William Blake shows his opinion of the lives of child chimney sweepers in The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience, which provide parallel poems, both titled,”The Chimney Sweeper.” These two poems differ from each other in the way they contrast innocence and experience, but both express the same message through William Blake. The two poems describe the lives young boys that are forced into the harsh and deadly job of being a chimney sweeper. Chimney sweeping is brutal manual labor that was often done by young boys as they were small enough to fit in the chimneys to clean them out. The first poem in The Songs of Innocence is narrated by a boy whose mother died and is sold by his father to become a chimney sweeper. Death is around every corner for this boy; however, he stays positive and helps out his friend Tom Darce through his troubles. The second poem in The Songs of Experience involves a poor boy who is given up by his parents so he can become a chimney sweeper, while they go to church to pray. Looking at William Blake’s use of imagery and rhyme scheme, we see how he challenges child labor and demands social justice, but also how he uses the contrast between the innocence in The Songs of Innocence and the experience in The Songs of Experience to further highlight his message.
The innocence that is portrayed through the imagery used by Blake shows how the boys do not even understand the world that they inhabit, which serves as a focus point for Blake’s message. In the Songs of Innocence, the narrator begins by describing how his mother died and he was sold by his father to become a chimney sweeper, which is a disadvantageous position. Blake then highlights the innocence of this boy through the line, “Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘Weep!” (3). When first reading this line, the reader thinks Blake writes “ ‘weep” as in the boy is crying; however, it is actually the boy saying “sweep”, but his lisp makes it come out as “ ‘weep”. The boy is yelling out in despair for what we learn has happened to him. This is Blake’s way of emphasizing how young the boy really is. In the next paragraph, the narrator begins to tell us about Tom Darce who “cried when his head … was shaved” (5-6). But the narrator tries to comfort Tom and tells him that “the soot cannot spoil your white hair” (5-6). Here we see Blake contrasting the dark black soot with Tom’s white hair. The color white of Tom’s hair shows his innocence opposed to the dark, soot covered life of being a chimney sweeper. Then the narrator begins to describe Tom’s dream he has that night, but as we hear more of it, it appears to be more of a vision. In Tom’s dream, he sees thousands of chimney sweepers in black coffins: “Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack/ Were all of them locked up in coffins of black” (11-12). Here Blake assigns the boys in the coffins rather common names almost as a way to show that chimney sweepers are just like any other boy, which is a way of bringing emphasis to the enormity of the problem here. When William Blake describes the coffins as, “coffins of black” we see the recurring color that depicts the setting of the chimneys these boys work in. The black soot covered chimneys are each of the boys coffin of black, showing that this is where the boys die. This dream of Tom’s oddly is not a nightmare as we see it take a turn when he describes an angel with a “bright key” that sets all the boys free letting them go to a happy place where they swim and play happily. The vision of the boys getting released by the Angel is what makes Tom want to work harder for when he wakes up. He wants to work harder as a chimney sweep so that he can get released by an angel, which is ironic because one would think a vision of an angel would lead to one realizing their situation and fighting for justive rather than further giving in to the system. Tom then describes the boys as “naked and white” (17). The boys are no longer covered in soot and are white, like Tom’s hair. They are innocent and pure. Tom is then told by the angel that if he is a good boy he will be happy and not have to worry about being harmed. So when Tom wakes up to get to work that cold, dark morning, he felt “happy and warm” (23). After Tom’s dream he thinks that if he continues to work he will be rewarded by not ever being harmed and will ultimately be happy. So when it would seem difficult for one to get to work as a chimney sweeper on a cold dark morning, Tom’s childish innocence makes him happy to work. This may seem like a good thing that Tom now feels motivated to now work and has a positive mindset. However, Blake ironically is highlighting how tragic it is that these boys also face psychological hardships along with their physical hardships, as their innocence blinds them to the reality of their situation. It is ironic that this “angel” is the boys’ motivator to work harder as a chimney sweep. Blake might even intend this “angel” to be Satan as it is the dark force that is making the boys work. They are forced into brutal labor, to work until the death due to the conditions.
