The Chimney Sweeper – Blake’s criticism of social hierarchies
Social hierarchies function to elevate a group of elite citizens to a superior position, thus resulting in the disempowerment of groups that are below them in rank. William Blake was one of 18th century Britain’s most prolific Romantic poets, leaving a legacy of poetry largely unappreciated until after his death due to his working class social position. Blake focused on the plight of the working classes who lived and worked in inhumane conditions during the Industrial Revolution. He was a politically motivated social critic and his ideas still resonate strongly with social and political egalitarians today. His poetry books Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) contain numerous poems that pair and can be read dialectically to reveal two ways of viewing of similar issues, one from the understanding of a childlike mind and the other of a being with greater knowledge of the world. “Chimney Sweeper” from both books reveals the construction of social hierarchy in Blake’s society that disempowered the working classes by forcing them to be subservient to the (Christian) Church and state, as well as oppressing children of the working classes who often had no choice but to carry out work such as the dangerous task of chimney sweeping.
In “Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence, Blake subtly constructs the social hierarchy that represses the working class. He criticises the institution of the Church of England and the rigid system of monarchy from the perspective of a childlike mind that is aware of the social structures that constrict them yet is not wise or experienced enough to understand the implications of this. The persona is a chimney sweep whose “mother died when [he] was very young,” after which his “father sold [him]” into the chimney sweeping trade. From this line it can be inferred the persona’s family belong to the working class of British society, Blake’s focal society, where it was common for families to lose members due to diseases that would today be easily curable with modern medicine. The considerable gap that existed between the working class and the middle class meant working class families lived in relative extreme poverty which caused many to resort to ‘selling’ their children into dangerous or unsanitary trades to earn money, such as labour in workhouses or chimney sweeping. The persona employs the metaphor, “coffins of black” to describe the chimneys boys like himself work in. These “coffins” are symbols of death representing the fate awaiting the chimney sweepers who eventually die from breathing carcinogenic soot into their lungs at such a young age. They also symbolise the rigidity of the social hierarchy in England, of which the young sweepers are a part of. Blake constructs a hierarchy from which they will never be empowered enough to break free, reflecting the reality in 18th century England which made it generally impossible for people to improve their social position, especially those from the working class. The social hierarchy Blake evident in “Chimney Sweeper” of Songs of Innocence is implicitly constructed as the persona only has limited awareness of their position.
The poem of the same name in Songs of Experience more explicitly constructs the hierarchy of 18th century Britain, revealing the superior position of the Church and state over the rest of society, subjugating the masses and demanding their total subservience. The persona of this poem is a more vocal social critic who is bitter and without hope. This is overt through the use of figurative language such as his cry of “Weep! Weep!” to symbolise the trauma of chimney sweeping on young boys, ‘weep’ not incidentally being found within the word ‘sweep’. The Church’s influence is evident in the persona’s explanation his mother and father have “gone up to church to pray” while also placing their own child’s life in danger as a chimney sweeper, seemingly not caring about him enough to prevent his being dressed “in the clothes of death.” In other words, Blake suggests the parents seal their son’s fate every day they force him to work in the confines of the chimney. The institution of the Church held a dominant position over much of Blake’s society because they provided charity for struggling families and church leaders often held positions of power within government and communities. This thereby forced working class families to maintain excellent relations with the church in order to avoid causing offence to the parish they resided within, namely by attending Mass as in the example of the chimney sweepers parents. Blake is implying the Church care more about maintaining the hierarchy than the welfare of children, thus giving parents no choice but to have the same priority. This elevates the Church’s importance to society while ensuring working classes families submit to the will of the Church. Blake highlights this due to his own dislike for institutions, particularly the Church. He viewed religions as institutions of oppression, which disempowered the masses who could not oppose the Church’s dominance. Where the persona in this poem says his mother and father are praying “before God and his Church and King”, the term ‘King’ metaphorically refers to the state, at this time closely aligned to the Church because the religion of British kings determined Britain’s religion – in Blake’s time, Christianity. The state or ‘King’ are the at the top of the British social hierarchy, with aristocrats and nobility empowered by the “Heaven made of [the misery]” of the working classes and the profits the elite ruling classes earned from the Industrial Revolution. Thus, in the darker and more overtly critical “Chimney Sweeper” found in Songs of Experience, the social hierarchy supports the elevated position of the Church and State at the expense of the working classes.
Finally, in both poems Blake succeeds in the construction of a ‘third party’ to reestablish and cement the notion the elite and middle classes fulfil a much dominant role over the working classes. In doing so, Blake seems to address his intended audience, those fortunate enough to read poetry, a text form that in the 18th century was generally only readable by those of the middle and upper classes with a costly public school education. In the Songs of Innocence version of the poem, the persona addresses an unnamed new party, telling them, “So your chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep.” The sweeper speaks to the privileged middle and upper classes who could afford a chimney sweeper’s services and had the means of maintaining their authority, such as the necessary money and property. They held a superior position over the chimney sweepers and other workers who had no means to seek a life beyond their inferior place in the hierarchy. The empowered elite’s position juxtaposes that of the “thousands of chimney sweepers all locked up in coffins of black.” Similarly, in the poem from Songs of Experience, the chimney sweeper is asked by a passerby, “Where are your father and mother say?” Despite the thousands of chimney sweepers in London, the passerby is evidently in a position of privilege and ignorant of mistreatment and poor living conditions of the working class, especially children, in his own society. He represents the middle and upper classes, and his presence and lack of understanding highlights the stark juxtaposition between the empowerment of the elite and inferiority of the working classes.
Thus, Blake speaks for the oppressed, those at the bottom of the hierarchy, and he is deeply critical of institutions for their part in this. He calls to light their plight by describing the fate of the young sweepers and exposing the disparity between the working and middle classes. The convictions Blake held were of particular concern during the time of publishing Songs of Experience due to the 1789 French Revolution. This Revolution emancipated many and inspired humanity to challenge the rigidity of social hierarchies. No doubt this upheaval had enormous bearing on the critical perspective of Blake towards the existence of the British hierarchy, as firmly expressed in “Chimney Sweeper.”
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