Moral Judgement in William Blake’s Poetry (the Chimney Sweeper, Holy Thursday, London)
William Blake is often known as a painter, poet, mystic and imaginative artist. His imaginative vision led him to reject all rigid moral abstractions and show a vision of a self-sufficient, satisfying way of life in which freedom and security are held in perfect balance. These orientations are very clearly perceived in his literary work, and especially in his seminal collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience, wherein such considerations are explored. Each of the poems actively refuses to confirm some of its readers’ most basic moral expectations. This refusal constitutes a fundamental poetic questioning of some of the most deep-rooted of polite eighteenth-century assumptions. Blake’s ‘London Poems’ (‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘London’) in his Songs of Innocence and Experience convey an insight into how moral precepts had an active role in maintaining a disharmonious society by being abstract and far removed from concrete human experience with its resulting dehumanising influence.
In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from Songs of Innocence Blake attempts to show that humans’ best qualities such as mercy, pity, modesty and humility might be fundamentally challenged when applied to the experiences of other people. In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ a young chimney-sweeper describes the dream of another sweeper, which offers an alternative to their miserable existence. When the poem appeared in 1789 the horrible conditions of the chimney-sweepers had elicited outrage from the general public, nearly causing a national scandal (Glen 95). However, the poem does not exhibit explicit protest or an appeal to the reader’s empathy to alleviate the circumstances of extreme poverty and hardship. The opening stanza opens instead with the unmediated voice of the chimney-sweeper himself reciting the facts concerning his life with a calm and distanced maturity (Glen 96):
When my mother died I was very young,
And my Father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘’weep! ‘weep!’ ‘weep!’
So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep. (1-4)
The facts recounted here characteristically describe the life story of a chimney-sweeper in the late eighteenth-century. The chimney-sweeper seems either very juvenile or too impassive to adopt an attitude of defiance concerning his miserable lot. However, the poetic effect of the stanza is not one of credulous acceptance on the part of the child, but it is rather something more disturbing. The little boy explains his life as an inescapable logical progression in which one thing naturally follows on from the next: ‘When… And… So…’. Nevertheless, it is exactly the strangeness of this progression that is emphasised by the child’s flatness of speech which prevents any regular metrical pattern from being established. The consequence is that the child’s apparently uncritical acceptance of the circumstances he finds himself in is not corroborated by the form of the verse itself (Glen 96). The outrage of the circumstances is expressed not by the child himself, but by the poetic framing of his speech.
Furthermore, the uneasiness felt in the rhythm is strengthened by the forthright speech of the chimney-sweeper which directly implicates the reader. This frankness is evident in the last line of the first stanza: ‘So your chimneys I sweep’ wherein “the polite reader is unemphatically but inescapably implicated” (Heather 96). By indicating that the polite reader him or herself is not merely a neutral observer of the poor conditions of the chimney-sweeper, Blake prevents him or her the luxury of a facile indulgence in sentimental pity. In this manner, Blake forces the reader to relinquish his or her position as one who is able to genuinely express compassion because he or she is actually involved in the maintaince of the very conditions he or she is appalled by.
In the second stanza the orientation suddenly shifts from the chimney-sweeper’s rational summary of his own life to a transcendent vision of sympathy with another sweeper named Tom Dacre. This vision awakens in the reader a sentiment of incredulity because it appears unrealistic or rather otherworldly, but it also implicitly commends the reader to admire the unselfishness of the relationship between the young chimney-sweepers.
The chimney-sweeper’s celebration of the other child’s beauty – ‘his head / That curl’d like a lamb’s back’ – becomes an affirmation that their friendship cannot be damaged by external factors:
for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair. (7-8)
It is impossible to discern any judgment in the above lines. Rather than a condemnatory attitude, the chimney-sweeper displays an entirely unselfish open relationship with the child which seems to be connected to the vision of an idyllic world. Despite the harsh working conditions, the chimney-sweepers are able to transform the “debased pragmatism” of their masters, which is responsible for those selfsame conditions, into an affirmation of a relationship based on mutual empathy rather than utility (Glen 97). By portraying this transcendent vision in all its liveliness Blake attempts to show how the master’s stern morality undercuts meaningful human relationships rather than allowing them to thrive.