Blake has an identical message in The Songs of Experience that he points out with his use of imagery: however, it is shown through a contrary experienced point of view. In the very beginning of the poem we see Blake’s powerful use of imagery when he writes, “A little black thing among the snow” (1). First off, his use of imagery shows how the narrator does not even recognize the chimney sweeper as a human being, but rather “a little black thing”. Blake is contrasting the the soot covered chimney sweeper to the white snow. Here we immediately see the lack of innocence as the boy is covered in the corrupting soot and is being compared to the pure white snow. This little boy could even potentially be the same boy as the previous poem just multiple years later. He no longer is the same innocent little boy and has a fuller understanding of the situation he is in, he is experienced. The lack of innocence, or the appearance of experience, is further seen in the way the narrator says the “black thing” was, “Crying ‘ ‘weep! ‘ ‘weep!’ in notes of woe!”(2). This is different from the chimney sweeper in The Songs of Innocence as this chimney sweeper is fully aware that this life was imposed on him and that it is a horrible life to have, showing his experience. The narrator learns that the child’s parents left him to go pray at church, which is Blake’s way of showing how corrupt the chimney sweeping system was as families would give up their boys and turn to their religion as their escape while their boys are hard at work. Later, the boy tells the narrator more about what his parents did to him and states, “They clothed me in the clothes of death” (7). Here the boy’s “clothes of death” that are given to him by his parents are simply the clothes that he wears while he is sweeping chimneys. He wears these clothes in tight black chimneys, which might as well be his coffin. So, by his parents having him become a chimney sweeper, they basically sent him to a death sentence. With this line Blake powerfully points out the injustice of how parents would send their boys to live a hard life working, where they will ultimately die and he even slightly takes a hit on our social institutions particularly religious ones as religion provides a false sense of happiness, which we see in the first poem, when there are still problems occurring.
Along with imagery, Blake also supports his message by using a strategic rhyme scheme, while displaying the child’s innocence. This whole poem has a rhyme scheme, that involves rhyming couplets. For example in the first stanza you have “young” and “tongue” then “ ‘weep” and “sleep”(Lines 1, 2, 3, 4). This is a very simple rhyme scheme that would be used and enjoyed by children. That’s where this is an ironically “strategic” rhyme scheme as it points out once again the innocence of this child chimney sweeper, but it serves a deeper purpose to show that this is what children should be taking part in. The simplicity of the rhyme is showing the simple lives children should be living. Children should be learning nursery rhymes, singing songs, writing simple poems, etc. But these chimney sweeper boys have been stripped of that right to be a kid and do kid things, which Blake so strongly believes they deserve. Towards the end of the poem the rhyme scheme becomes an off rhyme, which is Blake’s way of showing there is something off about the angel’s message. Blake is showing how the “angel” might not actually be angel after all and is pulling the boys into a horrible place actually.
William Blake uses similar rhyme schemes in The Songs of Experience as in The Songs of Experience to support his message. His first stanza has rhyming couplets just like that of the other poem, but then the rest of the poem is different. The rest of the poem Blake uses interlocking rhymes. For example, in the second stanza you have “heath”, “snow”, “death”, and “woe”(Lines 5, 6, 7, 8). This shows the interlocking rhyme as each word rhymes with every other word. This shows slightly more complexity than the first poem, which shows the experience that this child has. However, it is still a rather basic rhyme scheme. One that might be observed and used by once again, children. I think this is Blake’s way to once again emphasize that these are young children that should be living out their childhood, not being thrown into child labor.
These two parallel poems written by William Blake are filled with imagery and strategic rhyme schemes that show the two chimney sweepers’ innocence or experience and more importantly, strongly support Blake’s message. The two poems work together almost as if one, to express William Blake’s strong opinion on chimney sweepers as he is fighting for the freedom of these boys and ultimately social justice.
Blake, William, and Paul Peter Piech. “The Chimney Sweeper” The Songs of Innocence., published
By Taurus Press, 1969.
Blake, William, and Paul Peter Piech. “The Chimney Sweeper” The Songs of Experience., published
By Taurus Press, 1969.