Blake’s Chimney Sweepers

William Blake (1757-1827) was unknown in his time. Born to a tradesman’s family, he was apprenticed at fourteen to an engraver and practiced his craft all his life. Although he had some contact with the radical elite – Godwin and Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and Joseph Priestly – Blake was barely a casual acquaintance. He lived in obscurity and poverty, a difficult person, an impossible friend, an uncompromising idealist, with ways of thinking two-hundred years early, or two thousand late. Blake despised organized religion and the traditional figure of Jesus, but he was equally hostile to the rationalism of Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the British Empiricists. He was a patriot for Albion but a fierce enemy to empire, kings, and parliaments. Blake is acknowledged as a great visual artist; his engravings and water-colors, often illustrating his poems, have stunning imaginative force. His poetry is now featured as the breakthrough moment of English Romanticism, particularly “Songs of Innocence; Songs of Experience” (1789, printed, 1794). These short lyrics appear child-like, masking a radical reordering of values, and a bitter assault upon the complacency of his contemporaries.

We assume poetry is tame, celebrating soft virtues and Nature’s beauty. Readers wish to be enthralled and transported to higher realms of being. But Blake writes guerilla poetry, setting off road-side bombs along the gentle path of verse. Blake’s London is his diorama of madness and confusion. The colossus of his time, Blake’s London is a demonic hell-hole, where cruelty and corruption rule by means of insane reasonings and false sensibility. Blake sets out to give his reader bad dreams, to breaking down whatever confidence his reader may have that London life is sound and secure.

Songs of Innocence

The Chimney Sweeper

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.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, –
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

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.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

“The Chimney Sweeper” exemplifies this incendiary simplicity. Blake makes the children enslaved to the chimney-sweeping trade a forceful symbol of London’s corruption. Blake’s London was a city of fireplaces burning coal in the houses of the comfortable; at the same time, Londoners were familiar with troops of urchins marching through the streets in the early morn, carrying the brooms and buckets of their craft. These children were as young as three and four and no older than eight or nine, in order to fit into the narrow chimney stacks to clean them. One did well not to ask where these British tykes, their fair features smudged with soot, came from. It would be painful to think how families from the countryside were expelled from ancient communities into vagabondage, and their children sold into forced labor in London. It would be wise, too, not to inquire into Christ’s teachings (“It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones” Luke 17:2) and how the Churches had done their best to make their congregations forget it.

Rather than rail against injustice, Blake places his explosive charges strategically. The nameless speaker is a young boy, simple, kindly, generous and enduring. His life one of abandonment and travail, he still trusts in the world’s goodness, which makes his suffering more outrageous. We embrace this boy and applaud his humanity. We learn about the speaker as he tells the story of a little boy, Tom Dacre (Tom of the Acres), who has joined the troop of infant workers. The speaker consoles the new boy by suggesting ways to consider his new circumstances that make them seem reasonable – his luxurious curled hair is shorn (a lamb of innocence), but this protects his fair hair from soot.  The speaker’s gentleness, given his rough abandonment, is remarkable.

The speaker’s kindness sparks a dream vision in little Tom in which  an angel frees the boys from black coffins (the suffocating chimneys) and leads them to a sun-lit paradise, with cleansing waters and fresh breezes, and a Father who cares for them. Consoled by this vision and warmed by his dream, little Tom marches off into the cold morning. The speaker’s concluding remark injects agonizing ironies. The speaker intones: “So if all do their duty they need not feel harm.” We applaud his pluck, his ability to view life positively, despite his distress. We know that his trust is mistaken and that he will be cast onto the harsh London streets without even the misery of his chimney-sweeping and his meager keep.

Blake confronts his comfortable reader with truths he would rather avoid. A reader of poems in 1790 (and today) has been reasonably well educated, can afford purchasing a book of poems, and has the leisure to read them.  And, we might add, in a clean, well-heated room. Perhaps, too, the reader has a child upstairs, safely snug in a warm bed, under a thick comforter against London’s wintry chill. Perhaps this cosseted child has stamped his foot in anger at receiving a toy he didn’t want or in jealousy at his brother’s gift, and father now sits himself down to calm his exasperation with a bit of poetry.