Furthermore, this lively vision contrasts sharply with the rational, commonsense frame of reference evoked by the final moral injunction which epitomises the master’s pragmatism:
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm. (24)
The child seems merely to be reiterating the official language of the society, which also justifies his exploitation; between the lines one hears the voice of a master telling a boy that if he works hard he will not be punished. The ‘all’ in this last line seems to convey a radical irony comparable to the ‘your’ of the fourth line. While the ‘your’ directly implicated the reader in the condition of the sweepers, the ‘all’ refers does this indirectly. For if ‘all’ did their duty, in the sense of loving their neighbours as themselves, there would indeed be no ‘harm’ such as that in which this child must live. In a society such as this, where not all do their ‘duty’, the chimney-sweepers (‘they’) must indeed fear harm, for the whole of society (‘all’) is corrupt (Glen 99).
Following the transcendent dream, this ‘moral’ seems disturbingly dull. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ would have forced the more alert reader to recognise that when his or her moral terms were really applied to actual social conditions as those of the chimney-sweepers these terms could seem disturbingly double-edged. For while the traditional moral values ensured a stable social order, they could at the same time also justify the appalling conditions of the chimney-sweepers present in that social order by stressing the importance of duty and submission. In this manner moral values are ambiguous because they can paradoxically be used to ensure order but also to maintain injustice.
It is further significant that the moral lesson seems to have no deliberate audience; this vagueness might indicate that nobody is exempt from guilt and that the society which Blake presents is hypocritical. The scathing criticism of moral precept in this poem suggests that for Blake the attempt to order human experience according to an abstract moral law was one of the fundamental problems of the society in which he lived.
Having discussed Blake’s criticism of abstract moral values in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ I will now briefly analyse how he attempts to arouse deep suspicions about moral precepts in ‘Holy Thursday’ in his Songs of Innocence. ‘Holy Thursday’ starts with an at once magnificent and touching scene of a charity-children’s annual procession to St Paul’s for a service of thanksgiving (Glen 121):
‘Upon a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
‘The children walking two & two in grey & blue & green (1-2)
The poem is however different than ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ with respect to the speaker himself being not altogether innocent. The scene is observed by the speaker with a certain awareness of its significance: the children are labelled as ‘innocent’ in contrast with the elders who exploit the young for their own benefit. However, unlike what the eighteenth-century reader might have expected, the speaker does not reveal a moralising attitude towards the children but rather revels in the wonderful, lively and colourful sight (Glen 121). The observer transforms the most disturbing elements of the situation such as the regimented marching of the children into a vision of beauty and harmony. He emphasises the exquisiteness of the children as the “flowers of London town / Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own”. Moreover, like ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ this poem ends with a ‘moral’:
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door. (12)
In comparison with what has come before in the poem, this last line, with its abstract moral term ‘pity,’ falls flat. By stating this last moral precept in a context of a beautiful and harmonious vision characterised by ambiguity, Blake awakens the same uneasiness about such ‘moral precepts’ as he does in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. He seems to contrast deliberately the liveliness of an unmoralising vision with the distanced and potentially mystifying abstraction of the expected attempt to order experience according to a generalized moral code.
The last poem I will examine is ‘London’, one of the more memorable poems of Blake’s Songs of Experience. Herein Blake depicts the human degradation and exploitation of eighteenth-century London society mainly due to self-imposed moral constrictions. The “steady slowness and solemnity” with which the lonely wanderer relates the anguish of the people he encounters not only suggestively heightens the seriousness of the poem, but also indicates how heavily such scenes of misery have impacted his consciousness (Leader 196):
I wander thro’ each charter’d street.
