Life of the Chimney Sweep
William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” (1789) opens with a few lines backstory of the narrator as an infant boy. The small boy was sold into the chimney sweeping business before he could even speak. A story then tells of another small chimney sweep boy named Tom Dacre. The narrator and Tom are conversing about how a shaved head can be beneficial when working in the dark soot. That night, Tom is overcome with a morbid dream of thousands of other chimney sweeps locked in black coffins. The dream entails an Angel setting Tom and others free of the miserable life of chimney sweeping. The Angel tells Tom to find peace and joy in God. In the end, Tom awakes with a very comforted feeling. Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” (1789) shows the struggles of the poor being taken advantage by the powerful and wealthy.
Marxist criticism is concerned with the labor practices, class theories, and the economics of the society. More importantly, this criticism is focused on the poor and oppressed. According to Edward Quinn, a Marxist critic serves two purposes that will connect the literature world to the outside world. Quinn states that, “For the Marxist critic, literature must be understood in relation to the determining forces of society: history, economics, class, and ideology.” By knowing how history, economics, class, and ideology affects the society, more can be interpreted from Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” (1789), and the way society is looked at has the ability to change.
The late 18th century consisted of little to no child labor laws. As young children, kids were sent off to learn a trade that would support the child throughout his or her life. Before the 1833 Factory Act and 1842 Mines Act, child labor was believed to be beneficial to the children. Child labor led to self-sufficiency, giving the children constant employment and a trade to rely on. According to Alice Dolan, many parents in England chose to send their child into the workforce as such a young age “to give them better life chances through the greater educational and apprenticeship opportunities offered” (“Child Labour in 18th Century England: Evidence from the Foundling Hospital”). The idea of child labor was a contradicting idea. Parents had to abandoned their child in order to give them a more substantial life.
When my mother dies I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry “’weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep. (Blake 1-4)
While the parents generally thought they were benefiting the child, the only benefits were for the boss of the children. The children’s supervisor did not have to worry about the conditions the children slept in, nor did he have to pay the children the wages of adult workers. While the boss of the children may not be as wealthy as some, he is exempt from the tribulations of the poor.
Similar to the children of the 18th century, today children are sold into jobs that are not suited for them and put them in harms way. Many young children are sold into sex, labor, and organ trafficking, similar to the young children being sold into the chimney sweeping business. Many of the victims sold into sex, labor, or organ trafficking are enticed by the idea of schooling or money. The children can get awestruck by the idea of being in a higher social class. Yet another reason why child labor from of the 18th century is very similar to the child labor of the 21st century. Some of the children are “sold to traffickers by their families,” (“What Are the Statistics on Human Trafficking of Children?”) just as William Blake stated in his poem, “And my father sold me while yet my tongue” (2). Parents throughout the centuries have been enticed by the idea that their child could live an affluent life by selling the child into the workforce. The parents of the children sold into trafficking are given a choice of either giving their child a wonderful life by selling them into a job, or having their child live in squalor with no hope of receiving a life they deserve. Most parents want their child to have the best life possible, therefore selling them into a job, which is presumably one with great benefits.
In the late 1700s, the well being and intellectual level of lower class citizens was not a main concern of the aristocrats of the society. In 1789, no one cared that the young children would never get to experience schooling. Blake’s clever word play and grammatical choices relay a type of innocence that would only be received by a child without any schooling.
“The Chimney Sweeper” of Innocence exemplifies Blake’s technique of disrupting a speaker’s habitual speech pattern by inserting words outside that speaker’s grammatical range. Although the narrator’s voice relays the words of three distinct figures–his own, Tom’s, and the Angel’s in Tom’s dream8–Blake characterizes the narrating sweeper’s speech through a surplus of conjunctions that connect primarily indicative, declarative statements. (Linkin)
Children lacking education speak in such a way as to indicate their obliviousness to the outside world. Linkin also talks about how the employment of many conjunctions suggests minimal order among different scenarios of the truth. Throughout “The Chimney Sweeper” (1789), the narrator’s use of basic grammar and a type of incoherent speech signifies the innocence and lack of schooling and real world experience of the young chimney sweep children.
Chimney sweeps of the 18th century faced many horrors when it came to climbing through the tight territories of English homes. If the chimney sweeps didn’t suffer enough getting thrown up hot chimneys, getting burned and almost suffocated from the thick black soot as young children, Alan Dronsfield states that after puberty, most chimney sweeps become liable to a fatal cancer. The cancer the chimney sweeps received was most likely cause by the build up of creosote, which is one of the earliest carcinogens, and soot covered clothing. A preventative of the time could have been a daily washing o the body and a weekly change of clothing, but because of the low social class of the chimney sweeps, those items were not allowed. The life expectancy of chimney sweeps was very minimal, but the young children did not know that. In Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper” (1789), Tom Dacre dreams of an angel setting him free from the duties of chimney sweeping.
When Tom awakes from his dream he is happy and content knowing that one day he will be free from his duties as a chimney sweeper. The glimmer of hope that Tom sees is his naive faith that some day he will get his reward when he wants it. The children do not realize that because of their poor social class and lack of formidable resources, they will never be free from the chimney sweep life. Even if the children manage to survive the hazardous daily job of a chimney sweep, the consequences that come from inhaling and sleeping in the creosote and soot, leave the children with a far shorter lifespan than that of a person working in another industry.
William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” (1789) clearly exhibits signs of the poor being oppressed by the rich. The idea that the chimney sweeps have to live in squalor because of the poor economic and social class they live in is supported by the theory of Marxist criticism. A new viewpoint of how chimney sweeps and children were affected by those of a higher economic class is brought about through the eyes of the young chimney sweep narrator. Blake’s poem shows what it was like as a child laborer in the late 1700s being pushed to do a job with no real future.