass an act to improve the treatment and working conditions of these young children. This would have made many people, including Blake, aware of the lives that these chimney sweeps would live. For instance, they slept in cellars on bags of the soot that they had swept (Nurmi 17), and they were poorly fed and clothed. They would sweep the chimneys naked so their masters would not have to replace clothing that would have been ruined in the chimneys, and they were rarely bathed. Those who were not killed by fires in chimneys usually died early anyway of either respiratory problems or cancer of the scrotum. Sweeping chimneys also left children with ankles and spines deformed and twisted kneecaps from climbing up chimneys that were about nine inches in diameter (Nurmi 16). Many people viewed them as subhuman creatures and not a part of human society.
In Songs of Innocence, Blake features in "The Chimney Sweeper" innocence represented by the speaker (the slightly older chimney sweep), Tom, and all the other sweeps. This innocence is exploited and oppressed, and those who are being exploited are unaware of the oppression. The narrator is a chimney sweep whose mother died and was sold by his father at a very young age, as implied by the lines "And my father sold me while my tongue / could scarcely cry 'weep weep weep weep!'" (2-3). The phrase "in soot I sleep" (4), refers to the living conditions of the sweeps. The poem goes on to talk about Tom Dacre and his dream, an important part of the poem. He dreams of the other chimney sweepers being locked in black coffins, symbolic of the lives that the sweeps lived, being poor outcasts in society and having stained unwashed skin and often disfigured bodies. The angel opening the coffins and freeing the sweeps shows the freeing of Tom and other sweeps from the oppressive lifestyle. The reference to being white and the bags being left behind represents a complete escape from this oppression including the soot stained skin and the bags of tools and soot which they carried by day and on which they slept at night. One may also interpret this dream as the coffins representing their literal deaths, and the chimney sweeps are not free from the oppression until the afterlife. When the angel tells Tom that "if he'd be a good boy, / He'd have God for his father and never want joy" (19-20), he gives Tom hope that if he is good and does his job, God will be his father and bless him in the next life. The poem concludes with the narrator and his firm belief that if they are obedient and do their duty, all will be well. This last idea expressed emphasizes that he is in the state of innocence and is unaware that he is a victim.
In Songs of Experience, the child in "The Chimney Sweeper" understands that he is a victim and tells the observer (most likely the Bard in the "Introduction" to Experience) who sees the "little black thing" (1) in the snow weeping. Unlike the boy in Innocence, both parents of this child are living and have gone to the church to pray, an overt criticism of the Church of England since chimney sweepers were not welcome in church (Nurmi 18). The boy believes that his pious parents sold him as a chimney sweeper because he was happy. Clothing him "in the clothes of death" (7) refers to his life as a social outcast and his being destined to an early death because of the working and living conditions of his profession. However, his parents believe that they have done no harm and have "gone to praise God and his priest and king" (11). This is not only a criticism of the parents who sell their children into this life but of the Church of England and the government for condoning the ill treatment of these chimney sweeps. He also seems to be criticizing God himself, who seems so cruel for allowing those who practice this treatment to go unpunished.
For these poems, an understanding of the ideas of one poem, as well as the ideas that it lacks, illuminates the other poem. This gives the reader a different interpretation of the poem than if one of these "The Chimney Sweeper" poems would be read alone. For instance, in Songs of Innocence, the chimney sweeps are offered hope by the outcome of Tom Dacre's dream. The narrator offers comfort that no harm or punishment will come to those who obey. Also, Tom is used to illustrate another point. He is originally frightened but later feels "happy and warm" (23), showing that one can experience a certain degree of happiness in the even in the worst of circumstances. These ideas of hope and happiness place further emphasis on the bitterness of the chimney sweep in Songs of Experience. He understands his circumstances and sees no hope of freedom from his oppression. Instead of believing that obedience will prevent punishment, he perceives his current circumstance as a punishment for being happy with his childhood. Also, he does not seem to endorse the Christian idea of having joy in the midst of adversity; he sees little if any reason to be happy in his miserable predicament. In fact, the God that his parents praise seems as cruel as others who allow children to be mistreated in such a way. These examples illustrate how an understanding of the themes of "The Chimney Sweeper" in Songs of Innocence can further illuminate the some of the ideas in Songs of Experience.
However, in Songs of Experience, many of the ideas are more realistic in some ways. The chimney sweeper understands that he has been placed in a situation where he is isolated from society and will almost certainly die young because of the hazards of his profession. He mentions established institutions such as the Church of England and the government in the same line with his mother and father, who think they have done no harm. These institutions could have used their power to improve life for the chimney sweeps, but they have made little if any effort to do so. The understanding that this particular sweep possess emphasizes the naivete of the speaker in "The Chimney Sweeper" of Innocence, who believes that everything will be fine if he is obedient even though his obedience will eventually cost him his own life. The naive child is more accepting of his circumstances, and the narrator himself does not seem to see anyone as being at fault but whose faith in God is a constant source of hope.
This example of the "Chimney Sweeper" poems in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience illustrates William Blake's view that neither naive innocence nor bitter experience is completely accurate. There is a higher state of understanding that includes both innocence and experience. Both are need to complete one another to form the more accurate view. In this case, it is an expression on the poet's view of the political issue dealing with chimney sweeps that dominates both poems. Although the viewpoints of each poem are different, both show plight of the majority of the chimney sweepers in the cities of England, and while one endorses hope and the other bitterness, the reader must acknowledge that something needs to be done to improve life for these children.
Published by K.L. Reiser
K.L. Reiser is a freelance writer and an editor. She enjoys reading and writing about many things, including fiction, historical topics and computers. She looks forward to sharing her work and reading the wo... View profile
- Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper.” Songs of Experience. Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. 2nd ed. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998. 75. Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper.” Songs of Innocence. Romanticism: An An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. 2nd ed. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998. 63-64. Nurmi, Martin K. “Fact and Symbol in ‘The Chimney Sweeper.’” Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Northrop Frye. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall,1966. 15-22.
- The chimney sweep in Songs of Innocence seeks joy in adversity.
- The chimney sweep in Songs of Experience criticizes and rages against those who oppress him.
- One must understand Innocence and Experience to have a balanced view on the issue.