William Blake - The Chimney Sweeper - Songs Of Innocence - Songs Of Experience
How To Love Lit Podcast
William Blake - The Chimney Sweeper - Songs Of Innocence - Songs Of Experience Hi. I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast. This week, we’re not discussing books per se- we’re discussing engravings- some of the most famous I know from Songs of Innocence and Experience created by the engraver, poet, artist and likely even musician, William Blake and two works by the same name- The Chimney-Sweeper. Christy, what an unusual human being William Blake was and still so very popular and relevant. I saw on Google that in 2002, the BBC conducted a poll to see who the residents of the UK considered to be the greatest Britons of all time, and he ranked number 38. It’s hard to imagine a poet ranking on a list like that, And of course, ironically, he died basically in utter anonymity. That’s quite the upgrade. Well, it is, but he truly is a remarkable but also really quite strange human being. I’m thrilled to be discussing him, but before we do. I do have to ask, who else was on that list? Well, Winston Churchill was number 1- I guess nothing like defeating Hitler to get you to the top. Princess Diana ranked number 3 right ahead of Charles Darwin, interestingly enough. Queen Elizabeth the First ranked number 7 right ahead of John Lennon- but behind Sir Isaac Newton. So, that tells you the eclectic company he’s keeping. The person who ranked number 2, I would venture to say, most Americans don’t even know. Who would that be? A man by the name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel- the civil engineer who changed England by basically designing and helping to build- in the early 1800s- extremely important pieces of public transportation infrastructure- one of which is the Great Western Railway. BTW- Brunel was sort of a contemporary of William Blake, although 50 years younger. Well, I can see why Brunel’s important, but you’re right- I’ve never heard of him- or at least I can’t recall ever hearing of him- but as with all infrastructure, I do admire his work. All that to say, William Blake although now seated today Britain’s most celebrated dignitaries, was an interesting working class product of the late 18th century early nineteenth century. He was born in 1757 and lived until 1827. And I know years, and for me, really numbers in general, can get confusing- so I when I hear the years of when people are born- I try to think about what famous things happened during that period, so I can envision what they were wearing, maybe what their house looked like, that sort of thing…so for me, as an American, the famous year that jumps during those years is 1776 and American independence. I guess William Blake would be wearing a red coat. HA! Only in that he was British, but beyond being a pacifist in general- Blake was very pro-American- Of course, and for our French friends, the year that will jump out to them is 1789 the year that marked the beginning of the French Revolution- another event that strongly impacted Blake’s view of the world. And like I mentioned, William Blake, unlike a lot of British poets who came from wealthy families and went to university, was lower-middle class. He did not attend university at all. His parents were hosiers- which meant they owned a small shop where you could buy, among other things, stockings and gloves. He lived all of his life except for a couple of years in London- which he describes in his poem titled London as a terrible place at the time. Let me quote you a couple of stanzas where he describes London, “How the chimney-sweepers cry every blackning church appalls, and the hapless soldiers sigh runs in blood down palace walls- but most thro’ midnight streets I hear How the youthful Harlots curse Blasts the new-born Infants tear and blights with plagues the marriage hearse. Wow!!! So much misery in a couple of sentences: blood, tears, plagues. So true- that’s not to say, he didn’t love his city- but he was very much aware of pain- in general- these kinds of images really pervade a lot of his poetry. Blake was very much a visionary- he was anti-colonialism, pro-abolition, pro-women’s suffrage- well before these were in vogue- which explains why the Americans really discovered him and loved him during our reform period- True- in some ways, really before even the British (although that’s a generalization some might take issue with). Garry and I collect old books, specifically old textbooks, and I have a couple of British textbooks from the 1830s- and Blake isn’t in them except a small mention of his engraving work, but nothing of his poetry. I know we’re going to get into a lot about his ideas of social reform which are really revolutionary and unusual in many ways, but I want to point out- that Blake’s calls for reform aren’t because he isn’t patriotic- he did love his country- if you recognized the intro music- that incredibly famous British hymn Jerusalem- which is often kind of a second British national anthem-you may not know that those lyrics were written by Blake about the wonderful potential Britain did and does have to be pretty much a Utopia. You know- I didn’t know Blake composed those words- but I did watch Sir Elton John singing that song in the crowd with everyone else during William and Kate’s wedding ceremony at Westminister Abbey- on TV of course- don’t think we scored an invite to that event. Blake- and of course this had everything to do with his religious background, as well as his disillusionment with the French revolution- but he had a lot of distrust in institutions- particularly the gover-nment and the Church- as we see in this poem and—he uses the term Palace, but he means the government. He saw the poverty that pervaded the streets in London during this time period- and he recognizes the powers as being responsible to help but callous to much of it. When we read Jane Austen’s Emma, we got to see a view of elegance, calmness and beauty- the upwardly mobile middle class was growing, but as we said, it