The strategies of this little poem are cruel. The poem recalls nursery-rhymes, the short line of tetrameter with relaxed rhythms, and the diction plain (only “scarcely” and “sport” jar). Blake relates much about the speaker’s circumstances and his attitude towards these traumas. The speaker is matter-of-fact about terrible things. He passes over the death of his mother and the appalling event of his father selling him. The repeated “’weep” suggests the chirp of a little bird pecking out a meager life. But the speaker accepts his lot in life. He directs his attention to us – “your” chimneys – without complaint. Diminished as his circumstances are, he shows no rancor and trusts it somehow makes sense.

Unlike the speaker, Tom cries at his abuse. He needs to learn forbearance. The violation of Tom, his luxuriant hair rudely shaved, flies past in a quick metaphor. And again the speaker resorts to “so,” signaling that to his sturdy mind these things follow reasonably. Little Tom cries and must learn to accept his lot in life; the speaker can offer only tender consolation. This “so” is astonishing. First, the speaker asks us to accept that he does what anyone one would for another in pain. For the speaker this caring is unremarkable; for us, astonishing. In the more likely response, the older boy would treat the new boy with contempt. Our speaker is a saint. More remarkable, his “Hush, Tom!” voices a loving parent when, as we know, the speaker has had none to tend his own misery and ease his fears.

His advice is part of that twist of ironies. The speaker consoles Tom for the loss of his hair. Since Tom’s hair is “curled like a lamb’s back,” the speaker’s consolation is preposterous. Still, the gesture is kind and the tone loving. As readers, we are caught in a bind. Acceding to such awful treatment adds insult to injury, but the saintly act and the calming spirit appeals to our wish for orderliness. In the madhouse of London, kindliness brings confusion.

The split in logic and feeling is not lost on Tom. Having heard this consoling nonsense, Tom has his dream-vision. It follows another “so”, moving from one event to the next. Remarkably, Tom has this vision of suffocating “coffins of black” even before experiencing the choking confinement of the chimneys. It is a prophetic vision and not a memory. Asked by the speaker to think of himself as only another boy in this condition, Tom imagines “thousands of sweepers.” Like the speaker, Tom reaches beyond his own suffering to the suffering of others, all buried alive, and of their shared liberation.

Tom’s story unfolds in the form of the “and …then” story that children tell. Since we are buried alive in black coffins, an angel will come with a bright key. Set free, the boys will leap and laugh and run, then wash in a clean river, and shine in the bright sun. “And then,” the story goes in its innocent rush of excitement, they will be taken aloft and “sport” in the wind. Tom dreams they will fly away, rollicking in their freedom. The angel assures them, then, if he accepts his lot without complaint, the Father of all will protect him, and he will enter a life of pure joy.

Because of this dream-vision Tom and the others settle into their daily tasks. Perhaps all have had Tom’s dream. The dream keeps them in their places and “happy and warm” even in the morning’s cold. The final “so” is outrageous – “so if all do their duty they need not fear harm.” These saintly little chaps — abandoned, exploited, and abused – cling to a dream that sustains them.  We, however, know this compliance will destroy them. They have much to fear from those who misuse them. There is no angel and no key to rescue them. If religion is the opiate of the people, as Marx will tell us, an opiate does alleviate pain. Blake forces us to admire the pluck of these little workers and to wonder in dismay what can save these saintly children.

The companion song, “The Chimney Sweeper” from “Songs of Experience” sheds further light on this poem. It is a shorter, harsher, and meaner poem employing sarcasm in place of irony. Here an observer sees the child as “a little black thing,” not quite human, a desolate winter bird, calling out “‘weep ‘weep”. The grim pun recalls the cry of services offered and of tears shed.

Songs of Experience

The Chimney Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “‘weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? Say!”–
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

“Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

“And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”

In this poem, the child has parents, but they abandon him to attend church. The observer asks the child where his parents are, and the boy answers, with a sardonic twist. This child is bitter. Instead of “so” he says “because,” seeing the grim connections in things. The causes of his misery are ignorance and spite. He did not lose his rural delight “happy upon the heath” and then somehow find himself enslaved to soot and despair. In this case, trapped in the twisted logic of a debased Christianity, “because” he was happy, he was condemned to suffer. Dressed in the black costume of his trade and taught in the street “the notes of woe.”

