"THE Chimney Sweeper" (Songs of Experience)
by Deborah Noel
In his essay, "Infinite London," 1959, David Erdman alludes to "THE Chimney Sweeper" of Experience, suggesting that Blake is directly responding to the sympathies of groups such as The Association for Preserving the Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, pamphleteers who believed that the poor were a necessary part of society. Erdman explains that these groups "bluntly defended the inequality that supports pity and mercy," and ultimately created the conditions that led to violent uprisings. He locates these anti-Levellers in the "King, priest, god, and parents [who] do not reckon the revolutionary potential in the multitude they are stripping naked." He also connects the sweep's dancing and singing to the annual May Day celebration in London, during which sweeps and milkmaids would perform in the streets for alms. Geoffrey Summerfield discusses misreadings of the Innocence "Sweeper" in Fantasy and Reason: Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century. He asserts that Blake's radical condemnation of church and social order could not be misconstrued if the two poems were read together. For Summerfield, Blake's radical antinomian, "even blasphemous" message in "THE Chimney Sweeper" of Experience reflects a "condition of growing up, a provocation of spiritual and even of political growth." Like Erdman before him, Summerfield suggests that Blake may have written this poem as a "counterblast" to middle class morality as it is represented in the literature of the time.
The subject of Blake's creative political commentary is taken up by Martin K. Nurmi,1964, who mentions "THE Chimney Sweeper" of Experience as the companion to the poem in Innocence, noting that Blake's "oblique" commentary on the plight of the sweeps would have been well understood by readers in the late 18th century, but may lose some of its clarity for a modern reader who is not familiar with the history of sweeps in London. Nurmi provides some background information, claiming that "a more sharply delineated picture of the lives of the sweeps than Blake's speakers in the poems can give strengthens our awareness of the ironic disparity between the tone of the boy's discourse and the conditions they allude to..." Heather Glen, in 1983, points out that "THE Chimney Sweeper" is one of the poems in Experience that "dramatizes explicit attitudes toward the experiences [it] present[s]..." The attitude in this case is one of "complaint." Like Erdman, she asserts that the poem reflects the subversive ambiance of the 1790's and links its message to political pamphlets circulating in the late 18th century.
In Hateful Contraries: Studies in Literature and Criticism, W.K. Wimsatt outlines strategies for teaching poetry and explicates "London." Like many critics of that widely-read poem, he diverts his attentions to "The Chimney Sweeper" poems at the point when sweeps become a subject of "London". He calls "THE Chimney Sweeper" of Experience an "angry poem," and briefly describes the life of a sweep in the late 18th century.
Like Wimsatt, Harold Bloom alludes to "The Chimney Sweeper" poems during an explication of "London" in Blake and Revisionism, 1976. He points out that Blake uses "weep, weep" "due to the cockney lisp of the children as they attempt to advertise their labor with a voiced 'sweep, sweep.'"
In 1968, John Holloway briefly treats "THE Chimney Sweeper" of Experience, comparing its "logical structure" to that of "The Fly," and asserting that the former may be even "more sharply articulated." He summarizes that structure with: "'because' A, therefore B and C, and in the same way, 'because' D, therefore E and F." In another comparison of the "Sweeper" poems from Innocence and Experience, D.G. Gillham, notes that "Blake asserts...the importance of the individual" in both "The Chimney Sweeper" poems. The parents of Experience demonstrate one the qualities of Innocence through their na´vetÚ, but, unlike the speaker-sweep in Innocence, they turn that na´vetÚ "to a paltry end." While Gillham sees the parents as "shameful" and "self-satisfied," he is reluctant to read the poem as a condemnation of the church. He claims that "this pessimism, which belongs to the sweep, not Blake, is carried to too great a length...No 'Priest' is likely to view indifferently the misuse of children..." The sweep's attack on religion is a symptom of Experience, writes Gillham, and the reader is meant to assume that "poverty and maltreatment do not allow people to appear at their best." Gillham also attributes "lightheartedness" to the poor, whom he refers to as "the less comfortably situated inhabitants of the earth," but he claims that the "unpleasant" vindictive speaker of Experience is incapable of lightheartedness and is assuming a self-righteous pose which limits his humanity.
Zachary Leader, in 1981, questions the role of the speaker in the first stanza of "THE Chimney Sweeper" of Experience, noting that this voice is manipulating both the sweep as object of pity and the reader as the audience of a polemic. He writes, "it reminds us of pictures of concerned politicians talking with ghetto children." Echoing Gillham, Leader argues that "the sweep himself is no more genuine or spontaneous." He reconciles the contrived nature of the poem by reasoning that "the Bard has sacrificed or distorted a particular, individual truth in order to register a larger 'truth of social discontent.'" (In this, he is quoting Rosetti, who also found the poem problematic) Leader concludes that the Bard, unlike the Piper, does not "trust the poetic indirection of piped song." Although "THE Chimney Sweeper" of Experience has received less direct critical attention than its Innocence alter-ego, the two poems are often compared. In 1959, Robert F. Gleckner contrasts the sweeps of Innocence and Experience. In Experience, the child has lost the power of imagination/vision that his innocent counterpart relies on, and is left with the reality of death. Gleckner calls the poem "a dirge", pointing out that "death [is] unknown to the children" of Innocence but is "taught" to those in Experience. He links the church in the poem to Swedenborg, and argues that the sweep, himself, is partially to blame because he accepts his plight. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. also contrasts the two "Sweeper" poems, asserting that the Innocence poem was "genuinely vulnerable" and failed to make an explicit connection between the exploitation of children and the social system (he supports this claim by arguing that "Blake, in Jerusalem was penitential about his social complacency in 'Innocence'"). Hirsch asserts that the Experience sweep's ironic happiness is derived from "the strength of life that is in him." His parents fail to understand that happiness because they are "willing agents of the order to which they are themselves enslaved." In 1985, Edward Larissy briefly contrasts the sweeps of Innocence and of Experience, noting that "the critical and disillusioned attitude of the speakers" (in Experience) make the poems easier to interpret, "at first glance." He compares the ironic last line of the Innocence poem to the third stanza of the later poem, claiming that "the clearest way for the reader to interpret Songs of Experience is as an unveiling of the horrors hidden from the eye of Innocence."
In Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced, 1986, Stanley Gardner also comments on the contrasting ease with which the Experience songs can be interpreted. He claims, however, that "there is more detailed emphasis on the degradation in the poem in Innocence...the poem in Experience is not an exclusive attack on the practice of using small boys as sweeps." He also implicates the sweep in his own demise, suggesting that his "'innocent' resistance to the spiritual death of his nurture has enabled the devout parents to exploit his resilience." In contrast to other readings of the poem, Gardner asserts that this sweep has not been sold by his parents; rather, he may be the son of a "mastersweep who has taught his own child to 'sing the notes of woe in the street." This profitable arrangement is condoned by the church; the ultimate evil in the poem is that which "festers in the intimate relationships of families." Gardner claims that Blake did not focus on the particulars of the sweep's life because he saw it as just one of the many horrors being done to children during his lifetime.
In Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs, 1987, Harold Pagliaro notes that the sweeper of Experience is "psychologically the obverse of his counterpart in Innocence." The Experience sweep's ability to critically evaluate his position, the "mental operations" of his parents and the social/religious system that condones his exploitation completely separates him from the speaker in Innocence. This deeper level of consciousness is a quality of Experience. In a similar reading, in 1963, Bloom links "Holy Thursday" and "The Chimney Sweeper" (of Experience), locating a "childlike logic" in both of the poems. He notes that the speaker in the latter, however, has the ability to exercise "the peculiar rhetorical force" of "because."
Jonathan Cook, 1981, contrasts Blake's two sweeper-speakers, arguing that "where the chimney sweeper of 'Innocence' sees duty, the chimney sweeper of 'Experience' sees exploitation, and where the chimney sweeper of 'Innocence' identifies himself with the images of religion, the chimney sweeper of 'Experience' sees institutional Christianity." For Cook, the later poem incorporates the critical perception that its counterpart lacks, but the two poems exist in a dialectical relationship, defining and illuminating each other. David Lindsay, in Blake: Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1989, also contrasts the sweeps, suggesting that "THE Chimney Sweeper" of Experience "presents as counterpart to the self forgetful visionary of Innocence a sharp-witted child unforgivingly conscious both of his parents' treachery and of its ideological foundations."
Placing both sweeper poems in a historical context, Claire Lamont, 1991, points out that Blake's poems and Charles Lamb's essay, "The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers," "are among the earliest literary works on the painful subject of the child chimney-sweeper." Lamont explicates the poems, highlighting their realism.
Bloom, Harold. Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. London: Victor Gollancz, 1963. 42-3.
Bloom, Harold. "Blake and Revisionism." In Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976. Republished In Modern Critical Interpretations of Blake. New York: Chelsea Home Publishers, 1987.53-66.
Cook, Jonathan. "Romantic Literature and Childhood." In Romanticism and Ideology: Studies in English Writing 1765-1830. London, Boston and Henly: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Erdman, David V. "Infinite London." In Blake: Prophet Against Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. Reprinted In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.49-57.
Gardner, Stanley. Blake. London: Evans Brothers, 1968.
Gardner, Stanley. Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced. London: The Athlone Press, 1986.
Gillham, D.G. Blake's contrary States: The 'Songs of Innocence and of Experience' as Dramatic Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
Gleckner, Robert F. The Piper and the Bard . Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1959.
Glen, Heather. Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Hirsch, E.D. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964.26-7.
Holloway, John. Blake: The Lyric Poetry. London: Edward Arnold Publishers LTD, 1968.
Lamont, Claire. "Blake, Lamb and the Chimney Sweeper." Charles Lamb Bulletin. LXXVI (1991), 109-123.
Larissy, Edward. William Blake. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake's Songs. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Lindsay, David W. Blake: Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Atlantic Highlands: Humanties Press International Inc., 1989.
Nurmi, Martin K. "Fact and Symbol in 'The Chimney Sweeper' of Blake's Songs of Innocence." In Bulletin of the New York Public Library. LXVIII (1964), 249-256. Reprinted In Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays. Northrop Frye ,ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
Pagliaro, Harold. Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987.
Paley, Morton D. Energy and the Imagination: A Study of the Development of Blake's Thought. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Primeau, Ronald. "Blake's Chimney Sweeper as Afro-American Minstrel." In Bulletin of the New York Public Library. LXXVIII (1975), 418-430.
Summerfield, Geoffrey. Fantasy and Reason: Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Wimsatt, W. K. Hateful Contraries: Studies in Literature and Criticism Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.