‘London’ And ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ | Analysis
I am going to explain how two poems, London and The Chimney sweeper, both written by William Blake, are similar in the way they convey their views on London in the 1790’s/1800’s. London was published in Songs of Experience in 1794 and is one of the few poems in Songs of Experience to not have been corresponding poem in Songs of Innocence. Whereas The Chimney Sweeper was published in the Songs of Innocence in 1789 and in the Songs of Experience in 1794. The Songs of Innocence section contains poems which are positive in tone and celebrate love, childhood and nature. The Songs o Experience poems are obviously intended to provide a contrast, and illustrate the effects of modern life on people and nature. Dangerous industrial conditions, child labour, prostitution and poverty are just some of the topics Blake explores. Both poems describe the harsh conditions of life in London in the 1800’s. During the Industrial Revolution thousands of citizens left the rural life and came to the large metropolises areas for the guaranteed jobs which manufacturing offered. London, Birmingham and Manchester all felt the effects of the growing industrialisation. This influx of people into the city centres made for rapid growth and prosperity. However, there was also a very negative aspect as the crowds of workers had to be accommodated and cared for in a system which was not prepared to do so. The poems were written around the French Revolution so this is the time when the poor, low class citizens were rebelling against the rich citizens mainly because they have a better lifestyle and they have decent home to live in. in 1789, the French revolted against the monarchy and aristocracy, using violence and murder to overthrow those in power. Many saw the French Revolution as inspirational, a model for how ordinary, disadvantaged people could seize power. Blake alludes to the Revolution in London, arguably suggesting that the experience of living there could encourage a revolution on the streets of the capital.
William Blake was a Christian, although he did not conform to any denomination within the Christian faith. He was born on 28 November 1757 and was brought up as a Baptist but when he was married, he took on board some ideas of a Sweden scientist, Swedenbourg who believed in the idea of God as a man. This idea is mentioned in Blake’s poem, the Divine Image, within the Songs of Innocence, where he asserts that ‘Where mercy love and pity dwell, there God is dwelling too’. William was on the edge of poverty and this is one of the main reasons he did not like others being in it too and not being able to enjoy their life. He was also against prostitution and both his poems talk about this as well as poverty.
The poem London is presented like a song, as there is a strict ABAB rhyme scheme in each of the four stanzas. The four stanzas offer a glimpse of different aspects of London, almost like snapshots seen by the speaker during his ‘wander thro’ the streets’. The poem is filled with enjambment which makes the reader continue through to the next line or stanza. This is done to make it seem as if the poem is being spoken to you and that someone is actually speaking directly to an audience. This poem is written in first person and it is omniscient in the viewpoint; the narrator knows about the subject’s thoughts and dreams.
‘I wander thro’ each charter’d street.
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.’
In the first stanza it is with sarcasm that Blake describes the sights he sees as he walks through London. The opening of the poem shows the narrator wandering through ‘each charter’d street’ of London down the ‘charter’d Thames’. The word ‘charter’d’ stresses Blake anger at the political issues and his feelings towards the upper class and the way they acted. Chartered means carefully monitored and scheduled or controlled in the same way that Blake suggests London, the River Thames and the people were like. The use of this word is repeated to emphasize the ironic point that the streets, and the river itself, are privately owned. It implies the controlling nature of the upper class merchants, businessmen or some of the aristocrats were busy collecting their fortunes and pushing the rest into debt, thus transferring wealth from the majority to the minority.
A charter is also a document which is issued by the King or Queen or other authority which sets out the rights and privileges of the people or cooperation. Blake’s friend Thomas Paine stated ‘It is a perversion of term to say, that a charter gives rights. It operates in the opposite manner, taking rights away’.
The poem focuses on the social and political background of London and highlights the differences between the classes. The people of London are described as being weak and full of ‘woe’ as the face reveals the marks. Blake uses repetition for the word ‘marks’ which is emphatic and again stresses the depression and misery that they must be going trough. There is biblical sense at work here as the subtle shift from ‘mark’ used as a verb in line 3 to a noun in line 4 binds the narrator to those he sees, showing that he is not a disinterested observer, but one of the sufferers is himself. He uses the effect caesura on the last line so you pause when you are reading and this creates emphasis on the latter parts of the stanza.
‘When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry “‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”‘
The poem Chimney Sweeper is split up into 6 stanzas and has an AABB rhyme scheme. The lines have an anapaestic lilt to the rhythm employed. This gives the impression that it is a happy poem which we late find out that it is not. The point of view in this poem is a child who is a chimney sweeper and is written in third person.
In the first two lines, Blake gives us an image of an anguished child by saying that his ‘Father sold’ him when he was young and could not even ‘cry “weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”. ‘Weep !’ is the child’s attempt at saying ‘sweep!’, which was the chimney sweepers street cry. This part shows that the children have a very positive outlook on life and do not fear death. Blake’s vagueness for ‘very young’ is much less effective than saying ‘three years old’ or ‘only two’, so Blake seems to want the Chimney Sweeper not to look for sympathy, he’d rather tell it like it is, from his point of view. Blake allows us to see how the children feel and that a personal loss will just be a shrug of small soot covered shoulders and this is a harsh reflection on society and its morals at the time. The sweeper certainly doesn’t not feel sorry for him self and this contrasts with what he feels about ‘little Tom Dacre’ or the beauty if his hair and the reference to the ‘lambs back’. The lamb symbolises innocence and is also a biblical sacrifice in the Bible and offerings were meant to prevent bad things from happening and this is an interesting word used by Blake.