was a relatively small group- Austen’s world was not the reality for almost all of the residents in London. At the beginning of the 1700s London had 600,000 residents- more or less- by the time Blake was born- this number is up to almost a million- it’s growing too fast. This is an enormous amount of people at this time- the second largest city was Bristol and it only had 30,000. The rich were a very very tiny minority. Images of poverty were everywhere. Lots of people were out of work because machines were doing more and more jobs, the streets were unsanitary with human and animal waste, the air was unclean, and for the thousands of homeless or those living in inadequate and crowded housing there was no such thing as unemployment benefits or social services. School was not even compulsory. For every 1000 children born in London during this time period, almost half would be dead before they turned 2- due to malnutrition, bad water, poor hygiene and other aspects of poverty. Suicide was common. Executions were public. Violence was rampant. There were high numbers of orphans and what they called “foundlings’- children abandoned by their mothers. Being a single mother during this period was absolutely impossible- you couldn’t get a job, you couldn’t feed yourself, so, often, it was merciful to drop a child off at a charity hospital. London was the sex capital of Europe at the time with large numbers of prostitutes- one job available to women. Ugh- and London today is one of my favorite cities in the world. What challenges!!! William Blake from his earliest ages roamed the streets of this city and took in all of these sights and although his family was not starving- they were not rich and isolated into the party life of Bath- He, like everyone else during this era, witnessed a lot of things that would be disturbing. And from what we know of him he is highly intuitive, what he called imaginative, but also highly empathetic. It appears he feels a lot of the pain that he sees in the different people he meets. Yes- of course imaginative means creative- but when Blake talks about himself being imaginative- he means it in an unusual way- a spiritual way. He was raised in church, was read the Bible every day, but his family were separatists meaning they did not support the Church of England- the established church. Beyond that, Blake had visions all of his life. He started having visions as early as age 4 of God’s face at his bedroom window. He saw angels sitting in trees at age 8. He claimed to have talked to the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. His parents worried that he was crazy, but Blake didn’t think of it that way. He considered it a part of his imagination. Later on in life when he talked about his visions he said this, “You can see what I see, if you choose. You have only to work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done.” He felt connected to the world in a way that’s different than most people. Well, his parents thought his imagination would be more productively served by putting him in art school. Understandably, which they did at age 10 and where he stayed until he was fourteen- something that would have cost his family quite a lot of money actually. At 14, they pulled him out and he became apprenticed to an engraver where he worked and spent 7 years learning his trade. This of course was going to give direction to the rest of his life. Now Garry, when I think of engraving, I think of places like Things Remembered at the mall or having a monogrammed necklace from Etsy- but in his case- although, that’s a little bit like it- that’s a far cry from an illustrated book that is handmade from engravings . Take a second to explain how engraving worked. Sure, it was actually a process that was a couple of hundred years old when Blake got into it, but it’s a sophisticated process and actually several processes normally done by several people- although eventually Blake innovated ways that he and his wife could do it all themselves. But initially as in the case of Blake, apprentices would go out and copy things in the world with pencil and paper. They would come back and these would be etched on plates with acid by other artisans- something that could be difficult and unpredictable as you might imagine. Then you’d get ink and rub it into the lines (for the intanglio style)- and wipe the surface clean with rags and the palm of your hand. From there you’d go to the press and print on paper- but very nice expensive paper. Now, you must remember, these were illuminated meaning they were in color- so after they were printed they were colored. When Blake went into business for himself he made his own watercolors- every copy of an illuminated book is a unique piece of art work and even if the same person made several the same day from the same ink- they wouldn’t be exactly alike. It’s- very very labor intensive. And really, most of it wasn’t considered creative- engravers were artisans more than artists and therefore the low men on the artistic totem pole- to use that expression…and even though Blake became a member of the Royal Academy- he was never given the glory and distinction of other types of artists. There are hierarchies everywhere- even amongst artists. Of course, they’re evolutionary and inescapable. But speaking of social hierarchies, there is a really famous story people tell about Blake working at Westminster Abbey as a young apprentice. He would go in there and copy the statues of the kings and queens of England as well as other Gothic pieces of art- something you can see influenced his style when you look at his illustrations anyway- one day a bunch of boys came in and bullied him while he was trying to work. So, Here is a working boy etching in the Abbey when these students from the prestigious Westminster School come in. It appears they were so mean, that Blake knocked one boy off a scaffold to the ground and to use Blake’s words he fell “with terrific violence”. Blake then went off and complained to the Dean about their harassment, and