Romanticism was an early and artistic way of looking at things which ended with the Victorian age. Romantic’s supported freedom of thought, movement and life style and were against oppression of any kind. They saw children as the future and were against child labor and the snatching up of childhood. They also felt that all people should have rights and should be respected. William Blake was no exception to this ideology. Being born in a time of expanding industrial revolution, Blake viewed industrialization as a curse for enslaving people, and allowing their masters to treat them badly.
He also had strong views on seeing children as innocent. This caused him to hate child labor and show disgust to the world he was living in. It is no wonder then, that Blake preached his romantic views in his poetry and paintings. In 1789, William Blake had his first book, Songs of Innocence, published. Five years later, he added Songs of Experience to be included in publishing the two books as one whole piece of literature.
Each book is a collection of poems that conveys Blake’s theory about innocence which states that, when one is born into the world, he or she is free from sin; but after the corruption of the world taints one’s soul, he or she becomes a sinner. Blake was also a devout Christian and stressed The Old Testament over The New Testament. Blake recognized the great inequalities of society and wanted to expose them. He saw the inappropriateness of the Church and lack of moral standing, this is in relation to mistreatment of the vulnerable in society, such as chimney sweepers and orphans.
William Blake, jaded as he was, was a genius and used his poetry to portray his philosophy on life. The use of children is a prominent theme in a number of Blake’s poems. In his two “Chimney Sweeper” poems, one from Songs of Innocence and one from Songs of Experience, Blake show how the 18th Century church called upon children to passively accept their lot and pray to God. From a careful reading of these two “Chimney Sweeper” poems, it is apparent that Blake sees the world through the eyes of a child, and embraces the innocence of the young.
Particularly awful, in Blake’s eyes, is the way the church gets the children to accept their victimization. It is especially important to note that, in Blake’s society and in Blake’s time, there was no separation between the church and state. The church provided the religious justification for state and corporate exploitation of the poor. Thus, one can clearly see that these two “Chimney Sweeper” poems addresses the hardships that children faced which made them destined to the life of a chimney sweeper during the 18th century in London.
The poems also refer to the sufferings of ALL child laborers, and can be considered as an attack on the Establishment that maintained poverty. Further, the poems reflect Blake’s political stance; he is actually attacking what he considers injustice, evil, and suffering in the world. In “The Chimney Sweeper” poem from Songs of Innocence, we are introduced to a little boy who is being sold into hardship by his father after his mother died. He was poor, uneducated, and could not even speak when he was forced to sweep chimneys and sleep in soot.
Similarly, in “The Chimney Sweeper” poem from Songs of Experience, we are introduced to a boy who is facing hardship because his parents are unable to see his pain, since they are busy praying for themselves in church. The similarities shared between these two poems are ingenious when combined with the differences. For example, Blake uses the word “weep” in each of the poems to illustrate immaturity. The speaker in each poem is very young; but the speaker in the Songs of Innocence version is too young to pronounce the word “sweep” (hence “’weep”), and in the Songs of Experience version, the speaker is actually weeping. The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence also includes a dream in which an angel frees the orphans from their misery, whereas in the Songs of Experience version, the speaker is a young man who has relentlessly been left in his misery while his parents are at church praying. Blake’s attack on the church is clearly represented by the angel figure in the “Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence. As deceptive as the church can be, the angel exemplifies the false promise of afterlife bliss.
The angel claims that only if the sweeper is “a good boy” (19) he will be content and “never want of joy”. (20) Blake shows his indignation of this concept through the use of irony; “So if all do their duty they need not fear harm” (24) indicating that children should be cherished not abused, their innocence should be preserved, not exploited. Again, Blake is urging people to fight against injustice and to right some of the wrongs of society. Therefore, their injust plight should not be treated as a way to earn a pleasant afterlife.
Their treatment should be viewed as abhorrent and discontinued. As is evident here, Blake always stood up for the poor and oppressed against the establishment of his time. Blake also, emphasizes an ironic connection between both naive and mischievous children with the use of heavenly, joyful images versus dark, morbid images. For example, in “The Chimney Sweeper,” from the Songs of Innocence, Blake describes a boy with hair that even “the soot cannot spoil” (8) as having a dream that his friends were locked inside the chimney, but “an Angel who had a bright key, / … pen’d the coffins & set them all free” (13-14). However, from the Songs of Experience counterpart, Blake does not capture the purity and whiteness of youth, but portrays a child as “A little black thing among the snow. ” (1) It is quite sad that the chimney sweeper is not even attributed the characteristics of a child, and is just referred to as a “little black thing” (1), showing its diminutive stance not only in stature but also in society. Class distinction is depicted in both “Chimney Sweepers” poems.
