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Friday 16 July 2010

William Blake: The Chimney Sweeper


The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence)

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 & in soot I sleep.

There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,

That curl'd llke a lamb's back, was shav'd: 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 & that very night,

As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!

That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned or Jack.

Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,

And he open'd the coffins & 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 & 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 & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark.

And got with our bags & our brushes to work.

Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;

So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

File:Vilhelm Pedersen, Hyrdinden og  Skorstensfejeren, ubt.jpeg

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience)

A little black thing among the snow:

Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!

Where are thy father & mother! say!

They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,

And smil'd among the winters snow:

They clothed me in the clothes of death,

And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy, & dance & sing,

They think they have done me no injury:

And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King

Who make up a heaven of our misery.


"On the first of May each year a holiday was granted to the young chimney sweeps of London, known as 'climbing boys' or 'lilly-whites'; for the rest of the year they were engaged in 'calling the streets', from the dark hours before dawn until midday, but upon this one festival they were permitted to celebrate. Their faces were 'whitened with meal, their heads covered with high periwigs powdered as white snow, and their clothes bedaubed with paper lace.'...They... banged their brushes and climbing tools as they paraded through the city. They were the lords of misrule and for that day had become white, and clean, and even beautiful. How the people laughed -- and perhaps even the little boys themselves were for a while able to forget the wretched conditions of their existence. They were generally sold between the age of four and seven..." -- Peter Ackroyd, Blake

The Chimney Sweeper: William Blake, from Songs of Innocence, 1789
The Chimney Sweeper
: William Blake, from Songs of Experience, 1794

May-Day in London: William Blake, engraving after Samuel Collings, c. 1784 (Cleveland Museum of Art)
The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep
: Vilhelm Pedersen, 1845, illustration for H.C. Anderson's fairy tale
Chimneysweep, c. 1850
: photographer unknown, image by Andre Engels, 2004


Curtis Roberts said...

Reading the two poems and the Peter Ackroyd text, and seeing these together with their images you've selected, is both eye-opening and heartbreaking. The Pete Seeger performance is very enjoyable and it's been a while since I've truly enjoyed a Pete Seeger performance. Thank you, as always.

TC said...


You've just saved the day twice in the same morning, thanks.


(And while on chimneysweeps...the most famous of Blake's, of course, is the one in this poem.)

TC said...

From Ackroyd, on the short miserable lives of the chimneysweeps:

"They were generally sold between the age of four and seven; they either left the poorhouse in batches, or were individually bartered by their parents, who would accept between twenty and thirty shillings for their four-year 'apprenticeship'. There was a great need for their services in London, where the flues were characteristically narrow or twisted so that they easily became constricted. The average size of these vents was something like seven inches square, and the small child was prodded or pushed into the even smaller spaces within; sometimes they were encouraged with poles, or pricked with pins, or scorched with fire to make them climb with more enthusiasm. Of course many died of suffocation, while others grew deformed; many others suffered from what were known as 'sooty warts', or cancer of the scrotum. One social reformer described a typical climbing boy towards the end of his career: 'He is now twelve years of age, hardly three feet seven inches in stature.... His hair felt like a hog's bristles, and his head like a warm cinder.... He repeats the Lord's prayer....'"

Elmo St. Rose said...

child labor, trafficking, and
slavery persist in the world today
yet the voices of liberalism are
somewhat quiet about it because
we would be criticizing the third
world...and at the same time
interfering with commercial interests...for example, you hear
the pillars of what was once the
Civil Rights movement for black
people attempt to get a bigger piece of the pie for their people
(which is legitimate) though the
means sometimes verge on extortion.
However you never hear them talk
about slavery in Africa,and nobody
talks about the factory conditions
in China...for cheap sneakers and
many baubles as it were. HIV in the
prostitute population(Thailand). On
the chimney sweeps who developed
scrotal cancer....those are the ones who survived awhile. Songs of
Innocence and Experience every day.
Everyday low prices at Walmart.
Consummer abstinence and in the
words of the old Civil Rights hymn,
"This is little light of mine, I'm
gonna let it shine" Who's listening?
Hardly anyone...the American aerobic none...Shop til
You Drop.

Curtis Roberts said...

The further lines from Ackroyd and Elmo St. Rose should be widely read and are unforgettable. My only quibble is with Elmo's phrase: "yet the voices of liberalism are somewhat quiet about it". I think it would be fair and more accurate to substitute "effectively silent" for "somewhat quiet" and to mention that the political class has effectively suborned the silence of the political media in this regard.

TC said...

A few months ago A. pointed out a story about the large numbers of suicides among young workers in a mobile telephone assembly plant in China. Their common complaint: that the work was "meaningless".

Curtis Roberts said...

Both Caroline and I held assembly-line/man-machine jobs when we were students. Knowing these were temporary jobs and not our "lives" made them bearable (and sometimes even enjoyable) at the time. These were in the U.S., of course, and not in the Third World, where I know (and have seen) that it is quite different.

TC said...


The regimented, impersonal, highly stressed conditions for young workers in the electronics company Foxconn were the subject of a good deal of media scrutiny last Spring: Making iPads and iPhones causes "illnesses of the spirit"

Curtis Roberts said...

I first heard about this story in a television cable news report and, obviously, was arrested by it and horrified. I just read the attached article, which you may find interesting, although its source and viewpoint seems a little suspect:

Of particular note, I think, is Steve Jobs' quote:

"Although every suicide is tragic, Foxconn's suicide rate is well below the China average," Jobs said in this e-mail exchange. "We are all over this," he added.

This tears on so many levels.

TC said...


As to the Jobs statement, it ignores several salient facts:

The Foxconn suicides occurred in a cluster.

There were were, according to some estimates I have read, some thirty suicide attempts in the Spring cluster, and ten of these have been documented as "successful".

Jobs is playing with figures based on national annual rates for all populations.

These events occurred only in one short period in the Spring of this year and in only one section of the population, the young.

The suicide attempts were all made by workers between the ages of 18 and 25. (As demographics tells us and as common sense confirms, it is the old, not the young, who are most often willing to part with life.)

To say that in one factory complex, over a short period, some thirty relatively healthy young people attempting suicide, and ten succeeding, is "well below average", is a false statement, made for a purpose that is apparent.


See this Newsweek story:

“'If there are really 300,000 people who work at this place, then you’d expect to see many dozen suicides over the course of the year,' Dr. Ian Cook, the director of UCLA’s depression research program, tells NEWSWEEK. 'The thing that gets everyone’s attention is that they’re all happening in such close timing.' There’s also the fact that the deaths have come on Foxconn property—primarily by workers jumping or falling from the tops of their dormitory buildings. These are not the images that Apple wants in consumers’ minds as they contemplate purchasing an $829 3G iPad."

Curtis Roberts said...

Tom: Thanks for sending the additional information. I found Job's quote just appalling; I'm amazed that he uttered it and astonished that Apple allowed it to find its way into print. As a former junior publicist married to a former senior publicist, our mouths collectively dropped on reading it. Our personal situation has made us hyper-aware over the years of the ongoing, permanent present tense issue of suicide, especially among young women, in that part of the world. And based on things that have occurred in my own life, it's a subject that has affected me a lot and I think about regularly, more in despair than hope, I'm afraid.