Blake and the issue of child labor
Blake brings up, in some of his poems, the issue of child labor. Child labor was a phenomenon that developed especially with industrialization, so during the 18th century: children were needed to give their families a financial support and it was legal for children above 7 years old to work: most of them worked in the textile industry (because of their tiny fingers, which could easily fix broken machines) or as chimney sweepers (since they were little, they could easily go inside chimneys to swipe and clean them). He wrote 2 poems about this and both are about chimney sweepers.
The chimney sweeper: when my mother died i was very young- Blake
This poem is from "Songs of innocence", it has 6 stanzas made of 4 lines (quatrains), 8-9 syllables each. The rhyme scheme is AA-BB = rhyming couplets. The rhythm resembles the one of The Lamb, so very sweet, childish and naïve. The speaker is child who works as chimney sweeper and he tells us his story.
- 1st stanza --> the kid provides us his tragic life: his mum died when he was little and his father needed money so he ‘sold’ him, meaning that the father had him go to work at a very young age. The repetition of the word WEEP is very important: it occurs 4 times, it comes with an exclamation mark, it’s onomatopoeic (=cry) and it’s similar to sweep. Blake associates the words weep and sweep to make the reader aware of the fact that children were sent to work as chimney sweepers and also that they cried a lot because of their hard job. The alliterations and sounds regard the letter s. As to content we come to realize that this child is actively working 24h a day. He’s forced to live in dirty places and work, because he was extremely poor. We can understand, thanks to the last lines, not only that chimney sweepers had their bodies to get into the chimney to brush it and clean it, but they also had soot adhering to their bodies.
- 2nd stanza --> we’re given the description of an event happened to his fellow Tom Dacre. Tom’s crying and by this we’re constantly reminded of the sadness of workers. Since all children were made bald, so that the soot and dirt wouldn’t have stuck to the hair, also Tom was made bald and he felt terribly offended and bad. We know that Tom had curly hair so probably that's also the reason why he felt so bad. The speaker tries to cheer him up = “hush” (onomatopoeia, colloquial), telling Tom that he was nicer and cleaner that way.
- 3rd stanza --> this whole stanza is symbolic: at the beginning we’re provided with a series of chimney sweepers’ names, who were locked up into coffins = image of terror, gives dramatic intensity to the scene, they are deprived of their freedom but not by choice. Moreover, they were risking their lives every single day because of the rainy climate, which made the chimneys and the rooftops wet, slippery and dangerous. Then the children die.
- 4th stanza --> An angel (supernatural and divine element) frees all the chimney sweepers. It is the opposite in terms of imagine to what we’ve seen so far because here we have such adjectives/verbs as: shine, bright, green, laughing which are all positive. Bathing in the river symbolizes purification and we usually associate it with baptism.
- 5th stanza --> Freedom is accomplished and it is as if they went back to when they were born because they are now clean and white (not dirty and black). The bags left behind are literally the bags of rags where they carried their working tools, but they symbolize also their past and earthly life. The bag can be compared to a burden that they don’t need to carry anymore because they are dead. Now they are pure souls.
- 6th stanza --> Tom woke up from the dream: they are still living and sharing a terrific life, but then they are different people because they have hope, warmth, happiness, which all comes from their hearts. The only way they have to be recognized as human beings with a dignity is hard work.
The main contrasts are:
- Stanza 1-2-3-6: earthly life // stanza 4-5: afterlife
- Beginning: black // Then: white // End: black
A little black thing among the snow- Blake
Songs of innocence. We have only 3 stanzas made of 4 lines, the number of syllables is regular and we have alternate rhymes ABAB. This very short poem is the counter part to the previous poem: here Blake directly attacks institutions, accusing them of not caring about the problem. The institutions are family, church and politics/monarchy. We still have a chromatic oxymoron between black and white.
- 1st stanza --> we still have a kid= “black thing”. He’s called a thing, almost as if he had no dignity. He’s desperately crying, and we understand thanks to the verb WEEP again. This time we have the poet’s intervention, who asks the child where his parents are. The kid answers, saying that his parents left him alone because they went to church. These are clashing images Blake uses to convey a deeper meaning. Child labor was not taken in consideration, not even parents cared. They rate more religion rather than their own kid.
- 2nd stanza --> The kid is happy and he's kind of condemned because of that. He’s punished because he’s a child and he’s happy. Contrast between: happy-sad, sing-woe, clothes- black and deadly clothes.
- 3rd stanza --> Despite everything, the kid tries to keep on being happy and given this, the parents think they did not harmed him. The last two lines are the ones who clearly denounce institutions, saying that they made a fortune out of his issue.
So, what Blake is saying is that institutions turned a blind eye on child labor and also he denounces the cruelty of industrialization