Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. Romanticism is a phenomenon characterized by reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature. Blake’s poetry features many characteristics of the romantic spirit -  in the importance he attached to imagination, in his mysticism and symbolism, in his love of liberty, in his humanitarian sympathies, in his idealization of childhood, in the pastoral setting of many of his poems, and in his lyricism.

The wretched figure of the child sweep is a key emblem in Blake’s poems of social protest. Not only are the sweeps innocent victims of the cruelest exploitation but they are associated with the smoke of industrialization, thus uniting two central Romantic preoccupations: childhood; and the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the natural world.

The Innocence poem, is a dramatic monologue, spoken by a sweep in the simplest language and in rhyming couplets. Central to the poem is the dual contrast between the grim realities of the sweeps’ lives and the ecstatic vision of liberty contained in the dream of Tom Dacre, a new recruit to the gang.

Where, in reality, their lives are restricted, death-infected (the image of the black coffins), in the dream, they are free, leaping, running, sporting in the wind. The dream takes place in a pastoral idyll – ‘a green plain’ – where there is colour, light, pleasure and laughter; the real world is monochrome, dark, subject to the pressures of city life, and a capitalist economy where the boys can only weep over their degradation.

This liberation, though, comes at a price. The angel who releases the sweeps with ‘a bright key’ tells little Tom ‘if he’d be a good boy / He’d have God for his father and never want joy’. This stipulation is repeated in the poem’s last line: the boys ‘need not fear harm’ if ‘all do their duty’. Such a submission seems an unlikely prescription from a social critic like Blake. While it is true that the dream helps Tom endure his misery (he feels ‘happy and warm’ when he wakes up), it becomes clear that Blake is not advocating passive acceptance of earthly misery in order to gain the joys of the kingdom of heaven after death.

In “The Chimney Sweeper,” poem of Songs of Experience Blake uses the child to express the image of innocence gaining experience. “The Chimney Sweeper” attacks such subjects as religion, politics, and child labor. In the version from Songs of Innocence the child speaks of a heavenly place where all the little chimney sweepers go when they die. In this version the child is more realistic and heaven is a place created by the adults out of the children’s misery. This poem contains few elements that reflect the traditional requirements for Romantic poetry, but as it is used in a collection of similar themed poems its importance becomes more significant to the tradition. Blake believed that innocence and experience are necessary for gaining wisdom. Because this poem is found in Songs of Experience the child has grown by experiencing the realities of his job. This journey that the child has made from innocence to waking up to the terror of reality is the journey that all poets of the Romantic tradition take in their poetry.

Both Chimney-Sweeper poems show Blake to be a radical critic of the social injustices of his age. His indictment of desperate material conditions and those institutions which perpetuate them is passionate and powerful, but his greatest anger is reserved for the forces – the established Church, the state, mercenary and uncaring parents – that restrict our vision and prevent us from understanding both our oppression and the infinite possibilities of true perception. This is  a genuine concern of the Romantic tradition and William Blake holds a unique position among the Romantics.

Last modified: Friday, 7 July 2017, 12:15 AM