17. The Chimney Sweeper: William Blake

Full disclosure: I love William Blake. Perhaps the long winter is affecting me, as I now realize this is another in a long line of death related poems I have posted….

This poem is one from William Blake’s excellent collection “Songs of Innocence”, the companion book to his “Songs of Experience.” Blake was a madman and/or genius, and these poems work on many levels. In the classroom they allow for differentiation, as they are simple and easy to understand on the surface, while allowing for multiple complex levels the more one looks at them. They stand alone, but also lean on each other to weave a number of complex themes. Comparing “innocence” and “experience” is an interesting lesson in itself. A teacher can go in a lot of directions with Blake.

While this poem is a bit bleak–a child chimney sweeper finding bliss through the promise of death (the other child chimney sweepers died of typical sweeper ailments and come to him in a dream)–my students are fascinated by the cruelty of such a social system. It is dark, which they are not used to in poetry. The topic works with discussions of child labor, Charles Dickens, Victorian England and a whole range of social science topics. Please note that most of Blake’s poems are not this dark. Indeed, he is inspirational and quite devout. For those interested, his later poems explore faith and religion in great depth.

If you are not familiar with Blake, know that he also illustrated his poems. In fact, in his day, he was as known for his prints as his poetry. All are interesting, and some of them are amazing. They provide a respite from the usual poem read aloud, and can lead to a lesson on visualizing text. I have given students Blake’s prints and, when they have found a visual they like, had them then read the poem and make connections. Students have also created their own Blake prints, and we bound them and put them in the library.

I include this link to the Arkansas School of Mathamatics, Science & the Arts as their website not only has some great, accessible essays but is also student generated.

The Chimney Sweeper
William Blake

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.

Theres little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lambs 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, & 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.


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