To See a World in a Chimney

What “The Chimney Sweeper” shows__

The contrary pairs of poems in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, as the work is subtitled, aim at “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”. Scrutinizing one pair among many, this essay tries to show how the task is brilliantly done.

“The Chimney Sweeper” appeared in Songs of Innocence and in Songs of Experience as well. The poems show totally different sides of life though they are referring to the same thing. The poem, or the song, in Songs of Innocence reveals the bright side of life and human mind. What the first four lines say is experience a bit pitiful. As we can see in the lines, words like “died”, “sold” & “weep” appeared. But the quick rhythm, on the contrary, probably is telling us that things are not so bad. It is not difficult to imagine how it sounds to us when sung to music instead of reading with the eye. It is, from my point of view after my reading it aloud some times, more narration than complaint. The words do not show much sadness or grief though it shall not be called “words of happiness”. The chimney sweeper was so young that he “could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep”. He possibly weeps often, or perhaps “weep” is not weep but “sweep” mispronounced by this little sweeper. He is too young to know what has happened to him. Or at least he cannot fully understand what a tragic life has begun at his age that he even does not pronounce word in the right way. One thing he really knows well in heart is his job as a chimney sweeper, “your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep”. As an adult, I feel pathetic for him and say “C’est la vie” with a sigh. But the innocent child is not likely to have so much in his mind. He simply accepts it and can also say “C’est la vie”, but, peacefully. Chimneys, to some extent, are like home to him where he can find a space of his own. And where does he sleep? “In soot”. You might think it is dirty. But forget about this when trying to understand the state of mind of an innocent child. Wasn’t it true that we all enjoy playing with sand and mud and worms and insects and so on when nobody has told us they are dirty or we may get hurt? Children do not worry so much. This will be clearer if we go on with the poem. Tom Dacre cried for his head was shaved. But the little chimney sweeper asked him not to mind it saying “when your head’s bare, you know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.” Losing some possessions is not too bad. The chimney sweeper does not care much about such things for he can easily find something from losing something else. He, instead of complaining about the reality, always thinks of ways to look at things so that they seem better. Such a naïve but optimistic way of thinking is precious. In Tom’s dream, an Angel saved the locked sweepers and led them to heaven. The requirement of those children is to “be a good boy”. What is a good boy? The sweeper’s action answers this. He “rose in the dark” to work right after he awoke. Since he had done the right thing, he was blessed and therefore was “happy & warm” in the cold morning. “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” I will never say this is a lie but, to me, this really seems impossible. The young chimney sweepers, however, naturally choose to believe in what the Angel said and the former saying. I think this is similar to that human beings must believe in God and that knowledge, sometimes, is not a good thing to have. With knowledge, we are no longer “innocent”.

“The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience is shorter but it still catches my eye in that the chimney sweeper is called “a little black thing”. We rarely say that someone is a “thing”. This actually reminds me of a sentence in Simone Weil’s The ILIAD or The Poem of Force. “To define force—it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” The little black “thing” is turned into a “thing” by some social force. The more I experience life, the nearer this force comes to me. Till one day it is so close to me that I cannot get rid of it, my mind is changed. This is gradually done without noticeable changes everyday. The sweeper calls his clothes “clothes of death” since soot, his clothes, is black. Here again, the young sweeper mispronounced “sweep” as “weep”. Experienced, instead of innocent, the sweeper says that “weep weep weep weep” is “the notes of woe”. In Songs of Innocence he would not say so since he only knows “weep” or “sweep” but not the disappointing reality. Does the sweeper really think his parents have done him “no injury”? Literally he said he is “happy, & dance & sing”, but this is just seemingly true. There is not physical injury but mental one. The sweeper begins to doubt and to hate and to forfeit his initial beliefs and to allege that “God & his Priest & King” are those who “make up a heaven of misery”. He should not have these growing pains “if all be good boy” or “if all do their duty”. Human beings, however, are not so innocent as the God and Angel asked of them to be. They reject the right way to live and behave. This so-called experience is not what we are born with. So it is not natural. So it should not be there. From some angle, chimneys should have soot in it. That is quite natural. Sweepers are not. This is what humans are doing. They think it is right but actually it might not necessarily be so.

I suddenly realized that color act a very important role in both poems. In the first one, there is black soot, white (hair), green plain and (yellow) bright sunshine. The environment is colorful while the character is in black and white. Around him, colors are all warm. This perhaps means that a beautiful mind is enough for a bright and colorful life despite of the dark-colored body. The second poem has less color. It, actually, only mentioned black and white. Black is the sweeper and white is the snow. Without any combination of colors, the extreme contrast best shows the misery. The plates also provide us with some evidence. In whichever copy of Songs of Innocence, the plate has some green and some yellow and the sky is in light color. The chimney sweepers stand in line playing with each other. Only the outline is drawn. There is not a single face of the sweepers. Behind them are the Angel and a leafy flourish tree. The tree provides shade as well as a place to play. There are tiny figures on the branches climbing or playing, full of vitality. Generally, the painting is filling as many lives in it as possible but, as it has successfully achieved, balance the colors and the elements so that they are in harmony. Even between the lines are branches and leaves growing. On the contrary, the plate in Songs of Experience is less colorful but more contrasty. Blocks of white and black mainly make up the picture. Some copies have dark blue for the sky or brown for the walls of houses and the dirty rain. Some made them all black or dark grey. The use of color, the high contrast, shows depression and misery. The sweeper, different here, have facial features. The expression is mechanical. He is just looking at somewhere and shows not a bit of happiness. He has to fear harm though he has done his duty. I think all the childish thoughts like “be a good boy” or “if all do their duty, them need not fear harm” is just past illusions to this experienced chimney sweeper. He is such “a black thing” that his back and the black bad is hard to tell apart. Time passes by and he has been another victim of social force.

The two contrary poems which pair with each other each reveals one side of the state of mind and therefore shows the according side of life. Blake once wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand”. Now it seems that we can also see the world in the chimney. That’s just joking. Things hidden in “The Chimney Sweeper”, however, are serious.

Qing Pei


Last revised on 6/22/2007