Two Versions of "The Chimney Sweeper"

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) juxtapose the innocent, pastoral world of childhood against an adult world of corruption and repression; while such poems as “The Lamb” represent a meek virtue, poems like “The Tyger” exhibit opposing, darker forces. Thus the collection as a whole explores the values and limitations of two different perspectives on the world. Many of the poems fall into pairs, so that the same situation or problem is seen through the lens of innocence first and then experience. Blake does not identify himself wholly with either view; but he pits himself against despotic authority, restrictive morality, sexual repression, and institutionalized religion.

In "The Chimney Sweeper" of Songs of Innocence, Blake features innocence represented by the speaker, Tom, and all the other sweeps. This innocence is exploited and oppressed, and those who are being exploited are unaware of the oppression. The narrator is a chimney sweep whose mother died and was sold by his father at a very young age. The phrase "in soot I sleep", refers to the living conditions of the sweeps. The poem goes on to talk about Tom Dacre and his dream, an important part of the poem. One may also interpret this dream as the coffins representing their literal deaths, and the chimney sweeps are not free from the oppression until the afterlife. When the angel tells Tom that "if he'd be a good boy, / He'd have God for his father and never want joy" (19-20), he gives Tom hope that if he is good and does his job, God will be his father and bless him in the next life. The poem concludes with the narrator and his firm belief that if they are obedient and do their duty, all will be well. This last idea expressed emphasizes that he is in the state of innocence and is unaware that he is a victim.

In Songs of Experience, the child in "The Chimney Sweeper" understands that he is a victim. Unlike the boy in Innocence, both parents of this child are living and have gone to the church to pray. The boy believes that his pious parents sold him as a chimney sweeper because he was happy. Clothing him "in the clothes of death" (7) refers to his life as a social outcast and his being destined to an early death because of the working and living conditions of his profession. However, his parents believe that they have done no harm and have "gone to praise God and his priest and king" (11). This is not only a criticism of the parents who sell their children into this life but of the Church of England and the government for condoning the ill treatment of these chimney sweeps. He also seems to be criticizing God himself, who seems so cruel for allowing those who practice this treatment to go unpunished.

For these poems, an understanding of the ideas of one poem, as well as the ideas that it lacks, illuminates the other poem. This gives the reader a different interpretation of the poem than if one of these "The Chimney Sweeper" poems would be read alone. For instance, the ideas of hope and happiness in Songs of Innocence poem place further emphasis on the bitterness of the chimney sweeper in Songs of Experience. He understands his circumstances and sees no hope of freedom from his oppression. Instead of believing that obedience will prevent punishment, he perceives his current circumstance as a punishment for being happy with his childhood. Also, he does not seem to endorse the Christian idea of having joy in the midst of adversity; he sees little if any reason to be happy in his miserable predicament. In fact, the God that his parents praise seems as cruel as others who allow children to be mistreated in such a way. These examples illustrate how an understanding of the themes of "The Chimney Sweeper" in Songs of Innocence can further illuminate some of the ideas in Songs of Experience.

However, in Songs of Experience, many of the ideas are more realistic in some ways. This chimney sweeper better understands his hopeless predicament. This understanding emphasizes the naivety of the speaker in Innocence, who believes that everything will be fine if he is obedient even though his obedience will eventually cost him his own life.

Last modified: Friday, 7 July 2017, 12:06 AM