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 convey 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 accidently 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 existences, there is still hope in death. Their longing for death is and is not childlike. They want an Angel to come 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 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 is “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 the 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 leave 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 sounds 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.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience William Blake
The following entry presents criticism of Blake's poetry collection, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1794). See also, William Blake Criticism.
Written in the deceptively simple style associated with children's verse, Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a collection of short lyric poems accompanied by Blake's original illustrations. The two sections, written over an interval of at least four years, juxtapose “the two contrary states of the human soul,” as the combined text's subtitle states. “The Tyger,” an individual verse from Songs of Experience, is one of the most widely recognized poems in the English language.
Blake was born on November 28, 1757, in London, the second of five surviving children of James and Catherine Harmitage Blake. His father sold gloves, stockings, and haberdashery, maintaining the family in rather modest circumstances. Blake did not attend school as a young child but spent his time wandering freely throughout the city and the surrounding countryside, where he began experiencing the visions that would later inform his illustrations. His parents discouraged the child from relating his visions of angels in trees or God's face at the window, since, from their perspective, the boy was lying. They did, however, encourage Blake's artistic talent. At the age of ten he was enrolled in a drawing school operated by James Pars and four years later he began an apprenticeship with a master engraver. He briefly attended the Royal Academy after completing his apprenticeship, but soon began working full time as an engraver, producing illustrations for various books and periodicals. In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, who signed her name with an “X” on their marriage license. Under her husband's tutelage she learned to read and write, eventually assisting him in drafting. The couple had no children. In 1784 Blake went into the printing business with his younger brother Robert and a local engraver, but the business failed three years later, after Robert's death. Blake then turned to copperplate etching and perfected the technique that would allow him to produce both illustration and verse on a single page, as he did for the Songs. In 1790 Blake left the city he associated with disease, pollution, and a wide variety of social problems, in favor of Lambeth, a rural area across the Thames where he began composing the poems of the Experience section of his work. The Blakes lived there for more than ten years before returning to London. Throughout his lifetime Blake was plagued by financial problems and was often at the mercy of overbearing patrons. He was primarily known as an artist rather than as a poet, in part because his illuminated texts were self-published and reached a very limited readership. Widespread distribution of his work did not occur until after his death. Blake died on August 12, 1827, while working on a set of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy.
The production of the version of Songs of Innocence and of Experience used in most modern editions took place over a period of thirty-five years, with Blake acting as his own publisher. According to most scholars, the first section of Blake's text, Songs of Innocence, was written and published in 1789. Blake later combined these poems with a second section entitled Songs of Experience. Blake called the combined edition, dated 1794, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul and created a new illustration for the title page. Four of the songs originally assigned to the Innocence section—“The Schoolboy,” “The Little Girl Lost,” “The Little Girl Found,” and “The Voice of the Ancient Bard”—were moved to the Experience section in the combined version. In addition, there is a great deal of variation in the order in which the poems appear in the surviving copies of both the Innocence section and the combined sections. The final poem of the Experience sequence, “To Tirzah,” summarizes the entire work; it was added much later, possibly as many as twelve years after the appearance of the combined version.
The poems of the two sections deal with the opposition between the innocent, joyous perspective of the child and the more experienced, less spontaneous, perspective of the adult. Blake creates a dichotomy between wishes and desires on the one hand and duties and responsibilities on the other, always privileging the imaginative over the rational. Although children appear as the subject of individual songs in both sections of the work, their happiness or misery is determined by their relationships with the adults who maintain control over their lives, as in the contrasting poems “Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence and “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience. The group of poems associated with experience is replete with images of restriction and constraint, occasionally self-imposed, but more commonly imposed by parents or authority figures on the lives of the young. Although the poems of the two sections are obviously meant to serve as contrasting states of the human condition, the individual poems, even those associated with innocence, themselves contain discontinuities, as though in anticipation of the much harsher view of life outlined in the second sequence. Suspicion and mistrust of authority figures—parental, religious, or political—and the power they wield is an important theme throughout the work.
