Blake’s Criticism of the Establishment in Industrial England in “The Chimney Sweeper”

William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience explores the relationship between experience and a lack thereof. This notion does not operate linearly– it’s fluid and malleable. For example, regardless of age, one could be innocent or experienced. Innocence is a state of open-mindedness, whereas experience is a state of close-mindedness. The political state in England in the late 1700’s is what influenced the creation of these books. The poems that appear in both books, both called The Chimney Sweeper serves to understand the difference between the establishment and its oppressed people while veiling it under the guise of industrialization, and how either innocence or experience might shape one’s thoughts on it.

Blake wrote these poems around 1789-1793. The Industrial Revolution was happening in London, and the socio-political atmosphere was incredibly tense at that time. The amount of pollution was absolutely unprecedented, and the working conditions at the factories were atrocious and dangerous. There was human waste overflowing in the Thames with the population increasing exponentially. All of these conditions created a hostile living and working environment for Londoners in the late 18th century. While the Industrial Revolution was happening, there was a revitalization of Christianity. Churches were being built on every corner to centralize the people back to a belief system. Most of those who were going to church were not poor or oppressed. The Chimney Sweepers acted as their shameful secret that those in power tried to brush under the rug. They could not, however, because people like Blake gave a voice to those who did not have one themselves.

In The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence, Blake discovers the insidious nature of child labor and the heart-wrenching effects it leaves on children. This is a good example of innocence because the children look forward to meet with their Creator. The children express their fear of dying, but it is done so in a very hopeful way. The poem reads “And the Angel told Tom if he’d be a good boy, / He’d have God for his father & never want joy” (Blake, ln 19-20). Tom is a young chimney sweeper in the poem who has a dream of dying, and he wakes up hopeful, because he knows the misery won’t last, and he will be reunited with God. This heartbreaking truth works on two levels: it serves as a reminder of the cruel things that the adults were doing to the children, and it outlines the oppression of the “smaller” man, whether it be a child or just someone who does not have a voice.  The takeaway message for me is almost a naivety about how the world operates. The children have no preconceived notions, nor do they understand why things happen the way they do. The children’s age has nothing to do with innocence, it just simply means they have not been exposed to experience yet, just as this country and its people had not been exposed to this level of industrialization.

In The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Experience, the poem introduces themes of religion and patriarchy and a resistance against both. This differs from the poem in Songs of Innocence because in the former, the children acknowledge their life to be normal, and there is no questioning of the systems put in place. The latter poem reads “Where are thy father & mother? say? / They are both gone up to the church to pray” (Blake, ln 3-4). Blake is questioning the institutional practices of a formalized religion. It takes a stab at those who have put these systems in place to call out the fact that children are suffering and dying in the name of patriarchy and religion. Blake correctly points this out as an evil practice that must be questioned. Through experience, one becomes accustomed to how things operate, and they think they know exactly what is happening. There is a sense of close-mindedness among the figureheads controlling everything, and even with those who are being oppressed. Blake invites these people to challenge their understanding what is right and wrong. These two poems are made to break the heart of the reader, and hopefully set up an interesting dialogue in which a conversation can be had.

the chimney sweeper

The Accompanying Illustration to The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Experience by William Blake.

There is a scholarly article that explores the shift from Christian ideology in The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence to Songs of Experience. In the former poem, it talks about how the children have an eternity of heaven with God to look forward to as a means of escaping the atrocities they face. In the latter, it questions God and his place and lack of intervention. The author writes “From the perspectival state of experience, the ‘key’ of innocence transforms into the sign of an oppressive political regime operating under the power of corrupt Christianity” (Langham, pp. 133). Political figures and policy makers see exactly what kind of conditions the poor people are working in, yet they do nothing about it besides go to church to try to wash away the blood on their hands. It’s interesting because the Bible clearly states to treat thy neighbor as you would treat yourself and to always try your hardest to act Godly. Blake calls these figureheads out because he sees that they are not acting like good Christians, and they are only interested in looking the part. All the while, people are left to suffer.

These two poems play an interesting dichotomy in regards to challenging the establishment and its effects on the people. In the former poem, the heart of the reader breaks for the poor children whose only solace is dying to avoid suffering any longer. In the latter, Blake asks the reader to question the systems put in place, and to ask themselves if this is fair, right, or good in any capacity. Blake does a phenomenal job in defining what it means to be innocent versus experienced and how that poses questions for the reader to ask in regards to society and life as they know it.

Print Citation:

Blake, William. “Songs of Experience, The Chimney Sweeper.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, 5th ed., vol. 2A, Pearson, 2012, p. 181-182. Print.

Blake, William. “Songs of Innocence, The Chimney Sweeper.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, 5th ed., vol. 2A, Pearson, 2012, p. 194. Print.

Langham, Kent. “Transforming Perspectives: The Angel’s Key in William Blake’s THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER.” The Explicator, vol. 75, no. 2, 20 Dec. 2014, pp. 133–136., doi:10.1080/00144940.2017.1315357. Online.

Image citation:

Blake, William. Songs of Experience, The Chimney Sweeper. 1793. Copy L. Yale Center for British Art. New Haven. Tate, Accessed 29 October 2018.