Blake's Writing on Chimney Sweepers

Blake's Writing on Chimney Sweepers

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The Industrial Revolution was a crucial point in the history of the world, and also a very difficult time to endure, especially for the working class. In the late eighteenth century, a young poet and artist by the name of William Blake became outraged and inspired by the inhumane treatment of young boys called "chimney sweeps." Thus he produced a protest in the form of simple poetry. Wicksteed says, "Deeper knowledge of Blake will reveal no darkly buried meaning, only a deeper sense in the meaning obvious to all." (Hirsch, 7) This is precisely the case in the protest Blake calls "The Chimney Sweeper." Blake utilizes realism, rather than deep symbolism, in the form of imagery to portray the brutality of the Industrial Revolution.

When Blake was inspired to write about these boys, their barbaric lives were not only common knowledge, but accepted. Throughout the passing years, however, history has lost sight of the horror they faced everyday. Therefore, familiarity with such details does help the reader to see more clearly Blake's indictment of a society that allows children to be subjected to almost unbelievable wretched conditions, and it also gives more force and point to the realism and imagery. (Nurmi, 15) History reveals that children usually began these lives at the age of 6 or 7 or even earlier. The job tormented their small bodies, leaving them to die with deformed ankles, twisted kneecaps and spines, or with "chimney sweeps cancer." The boys began their days long before sunrise until about noon when they "cried the streets" for more business. When it was time to return these young boys carried heavy bags of soot to the cellars and attics where they slept. Even the task of sleeping was torture. The boys owned nothing and were given nothing, leaving them with only the bags of soot that had swept for a bed.

Though the life was hard, it did not hold a candle to the actual duty of their job. Some chimneys were as small as seven inches in diameter, forcing the children to go up them naked. After all, clothes took up needed room and cost money to replace. Also bare skin, though it would bruise and scratch, did not catch on the rough plaster inside. This harshness on their bodies gave the boys such a dirty reputation that they were seen as subhuman creatures. Churches even turned the boys away and forbid them to enter the sanctuary.

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Knowing this, it is not hard to see where Blake was coming from. That fact is that little Tom Dacre's life, as seen by Blake, was far more accurate than symbolic. For instance, the first stanza explains why the narrator spends his life in misery. His mothers death and disgust in the fact that his father sold him into the workforce like a piece of merchandise, is emphasized more than the fact that he was very young. (Hirsch, 185) This is the first sign of Blake's fury at a society that would put a child into a situation of this magnitude. It also is the first glimpse of Blake's amazement at children that have somehow learned to preserve their humanity in circumstances that are all but completely dehumanizing. (Nurmi, 15) This gives the reader an obvious sense of anger toward society.

In the same stanza Blake moves from anger to pity for the child. Blake uses the words "weep, weep," from a child obviously too young to correctly pronounce the word "sweep." (William Blake, 261) Previous information has provided a clear knowledge that in lines three and four, Blake was not speaking symbolically or metaphorically, but with blatant realism.

In the second stanza, Blake familiarizes the reader with not only a character named Tom, but also his agony. Although Tom's haircut is a ritual one, he cried because it has become an everyday reminder of the repulsive black creature he has become. (Nurmi, 17) The narrator then attempts to comfort Tom by feeding him the straightforward fact that he is indeed lucky to have his head shaved. Blake portrays this young boy to then be mature enough to accept that his hair will never be the clean and white bundle of curls it once was. It is unclear why Tom is lucky to have his head shaved, but Tom is reassured and then moves on. (Hirsch, 184)

The third stanza is when Blake really begins to delve into his use of imagery with his description of a vision seen by Tom. Blake writes about Tom seeing the many others like himself who are all also licked up in coffins of black. This image speaks of the literally black coffin like chimneys they all knew so well. (William Blake, 261) This again implies pity for Tom and the other boys. Not only is it saddening that Tom knows how terrible his life is, but that it is all he knows.

As the uplifting vision continues, Tom dreams of a spiritual being who would come and rescue him from him misfortunate life. The reader is able to see Tom's pathetic dream to do nothing more extraordinary than to run and play in the sun, be clean and have a loving father. Blake allows the reader to, not only feel this, but to see Tom step out of reality for a brief moment and dream of the simple things he deserves. (Price, 42)

As Tom's playful vision comes to a close in stanza five, Blake begins to implement that faith is the only way for Tom to be carried through the darkness and into the light he dreams of. This naïve faith has become Tom's only means for survival. (Price, 42) Without faith, Blake shows the reader that Tom would ultimately loose any glimpse of hope, and he would die. The Angel becomes Blake's tool to show Tom this truth.

Tom's dream has ended in the last stanza, as all good things do, but it leaves him with a fresh sense of hope. The vision of innocence seen in a clearly fallen world is, however, different from the innocence seen within the child's own world. (Adams, 260) From this it is clear that Blake's character can only survive reality if he has such an image of hope to hold on to. This concept was sad but true for all of the sweeps during the Industrial Revolution.

Works Cited

Adams, Hazard. "The Interpretation of Blake's Poetry." William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems. Seattle, WS: U of Washington P. 1963.

Hirsch, E.D., Jr. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. London: Yale U P, 1964.

Nurmi, Martin K., "Fact and Symbol in ‘The Chimney Sweeper' of Blake's Song of innocence." Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Northrop Frye. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1966.

Price, Martin, "The Vision of Innocence." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1969.

Works Consulted

Munson, Amelia H., Poems of William Blake. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1964.

Sampson, John. The Poetical Works of William Blake. London: Oxford U P, 1913.
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