How Would Radical Thinker and Poet William Blake Think of Walt Disney’s Timeless Classic Mary Poppins? : Has the Image of the Chimney Sweep Changed?
“Song of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” is considered to be one of William Blake’s most popular works. Written in two parts, “Innocence and Experience are definitions of consciousness that rethink Milton’s existential-mythic states of Paradise and the Fall” (The Longman Anthology: The Romantics and their Contemporaries 176).
“The Chimney Sweeper” from both Innocence and Experience conveys a harsh reality of poor children working to survive in 1700s London. Chimney cleaning was a dangerous job performed by young boys who were orphans, outcasts, or sold into the profession by their underprivileged families. Their job often cost them their health and more severely, their lives. In the realm of 20th century entertainment, the highly successful 1964 American musical Mary Poppins, succeeded in transforming these grim circumstances into a lively musical extravaganza. The musical uses quirky characters like Bert, to portray chimney sweeps as cheery and charming individuals. Mary Poppins was an instant sensation, receiving five out of the thirteen academy award nominations that year. But after comparing this cherished musical to Blake’s poetry, one can recognize the unnerving distinction between musical fantasy and historical reality.
In addition, Blake’s literature focuses on the concept of purity and a protected innocence in childhood, much like the innocence of Jane and Michael in Mary Poppins. The siblings are young and naïve; they are blessed to live a privileged life but are discouraged in their attempts to earn the love and affection of their parents. Their innocence is therefore “not immune to the fallen world” as greed and selfishness lead George and Winifred Banks to prioritize work and parties over their children (The Romantics and Their Contemporaries 176). When regarding Innocence, Mary Poppins acts as a metaphor for their sheltered life; she steps in as the primary caregiver and navigates the children’s obstacles through song and dance. She finds a solution to any problem that is presented, while showering the children with her enchantment and mystery. Now regarding Experience, the children’s “fall” is their tainted memories of negligent parents. Therefore, the idea of innocence and experience is not a linear progression, but moves back and forth in time. The children do not fit perfectly into either category of innocence or experience, but are exposed to both through the course of their existence.
Actor Dick Van Dyke plays the lead male role of Bert in this musical production; Bert is an optimistic young man who finds delight in his occupation as a chimney sweep. He is the male counter part to Mary Poppins (played by Julie Andrews), as both characters are the primary entertainers for Jane and Michael. In one scene, while skipping down the streets of London with the children, Bert describes his pride and joy for his job in the song “Chim Chim Cher-ee” with songs written and composed by the Sherman Brothers.
“Now, as the ladder of life ‘as been strung
You might think a sweep’s on the bottommost rung
Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke
In this ‘ole wide world there’s no ‘appier bloke”
His lyrics, facial expressions, and cheerful dance moves demonstrate the character’s upbeat attitude and acceptance of his lower class profession. He’s aware of his social status but is exceptionally content with his life. He acts as a jester for the kids, a character that compliments the quirky nanny and her seemingly practical but positive outlook on life. The depiction of a chimney sweep here is a positive one, while Blake’s poem illustrates a much darker representation. “The Chimney Sweeper” from Innocence starts off the first stanzas with a dismal tone.
“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”(Blake 1-4).
This directly addresses the circumstances of the narrator, a young chimney sweep who was forced into the profession as the result of his mother’s death and his father’s betrayal. Blake goes further by using morbid imagery to raise sympathy and awareness for the boys.
“And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight,
That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, & Jack
Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black” (Blake 9-12).
Blake’s depiction of a chimney sweep is much different from director Robert Stevenson’s and producer Walt Disney’s interpretation in Mary Poppins. One of Blake’s purposes in this poem was to raise attention to the disturbing conditions of these impoverished children. In addition, he indirectly reprimands society for its poor contribution to the cause. He accuses humanity of not taking real measures to create change in their own community and characterizes them as selfish and fake, as described in “Holy Thursday”. Historically, protective legislation passed in 1788 stated that workers “should not begin work until they are eight, they should be washed once a week, and they should not be made to climb chimneys with fires in them” (Ferber 16). However, the law was not regularly enforced. The reality of death at a young age was far too common, “among the hazards were burns, permanently blackened skin, deformed legs, black lung disease, and cancer of the scrotum”(The Romantics and Their Contemporaries 181).
