The Issue of the Welfare of Children in the Poems of William Blake
The most effective poems use a specific everyday issue to portray deeper, timeless ideas. This means that the poet’s contemporary audience can relate to the issue, while future audiences can relate to the idea. William Blake’s poetry is enjoyed by modern readers, even though its subject matter is that of the 18th and 19th century. ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’ were two of Blake’s poetry collections, each with a poem entitled ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. To successfully convey his themes, Blake uses a problem from his own period that is still relevant today.
One of the greatest issues in Blake’s time was the welfare of children. In his poetry Blake draws on the specific example of the chimney sweeper to draw attention to the broader problem. However, the two ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems portray this theme of the mistreatment of children in vastly different ways. The poem from ‘Songs of Innocence’ appears to be a children’s nursery rhyme, with its sing-song anapaestic rhythm and simplistic language. It is from a chimney sweeper’s perspective: “So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep”, which particularly rouses our pity and makes us think deeper about the issue. The innocent, nursery rhyme feel, in fact, actually hides the satire and irony of what Blake really thinks of the problem: that these children are being taken advantage of. This is not just an historical issue either; there are still huge issues with child labour in countries such as China even today. The second ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ takes a much more blunt approach. The chimney sweep is described as “A little black thing among the snow”, showing it is insignificant and almost inhuman. It is not being cared for, instead is all alone out in the cold. Phrases such as “clothes of death” and “notes of woe” directly criticise the treatment of the children. Despite quite different approaches, Blake is able to successfully address the theme of child welfare by targeting the everyday issue of chimney sweeps as well as exploring more timeless ideas.
Another timeless idea Blake develops is that of the role of adults. It is their responsibility to protect children, but he clearly believes the adults are shirking their duty. The first ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ looks at the role of the father. “My father sold me…” shows that, for whatever reason, the narrator was essentially abandoned by his real father. The narrator tells “little Tom Dacre”, another chimney sweep, “if he’d be a good boy, / He’d have God for his father, & never want joy.” Here God is becoming the father figure for the children. However, the catch is that it is conditional/ they will eventually receive these rewards, but only if they accept the cards they have been dealt and do their duty. Ironically, the adults are meant to be caring for the children, not exploiting them! This exploitation also takes place in the poem from ‘Songs of Experience’. “Because I was happy…They clothed me in the clothes of death, / And taught me to sing the notes of woe.” The boy’s parents punished him by making him a chimney sweep. They forced him to blacken himself up chimneys with a very high probability that he would die, and they taught him how to sweep. This is the very worst form of exploitation, where a child’s own parents use them to earn money. Furthermore, Blake mentions “God and his Priest and King” that are profiting from the sweep’s “misery”. He openly criticises how the establishments of church and government are abusing their duty to care for these innocent children. Right back to Shakespearian times, the role of adults, particularly parents, has been explored in literature such as ‘King Lear’. Even today it is a topical issue with child abuse being a huge problem in New Zealand. Blake has successfully taken an everyday issue that has relevant meaning for all time periods, and explored the theme of adult responsibility.
William Blake’s two ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems are the perfect example of taking a contemporary case to portray a timeless idea. Blake developed the themes of child welfare and the duty of adults, that are still so important in the modern age. As a result, both ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems are very effective works, appreciated by historical and modern audiences alike.
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