Sunday, June 16, 2013


In Blake's Poetry and Designs edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E Grant, Robert F Gleckner contributed an essay titled Point of View  and Context in Blake's Songs. This statement explains that the two voices of innocence and experience intermingle in the poems:

"Often it is unobtrusive, but many times upon a correct determination of speaker and perspective depends a faithful interpretation of the poem. Blake himself suggests this by his organization of the songs into series, Innocence introduced and sung by the piper, Experience by the Bard. Superficially there seems to be little to distinguish one from the other since the piper clearly exhibits imaginative vision and the Bard 'Present, Past, & Future sees.' Yet for each, the past, present, and future are different: for the piper the past can only be the primal unity, for the present is innocence and the future is experience; for the Bard the past is innocence, the present is experience, and the future is a higher innocence. It is natural, then, that the piper's point of view is prevailingly happy; he is conscious of the child's essential divinity and assured of his present protection. But into that joyous context the elements of experience constantly insinuate themselves so that the note of sorrow is never completely absent from the piper's pipe. In experience, on the other hand, the Bard' voice is solemn and more deeply resonant, for the high pitched joy of innocence is now only a memory." (Page 536)   
This poem would fit the category of those in Innocence in which 'elements of experience ... insinuate themselves."

British Museum
Songs of Innocence & of Experience
Plate 19
Copy A
Songs of Innocence & of Experience, Song 12, (E 10)  
"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 & in soot I sleep,
Theres little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head        
That curl'd like a lambs back, was shav'd, 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, & that very night,
As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight,    
That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack
Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black,

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open'd the coffins & 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 & 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 & never want joy.

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

There is no doubt that Blake was outraged by the abuse of children epitomized by the practice of sending young children up chimneys to clean them. But his two poems about chimney sweeps are touching on more than the plight of these children.

The Chimney Sweeper of Songs of Innocence introduces death on the very first line. The dream state that the child enters in the third stanza gives us the image of children 'lock'd up in coffins of black.' The release of the 'thousands of sweepers' by the angel conveys the idea that death delivers man from the woe of life. However the children, after their sojourn in the joys of innocence provided by the angel in the dream, awake in the same captivity in which they went to sleep. 

The dream shows the sweep what the life of an unblemished, beloved, protected child would be. The difference in his status when he awake is that he is happy in the knowledge that there is a reward from God for good behavior.
It is impossible to classify the children who are chimney sweeps as innocents because they have been treated as the rubbish of society: being bought and sold, coerced, neglected and exploited. If they can return to a state of innocence in spite of their experience it can only be through developing a consciousness in which their only reality is alien to what ordinary consciousness reports. Psychologically their condition may be labeled dissociation.

British Museum
Songs of Innocence & of Experience
Plate 36
Copy A
Songs of Innocence & of Experience, Song 37, (E 22) 
"THE Chimney Sweeper       

A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!  
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath, 
And smil'd 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, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery."  

The chimney sweeper of experience is wiser in the ways of the world. He knows the damage done when children are not nurtured and protected. He has access to the joys of innocence but he knows too that it is 'God & his Priest & King Who make up a heaven of our misery.' The adults, the father & mother, are complicit in causing the suffering of the child by adhering to the established mores of the society instead of responding to the child's needs.

The two lines:
"They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.",
imply that the parents knowingly comply with the sentence which the life of a sweep entails for their son.

No comments: