“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (from Songs of Experience)

ChimneySweeper_2

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.

This poem corresponds with “The Chimney Sweeper” from the Songs of Innocence. I have to say that although this one is shorter than its corresponding poem, it is much more powerful and visceral in my opinion.

While I find the exploitation of children to be sickening, it is almost beyond comprehension that parents could exploit their children. And what this poem does is it points out the way that people justify their abuse and cruelty. Because the child seems happy, they are able to convince themselves that they are not really doing the child harm. But as we all know, true psychological damage happens below the surface.

The image of “the clothes of death” is really disturbing. I picture blackened rags, covered with soot and dirt, seeping sickness and disease into the pores of the young child. This contrasts starkly with the white snow, but the irony here is that winter is also symbolic of death. I get the sense that the child will die soon and that this will be his last winter.

The last two lines of the poem show yet another level of justification, that of the church. In Blake’s time, church doctrine would have asserted that a child is the property of the parent, and hence the parents could do with the child as they wish. I keep thinking about how, throughout history, religious doctrine has been used to justify social injustice. It continues today. All one needs to do is listen to the arguments against marriage reform.

This is a pretty bleak poem and it’s hard to find any hope in it. The only hope I can find is in the fact that enlightened people like Blake recognize social injustice and have the courage to point it out. It inspires me to point out injustice when I see it around me.

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