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Historical Context in The Chimney Sweeper

The Industrial Revolution and Child Labor: When Songs of Innocence and Experience was published in 1789, Britain was at the height of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution is responsible for the advent of steam power, improved methods of transportation, increased use of iron in construction and machinery, the inventions of chemicals and machine tools, as well as countless other innovations. However, this burst of technological advancement was also the source of a great increase in child labor. Parents would sell their children for food. Workhouses would sell children, some as young as four years old, to be “pauper apprentices” who worked for room and board, not wages. The slave-like conditions and abuses caused many children to be gravely injured, even killed, on the job. Although politicians began to make strides against child labor abuses in the 1830s, the use of child labor remained prominent in Europe and the United States until the 20th century.

Historical Context Examples in The Chimney Sweeper:

The Chimney Sweeper

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"Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm: So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm...."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

Many scholars read this poem as a work of social criticism. In the final couplet, Tom finds solace in the knowledge that “if all do their duty,” redemption will await. It is worth noting again that child labor in Victorian England was a predominantly church-organized institution. Taken from that perspective, Tom’s conclusion becomes problematic. Christian orthodoxy in its various forms has often justified a life of suffering as a means of entering heaven. When the church is responsible for the suffering, there is a systematic misuse of religious doctrine. The works of Charles Dickens expose these flaws, and Blake does the same here.

"Could scarcely cry “'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!' So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep...."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

Blake chooses a 2nd-person addressee that stands in for English society: in other words, those whose chimneys are swept. This choice gives the poem an accusatory tone. Indeed, Blake’s contemporary readership would have been attuned to worker’s rights issues and may well have possessed first-hand experiences with such child laborers. The dense internal “-eep” rhymes in this couplet give the lines an exceptional force.

"When my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue..."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

William Blake wrote Songs of Innocence and of Experience during the height of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The expansion of factory production created an enormous need for labor. This need was often filled by child laborers. Children began to serve in numerous lines of low-wage work, including chimney-sweeping. Charles Dickens wrote often and accurately of the plight of Victorian-era London’s young chimney sweepers in works such as Oliver Twist. As Blake makes clear, such labor was akin to slavery. Infants were sold into labor programs known as “work houses,” many of which were run by the Anglican church.

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