My Interpretation of William Blake's “The Chimney Sweeper” from the Songs of Experience
|Studio portrait of young chimney sweeps.|
No Longer Innocent!
The structure within "The Chimney Sweeper" from the Songs of Experience is a sharp contrast from the Songs of Innocence (Follow link for my analysis). However a deeper analysis reveals that both of the messages complement each other. In fact, the Songs of Experience adds more clarity to the Songs of Innocence. In the first poem the boy is more naive therefore he weeps from the labor and he misses his parents, however he doesn't fully understand his situation or his suffering. It's a paradox between weeping and having blind hope. However in the "The Chimney Sweeper" from the Songs of Experience, the boy fully understands the complexity and hopelessness of his situation. Despite his weeping he is able to constructively cope and analyze his situation. He answers the questions in my first analysis “Will Tom be able to continue to stay warm in long term?” and “Does Tom truly understanding how to conquer the trials in life?” Songs of Experience is what happens after the child doesn't believe in the promise stated in Songs of Innocence. He is no longer innocent. The child is very eloquent and understands the contradictions in his predicament and within society. He doesn't see through the eyes of child but instead has wisdom beyond his years. He and other marginalized populations have collectively experienced this injustice for a number of years. The child is also not given a name or gender (although I will refer to the child as a male) because his poor treatment can apply to many and the poem was intended to be relatable. "The Chimney Sweeper" from Songs of Experience is also significantly shorter than in Songs of Innocence. There is much less imagery, dreams, promises and imaginary scenes. He sees life through the eyes of a mature adult…after all this is the Songs of Experience. This helps to further increase the realistic nature of this poem. The child tells the truth directly without any interruption from dreams or thoughts of being saved. The rhyme scheme stays very consistent, therefore the message is meant to stay constant and straightforward. The first stanza, which introduces the current situation, stands alone. The rhyme scheme changes slightly after the first stanza and the rhyme scheme remains the same for the second and third stanza to reveal a time difference. The second stanza alludes to the past and the third stanza reveals to the ongoing situation.
What is the Message?
In Songs of Innocence, both Tom Dacre and his parents are victims to society. However in Songs of Experience the nameless child has not been separated from his parents by mysterious oppressors or by death from a brutish life. Instead his parents are directly abusing and exploiting him. We witness a child suffering due to the parent’s neglect and faulty views of the world. So this situation is more personal with critical commentary on the state of religion, the misuse of power, dysfunctional family units and lack of compassion within society as opposed to just child labor. Although this poem is still about child labor, there is less emphasis on it. There is no guardian or religion that will save the child because they are the participants. William Blake wants to spread awareness about psychological pain and those on top abusing people they have power over. He wants people to feel the child’s pain and empathize. “Crying “weep!’weep!” in notes of woe!” William Blake realizes that with more compassion, less hypocrisy and less abuse of power, child labor would be eradicated. He wants society to take care of the weaker and vulnerable members and for those with influence to use their power responsibly, for the greater good.
Nature Provides Comfort Even As People Cause Harm
"The Chimney Sweeper" from the Songs of Experience emphasizes nature versus humans. Nature provides some peace even though nature can’t empathize with him or attempt to purposefully relieve his pain. Despite the fact that this child doesn’t feel as warm as Tom Dacre, he has learned to cope with and find comfort in the frigid conditions. Two stanzas contain the rhyming end words “snow” and “woe”. Even though those words rhyme, William Blake creates a disconnect between those words by spelling them differently. In the middle stanza the words "heath" and "death" also look the same but do not rhyme. Even though his environment is negative, he doesn't want the focus to be on nature or connect nature to pain. Blake instead wants the audience to focus on the people causing pain. "Because I was happy upon the heath, And smiled among the winter's snow” The child is among the snow and heath as if he’s a part of it. The snow and heath has become his hiding place from the exploitation.
Hypocrisy and Contradictions
In contrast the words describing the oppressors, their actions and his suffering (say & pray; sing & king; injury & misery) seem to flow. William Blake is revealing a deeper meaning about how people’s actions can directly impact the others around them. Another message is exposed. Sometimes peoples’ behavior look holy from the outside but it actually isn’t admirable or honorable. For example, praising God seems righteous however if society is enjoying religion at the expense of others, then perhaps that behavior is wretched and abusive. A major contradiction is that the very people, beliefs and institutions that are supposed to nurture the child, take advantage of him. Instead of the parents (society) loving their child, they have abandoned him and now the religious institutions are receiving the love and monetary support on the back of the child's grueling labor and sacrifices. We gain a more harrowing perspective of the powerful and those that are supposed to care for us. “And are gone to praise God and His priest and king, Who made up a heaven of our misery.” Instead of a God and Father that rescues, instead you get a God, priest and king that creates a lavish life for themselves from others misery.
Also the child’s singing, dancing and smiling (his behavior) contrasts with how he feels. Creating his own happiness through nature, his helplessness and his ability to harness mental strength is misinterpreted as blind acceptance of his situation. They fail to see that acceptance is not satisfaction but the feelings of being trapped. His parents have put more of a burden on him because of his strength and his strength enables them develop an illusion that they are not causing harm. They ignore his pain, his message and accept the benefits for his suffering. “A little black thing among the snow,” The dark contrasts to the snow and with Tom Dacre's innocent white hair. The darkness represents the sadness. He is soiled with work and despair. No one takes the time to shave off his shame. He feels little because that’s how insignificant he is made to feel. His situation and suffering seems to be greater than himself. “They clothed me in the clothes of death, And taught me to sing the notes of woe.” Death encompasses him. Death defines him and becomes a part of his identity. Death covers up happiness that he could have. Instead of being nurtured and given clothes for protection and songs to learn joy, his gifts are morbid. Death is covering his life. Misery becomes his language. He has inherited and learned a melody that is overcome with woe.
Photo Credit: Luc Viatour