Still, this boy retains some part of infant joy. His parents must beat that out of him; they believe that in condemning him to useful work they have done their duty and him no injury. This boy, unlike his innocent counterpart, understands the deceit that enslaves him. His parents are satisfied giving their allegiance to “God & his Priest & King,” a trinity who see the suffering of innocents as heaven’s plan. The boy’s voice is terse and bitter. Is he happier than his innocent double? Does his knowledge arm him for the struggle for justice? Does it warm him and his compatriots against the cold? Is this a weapon to confront an evil history? Does it rouse the reader to sympathy and unease, or push us away to shield us from the anger of the dispossessed? Somehow it seems the voice of abused innocence has greater power to rouse us, at least to kindliness and affection.

”London” explores our blindness to bitter class struggle. The poem is severely compressed – a mere sixteen lines, in terse tetrameter, and with a meager vocabulary. Still, this laconic poem depicts in its tight space the state of London and the state of mind of its residents. The speaker, a flaneur , wanders the city recording impressions, each snapshot a chilling image of moral degradation. The city is owned and plotted out by corporate and government power. The streets are “charted” but also “chartered.” As the wanderer looks up, he sees the placards and insignia identifying each business as approved and regulated by city government – each store, pub, and workshop established by public decree and by arrangement benefitting the city’s governors.

            London

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

More stunning, the river itself, the mighty Thames, has been claimed by official decree for regulation. A “charter’d Thames” may appear to flow, but according to the legal fictions of riparian rights, the Thames and access to it belongs to the government and is leased to property owners at a price. The enclosure of the fields throughout the countryside has reached it logical, but insane, conclusion, where the river, flowing and irregular, has been brought into the real estate grid.

The wanderer “marks” also the impact of this totalitarianism in the faces he sees. Two centuries before Orwell’s 1984, Blake notes the timorous fear and helplessness of a population overwhelmed by the gigantism of corporate government. The verb “marks” intensifies “notes,” “sees,” or, “observes” – and, in the sense of “marks out,” settles the clash of “charted”/”chartered”. Similarly, the “marks” in every face testify to the ubiquitous terror. The wanderer sees a connection between the psycho-social trauma and state ownership and control. The play of what we see and cannot grasp is fundamental to the poem and to Blake’s powerful project to “cleanse the doors of perception.”

Of the 23 words in stanza two, five are “every”, emphasizing Orwellian totality. Men “cry” and infants “cry”; infants, incapable of speech, already have imbibed the fear in those around them. The terror pervades London and seeps into the way infants cry and into the pitch of adult voices, even in casual speech and not only in anguish. These disfigurements left in the human voice are audible for those who take impressions freely. London is also a world of “bans” that require constant care from its citizens. Londoners have internalized these restrictions and no longer notice their loss of natural force. The state could never impose its restrictions if the people had not accepted them as necessary, as the map of reason and order. Power rules without the threat of direct force, but by ideology alone. Blake’s phrase “mind-forg’d manacles” expresses a remarkable insight, linking something as solid as the blacksmith’s hammer and forge with something impalpable, our ideas and imaginings.

The first half of this short poem presents a general indictment, the next eight lines instance examples, the grisly warrant for these shattering claims.

Two previous Blake poems feature chimney-sweepers; however, in “London” the example, makes a more political case. The “cry” of “’weep, ‘weep” now joins with the chorus of pained cries heard throughout the city.  What follows is peculiar, however. The cry of abused child-workers, soot-covered from their labors, “appalls” the churches, all of which experience “black’ning” from it. Even in the highly confined space of this compressed poem, this tangled remark comes too quickly. “To Appall” could mean to frighten, astonish, demoralize, condemn, or emasculate.  The verb comes from Middle French by way of Latin and means to make something become ghostly white, the blood drained away in terror. The chimney-sweeps strip soot from the chimneys so they will burn cleaner; yet somehow this cleaning blackens London’s churches; turning them a ghostly white. Blake constructs a dizzying puzzle where physical and moral metaphors collide. To sort it out, Blake forces his reader to stop and think. The labor of the chimney sweeps keeps the walls of London churches clean.  London citizens could take pride in these gleaming facades if this brightness had not been purchased with the suffering of London’s innocents. Gleaming façades dazzle the eye, but it is only the brightness of a ghostly shock. Christian churches that should be standing by Christ’s insistence to protect the innocent (Luke 17:2) stand condemned by their purposeful ignorance of London’s children of poverty. London’s radiant churches are “whited sepulchres” (Matthew 23: 28 “… which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”).

