Contemporary Society in William Blake’s Chimney Sweeper Poem

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Contemporary Society in William Blake's Chimney Sweeper Poem
The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake

Conditions of Society in The Chimney Sweeper : Whatever the Aesthetes say in favour of the autonomy of art, by flaunting the slogan ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, no amount of abstraction can sever art and literature from their roots in real life – life lived as a throbbing interweave of joy and sorrow, dream and actuality, hope and despair. Any form of art is cradled in and nurtured by the actualities of human experience, social and private. Therefore, it would be no travesty to say that literature and society are co-extensive and symbiotic. The symbiosis between literature and society is an abiding principle of human history. It is a commonplace of criticism to dissociate the Romantic from the real. But it appears to be a fallacy in the logic of criticism. The most sensitive Romantic is paradoxically most keenly aware of the pinpricks of real life. A revolution is a co-ordinate of socio-political and economic history. But it creeps into the vision of a poet. So a poet and society or an artist and morals are not apart, not irrespective of each other. William Blake was very much aware of the socio-political scenario of industrial London, and he did not escape from urban society. Rather he dealt with problems like child labour, chimney sweeping (which were vicious outcome of industrial revolution) in his poems and his poems were actually a protest against these socio-political evils.

Blake drew much of his inspiration from the urban setting in which he lived. While Coleridge and Wordsworth were travelling through Germany, Blake was still in London struggling to sell his stylistically obscure prophetic works. By far, the most successful of Blake‘s illuminated works was Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, published jointly in 1794. Yet, even in these works Blake‘s politics is overtly showcased. Poems like -London and The Chimney Sweeper (two poems) illustrate Blake‘s leftist, proletarian politics. Blake considered child labour a curse of his time. Blake saw the growing need for child labour a threat to their innocence. Blake’s view is expressed in his two poems; the first one having been published in Songs of Innocence, and the second one in Songs of Experience. His capturing of the suffering of working children changes from the first to the second work. His is a slow awakening into cold reality, quite simply put, from innocence to experience.

In his poem, “The Chimney Sweeper: Innocence” and “The Chimney Sweeper: Experience” Blake makes a scalding commentary about societal injustice by representing the plight of poor children who are forced to work as chimney sweeps by juxtaposing two contrary states – one in the innocent, pastoral world of childhood and the other in the adult world of cognizance. Shernaz Cama notes that these poems were used as broadsheet or propaganda against the exploitative practice of child labor by those who campaigned ‘against the use of children as chimney-sweeps.’ The two pieces act as a form of literary protest as Blake gives voice to the unheard woes of the helpless children who suffered immensely as a result of this occupational hazard. Many of them suffocated and burned to death whereas those who survived developed deformity of the spine. By lamenting and denouncing the ill-treatment of these children, Blake arouses compassion and a sense of guilt among the bourgeoisie class whose chimneys these children cleaned in hope to amass wide cultural interest in bringing out legislative changes to abolish the practice of using little children as chimney sweeps.

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Blake‘s first ―The Chimney Sweeper shows a harsh yet idealistic point of view of a child chimney-sweeper, how innocence can have a hidden side of crude reality. On the surface, this lyric tells the story of a little chimney sweeper, who dreams a beautiful dream about an angel who releases both this boy and his fellow chimney-sweepers from their sufferings under the harsh ill-treatment of this matter. Psychoanalytically, pre-industrial agrarian phase is the pre-oedipal phase. Land is seen as mother‘s body. People in preindustrial England are like child in union with mother‘s body. Capitalism, industrialism is the father figure with the threat of castration. In post-oedipal symbolic stage there is separation, suffering, loss, estrangement. In industrial England people are severed from mother‘s body. Dreaming is in a way a wish to go back to that union. It apparently might seem a parable of capitalism. And the poem apparently points a conventional, devotional moral :

And the angel told Tom, if he‘d be a good boy,
He‘d have God for his father, and never want joy.

Such an interpretation of the poem, however, cannot be sustained for long, for Blake’s lyric also records in stark detail the reality of the fates of the children who were forced to work as chimney-sweepers :

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ―‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!‖
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

The boy of these lines was put to work while he was so young that he could not even pronounce ―sweep properly. It was a fact that the chimney-sweepers of London in Blake‘s time were small boys as little as four years old. Often orphans or motherless boys, they were literally sold to men who used them as forced labour to clean small and narrow chimneys in the houses and buildings of London. Forced to work for long hours from before daybreak to late in the afternoon, deprived intentionally of sufficient food so that they would remain thin enough to climb up chimneys, denied all opportunities to play and even wash themselves, locked up in dark and dingy congested rooms at night to prevent them from running away, the flight of the small chimney-sweepers was one of the blamed social scandals of the late 18th century. It was about the plight of such child-sweeps that Blake wrote his poem, giving a voice to just one such boy.

In 1789, there was a Revolution taking place at the other end of the British Channel. Many European artists including Blake were being influenced by the amazing explosion of ideas that was taking place in France. As Kazin remarks, ―He [was] a pioneer Romantic of that heroic first generation which thought that the flames of the French Revolution would burn down all fetters. ―The Chimney Sweeper‖ is clearly influenced by these strong principles and by Blake’s idealisation of them; an overall hopeful view on life, a sort of La Vita é Bella of the 18th century: make the best of what life has to bring; all’s well that ends well.

