If one reads the Bible, he may notice that innocence is rewarded but more importantly, suffering is the epitome of redemption, because Christ died, he had to suffer and die in order to redeem mankind. In Christianity, the “narrow path”, leads to heaven. In William Blake’s, The Chimney Sweeper of Innocence, the child toils in the faith of having God as his father because his own has abandoned him. God was Jesus’ father yet he cried out on the cross, “Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani” (Matthew 27:46), which translates to, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me". So is the child’s faith false? Is his suffering not visible? He believes as long as he cleans the chimney ducts, he shall face no harm. His faith is not false to him because he is innocent, naïve, inexperienced, and untainted. However, his hopes are crushed in The Chimney Sweeper of Experience. He is now but “a little black thing among the snow”. He is not unaware now, he has now gone through experience and he realizes now that the God, priest, and king will decide his heaven, his misery, he is bitter about his abandonment as a child, he knows that they who birthed them were the very hands that held his and walked him to his own pitiful end.
Overtly, the transition from innocence to experience is a mere passage little Tom and other chimney sweepers should go through however, it is widely said that Blake was inspired by Milton’s concept of a fallen and unfallen state. As long as Adam was obedient, he was happy in Eden but upon disobedience, he fell from grace. The nakedness and ignorance of Adam are strikingly similar to the chimney sweeper who is stripped naked and, “who cried when his head, That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved,” The consequence of innocence is experience. Matt Simpson says, “The poems of innocence and those of Experience have such a structurally unified force, explicitly stating the intention to show two contrary states of the human soul, that our commitment that Joy is 'just as' 'profound' as Sorrow becomes a sine qua non.” But the rich men and women who exploit these children abuse this convention of suffering and it’s consequent reward. Sydney Smith said on the failure of the bill for abolishing chimney sweepers in 1819, that humanity is a modern invention and that, “such a measure, we are convinced from the evidence, could not be carried into execution without great injury to property" The rich were entitled people, and Blake sarcastically comments on their practices by saying how kindly once a year like an angel they would let their chimney sweepers go the river to bathe.
The perspective of the Master was simple, money blinds one into thinking humanity is a modern concept aimed at disarming the authority that their wealth gives them. The practice of using little boys for this inhumane job was only found in England. The English have a history of colonization and slavery, however, they were not immune from internal corruption and slavery either. But, the perspective of Tom Dacre is more important to Blake.
The chimney sweeper of Innocence is a protest, also a satire but is so remarkably structured, the stark difference in the attitude of the child is almost a truth that is hard to swallow just like to the sweeper himself who is now experienced. The words he uses to describe his situation reflect his mental agony. When he is ignorant and indifferent, he uses words of light and hope. “Down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run, And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.” “They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind”. But when he acknowledges his wretched state that had been imposed on him by his parents and the unholy trinity that they go to pray to, he uses words of darkness and doom. “Clothes of death”, “sing the notes of woe.”
Joanne Faulkner notes that a child forgets and remembers, in him is reflected a past that the community loses as they grow and it also represents a state of unconsciousness, this vulnerability and innocence are fetishized. She further notes that this fetish has the power to obscure the real. But she adds that this flaying of innocence is inevitable for children like Tom Dacre. That this compliance to a state of innocence, of a concealed reality is not possible for the chimney sweepers. It is almost as if the masters would prefer their helpless “weep-weep” and their childlike vulnerability and innocence but at the same time their “kindness” makes it impossible. A paradox is created.
The state of the human soul cannot be independent of the world. For the chimney sweeper, his own parents abandon him for money, he is made to work till he dies or dies of the hurt his work causes him but he does not realize this. The Christian values believe even a child is born with the original sin but his baptism chastises him off it. Then why must the child still face his misery even in innocence? The Chimney Sweeper of Innocence ends on a terrible irony, as long as he toils in soot he will be unharmed. Faulkner says, “While "innocence" fetishizes vulnerability and cultivates a dubious virtue, then, to be a child who is deprived of the opportunity to be "innocent" is a more radical experience of vulnerability.”
His obedience is not rewarded with a Godly state, it is rewarded with a bitter reality of himself. His hollow dancing and singing was mistook for his happiness. If Adam fell from grace, the chimney speaker surely moved away from it. He suffered without knowing it and when he comes to knows of it, he realizes God is not his father. Because he is not Jesus, and he will never be innocent enough ever again, to be lifted up to heaven like Jesus, because God was not his father. His father was a man who sold him to die in soot. And his experience and his age now, has taught him that. Innocence is ignorance which is bliss, experience is it’s antithesis.
Blake, William, “The chimney sweeper”, Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43654/the-chimney-sweeper-when-my-mother-died-i-was-very-young
Faulkner, Joanne, “Vulnerability of "Virtual" Subjects: Childhood, Memory, and Crisis in the Cultural Value of Innocence”, SubStance, 2013, Vol. 42, No. 3, ISSUE 132: Vulnerability (2013), pp. 127-147, The Johns Hopkins University Press
King James Bible, https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/
Phillips, L., George, “The Abolition of Climbing Boys”, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology , Jul., 1950, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Jul., 1950), pp. 445-462, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Inc.
Simpson, Matt, “Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience", Critical Survey, 1992, Vol. 4, No. 1, Jane Austen and Romanticism (1992), pp.22-27, Berghahn Books.
Share This Post On
Leave a comment
You need to login to leave a comment. Log-in