Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Chimney Sweeper" (Innocence), 21-24

Here is the final stanza from Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" from the Songs of Innocence. The young sweeper Tom Dacre (note that it's NOT the speaker of the poem) has had a visionary dream in which an Angel releases the boys from their "coffins of black"--perhaps a reference to the chimneys they work in, perhaps a reference to death, perhaps a more general image of the bleakness of their prospects in the world, perhaps all of the above. The dream provides some comfort to the chimney sweeper on the following morning:

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.

As is often the case in Blake's Innocence poems, the passage lends itself to multiple, equally precise meanings. On the one hand, it can be taken at face value. These orphaned sweepers are living in horrific, even life-threatening squalor with virtually no prospect for a warmer, happier life. And yet, Tom's dream provides some genuine comfort: the speaker says as plainly as possible that "Tom was happy & warm" despite the cold morning. Expanding from this reading, one might say that, at least for Tom, religion (his dream of salvation) is a wholly positive force that enables him to find comfort, warmth, and happiness even in his lowly and impoverished condition. On the other hand, the final lines could be deeply and viciously ironic, saying, in effect, that if the sweepers "do their duty"--that is, if they continue to labor away as starving and exploited children--they will find some reward in a better world than this. This cynical reading would suggest that religion is a fool's game (Marx would later call it the "opiate of the masses") by which the self-serving economic and political power structures of the day can justify and perhaps even condone the ill-treatment of these unfortunate orphan sweepers.

My students always want to know: Which is it? Is this poem an expression of the comforting and sustaining power of religion? Or is this poem a stinging critique of the cynical and hypocritical use of religion to support a self-serving complacency in the face of human suffering? I don't know that there is an answer to these questions....unless it's "Both." Blake's poems show the contrary conditions of Innocence and Experience, and this poem seems to include both as alternative but equally plausible interpretations of the same lines. It is also possible to see Tom Dacre as still wrapped in the comfort Innocence, while the speaker--as is perhaps suggested by the strangely dogmatic proclamation of the final line--is beginning to doubt the wisdom of Tom's Innocence and is clinging to a kind of motto that begins to sound hollow in the face of hard experience.

1 comment:

afsgcat said...

I am reminded of the sad story of the little match girl.