If there's one thing that really got William Blake riled up it was chimney-sweeping.
Yep, you read that right. Chimney-sweeping. As it turns out, despite what Mary Poppins may have led you to believe, scrubbing flues is not all skipping and singing. Really, it's a messy business, and in the late 18th century, when Blake was at the peak of his poetry prowess, chimney-sweeping was tantamount to a slave trade.
Blake was so disgusted with the whole chimney-sweeping industry that he wrote not one but two poems about it. The first poem, also called "The Chimney Sweeper," was published in 1789 in a volume called The Songs of Innocence, and you should definitely check out that version, if you're interested in more scoop on chimney-sweeping.
Then in 1794 Blake expanded the book and included a whole new set of poems. The new version was called Songs of Innocence and Experience. The songs in the Innocence portion of the book tend to be, well, innocent; those in the Experience portion are darker, more cynical, and generally not so happy-go-lucky (if you can call those earlier poems happy or lucky at all).
This version of "The Chimney Sweeper" is no exception. The Innocence version has an angel, and the chimney sweepers get to frolic in a meadow and fly on clouds. Sounds awesome, right? Well here, our lone chimney sweeper is abandoned by his parents and left out to cry by himself in the snow while they pray in church. Can you say bummer?
But all that bummer is in the name of pointing out an even bigger bummer. See, Blake is using this poor lonely chimney sweeper's plight as an occasion to criticize society in general. According to Blake, not only have this kid's parents abandoned him, but larger institutions, like the church, have too, because everybody's too focused on Heaven rather than their own front stoop.
In addition to this simple, but powerful critique, Blake's poem also gives a voice to a social group—poor, suffering, working children—who, in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, weren't allowed to say much, but whose plight was worth publicizing (for Blake).
We wish we could tell you a whole new reason to care about this particular chimney sweeper, but we think that this poem hits home for the same reasons Blake's first version does. So head on over to "The Chimney Sweeper" (Songs of Innocence) and check out our "Why Should I Care?" section for that poem. We think that says it all.
William Blake page at Poets.org gives you the scoop on Mr. Chimney.
Tons of poems, and some great analysis of his work.
Robert Pinsky on "The Chimney Sweeper" Poems
Read the former poet laureate's take on these masterpieces.
Blake's Illuminated Books
A website showing all versions of all of Blake's totally gorgeous illuminated books.
Songs of Innocence and Experience
If you're in the mood for thorough, this site contains all the poems in both volumes.
"The Chimney Sweeper" in Song
Musical version of the poem by The Roketa Project.
Songs of Innocence and Experience
Here it is, Shmoopers, the title page for Songs of Innocence and Experience.
Here's a group of the young hard workers.
William and Catherine Blake's Headstone
Strangely not on their graves, but nearby nevertheless.
This one's probably the most famous portrait of our poet.
"The Chimney Sweeper" Illuminated
This image ought to help your imagination.
The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake
You know you want it.