Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The age of Innocence: Some Thoughts on The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake

Recently I wrote a piece on that tiny, yet powerful, poem: The Sick Rose, a single poem in Blake’s Songs of Experience. I discussed the sexual symbolism, related it to the Adam and Eve story and talked about it in relation to the context of Blake’s own day where – due to the diseases that ravaged society and the high mortality rate caused by childbirth itself -  sexuality and suffering often, sadly,  went hand in hand.

As I happily sailed past  the 2000 word mark (which, as a rule we try to keep shy of on this blog) I realised that there was some serious cutting to be done.

But the Songs of Innocence and Experience still represent a curious challenge to me and I have been itching to finish off those ideas I started in The Sick Rose post.

What are these peculiar, motley, apparently simplistic rhymes about? What does Blake MEAN by innocence and experience? It’s all too easy to say “oh yes, bit mad that Blake. Used to hallucinate, you know” but there is method to his madness. He isn’t called a crazy genius for nothing.

So back to this idea of innocence. What does Blake mean by innocence? What are the Songs of Innocence versus the Songs of Experience? What does the whole caboodle add up to?

It is easy to read many of the poems in Innocence quite naively as an advocation of  innocence, childhood,  goodness and purity and all the positive associations that go along with that. There is much reference to Jesus and lambs in Songs of Innocence, to  curly-headed children, to gamboling in fields, to pastoral idylls.

Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

“Pipe a song about a lamb!”
So I piped with merry cheer.
“Piper, pipe that song again.”
So I piped: he wept to hear.

…and so on.

Positive stuff, eh?

This is why I have never taken to the Songs of Innocence. Most – to my mind – do not even make for memorable ditties, let alone great poems in their own right. It is hard, from such a remove, to know exactly how to read them. Are they parodies of children’s rhymes and verses of the time? Some people interpret them as children’s voices, but most have more of a sense of instructive verses for children – echoing the kind of simplistic moral ditties that might have been popular in Blake’s day -  interspersed with the longer, and – to my mind – more interesting, first person narratives like The Chimney Sweep and The Little Black Boy.

But whilst the poems start off gaily enough, it doesn’t take long for these ditties to take a more menacing turn. In The Echoing Green – what appears to be a cheerful poem about playing ends on a slightly downbeat, even ominous note: “And sport no more seen/ On the darkening green”.

In my view, there are not many great poems in Songs of Innocence. And nothing that compares to the multi-layered simple beauty of The Sick Rose. However, of them all, The Chimney Sweeper is probably the one I find most poetic, tuneful and powerful. So let’s repeat it in full!

The Chimney Sweeper

When my mother died 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.

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.”

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.

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.

If you look carefully you will find many examples of cruelty in Songs of Innocence – from the experience of the sweep sold by his father in drudgery, to The Little Black Boy – the victim of a wholesale system of slavery that was still legal in Blake’s day – to the peculiar little poem Little Boy Lost – which, whether an allegory for a soul without God, or a simple tale of a boy abandoned by his father – is strangely disturbing and upsetting whatever way you look at it. Despite the references to lambs and Jesus, despite the pastoral idyll  – Songs of Innocence is full of children let down by their parents and society.

The characters and voice of Songs of Experience, on the other hand, question everything – religion and God included.

The Chimney Sweeper (Experience)

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ‘weep! ‘weep! in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother, say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

There can be no more damning indictment of the society Blake sees around him than those last two lines – the idea that those societal institutions of royalty and religion are built upon the suffering of the poor. And again, that theme, of parental indifference and callousness, yet here we see the hypocrisy of this society that praises authority yet feels no love or compassion or pity (associated with the lamb  in Songs of Innocence) for their own children .

The  difference between this pair of poems from innocence to experience is more to do with a difference of perception –rather than being about a better or a worse world as such.  The chimney sweeper in Innocence does not live in a kind benevolent world. Nor is life happy and simple for this much abused child who casually tells us he was sold into virtual child slavery. Rather, it is the innocence of the child that allows him to cling on to the platitudes offered him by society (“So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”). You get a sense of anger, of real moral zeal from Blake, angry that the “innocent” are lead into believing such societally-bolstering myths.

I don’t believe these poems are about contrasting the innocence of childhood with the experience of old age, or the simple pleasures of being young with the wisdom of experience – although some of these things exist in some of the poems. For me, they are angrier than that. They are, in my mind, about society itself.

In my post about The Sick Rose, I looked at the poem in relation to The Fall: the Adam and Eve story – the eating from the Tree of knowledge, the gaining of knowledge and self-consciousness, their banishment from the Garden of Eden, and Eve’s subsequent punishment (childbirth)…It is the ultimate story of innocence and experience.

For me, the structure of the Songs of Innocence and Experience seems to reflect this idea of The Fall. But Blake is not necessarily talking of a Fall in the religious sense, but in the societal sense: that gaining of knowledge, of self-consciousness, and eyes opening to good and evil in our own society.

Whereas the chimney sweep in Songs of Innocence is abused but does not see it (or want to see it) , the chimney sweep in Experience not only sees it but also sees the hypocrisy of a world that treats him so, whilst praising “God and his Priest and King”.

This is what Innocence and Experience seem to mean to Blake. A difference of perception. Before and after the fall. In Blake, the innocent find comfort in certain ideas and are protected from the knowledge of their own misery, but they also do not protest at that misery. The experienced question the society they live in: its institutions and morals…but are still stuck in poverty and so this knowledge becomes both a freedom and a curse.

Blake writes in the book that it is “shewing two contrary states of the human soul”. Blake often seems interested in these divisions and perhaps a clue to his thinking can be found in his other great work , The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and

Repulsion, Reason and energy, Love and Hate, are necessary

to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.

Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active

springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

The association between Heaven and control and unquestioning obedience is striking – particularly in relation to The Chimney Sweeper. And so is the link between hell and  questioning, creativity and freedom. Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, Innocence and Experience. As always, things are not too cut and dried where Blake is concerned and these ideas have to be taken in more symbolic and complicated sense.  But it is as though Blake sees a false schism that has been created between “the two contrary parts of the human soul”, created by society, institutions and religion.

This is what I believe Blake is trying to do with the Songs of Innocence and Experience. He is talking about the two states of the human soul before and after The Fall: *a* fall – from innocence to experience, in relation to society itself – that banishes us from comfort and joy, but allows us to see things for what they really are.

We need both ways of thinking. To survive and have hope. To have pity and to have anger.

9 comments on “The age of Innocence: Some Thoughts on The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake

  1. Melrose
    March 23, 2010

    Interesting interpretation, Rosy. I’ve never seen Blake as a “crazy genius”, and hadn’t realised he was known as such. To me, he is very sane. Like lots of other writers, such as Gurdjieff in “Beezlebub’s Tales to his Grandson”, I think he goes out his way to try to make us recognise that, when we lose “innocence”, i.e., the ability to be creative, imaginative and visionary; and conform, as you say, to the wishes of institutions and religion, becoming nothing less than drones, we have lost something very precious indeed. C M Bowra, in an essay on Blake, explains how one of Blake’s main characters in Tiriel dies “when he realises that he has erred in substituting the deadening rule of law for the free life of imagination”.

    Bowra also mentions the motto that Blake originally wrote for Songs of Innocence and Experience, but didn’t publish apparently:

    “The Good are attracted by Men’s perceptions
    And think not for themselves;
    Till Experience teaches them to catch
    And to cage the Fairies and Elves (i.e., the creative forces)

    And then the Knave begins to snarl
    And the Hypocrite to howl;
    And all his good Friends shew their private ends
    And the Eagle is known from the Owl.”

    So, basically, he suggests that, unless we fight hard to retain our “innocence”, the soaring heights of imagination and vision portrayed by his symbol of the eagle are lost to us, through hypocrisy and knavery and the every man for himself attitude, and we descend to earth and darkness like the owl.

    Enjoying your review of Songs of Innocence and Experience”, as it has brought Blake to the fore again, amongst my various reading interests!

  2. RosyB
    March 23, 2010

    Thanks so much for the detailed and thought-provoking comment, Melrose. You know a lot about Blake! That intro is very strange, isn’t it? Never seen that before.

    I agree with a lot of what you say here except I do not think that the state of “innocence” is what Blake associates with creativity – not in the Songs of Innocence, anyway. In fact, Blake tends to associate creativity, poetry and imagination with “hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He is very famous for saying “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

    Innocence in The Songs of Innocence, is the opposite of creativity and imagination. It is a state of passive acceptance. So, although I agree that he approves of the “innocent” characters because they are good and because they feel compassion…I don’t think at all that he is saying that this is a good state to be in, or a creative one. The characters in Songs of Innocence accept societal troths, which is the opposite of Blake’s character and the opposite of energy, of questioning, of rebelliousness – that he associates with creativity and imagination and poetry itself.

    So I don’t think it is about holding onto innocence in order to have imagination and vision…but holding onto something of innocence for compassion, for pity – for all the virtues that seem to be associated with “the lamb” in the Songs of Innocence.

    But I don’t think he is advocating either as an ideal state. But perhaps more of a marriage of the two. The ideas of poetic imagination and creativity and imagination I think are more to the fore in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

  3. Jackie
    March 23, 2010

    I would guess that part of the reason Blake was dismissed as a mad genius was that he had compassionate thoughts/anger on parts of society that was ignored or overlooked as a necessary evil in his lifetime. After reading your posts on him, I think even more highly of him than I did before.
    This post has given me a lot of food for thought that I don’t know how to articulate yet.Despite using images that could be syrupy, Blake has verbally painted very bleak pictures of children & life at the time.It’s quite overwhelming in a way. And then Melrose has put their terrific comment as well. I do agree with much of what both of you are saying, but I need to absorb it more.

  4. Melrose
    March 23, 2010

    It’s a pity CM Bowra’s dead, Rosy, you’d be able to take these points up with him. Died in ’71 of a heart attack, poor man, a year after he retired… But I do agree with the gist of what he is saying about “innocence”.

    In the “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” Blake actually disagreed with Milton, who, until then, had had an influential effect on Blake, including the constrasting set up of Songs of Innocence and Experience. There’s a theory that Blake felt that Milton’s Messiah was really Satan, and suggested that the Messiah was who Milton thought the Devil. This would make sense, particularly in the quotation you gave:

    “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

    And, as we know, the Devil often has the best tunes…

  5. Melrose
    March 24, 2010

    It’s unfortunate that Bowra, like Kollontai, IS dead. I’d definitely have enjoyed the debates! Thanks for your robust commentaries, much to peruse there.

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  8. Marsha Booth
    July 22, 2010

    Do you know if Blake did a painting of a small girl child placing a wreath of flowers around a sheep’s neck? I have one that looks like his work. It is titles “Innocence”.

  9. Ameera
    March 30, 2011

    Hi Rosy, I should thank you for a helpful interpretation about this subject which I found it for my assignment . But please, could you make another research about Willem Blake poem’s showing the differences between the songs of innocence and the songs of experience for the poem ” Nurse’s Song”, beside explain all the aspects of life ( education, religion, morality, politics, and society )for the children in the 19 th c and how does Blake poem’s affected by these aspects??

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This entry was posted on March 23, 2010 by in Entries by Rosy.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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