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe. (1-4)
By the repetition of the key words ‘charter’d’ and ‘mark’ in this first stanza the ‘charter’d’ streets and river Thames and the ‘marked’ facial expressions are thus both seen as the results of the same coercive imposition of order of man-made constrictions which will become more apparent later in the poem (Thompson 176; Gillham 9). This categorization is similar to the political system of chartering that reduces human realities to abstract rights and obligations. Due to such political strategies that are disconnected from concrete human existence, the very attempt to interpret experience is undercut (Glen 211). These visual images are followed in the second stanza by the more general agonizing lament of “every Man / every Infants cry of fear” which suffering under the self-imposed restrictions of society (Gillham 10):
In every voice; in every ban.
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear (7-8)
The harsh monotony of ‘every’ in this second stanza takes the form of an eerie chant which gives expression to the repressiveness of an exploitative society. The almost neurotic rhythm complements the entrapment implicit in Blake’s terminology of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. This word has a twofold significance in that ‘manacles’ could be seen as handcuffs which can be used to bind the hands and ‘forg’d’ is reminiscent of the blacksmith’s shop as well as fraudulent fabrication. Blake attempts to reveal how humanity has built an extravagant prison by utilising our mind as “an iron law of our condition” (Gillham 10). The ‘manacles’ could be seen as a sort of mental handcuffs not only for the mind, but also created by the mind. It seems as if Blake intentionally gives no hint as to whose mind is responsible for this imprisonment since he exposes the fact that in the society he portrays nobody can be absolved of moral responsibility (Glen 213). Consequently, it is impossible to disengage oneself from moral judgement of this society without seeing oneself as being responsible for the conditions which make it possible in the first place.
Finally, while in the first two stanzas the social interconnections were obscured by the speaker’s generic depictions of them, the last stanzas provide very specific images in which the disharmonious human relations are dramatically portrayed (Thompson 187):
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls.
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls (9-12)
These few lines criticise the important organizations of Blake’s day, the Church and the State, by depicting horrific images of social and political oppression. While the Church propagated several strict moral precepts, it also condoned the social injustice that the innocent sweepers suffer. A similar expression of indignation is found in the image of the pitiful death of a young soldier having no other recourse but to fight for the monarchy. There is a similarity between these scenario’s in that “just as the Soldier’s sigh stains with blood the walls of the pernicious institution that conscripts him, so does the Sweeper’s voiced torment resound upon his oppressor, blackening it in kind” (Lambert 141-142). The essential mode of relationship within this city, between its institutions and its people, is thus one of dominance, oppression and moral hypocrisy.
In conclusion, the poems ‘Holy Thursday’, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘London’ that have been briefly analyzed in this essay all disclose Blake’s profound suspicion of a readers’ confidence in moral judgement. This can be seen in that the self-reflexiveness of ‘London’ has its counterpart in the double-edged maxims of the ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. In these poems, Blake does not explicitly give voice to protest, but he implicates the reader directly, and refuses to allow him or her any uncontaminated moral perspective such as conventional ‘protest’ verse would assume. He offers a dramatisation of the conflict between actual social experience and ‘official’ justifying morality. Rather than merely expressing indignant social protest, the poems express something more immediately disquieting, namely a sense not only of the uncertainty of any moral judgment within the society that has been portrayed, but also of its active implication in that which it seeks to condemn. Blake seems to imply that such moralising by abstracting from the actuality of experience is often dehumanising as it sets up an artificial construct: an absolute moral law.
As a result, this moral law can all too easily be used to justify the status quo of an oppressive society and exploit the socially powerless. Paradoxically, Blake seems to be criticising the official moral absolutes of his contemporary society by implicitly utilising moral indictments himself. It thus seems that Blake is ultimately not criticising morality as such, but rather the misuse of abstract moral reasoning to justify and maintain a society burdened by self-restrictive mental handcuffs which imprison the lively concrete existence of its members to their social detriment.
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