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Songs of Innocence and of Experience Summary and Analysis

by William Blake

"The Chimney Sweeper" (Songs of Experience)

Summary

This poem parallels its namesake in Songs of Innocence. Where that poem posits a subtle satirical message against the type of religion that brings false comfort to abused children, this version strikes directly at the problem. Like Tom Dacre of the earlier poem, the chimney sweeper is crying. When asked where his parents are, he replies, “They are both gone up to church to pray.” The boy goes on to explain that his appearance of happiness has led his parents into believing that they have done no harm in finding him work as a chimney sweep, but the boy knows better. He says they taught him to “wear the clothes of death” and “to sing the notes of woe.” In fact, they taught him to do this "Because [he] was happy upon the heath,/And smil'd among the winter's snow." The boy's happiness was in fact an affront to his parents, and his ability to enjoy life despite the deathly cold and deprivation of winter, which may represent poverty, as it does in "Holy Thursday," is the very quality that condemns him to a life of further labor and danger. The boy finishes with the damning statement that his parents “are gone up to praise God & his Priest & King/Who make up a heaven of our misery.”

Analysis

When compared structurally to the companion piece from Songs of Innocence, it is obvious that this poem is half as long as its counterpart is. In addition, many lines are much shorter by one or two syllables. The voice of the young chimney sweeper is similar to that of Innocence, but he clearly has little time for the questions put to him (hence the shorter lines). This poem starts with the AABB rhyme scheme characteristic of innocence and childhood, but as it delves deeper into the experience of the Chimney Sweeper, it switches to CDCD EFEF for the last two stanzas. The final stanza, in fact, has only a near rhyme between "injury" (line 10) and "misery" (line 12), suggesting an increasing breakdown in the chimney sweeper's world, or the social order in general.

The entire system, God included, colludes to build its own vision of paradise upon the labors of children who are unlikely to live to see adulthood. Blake castigates the government (the “King”) and religious leaders (God’s “Priest”) in similar fashion to his two “Holy Thursday” poems, decrying the use of otherwise innocent children to prop up the moral consciences of adults both rich and poor. The use of the phrase "make up a Heaven" carries the double meaning of creating a Heaven and lying about the existence of Heaven, casting even more disparagement in the direction of the Priest and King.

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