William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience contain parallel poems that contrast innocence and experience. Two such poems that share the name “The Chimney Sweeper” both depict a young boy working the deadly job of a chimney sweeper but in startlingly different ways.
The narrator of “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence lives a terrible life that could result in his death at any time. His mother is dead. His father sold him as a chimney sweeper, making him little more than a slave. Yet this boy still manages the type of optimism only a child can muster and comforts his friend Tom Dacre when his head is shaved.
Despite the sadness of this poem a hint of hope still lingers. The same cannot be said of “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience. The boy was abandoned by his hypocritical parents to die as a chimney sweeper while they go to church to pray. Blake’s powerful imagery combined with a simple rhyme scheme conveys how childlike hope descends into a loss of innocence by the two chimney sweepers.
Even though the first “The Chimney Sweeper” is in Songs of Innocence, there is still a loss of innocence and a hint of experience. The poem immediately begins with the narrator describing his unfortunate situation of being a child laborer.
Losing one’s mother and being sold by one’s father is sure to cause a loss of innocence. In fact, the narrator accidentally yells “weep!” instead of “sweep!” because of his lisp (3). He is unintentionally crying out in despair at what has happened to him. In “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience, the narrator also cries out “weep,” (2) but this time it is not unintentional. The narrator fully comprehends the tragedy of his situation. Blake shows a progression from ignorance to understanding, or rather innocence to experience.
In “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence, the narrator spends a lot of his time discussing the situation of his friend Tom Dacre. When he is first mentioned, the narrator is comforting Tom because his head is shaved. Tom’s hair is described as “curl’d like a lamb’s back” (6). A lamb is a common symbol of innocence and is one that Blake uses often in Songs of Innocence.
While comforting Tom, the narrator says now “the soot cannot spoil your white hair” (8). The narrator is saying that the horridness of their situation cannot taint Tom’s purity and innocence as a child. However, by having his head shaved, Tom’s innocence is symbolically stolen. Tom has no reason to be scared of his innocence being tainted because it is almost lost.
That night, Tom dreams of his friends’ death, but it is surprisingly not a nightmare. In his dream, many of the sweepers are “lock’d up in coffins of black” (12). These coffins are the chimneys in which they are all condemned to die. In Tom’s dream, they do indeed die in the chimneys, but in their deaths they are set free. An Angel unlocked them from their misery and now they can happily frolic in heaven.
Through their deaths, the boys actually regain their innocence because they become “naked & white,” (17) which are symbols of purity and innocence. The Angel then proceeds to tell Tom “if he’d be a good boy/ He’d have God for his father & never want joy” (19-20). He too has the chance to regain his innocence as long as he tries to be good while on Earth. Tom awakens back in the darkness of reality, but he is “happy & warm” (23).
The poem ends with the sentiment, “If all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (24). Even though they both are living terrible existence, there is still hope in death. Their longing for death is and is not childlike. They want an Angel to come to save them and bring them to green pastures where everything will be perfect.
That is a child’s notion of heaven and happiness. However, these are two children who are looking forward to their deaths. Accepting one’s fate and greeting it happily is an astonishingly mature mindset that few adults possess. Despite their young age, these children have volumes of experience.
While the loss of innocence in “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence may not be entirely obvious, it is quite overt Songs of Experience. The first line describes a “black thing in snow” (1). The experience and misery of the child is a stark contrast with the purity and whiteness of the snow. When asked where his parents are, he replies “They are both gone up to the church to pray” (4). His parents have left him alone and are praying in the church as if all is well.
He states that because he has a happy disposition and “smil’d among the winter’s snow,” (6) meaning because he seems content despite the hardness of life, they assume he will be content anywhere. They are wrong, of course, and this child is brought down simply because he is so joyful.
A line that rings of experience are “They clothed me in the clothes of death” (7). This child is acknowledging that he is going to die soon. His experience was handed to him when his parents gave him away.
Being put in clothes of death sounds as if he is being prepared for his burial, which, like the children in the other “The Chimney Sweeper,” will likely occur in the chimneys. He also says he was taught to sing the “notes of woe” (8). He learned what it is to be miserable rather than sing and dance joyfully. By being taught to be miserable, he gained experience and thus lost his innocence.
The concluding line of this poem is “Who make up a heaven of our misery” (12) in reference to “God & his Priest & King” (11). These figures are representative of God, the church, and the government who exploit the poor and young. They use the narrator’s labor to make themselves happy.
The church, the government, and his parents have essentially robbed the chimney sweeper of his innocence. Unlike the narrator in Songs of Innocence, there is no hope that God will save him. Instead, he blames God and religion for his misery. Here, heaven is not seen as the perfect place he will go when he is free of this world. It is what others have made for themselves from what they have taken from him.
The loss of innocence is also supported structurally between these two poems, particularly by the rhyme scheme. In “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence, Blake utilizes rhyming couplets, which are common in nursery rhymes and other poems for children. While it is a simple and basic rhyme scheme, it twists just a bit in the last two stanzas.
Instead of using perfect rhymes, three of the last four are slant rhymes. By doing so, Blake is creating a feeling that something is off. The ending of the poem sounds more cheerful than the rest of it does and leaves readers with a feeling of hope, but that hope is laced with a feeling of unease. Readers are happy the children have hope, but the fact that their hope lies in death is off-putting, just like the slant rhymes.
“The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience starts off in the first stanza with rhyming couplets like the previous “The Chimney Sweeper,” but the remaining stanzas are different. Line five rhymes with line seven; line six rhymes with line eight, and so on. Still, like the previous one, it is still a simple, easy-to-follow rhyme scheme. Blake uses a basic rhyme scheme for a number of reasons.
He wants readers to focus on the content of the poem and not get lost in a complex rhyme scheme. His narrator is also a child, so using a simple rhyme scheme makes sense when a child is speaking. It also shows how his parents see him. The sound and the cadence of the poem sound sweet and innocent, like the narrator himself. However, it is important to listen to what the poem and the chimney sweeper are saying. His parents do not hear his “notes of woe,” (8) or his outcry of “weep” (2).
The two versions of “The Chimney Sweeper” provide two separate viewpoints, but together show how the ignorance of childhood is stolen. Supported by Blake’s simple, yet clever rhyme schemes, “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence displays a more optimistic child who is currently losing his innocence while “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience depicts a child whose innocence has already been stolen.
The first provides a lingering sense of hope. Tom and his friends can look forward to being at peace in heaven even though the hope of death is disturbing. The second does no such thing. Instead, it depicts a child whose innocence was stolen and replaced with experience. His loss of innocence is caused by the church, the government, and his parents. Both versions of “The Chimney Sweeper” show the destruction of childlike hope and thus a loss of innocence through the imagery and rhyme schemes.
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