Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are considered his most popular works. Songs of Innocence were printed and illustrated by Blake in 1789, it was again published in 1794 alongside Songs of Experience in Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. These ‘two contrary states of the human soul’ (Blake, 1794) are shown through most poems having a parallel poem of the same title, such as ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (Innocence) and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (Experience), both sharing the same title and covering the same idea but both showing it in different lights. Songs of Innocence and Experience show ‘what would usually be described as moral questions’ (Phillips. 1978. p.32) and show Blake making his readers question the society which the live in. Blake hand-printed, illustrated and painted each book himself which meant that no two were identical and also meant that Blake had more artistic control than other writers of the period but was unable to mass produce his work. As he created each book himself by hand, the poems were occasionally slight altered as well as the layout and colour scheme varying. The illustrations he created can be used to gain a higher understanding of the meaning and tone which Blake was trying to create.
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Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields, in the Dissenter’s graveyard which shows that he separated himself from the Church of England, despite being baptized and married there (Eaves. 2003). Blake’s attitude to religion and society were shown in many of his poems, including ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (Innocence and Experience). Blake ‘detected flawed religious thinking at the root of most of the social disorder afflicting England in his time’ (Eaves. 2003. p.150) and this is shown in both versions of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. Blake uses his poems to bring up moral questions involving the church, society and the treatment of individuals in society, such as chimney sweepers. The chimney sweeps during this time were usually aged between 4 and 5 so that they were small enough to fit up the slim chimneys The young sweeps were mistreated and exploited yet this was considered socially acceptable despite an act being passed in 1788 which meant that sweeps had to be at least 8 years old. The Act for the Better Regulation of Chimney Sweepers and their Apprentices meant that children under 8 were not suppose to be sweeps and that a master sweep shouldn’t have more than six apprentices. However, this act was never particularly enforced so children continued to be abused in this way. Both of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems show that Blake noticed and disagreed with this, the two poems show how the church oppresses people and Blake uses irony to show how this oppression is hidden from society and they do not see it.
‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in Songs of Innocence contrasts heavily with the version in Songs of Experience, including with the tone which Blake creates. The speaker of this poem is a young sweep and he is speaking to a new sweep, Tom Dacre. The poem shows the speaker comforting Tom over his hair being shaved off, this was considered ‘a ritual initiation’ (Leader. 1981. p.45) and was to reduce the risk of the sweep’s hair catching fire due to smouldering soot in the chimneys. Blake uses this idea of Tom Dacre’s hair being shaved off to show that he has no choice but to become a sweep. The irony in the speakers comforting words to Tom show that there is no choice, ‘Hush Tom never mind it, for when your head’s bare / You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’ The idea of Tom not becoming a sweep is completely excluded which shows that it isn’t considered. The reason for Tom having his head shaved is described in a logical way and shows that the speaker is trying to convince Tom Dacre that he will be happy bald. Tom Dacre’s dream shows Blake using irony as a tool to show his attitude towards religion:
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.
The lines show that a lot of children are killed because of chimney sweeping and that the only way that they are able to be free from chimney sweeping is through death. Blake shows that the Angel is unwilling to change Tom Dacre’s current position and uses moral blackmail so that Tom continues sweeping chimneys. Blake shows the way which he believed the church was oppressing people and blackmailing them into continuing in unjust society which they were living in, ‘And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy; / He’d have God for his father and never want joy.’ (19-20). As the Angel tells Tom that he must be a good boy to go to go to heaven and have joy it shows the way which the church kept people behaving the way which they wanted. The Angel could be seen as a villain in the poem and also possibly shows that people are only religious because of their beliefs in the afterlife. Blake accused ‘religion of feeding people’s fears, so they remain imprisoned in their own despair, and of deluding people with false promises of heaven’ (Marsh. 2001. p.94) and this is shown through the Angel. The Angel tells Tom to ‘be a good boy’ which would be by following the churches idea of good behaviour and shows how the churches contains and limits people which links with the poem showing that Tom not being a sweep isn’t an option. Blake believed that church leaders promised heaven so that people would be obedient, they lied so that they could control society. The metre which Blake uses also emphasises this line, throughout the poem Blake usually uses anapaests but the line 19 contrasts with this regularity and makes line 20 more emphasised.
Blake, William. 1794. Songs of Innocence and Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. [Electronic Print] Available at: http://onesemester.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/wm_blake_frontispiece_for_songs.jpg [Accessed: 14 November 2010].
Eaves, Morris. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Leader, Zachary. 1981. Reading Blake’s Songs. London: Routledge
Phillips, Michael. 1978. Interpreting Blake. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marsh, Nicholas. 2001. William Blake: The Poems. Hampshire: Palgrave.
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