Returning to the musical setting of London in 1910, Bert is depicted as a happy and physically healthy young man who sings, “I choose me bristles with pride, yes, I do. When you’re with a sweep you’re in glad company. Nowhere is there a more ‘appier crew”. These two perspectives of a chimney sweep are polar opposites, and serve their audiences in different ways. Blake’s poetry was intended to be politically influential while Mary Poppins was created for the sole purpose of entertainment and enjoyment. The musical may not be an accurate representation of chimney sweeps in Edwardian London in 1910, but it does serve as a successful and timeless musical production. A viewer watching this musical would not consider the gruesome historical significance of chimney sweeps, but focuses on the whimsical storyline of Mary Poppins and the lighthearted musical numbers. In the song “Step it up” Bert and a gang of young chimney sweeps energetically puts on a rooftop show for Jane, Michael, and Mary Poppins. As they dance, spin, and leap they sing in chorus,
“Round the chimney!
Round the chimney, step in time
Round the chimney, step in time
Never need a reason,
Never need a rhyme
Round the chimney, step in time”
This portrayal of a chimney sweep certainty does not match up with the dismal despair of Blake’s narrators. Although highly entertaining and clever, it can be assumed that Blake would not appreciate the inaccurate representation and playful spin on chimney sweeps in this musical. Blake’s only depiction of hope is in the narrator’s voice in the poem from Innocence; his ignorance has led him to accept his fate, for he understands his circumstances, but convinces himself that one day death will bring blissful freedom. This innocence “can be both imaginative and pathetic at the same time-imaginative because the innocent child can transcend his outer environment…and pathetic because the child so obviously suffers from that outward existence”(Adams 260). The narrator’s “hope” is almost sickening because he has been brainwashed to believe that he must live out his days in these brutal conditions.
The second narrator in “The Chimney Sweeper” from Experience is characterized as more enlightened and cynical. This narrator is also a young chimney sweep but has a bitter awareness to his circumstances, “They clothed me in the clothes of death, And taught me to sing the notes of woe” (Blake 7-8). He recognizes his misfortune but doesn’t attempt to force his mind into an improved, but false, reality, much like the first narrator does with the concept of peace in death. Instead he criticizes organized religion and the values that have not protected him, “And because I am happy & dance & sing, They think they have done me no injury: And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King, Who make up a heaven of our misery” (Blake 9-12).
In conclusion, Blake uses specific language and rhetorical devices to send a message to his reader on the circumstances of the chimney sweeps in his time period. Two centuries later, Walt Disney takes the chimney sweep image and uses it to his advantage in producing his classic musical. Walt Disney knew how to appeal to children; Bert was characterized specifically to relate to children. His goofy persona and cheerful attitude make the children feel safe and comfortable. His lower class occupation as a chimney sweep is perceived as charming, unlike Blake’s harsh depiction. Therefore, perception is the key to interpreting the purposes of these two works. Poetry in the 1700s and 20th century entertainment may from a reality standpoint be as different as night is from day; however, they both succeed in capturing their intended audience’s attention with two strong characterizations of chimney sweeps, however different.
Adams, Hazard. William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems. University of Washington Press, 1963. 259-62.
Ferber, Michael. The poetry of William Blake. New York: Penguin Group, 1992. 11-17.
The Longman Anthology British Literature. Fifth ed. N.p.: Pearson Education, Inc, 2012. Print. Vol. 2A of The Romantics and Their Contemporaries.
Blake, William. “Songs of Innocence and Of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” The Longman Anthology. Fifth ed. Vol. 2A. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 178-203. Print.
Mary Poppins. Directed by Robert Stevenson, Produced by Walt Disney. Music and lyrics by Sherman Brothers & George Stiles.