His second poem has a more overtly critical tone. It is now a bitter time, 1794, and war has broken out between Britain and France. A commercial depression is sweeping over the country and Blake is more aware of the harshness around him: he becomes more critical with the Church and with society, and more interested in politics. ―Blake’s work had become more overtly political after the upheavals in France in 1789. He was especially concerned with the industrialisation of cities, the destruction of nature, those Dark satanic Mills: ―Across from Blake’s home in London was a factory. From this he created a sketch of what an entire landscape of factories and their destruction of the landscape would be like. Right down to the towering smokestacks and sewage waste. A prophetical image to say the least. The factory later burnt down mysteriously, and Blake moved to the more rural Lambeth in 1790.

The poem in Songs of Experience is bitter and sad and evokes lost innocence, hunger and abandonment. It is highly contrastive in its lexical perspective and imagery; scenes of innocent childhood are swept by pictures of darkness and suffering. Kazin describes Blake’s concept of a child: “In his own time, when children were regarded as miniature adults, or as slaves or pets to those who ruled by their maturity, he showed that a child is not an abbreviated version of the adult, but a different being.” This child certainly is a perfectly aware being who still needs to feel joy, and knows who to blame for his untimely suffering. Someone asks, as he stands in the snow, alone, weeping: “Where are thy father and mother? Say? They are praying in church”. He had managed to bring happiness to harsh times, smiling “among the winters snow”, but was “clothed in the clothes of death [and] taught (…) to sing the notes of woe”. He bitterly tells “Because I am happy and dance and sing. They think they have done me no injury:”. His parents, and everyone else, have gone to “praise God and his Priest and King. Who make up a heaven of our misery.”

The overtly critical tone of this poem shows a definite evolution in the life of Blake, parallel to that of British society and political events as it drew into the last moments of the Romantic era a necessary, yet bitter evolution from idealistic Innocence to realistic Experience.

Closely engaged with the life of the marginalized, the spokespersons of these poems are the marginalized working classes. At the bottom of the social heap of eighteenth century London were child chimney sweeps. Children were used for thisjob because they were small enough to be forced up chimneys to clean them and remove blockages. The wretched figure of the child sweep becomes a key emblem in Blake’s verse as a form of social protest. Not only are the sweeps helpless victims of the cruelest exploitation but they are associated with the smoke of industrialization. A report to the parliamentary committee on the employment of child chimney sweeps in 1817 noted that ‘the climbing boys’ as young as four were sold by their parents to master-sweeps. These children frequency suffocated inside the chimneys by inhaling the soot. Moreover, these children had little to no legal rights since the Porter’s Act of 1788 to improve their condition was not passed and so there were no regulations to monitor their working conditions.

By applying Marxist theoretical framework it can be scrutinized that through his poem “The Chimney Sweeper” Blake condemns the capitalistic society that is sowed by avarice of institutions like state and church to uphold the status quo. Both the poems are acute in their social analysis and show that Blake is not simply interested in pointing his finger at the tyrants in society as he recognizes that the issues are more complicated than that. It is not individuals that he targets but oppressive power structures that for instance in this poem fail to protect the natural rights of the children thereby crumbling the Lockean social contact between the people and the state. Blake’s use of two different poems provides two different point of views that collectively convey the harsh condition of these children. He also projects the importance of stepping away from ‘innocence’ into ‘experience’ for it is imperative for the marginalized to open their eyes to see the institutions that shackle them.

The two Chimney Sweeper poems are one of the many examples that embody the importance of poetry to the society. Through these poems Blake was able to create an artistic awareness of the exploitation of children which led to increased public awareness on child exploitation, which encouraged others to voice their concerns. The judicial system was put under pressure by a report done by Sir Edwin Chadwick which made an inquiry into the living conditions of the Poor and described dreadful experiences of the working class. Moreover, Chadwick included recommendations on how to improve the situation and demanded :

The appointment of special agents to protect young children engaged in certain Classes of manufactures from mental deterioration from the privation of the advantages of education, and from permanent bodily deterioration from an excess of labour beyond their strength… [T]o put an end to one description of employment which was deemed afflicting and degrading, i.e., that of climbing boys for sweeping chimneys, and to force a better means of performing by machinery the same work. Chadwick’s noble mission influenced changes in Britain even though it came long after many had fallen victims of vicious child labour. A ban was then put on using children or any kind of human labour as chimney sweepers.

Conclusively, the intent of poetry is to generate response from the reader and Blake’s verse rightfully succeeds in doing so by making the reader question the harsh realities of social hierarchies. Through the combination of verse and visual, his emblem plate, evokes the image of the abandoned child covered in soot against the pure white snow to leave a lasting blotch on the reader’s conscience by making them aware about transparent veil that propagates false consciousness. The two poems were able to influence a noble deed that changed the face of the British society. In this spirit, the production of such pieces of work should be increased for many children today still suffer from other forms of exploitation.

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