The Chimney Sweeper
Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, composed by William Blake, have similar poems that compare experience and innocence. Both poems share the title “The Chimney Sweeper,” and both describe a young lad working the unsafe job of a chimney sweeper but in remarkably different ways. The Chimney Sweeper’s raconteur on Songs of Innocence lives a horrid life that could cause his death anytime. His mother is deceased. He was sold off as a slave by his father; yet, the boy is still capable of maintaining optimism and consoles his friend when his head is shaved. Despite the despair in this poem, a tinge of hope still lingers. The same applies not to Songs of Experience. Forsaken by his unctuous parents, the boy was left to perish as a chimney sweeper while his parents left for prayers in church. William Blake’s powerful imagery coupled with a plain rhyme scheme demonstrates how childlike hope turns into a loss of innocence for the two chimney sweepers.
Songs of Innocence starts with the raconteur narrating his woeful condition of being a child laborer. Being sold off by one’s father and death snatching one’s mother cause a loss of innocence. The narrator coincidentally yells “weep” instead of yelling “sweep” due to his “lisp.” He is involuntarily crying out in anguish due to the circumstances that have befallen him. The narrator also yells out in Songs of Experience. He yells out “weep,” however, this time, it is not unintentional. The narrator entirely understands the magnitude of his circumstance. William Blake exhibits a development from unawareness to understanding, or better innocence to experience.
The narrator vividly discusses the condition of Tom Dacre, his friend, in Songs of Innocence. When Tom Dacre is initially mentioned, the narrator is consoling him his hair has been shaved off. Tom’s hair is painted as “curled like a lamb’s back.” A lamb is a standard emblem of innocence and Blake utilizes this symbol strategically in Songs of Innocence. While consoling Tom, the narrator asserts that “now, the soot cannot ruin your white hair.” The narrator means that the monstrosity of their condition cannot tarnish Tom’s innocence and purity as a child.
That evening, Tom dreams of his friends’ demise, but surprisingly, the dream is not nightmarish. In his dream, the sweepers are “confined in black coffins.” These coffins symbolize the chimneys wherein their death awaits. They do indeed die in Tom’s dream, and their demise causes their freedom. Released by an angel from their misery, they now live joyfully in frolic heaven. The boys reclaim their innocence through their death because they become “white and naked,” which symbolize innocence and purity. The angel further proceeds to inform Tom that “if he conducts himself well, he would never long for joy and God would be his father.” Tom also has a chance of reclaiming his innocence if only he acts well while still alive. Tom awakens to the gloom of his bleak reality, but he is “warm and happy.”
The poem ends with the sentiment, “if everyone does their duty, they should fear no harm.” Even though both their realities are terrible, their hope exists in death. Their yen for death somewhat is and is not childlike. They wish an angel would descend and rescue them and transport them to greener pastures where all is perfect. This is a child’s perception of happiness and heaven. Nonetheless, these two children are ready to meet their deaths. Assenting and welcoming one’s fate is a mature mindset is held by few adults.
The loss of innocence as depicted in Songs of Innocence is not entirely apparent; however, it is rather overt in Songs of Experience. A “black substance in the snow” is mentioned in the first line. The despair and experience of the child is a striking contrast with the whiteness and purity of the snow. When questioned about his parent’s whereabouts, he replies “they are praying in church.” His parents have abandoned him and are praying as though all is well. He asserts that because his temperament is happy and because he appears content regardless of the severity of life, his parents presume he will be content anywhere. Of course, they are incorrect, and this child is suppressed because he is joyous.
A line that brings realization to the child is “they arrayed me in clothes of death.” Here, the child acknowledged that he would soon perish. When his parents abandoned him his experience was handed to him. Being arrayed in clothes of death means he is being dressed for his interment, which, like the young lads in the Songs of Innocence, will probably happen in the chimneys. The boy also declares that he was taught to vocalize the “notes of woe.” He learned what being miserable is instead of singing and dancing joyfully. He gained experience and lost his innocence through his miserable condition.
The poem’s final line “Who creates a heaven of our despair?” referring to God, his priest, and his king. These figures represent God, the Church, and the government which unfairly treats the young and deprived. They utilize the narrator’s labor to advance themselves. The boy’s parents, the government, and the church have essentially stripped the innocence off of the boy. Unlike the raconteur in Songs of Innocence, the boy holds no hope of being saved. Rather, he blames religion and God for his misery. The boy does not regard heaven as the best place to reside in after his demise. To him, heaven is what others have created for themselves from what has been stripped from him.
Between these two poems, the loss of innocence is structurally supported, specifically by the rhyme scheme. In “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence, rhyming couplets are utilized which are typical in children poems and nursery rhymes. While the rhyming scheme is basic and simple, it twists in the concluding two stanzas. Rather than utilizing perfect rhymes, the last three stanzas are slant rhymes. By so doing, William Blake establishes a feeling that something is amiss. The poem’s conclusion sounds more cheerful contrasted the rest of it and imparts a hopeful feeling. Readers feel glad that now, the children have hope, but the reality that their hope is located in death is saddening.
“The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience begins with a rhyming couplet, but the subsequent stanzas are different. Still, like the previous poem, it is a rhyme scheme that is plain and simple to follow. William Blake utilizes a simple rhyme scheme for numerous reasons. He wants readers to concentrate on the poem’s content, not a complicated rhyme scheme. Also, his narrator is a young lad; therefore using a simple rhyme scheme applies best when a child is speaking. If further shows how he is seen by his parents. The cadence and sound of the poem sound innocent and sweet, like the raconteur himself. However, it is wise to listen to what is being said by the poem and the chimney sweeper. His parents heeded not his “notes of woe” or his outcry of despair.
The two renditions of “The Chimney Sweeper” offer two different perspectives, but jointly, they exhibit how the disregard of childhood is stolen. Composed using Blake’s clever yet simple rhyme schemes, “The Chimney Sweeper” as depicted in Songs of Innocence portrays a more hopeful child whose innocence is being stolen whereas “The Chimney Sweeper” as portrayed in Songs of Innocence depicts a child whose innocence is already stolen. The former gives a sense of hope. Tom, together with his friends can expect the peace that awaits them in paradise. The latter does no such thing. Rather it reveals a child whose innocence was snatched and substituted with experience. His parents, the church, and the government caused his loss of innocence. Both renditions of “The Chimney Sweeper” narrate the ruination of childlike hope and consequently, a loss of innocence through rhyme schemes and imagery.