This tangle of images challenges Blake’s reader to put aside the obvious rendering of meanings,  enforced by mind-forg’d manacles, and acquire a new way of looking. Suppose every Lexus, far from signaling a person of talent and application, announces a person who defrauded the government by submitting false Medicare claims, or who put a struggling family out of their house and onto the streets, or who leveraged legislation for favors and refuses to pay taxes or enlist his children in the military ventures abroad that feed his wealh.

The second example in stanza three constitutes a more horrifying instance. The palace walls, within which King George III resides in splendor, are washed by a sea of blood. To the “manacled” eye, the king’s palace gleams in glory and honor. That grandeur, however, has been purchased with the “hapless Soldier’s sigh,” young British men sent out to kill and be killed by the tens of thousands, in far-way places in the Indian sub-continent and in North America. These young men were certainly “hapless,” or unlucky, in being sent to these places and finding themselves victims of disease, deprivation, and the grim reapings of battle. The wealth that has made possible this palatial monument, this mausoleum of shame and horror, feeds on terror and death. “Cry” here gives way to “sigh” as the British soldier, facing the horrors of Calcutta or the savage woods of Canada, recognizes the hopelessness of his bad luck and submits to his destruction.

The concluding stanza is the most shocking of all, for here the moral rot is physical and the suffering no longer isolated to direct victims. Here disease travels from the weak and hapless to their “betters” and threatens the existence of this imperial city. The circuitry connecting one suffering to another is again far from obvious to the captive imagination.

Throughout the eighteenth-century London had been absorbing the influx of displaced country workers. Ill-equipped for city life and entering an economy unable to accommodate them, many took up thievery and prostitution. Eighteenth-century literature features highwaymen and “gypsies” and trollops and barmaids, the dangers of the roads and of the backstreets and low saloons. These colorful moments in fiction and engravings note the harsh underworld and demi-monde. London accommodated some milk-maids with “downstairs” service, but for others it was the horror of the streets.

As “London” notes, youthful harlots abound. The poem simply alludes to them, a phenomenon well known. Walk the “midnight streets” and you encounter them. Their “curse” has a double valence. It is another “cry” and “sigh” – as the prostitute, finished with her client, curses him for his misuse of her. But this curse has another, more powerful effectiveness. This milk-maid now carries the venereal disease and passes this along, not only to her client, but to his innocent wife and child who should be the glory of his household establishment. The connection is both medical and moral. By passing along her STD, the harlot has paid back her abuser with gonorrhea, endangering the new-born with infection and blindness (for years, birthing rooms applied silver nitrate to the eyelids of newborns to combat infection acquired in the birth canal). The “new-born Infants tear” then becomes a horrifying battleground where moral corruption is repaid with hideous vengeance. Where one connection “appalls” and another causes blood to “run”, this new link in the circuit “blasts” and “blights with plague.” The marriage coach with all its hopefulness and grandeur becomes a “Marriage hearse,” yet another gleaming front masking death and rot.

Blake wrote ugly poems, beautiful only in their artful compression, the poetry one would expect from an engraver of images. There is no filmy sentiment or heaven-climbing elations here; they are hard as nails and nasty in intent. Blake is an unreasonable man rejecting the Age of Reason and instead casting his lot with the biblical prophets, with Isaiah, who condemned the grandeur of ‘houses of hewn stones” and what these glories cost our fellow human beings. Sitting in the heart of empire, Blake counts the costs and forces his readers to know what they would prefer not to. His poetry, sadly, shows no sign of losing its timeliness.

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One thought on “Blake’s Chimney Sweepers

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