The Romantic poets wrote about many political and social issues facing the era, mirroring the societal change of the 18th century with the industrial revolution. This time saw small towns become vast cities and cultural values shift away from ones which were traditional to those based upon greed and economic expansion.
Not only could poetry provide a creative escape where the romantics were able to express their values on issues, it allowed for the redefinition and change of opinion to be recognised in time. This can be seen though William Blake’s poetry collections, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.The two books contrast yet complement each other as together they create a more accurate, complete view of the situation. Found in both books, an example of this occurs with the poem, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ using generic poetic conventions of rhyme as well as figurative language in forms of symbolism to create contrasting values.
Rhyme in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ places the important role of not only constructing the poem word by word but giving us an insight as to what state of mind Blake is trying to convey. In Songs of Innocence, the poem follows a basic rhyme scheme of AABB.These rhyming couplets are childlike and uncomplicated adding to the naive reflection upon the lives of the chimney sweeping children. It highlights the exploit of child labour, oppressing the unaware victims who are destined for sickness and youthful death despite their hope of eternal and joyous life with God in heaven.
In Songs of Experience however, the rhyme scheme depicts a very different outcome for the chimney sweeps with no hope and only misery of the present and the future to look toward. The poem starts with the same AABB scheme of its innocent counterpart but then alters to CDCD, EFEF.This shows the shift into the experience and realisation of the harsh life and world in which they work, sleep and supposedly live. The rhyme scheme also becomes vague in the final stanza where Blake attempts to rhyme ‘injury’ and ‘misery’ suggesting the breakdown of rational thinking, not only for the child persona, but society at the time.
In this way Blake highlights that morals were decreasing and becoming less prevalent in society and this culture was allowing people to go on forgotten including the defenceless, vulnerable children.Symbolism is a fundamental aspect of romantic poetry, it allows poets to explain their thoughts from many angles at the one time through taking advantage of the ability of symbols to simultaneously suggest things. It also allowed poets to come closer to fulfilling their desire to express the ‘inexpressible’. In the Songs of Innocence version of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ there is the symbolism of black against white.
The two contrasting colours are commonly used to distinguish between good and evil, life and death, purity and corruption etc.They are again used here to symbolise the death, dirt and depression the children feel ‘locked up in coffins of black’. The alliteration of the sharp consonant ‘ck’ sound also adds to the misery the colour and connotation to death made here. This dark language sharply contrasts the ‘naked and white, all their bags left behind’ whilst they ‘wash in a river’.
The symbolism of water from the river represents the cleanse of corruption which was held within the soot stained across their skin.The bags left behind also symbolise the rid of this strenuous labour, which demanded them to not only clean out chimneys but to carry in their bags their tools and everything that had collected so they could sleep ‘in cellars on bags of soot they had swept’ (Nurmi 17). The reference that Blake makes to the children being naked and white reflects the purity and vulnerability of childhood. The joys and carefree nature that Blake believes was an extremely important stage in the development of imagination that all children deserved.
In the Songs of Experience the same colours are used with the ‘little black thing’ against the ‘snow’. This vast white background with a spec of black highlights the isolation and insignificance of the child. Winter in most circumstances brings about ideas of the cold and deprivation, which can actually symbolise poverty. The poverty and isolation in this version of the poem is not redeemed through any sense of hope, therefore assumptions on Blake’s attitude toward life, death and the concept of God can be challenged throughout the Songs of Experience.
Blake’s personal opinion of the governing and participating forces of society are also reflected through these opes. The mother and father, the everyday parents who sold their son at such a young age symbolise the rest of society throughout the industrial revolution where child labour was not uncommon. A culture that was emerging that accepted such invasions of human rights, therefore along with human dignity, the value and irreplaceability were discarded also, as alluded to by Blake with ‘He’d have God for his father’.The other powerful force mentioned in both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience is the Church, through God and the angels.
According to Blake during the time writing the Songs of Innocence, the boy could feel at ease as ‘if all do their duty they need not fear harm. ’ This is, according to Christian ideology a positive virtue where obedience and often oppression as well as finding happiness in the face of adversity will lead to everlasting happiness from God. The Church of England is seen in a negative light in the Songs of Experience as the patrons who have ‘gone to praise God’ happen to be parents of a sold child.Blake’s criticism toward the Church for not doing anything to stand up against injustice toward children is highlighted, and nearly extends to God himself for not punishing those who condone such practises.
In Songs of Experience this criticism extends to the state ‘God, his priest and King’. Blake recognises the significant potential the government could make in stopping these practises of child labour yet the government, church nor society are doing anything to help these children from their inevitable deaths they face so young.Blake therefore comments on the ills of his society through using poetry to place sympathy toward the children. The two poems together are a comment on the societal morals shifting to economic greed instead of traditional values.
It also reflects upon the source of power in contemporary society for example it is not the one with faith, such as the little boy, but the ones with money and often cruel intentions.I believe that these two poems would be an accurate interpretation of the world as seen by children in the 18th century. As Blake had a special ability to connect to his childhood in order to roam his imagination whilst experiencing the issue from an adult’s standpoint and seeing the realities and consequences of such practises. Therefore once reading this poem you do believe that something should be done for these children and create change for the world in which they live.