The contrasts Blake set forth in the Songs are echoes of English society's approach to the social and political issues of his era—a time characterized, on the one hand, by increasing desire for personal, political, and economic freedom, and on the other, by anxiety regarding the potential consequences of that freedom for social institutions. Several of the poems directly address contemporary social problems, for example, “The Chimney-Sweeper” deals with child labor and “Holy Thursday” describes the grim lives of charity children. The most fully-realized social protest poem in the Songs is “London,” a critique of urban poverty and misery.
Critical controversy surrounds the categorization of Blake's poetry in the Romantic period. Harold S. Pagliaro suggests that Blake not only participated in the Romantic era's preoccupation with mortality, but actually went beyond most of his contemporaries in embracing vulnerability to death. According to Pagliaro, Blake considered the world “death-laden, filled with intimidating foes, deadly Tygers, hypocritical smiles, and constricting social and religious systems that reduce life.” The critic believes it was the aim of the Songs to meet the challenge presented by such a dismal world view. Some scholars, though, reject the notion that Blake was a Romantic poet at all, and instead situate his work within the tradition of an earlier literary period. Heather Glen contends that Blake's text is not, as is often claimed, an experimental work. “In presentation and subject-matter, Blake's Songs are closer to late eighteenth-century children's verse than to anything else in the period,” writes Glen. However, Blake's verses differ from the usual children's poetry, according to Glen, in their failure to provide a strong authorial voice conveying the message young readers should glean from the poems. Jon Mee, acknowledging the work's originality, also maintains that the songs are modeled on earlier literature, but insists that they “often work by mimicking familiar forms and arousing expectations which they go on to frustrate.” Martin Price contends that the association of the Innocence poems with verse for children has led some critics to dismiss them entirely or to treat them as ironic foreshadowings of the Experience poems, a position he rejects. He asserts that the poems of the first section are valuable in their own right and should first be examined in isolation from the second section. “Only when we grant Innocence its proper value does the full dialectical force of the two contrary states become clear,” claims Price. Many scholars, including Glen, nevertheless defend the contention that the poems of the Innocence sequence contain an element of irony that undercuts their pastoral quality. Harold Bloom, too, refers to Blake's use of “innocence” as an “equivocal term” and suggests that the songs in the first section exhibit an “ambiguity of tone.”
Controversy has also raged over the organization of the work and the relationship between the two sections. Many critics have studied the obvious dialectical pairings of individual poems, such as the contrasting versions of “Nurse's Song” or “The Chimney-Sweeper” in each section. Others see affinities between poems that do not have similar titles, such as the cluster “Laughing Song,” “The Little Black Boy” and “The Voice of the Ancient Bard.” Attempts to establish a direct correspondence across the board between the two sections have proven fruitless, however. Donald A. Dike maintains that “Blake was too fine an artist to pair off in detail all the poems in the sequences; to get what he was after, it was enough to do this with a few.” K. E. Smith suggests that attempts to match up the individual songs are complicated by the fact that Blake himself changed the order of the poems several times, moving some from Innocence to Experience. Smith suggests that Blake was “constantly highlighting different paths through the innocent world,” rather than pointing to one final, ideal arrangement of the poems.
Glen has examined those pieces—such as “London”—that deal with social problems and notes that the self-consciousness of Blake's poetic voice sets him apart from his contemporaries. The poem's speaker, in relating the deplorable conditions associated with urban life, “does not assume a position of righteous indignation: from the very beginning he recognizes his own implication in that which he sees.” The result is not a moral attitude that exposes and protests against social problems, but rather a “profound uneasiness” on the part of both the poem's speaker and the reader. Mee also notes Blake's complex approach to social problems in the songs, contrasting “The Chimney Sweeper” with Mary Alcock's poem “The Chimney-Sweeper's Complaint.” As Mee sees it, Alcock's “reader is not called upon to consider his or her role in the system of child labour,” whereas “Blake's reader is directly implicated in what is happening.” Scholars agree that, although Blake participated in the contemporary discourse on social problems, his approach was original and far less consoling for the reader than that of other writers.