A short response assignment for English 212, Major British Authors: Romantic to Modern, a sophomore British literature survey course taught by Dr. Annette M. Van, written on 18 September 2007 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
A Close Reading of William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper”
by Matt Wallace
William Blake condemns the exploitation of children through child labor in “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience. In the first stanza, an observer comes upon not a child, but “A little black thing among the snow” (line 1), the embodiment of an innocent corrupted into something evil. The observer, perhaps thinking the child is an orphan forced to support himself as best he can, asks where the child’s father and mother are (line 3). The child answers, “They are both gone up to the church to pray” (line 4). The child’s parents have sent him out to earn money for the family while they do something else. Guilty parents who should know and do better are exploiting their innocent child for their personal benefit.
In the second stanza, the child bemoans his parents for their seemingly intentional reduction of him to his wretched state simply because he was a happy child. The child continues his condemnation of his parents in the third stanza: “And because I am happy, & dance & sing, / They think they have done me no injury” (lines 9-10). The child lays all the blame for his condition on his parents which is understandable as children, in their fully dependent state, naturally view their parents as virtually all-powerful. This immature perception also blinds them to the analogous forces working on their parents. Even so, the mouths of babes issue truths which aren’t fully recognized by the utterers.
In the concluding lines, the child explains what his parents are doing in church while he suffers for them: “And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King, / Who make up a heaven of our misery” (lines 11-12). The parents’ churchgoing becomes a metaphor for their acquiescence to an evil social system which compels them to destroy their child’s innocence and to initiate him into both their corruption and that of the system. Even so, with the use of “our,” the child links his misery with that of his parents; the child’s parents are also victims of forces outside their control. Blake’s target isn’t parents who force their children to work, but rather the rich and powerful who exploit the poor and weak. The king enjoys his wealth and comfort at the expense of his subjects. The priest enjoys his privileged condition by justifying the existing order as the unchallengeable will of God. And God, as Creator, ultimately is responsible for this unjust world as it was His will alone to create it with all its inherent evil. As the child is abused by his parents, the disenfranchised are abused by “God & his Priest & King.” Thus Blake condemns the injustice of both late 18th-century British society and a world in which such injustice is allowed to exist.