Child Labour in Blake’s Chimney Sweeper
This research paper makes an attempt to contextualize the poem, “Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake in relation to the contemporary society of Great Britain in the Romantic period. In other words, the researcher tries to connect the context of the then British society and the present poem during the industrial revolution. In fact, the industrial revolution brought changeability in the socioeconomic and political aspects of the society. If it is so, was it really able to bring positive change the lifestyle of working-class children too after the revolution? How did the revolution affect the children’s lives? Was it really able to bring the positive changes to their daily life? Of course, it was not. It is because most of the working class children had to work for long hours in the factories owned by the upper-class people at that time. They were forced to do difficult jobs in the factories. As a result, their condition was pathetic and pitiable just as the narrator in the present poem has to face the similar challenges as a factory worker. In this sense, the present poem represents the real picture of the working class children’s condition as exploited and dominated by the factory owners in that they had to work at low wages and for a long time from their early ages. They were oppressed in the way they were taken as the commodities but not as the human beings.
In fact, the industrial revolution occurred through Europe in the late eighteenth century (the 1780s). Its main factor was the modernization of economy in England. Historically speaking, at the beginning of the romantic period Britain was dependent upon the agrarian economic model. Most of the people were employees as domestic workers. However, gradually it shifted from the rural handicraft to a large-scale factory by the end of this period. Technological innovation had facilitated the manufacture as well as trade. Thus, England had left behind its localized cottage industry and became a centralized and hyper-capitalist mode of production. The so-called upper-class people brought the concept of hierarchy among the people as the upper, middle and working class people in the then society. Moreover, due to the increasing population, the country was in the course of rapid urbanization and industrialization. As a result, London grew as the biggest and the first urbanized town in the world. People needed jobs for their livelihood. The working class people were in the search of jobs for their livelihood. On the other hand, the British government did not offer the people right to cast votes in the election. So, for the sake of demanding their human rights, they carry out the revolution just as the French revolution had taken place in France. For this reason, the government turned its lock on the demand of the people.
Although the revolution brought a drastic change in every field due to the innovation of new technology, yet it horribly affected the working class people. It created a number of problems and the children were also untouched by the same situation. Further speaking, the excessive development of industries owned by bourgeoisie created a new working class people who worked in their factories. They worked especially in the textile mills and mines. Actually, traditional agricultural mode gained scientific change in the farming system that changed the lifestyle of the people. The bourgeoisie took advantage of them keeping low wages. For that reason, the poor remained poor.
To talk about the present poem, it projects the working class children’s hardships and difficulties who were dominated by their own parents and exploited by the so-called factory owners. The narrator is a chimney sweeper. He is actually motherless. He was sold by his own father:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while at my tongue
Could scarcely cry “weep! weep! weep! Weep!
So your chimneys I sweep and in the shoot, I sleep (1-4).
Here, the narrator says that his mother has died when he was very young maybe he is of four, five or the like. He admits that he is the slave because he was sold by his own father to work in the house of a chimney sweeper businessman. It shows how his parents were at the time who forced their young children to work at their young age. It suggests in the industrial revolution period or in the later eighteenth or early nineteenth century most of the chimney sweepers were children in that they were suitable enough to crawl up for cleaning it. These lines also indicate parental indifference towards their children. He is forced to work for the benefits of his parents just as the children in the period used to have to do works in the factories. They used to have to work as the chimney sweeper in that only they were fit enough to fit down the chimney.
He further talks about his another friend Tom Dacre who is also a chimney sweeper. His curly hair suggests his innocence. He is worried about his life. For this reason, the narrator comforts him
There is little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.” (7-8).
The speaker tries to make his fellow think of better days. Dacre cries when his hair was shaved. In the meantime, the boy happens to get asleep and had a dream. In the dream, he sees many chimney sweepers like him. They are in black coffins. Then an angel comes and opens the locks and sets all the children free. They then go to wash into a river. In his dream, the angel suggests him if he is a good boy he will have paradise. After awakening, he goes to work as usual. He thinks of good future and tries to be optimistic in his life. But in reality, he finds himself in the same situation. He feels trapped in the same job that he does in his daily life though it is dangerous: “And so Tom awoke, and we rose in the dark / And got with our bags and our brushes to work” (21-22). In such a way, working-class children were compelled to complete their jobs regularly.
From this, it is clear that this poem is against the child labor that was dominant in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. The present poem is a representative only. It shows the story of an anonymous speaker and his fellow friends who worked as chimney sweepers. There were many such stories in various the textile mills, pottery works, and mines. The innocent and too young children had to do this and such many horrible and dangerous households and factory jobs. The wage they got was low and the hours too long. Moreover, the working in such places was dangerous and unpleasant. Consequently, they happened to be deprived of their fundamental child right during the period. They neither got chance to enjoy their childhood nor did they get paid in their jobs. Further speaking, many of them were used be scolded and punished in case they could not do the works in time and well. So, they were oppressed to a great extent. This was common and accepted socially and religiously.
To boil all these ideas in a single pot, the present poem shows how the children like the speaker and his fellow Tom were dominated by their parents, the factory owners, and the aristocratic government after the industrial revolution took place. Through the medium of this poem, Blake criticises the child labor as the social evil and political domination. That is why the revolution came to be unsuccessful to address the issue of child labor. This way, the present poem is successful to represent the child abuse caused by the industrial revolution in the romantic period in the history of Britain. In a word, the present text correlates with the context of contemporary Britain in terms of child abuse.
Blake, William. Songs and Experience. London: Penguin,1992. Print.
Poplawski, Paul, ed. English Literature in Context. Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2008.