Songs of Innocence and of Experience contains two poems about young chimney sweepers: one in 'Innocence' and one in 'Experience'. Dr Linda Freedman considers how this allows for a complex, subtle engagement with the figure of the sweep.
In William Blake’s London, the fate of chimney sweeps was a cruel one. Little boys as young as six were often sold by families who could not afford to feed them and apprenticed to the trade. They were sent terrified up the dangerous and dark chimneys and, if they dared refuse, they were frequently terrorised by their new masters, who threatened to return them to the life of poverty and starvation from whence they had come. As the House Report on Sweeps shows, the job was not only horribly frightening but also profoundly dangerous. Sweeps suffered high rates of cancer from exposure to soot, along with respiratory diseases, broken bones and stunted growth. Sweeps usually chose the chimney over starvation but whatever choice they made, their lives were haunted by a fear of death.
Blake wrote two poems about the young sweeps he saw suffering in the streets of London. He placed one in the Songs of Innocence and the other in the Songs of Experience. The Songs of Innocence and Experience was printed in two phases. In 1789, Blake printed the first few copies of The Songs of Innocence and, in 1794, he bound these together with more illuminated plates and titled the work The Songs of Innocence and Experience: shewing two sides of the human soul. Blake therefore declared his interest in duality on the very first page of the 1794 edition. When he took the fate of chimney sweeps as the subject for a poem in both Innocence and Experience, he gave us at least two ways of seeing the same social predicament.
By comparing Blake’s two ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poems, we can get some sense of his feelings about innocence and experience as ‘contrary states’. The sweep in Innocence doesn’t understand the life in which he finds himself. He is sold ‘while yet [his] tongue, / Could scarcely cry weep weep, weep weep’. ‘Weep’ sounds very like ‘sweep’. This is a poetic strategy with which Blake suggests that as there is little difference in the way the words sound to our ears, so there is little difference in what the words mean to the child. But the child’s language is not adequate to make sense of his sorrow. He does not know that he has been taught a false language, which makes him believe that sadness must be a fact of everyday life.
The little child who narrates the Song from Innocence is, therefore, unable to comprehend the world in which he finds himself. This makes innocence a much more frightening state than experience. The chimney sweeper of Experience knows his position is one of ‘misery’ and angrily berates society for it. Like the child of Innocence he cries ‘weep weep’ and Blake again puns on the similarity of sound between ‘weep’ and ‘sweep’. The difference is that the child of experience knows this life has been forced upon him and he realises that he has been ‘taught’ the language of the sweep’s sorrowful life. Unlike innocence, Blake suggests that experience is a state of knowledge and control.
The child of experience directs his anger at the organised religion of the church. In the last line of the poem, he implies that the church profits from the miserable life that he leads and therefore ‘make[s] up a heaven of our misery’. This suggests that organised religion is built upon innocent pain. It also suggests that the church weaves a fiction of happiness, pretending that children like the sweep are satisfied instead of suffering. The sin of organised religion, as Blake sees it, is to prevent people from seeing things as they are by training them in the fallacy of received wisdom. So Blake implies that social problems are intimately connected with spiritual problems. Just as the child’s parents fail to perceive his misery, so they fail to perceive the lack of spiritual truth in the doctrines and practices of the church.
Report into employing boys as chimney sweeps
From the report made by the Parliamentary Committee on the employment of children as chimney-sweeps, 1817.
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In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Innocence, the speaker’s friend, little Tom Dacre, has a dream, which discloses the malicious fiction that suffering in this world is relieved by salvation in the next. Without the tools of experience, which would equip him to see this falsehood for what it is, Tom Dacre, like the innocent narrator, is little more than a ventriloquial voice for institutional control. In the last line of the poem he parrots the doctrine of oppression: ‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’. Like the innocent narrator, he has internalised the language of abuse and does not have the vocabulary with which to criticise it.
Blake’s illuminated plates depict noticeably different kinds of figures. In The Songs of Innocence the small, dancing forms of children seem natural extensions of the vines and leaves and curling calligraphy. Three little figures at the top of the plate are barely distinguishable from it. All the children, here, have a light and unearthly quality, far removed from the life of the chimney sweep. The green in the foreground suggests a paradisial landscape. The adult figure in the bottom right-hand corner is reminiscent of Blake’s depictions of Jesus. This is the platitudinous image of salvation, not a depiction of the real conditions of suffering.
By contrast, the plate from The Songs of Experience shows a child bent over, hardly able to withstand the onslaught of winter weather and hard work. His face is turned accusingly towards the viewer and turned upwards. This puts us in an uncomfortably similar position to the parents, who are ‘gone up to the church to pray’. Unlike the plate from Innocence, where the figures are slender and free of earthly restraint, this boy is heavyset. The snow drives down and the sky is dark. The colouring of the plate is black, white and a kind of muddy brown, suggesting a winter scene where nothing can grow or thrive.
These two poems are not only about the atrocious fate of chimney sweeps in Blake’s society. They are also a comment on the contrary states of innocence and experience. Innocence, here, seems a more frightening condition because the innocent have no way of understanding the world in which they live. By contrast, the child of experience is a vocal social critic. Blake entwines this social criticism with criticism of organised religion precisely because he sees both issues as manifestations of the same fundamental problem of blinkered perception. This, for Blake, is the real barrier to social progress. But only the child of experience is able to see the platitudes of church and state for what Blake believes they are: the malice that keeps little boys chained to a terrifying and dangerous life.
 Houses of Commons, Report from the Committee of the … House of Commons on the employment of Boys in sweeping of Chimneys, ed. by William Tooke the Younger (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, 1817).