William Blake's Questions - A review and analysis of "The Chimney Sweeper"

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Someone’s first readings of the two versions of “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake could lead them to believe that they are just simple stories concerning the life of child laborers in England. Each version however is a member of two separate compilations of poetry that are mysteriously called “The songs of Innocence” and “the songs of Experience”. Why would Blake label these tales as such? In this essay, I am going to attempt to justify Blake’s categorical division and hopefully aid in an understanding of what the terms innocence and experience are really made of.

Blake’s subjects are child laborers. But let us make no mistake about the nature of this labor.

“When my mother died I was very young and my father sold me while yet my tongue could scarcely cry ‘weep! Weep! Weep! Weep!’”

This excerpt from “The songs of innocence” version of the poem is no understatement. Life in England in the nineteenth century, the approximate time period of William Blake’s writings, was ruthless and demanding. Poverty and famine were very real, very prevalent problems. For starving, destitute families, sometimes the only chance that any members of the family had to find sustenance was for the parent to sell their child into menial labor. Chimney sweeping was an ever-present job option for young children. Their small frames were ideal for squeezing down the tight flues.

Chimney sweeping, however, was, and still is to this day, a very disastrous occupation to say the least. There is the danger of losing one’s grip and falling down the chimney chute, not an incredible danger any more, but in those times a broken bone, for instance, meant certain death. Even more tragic is the presence of noxious fumes that one finds in a soot caked chimney. If a child did not fall victim to an accident, breathing these chemicals constantly would inevitably cause cancer and other severe health problems. A large number of chimney sweepers who start as young children do not make it past their adolescent years.

The young chimney sweeper’s “song of innocence” is most obviously understood as the innocence that a child possesses when he or she is free of the corruption of the world. He or she has not yet been tainted by outside forces and has only begun to be subjected to the events that will shape what is called experience. Why then is it understood that the child in “The Song of Experience” is no older or younger than the first? Apparently, Blake has attached additional meaning to the word innocence.

“There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head that curl’d like a lamb’s back, was shav’d, so I said “Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare, you know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

Here we see the narrator putting the best proverbial light on what was no doubt a traumatizing experience for little Tom Dacre. He has found no reason to question his and Tom’s very unreasonable situation. He is free of spite or malice for his perpetuators, much the same as an innocent child who has so far had no reason to suspect any foul play. But does this mean that he is, perhaps, unfamiliar with the very concept of foul play? Consider Tom’s dream and the lines:

“Then naked and white, all their bags left behind, they rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind and the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for his father and never want joy.”

Tom and the narrator have adopted for themselves, as a way to cope with their horrific lives, the notion that exemplary completion and an overall acceptance of their work will put them in god’s graces and they will live in complete bliss in the kingdom of heaven after they pass on. Taken in this context, the children’s acceptance of these beliefs, in which God is an all-powerful being, not to be argued with or ignored, cause them to ignore their own feelings and instincts, the ones that tell them that their ordeal is unjust. Blake seems to desire their actions to suggest that to be innocent might mean to be willfully and subjectively blind to experience.

What is experience then in Blake‘s view? Is it something that can be acquired? The Microsoft Word Works Processor dictionary defines “experience” as “the knowledge of and skill in something gained through being involved in it or exposed to it over a period of time.” The “song of experience” of the chimney sweeper is just that.

“And because I am happy and dance and sing, they (his parents) think they have done me no injury (by selling him into chimney sweeping) and are gone to praise God and his priest and king, who make up a heaven of our misery.”

These are the words of a child that is not oblivious to the appalling nature of the predicament that he has been involved in long enough to recognize its disagreeable nature. His words are full of pain and anger but it is pain and anger that has been stifled. He tries to find solace in merriment but it does him no good. The willfully innocent children have at least found a degree of comfort in their life. This little boy has none. Is Blake suggesting, therefore, that experience only comes by denying one’s self comforts, no pain, no gain, to sum it up succinctly? And if so, is experience any better than innocence? The experienced chimney sweeper is no less free from his circumstances than the innocent chimney sweeper. The only difference between the two is that the innocent one has found a way to feel “happy and warm” about his job while the experienced one wallows in self-pity and hate for the system that has forced him into labor.

To close, I would like to suggest that the answer to these questions may never be discernable but I would like to commend Blake in tackling both viewpoints. It is a testament to the impossibility of solving these questions, as well as the skills of Blake as a poet, that he can provide such a convincing example of each.

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