The first instance of colour is mentioned in line 8 ‘you know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair’. This line introduces the problem that is occurring in the poem, that the chimney sweepers and Tom Dacre is becoming filthy because of the soot on the chimney. It may also be considered that the job of sweeping is taunting ‘Tom’. The black soot is dirty and is polluting the chimney sweepers clean white hair and the white is standing for purity of the child.
‘In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.’
In the second verse, the fact that everyone is suffering is emphasized by the pounding rhythm, stressing the word ‘every’, five times. This stresses the feelings of being trapped and imprisoned. This stanza is full of repetition and because of the tightness of the poem; it emphasizes the feelings of entrapment. Through their silence, he can still hear what they want to say but cannot speak for them because of the fear of authority. The general effect of this verse enacts the narration helplessness. The letter ‘I’ does not appear until the last line on this verse and is meant to seem as if he has been overwhelmed by the sounds of human suffering and is not able to block the sound out. He uses the word ‘ban’ which is quite clear in its meaning and reveals how people were unable to address their criticisms on how the country was being governed. The sense of imprisonment is made absolutely clear in the phrase ‘mind forg’d manacles’ which is literally metal restraining cuffs which describes the people who are suffering and their feelings are imprisoned in their own minds.
The tone anger and criticism arises in the third stanza as if it is a long list of accusations which gathers momentum. The verse begins as if in mid sentence which also builds up the speed of this verse. For Blake buildings, especially churches often symbolised confinement, restriction and failure. In this stanza ‘the chimney sweepers cry every blackening church appals’ provide an association which reveals the speakers attitude. The money is spent on churches while the children live in poverty, forced to clean chimneys – the soot from which blackens the church walls. To Blake, this makes a mockery of the love and care that should characterise the Christian religion. The ‘blackening’ of the church walls are also linked to the running of ‘blood down Palace walls’ – a clear reference to the French Revolution. Blake is perhaps stating that, unless conditions change, the people will be forced to rebel.
‘And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, –
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.’
In the third verse Tom dreams of other chimney sweepers being locked up in ‘coffins of black’ which is symbolic of the lives that the sweepers lived, being poor outcasts in a society while having stained unwashed skin and often disfigured bodies.
In the fourth verse the ‘Angel’ comes and sets then free. This opening of the coffins is meant to symbolise a sense of innocence and being free from an oppressive lifestyle hence why this poem is in Songs of Innocence. The rhythmic effects also contributes their part to the poem as they are ‘leaping, laughing’. Blake uses the effect of alliteration to show the energeticness o the children and what they meant to be doing, not sweeping chimneys. He also uses alliteration of the ‘sh’ sound in ‘And wash in a river and shine in the sun’ mainly to stress the linkage between the two actions.
‘But most, thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.’
In this final verse for London Blake takes on a more threatening tone as he talks about the young girl who is at alone at ‘midnight’ walking on the streets. The young woman at times of poverty had to resort to prostitution mainly because of the oppression and Blake can hear their curses for what they are about to be put through. She has then been robbed of the chance to love her baby, because it is the result of her job and because of this she gets continued punishment and suffering. Because she suffers misery, her new born child, like her, will suffer and pass its misery onto further generations. Her grief affects the new born ‘infant child’ and he uses powerful words like ‘blasts’ which is a huge contrast to the placidness one would use to describe a new born child. In contrast a rich woman getting married to a rich man will be blighted by this curse and her carriage might turn out to be a hearse. Blake is pointing a finger at the rich men who use the services of prostitutes and then get married and pass on the disease venereal to their wives. He uses the word ‘plagues’ to signify the goings on of the rich and how their actions affect the lives of all innocent people involved. ‘Marriage hearse’ is a fantastic powerful phrase as the two words are linked oxymoronically with the concept of a joyous fruitful marriage damaged by its grim ending, death caused by a STD. The phrase also ridicules the Bourgeois marriages (which were common then) where you weren’t looked down upon if you had sex before marriage. So this verse is essentially implying that marriage has become the funeral of love, the death of freedom.
‘Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.’
The reference to being white and the bags being left behind represents an escape from this oppression including the soot stained skins and the bags of tools they carry day by day. People may interpret that this dream as the coffins are representing their literal deaths, the chimney sweeps are not free from this oppression until their afterlife. When the angel tells Tom that ‘if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father and never want joy’ he gives hope to Tom and says that if he is good boy and does his job, God will be his father and bless him in his next life. Tom also is used to illustrate another point. He is originally frightened but later feels ‘happy and warm’. This shows that one can experience a certain degree of happiness even in the worst of situations.
So to conclude, the meaning for London Blake tried to give was a poem which suggests that the rapid urbanisation in Britain at the time was a dangerous force. Children are no longer free to enjoy childhood; instead they are working in dangerous conditions. Charters restrict freedom, ultimately resulting in the restriction of thinking. So this poem is pessimistic, it is without hope for the future.
Similarly to The Chimney Sweeper, the theme for this poem is along the lines of the idea that there is light at the end of the tunnel and if you just keep going, you will be in a better place. An example of this theme is shown through the line ‘And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father and never want joy’.
Blake was a revolutionary poet who is much more popular now than he was in his own time. Blake was writing things that were considered very radical for example, criticising marriage and writing very openly against poverty, prostitution and death. Most upper class people wanted these things hidden away. His view on this was very strong and the reason it has been accepted now is because he has written 173 poems which has captivated the society and will do so for evermore.