Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"The Chimney Sweeper" (Experience) by William Blake

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 winters 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 made up a heaven of our misery.
In the “Experienced” version of the chimney sweeper the sinful narrator embraces in his attack: parents, church, God, priest, king and their conception of heaven. The tone is directly against the state and the church that overlooked such treatment of child slavery. This time the speaker does not free himself of his misery but is hardened and cynical, reduced to “a little black thing.” Again the poem relies on the imagery of light and dark, the boy is blackened by the cruelty of men and their sin is contrasted by the whiteness of the snow – sin against innocence. The statement of “weep weep in notes of woe” expresses his anguish and his misery. The poem shows the depth of the child sweeper’s experience and his awareness that there is no redemptive element within it. The child locates the cause of his predicament in his own happiness. He is left with an awareness of his innocence and with the capacity to access the world of innocence to a degree. His return to the lost world of innocence makes it possible for society to ignore its blame in the crime of the sweepers’ lives.

“And because I am happy & dance & sing
They think they have done me no injury.”
The last line of the poem highlights the central feature of the poem, the social conception of heaven: a “made up” paradise; a heaven constructed by the power of “God & His Priest & King”, and by the parents who have forced their child into a miserable and probably deadly occupation. In the song of experience the speaker has gained a grim understanding of his situation. Yet as Blake often convinces, this understanding or reasoning in an overwhelming way leads to sin and unhappiness. Compared to the innocent version of Blake’s chimney sweeper, such as the tiger and the lamb, Blake contrasts the two aspects of innocence and experience. Blake’s consistent approach to his views on the tragedy of reason opposed to  innocence always contains a poem with a major or minor connection to other poems he has written, whether they be written later or earlier in his life.

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