As the speaker in “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence describes his lifestyle, we can see clearly “That thousand of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack” (11) are a bunch of young boys who are poor and of the same social class. Likewise, the sweeper from Songs of Experience is a poor boy, who has no family to reply on and no financial support. This puts him at a disadvantage, leaving him no choice, but to sweep chimneys “And Smil’d among the winter’s snow” (6) while he “sing the notes of woe. ” (8) Blake uses these boys to illustrate how they are at a disadvantage because of their poor condition.
They have no money, and no power, leaving them with no social stature as well. They are forced to work, even if it is not desirable, and they cannot complain because there is no alternative for the poor, as the saying goes: Money talks, everything else walks. More ideas about the exploitation of children by the society is evident in “The Chimney Sweeper” poem of Songs of Innocence where, the child in this poem seems to have accepted his fate and is not motivated to change his own suffering. However the child is motivated to help minimize the suffering of others, “Hush Tom, never mind it. (7) The use of the soft soothing ‘hush’ creates an image of the chimney sweeper as being old and wise beyond his years and gives him a protective, fatherly quality despite his age. Again, Blake draws our attention to the ideas of child labor, as he is motivated by seeing their suffering in the increasingly industrial world he lived in. It is worthy to note that children believe everything that is said to them, thus the child in this poem actually thinks that what he is told to do, will cause him no need to “fear harm. (24) Similarly, “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience develops the same situation as “ The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence collection, but it is from a different perspective. In this poem, there are clearly three different views of the sweeps situation; his own; his parents and an observer. From reading this poem it is clear that the young sweeper feels exploited that his parents are self justifying, seeking only to pacify their own consciences and that the observer feels both pity and outrage.
In the very manner that Blake explores issues of child exploitation and selling in the “The Chimney Sweeper” of Songs of Innocence, “The Chimney Sweeper” of Songs of Experience does the same, but puts more emphasis on the responsibility of the parents in putting their child in such a position of vulnerability. Through the eyes of children, Blake does not convey parents as a part of a family that raises their children with love and care, but as a group of individuals who mindlessly partake in their religious devotion by “going up to church to pray” (4).
Parents here want to save their own souls, but don’t care about the damning of their child to a short life of misery. Within this poem is an example of people who are obviously not motivated by human suffering, as the child’s parents ignore the feelings of their child, “and because I am happy and dance and sing/ they think they have done me no injury. ” (9-10) Here, Blake has characterized the child through typical infantile verbs “dance and sing” (9) although, this is contrasted by the feelings of the child which are masked by its actions.
A point is also made by Blake about the role of the church in such social issues and, how organized religion plays a major role in the actions of people. Blake shows us how the organized church encourages parents to act upon the evident suffering of their child and the children around them in society, when they allow the parents to come inside its building to pray when they should be protecting their child from all harm. Finally Blake is emphasizing to the reader once more those who are responsible for the child’s pain and sorrows.
Blake also laments on how religion can be so powerful to motivate an individual to bear difficulties. In “The Chimney Sweeper” poem from Songs of Innocence, the boy believes in a “God for his father” (20) who observes and counts every singles act. He has faith which is spoiled by the institution of capitalism, which works as a repressive ideology to motivate the boy to be a passive good worker. The boy should only be concerned with doing his duty and nothing else. This is hidden from the boy, as he can just see the shinning bright “Sun” (16) and “the angel who had a bright key” (13) in his dream.
The boy does what the angel has asked; to be a good worker, therefore, he will “never want joy. ” (20) Having nothing else in life, the boy keeps his faith, but this dream keeps him away from the awareness of his socioeconomic oppression and, in turn guarantees the future of beneficial oppressors. Furthermore, Blake goes on to make yet another, contrast between innocence and experience when the chimney sweeper of Songs of Experience says, “they clothe me in the clothes of death” (7) indicating that when the child is naked, he is innocent, and since they clothed him they are forcing him into experience.
However, the church does not care about the young boys, since they make themselves a “heaven” (12) out of the “misery” (12) of these little boys. In conclusion, it is evident that living in a world without media and technological advances, William Blake was able to use his poetry as a powerful tool for social comment. This is particularly evident in his two same name poems: “The Chimney Sweeper. ” Like all of the poems in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, Blake was able to use these two poems to attack the hypocrisy of the Church and of the wider Establishment that maintained poverty.
He was very successful in bringing the world before his readers as raw and unmasked. By depicting the awful condition and future of the boys in both poems, Blake was able to condemn the capitalist society of his time. He was also able to show us the misuse of power in religious beliefs and activities. Throughout his poems, it is clear that the church is the oppressor that invites capitalism to society. These poems can be read in today’s light where oppression is very much present.
Once and for all, Blake was inviting society to take a stand against the degradation of our land and our people. A timeless invitation indeed!
Works Cited: Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper. ” English Romantic Writers. Ed. David Perkins. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1967. 54. Print. Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper. ” English Romantic Writers. Ed. David Perkins. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1967. 65. Print. Ellis, John Edwin and Yeats, W. B. eds. , The Works of William Blake, Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical, 3 vols. (London: B. Quaritch, 1893)