THEY got in trouble and weren’t allowed in there anymore. That’s awesome- exactly how you want a bully story to work out- the bully gets beat up AND gets in trouble from the authorities- they don’t usually work out like that. True - he did finish his apprenticeship and could therefore work as a professional engraver himself- which he did. He actually worked for a man named ____________Johnson who was a radical publisher of a lot of political materials including Mary Shelley’s mother- Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft- who he did an engraving for. One part I like is that 1782, when Blake is 25 years old he meets and marries a girl by the name of Catherine Boucher. When he met her she was illiterate to the point that she signed the wedding contract with an X. However, this is so sweet, he taught her to read, to write AND to engrave. They had a real partnership. They worked together their entire lives. This is jumping to the end, but on the day of Blake’s death it is said, Blake turned to his wife and said, “Stay Kate! Keep just as you are- I will draw your portrait- for you have ever been an angel to me.” After that, he laid down his tools, began to sing hymns and verses, promised his wife he would be with her always and then died. He was buried at the dissenter’s burial ground and only five people were there. His wife, after he died, moved in with one of their friends and worked as a housekeeper for the rest of her life. Wow! What an ending! So, ready to move from his life to his ideas and to the pieces of literature we’re reading today? Let’s do it. In 1789, Blake printed the first few copies of a series called Songs of Innocence. Five years later, he wrote a complimentary work called Songs of Experience and he bound these together with more illuminated plates- he titled the combined work The Songs of Innocence and Experience: shewing two sides of the human soul. For Blake there was always two ways to see everything in the world. He often would say, “Truth is always in the extremes!” This work he specifically said was to see the dualities of life. There’s another great Blake quote where he says, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way…as a man is, so he sees.” Yes- that came out of a letter where Blake talks about imagination. For Blake, imagination was everything and apparently he would look around the world and just see things- things other people didn’t see- as a man is, so he sees- is what he said- and he would draw them, paint them, write them and even sing them. But don’t take this to be one of those cliched- glass half empty half full ways of looking at the world. That would be to miss his point entirely. What he does in Songs FEELS so simple and straight forward because he uses simple words, simple pictures, simple rhymes- but it’s deep- it seems everything Blake did was nuanced- complicated. Well, if you think about his creative process, it makes sense that each word would be thoughtful. When Blake wrote a poem, he didn’t just jot something down on a napkin or type it into a computer where he could backspace and edit at will- he etched it onto metal- and he had to do it backwards so when you printed the book, it would read correctly. Each word was a labor- each word was thought-filled- each page illuminated and decorated with pictures. Yes- and the pictures that he put on the pages weren’t illustrations of things he was writing about- things he could cut and paste from the internet- they also were labor intensive and creative- they were commentary-rhetorical part of the work itself- all of it fit together- the colors, the images the words- all are part of his story. Which everyone should and can look at. On our website we have a link to blakearchives.org where you can see all of these. For the book Songs of Innocence- he made 31 plates- and from those he made 17 copies of the book- so this method makes things going viral slightly difficult. Impossible- The poems are short and are meant to resemble nursery rhymes. They have meter, mostly iambic and anapestic and a lot of them are addressed to children- except they are definitely NOT intended for children to read. On the surface, many of them appear naïve and joyful- the introduction has a narrator who is a piper happily piping when he sees a child on a cloud. These poems express inncencence as this state of happiness and obedience- doing what you’re told with no fear or suspicion- you can already see where this is going- it’s the natural state of childhood, so these poems are mostly about children- a time where we are at poinnocense. These poems are represented as songs- that connotes happy- and honestly- there are those that say William Blake had all of them put to music. Well, even if Blake didn’t in the 1960s, American poet, Allen Ginsburg did- although I wouldn’t suggest Ginsburg’s were beautiful songs- if you listen to Ginsburg’s versions on Spotify they’re kind of unpleasant- and in that vein of musical legacy- did you know that U2 named one of their albums songs of innocence and a second one songs of experience? No, I didn’t know that, but to be honest, after Joshua Tree, I’m not sure I could name any other u2 album. But the poems in Songs of Innocence are full of open spaces, lots of nature- seemingly simple things…but as you’ll see when we read Songs of Innocence- they are not that- they are full of political, social and religious commentary. So we’re going to read now- his poem called Chimney-Sweeper from the collection Songs of Innocence. This poem is from the perspective of an innocent child- but the child is a Chimney sweeper- one of the cruelest jobs a child could have. Tell us about it? Little boys as young as six were often sold by their parents who couldn’t afford to feed them. They were then sent up dangerous and dark chimneys. There was a House Report on Sweeps that came out at the time that illustrated just how dangerous this job was, especially for children. Sweeps had high rates of cancer because of the exposure to soot. They also had a slew of respiratory ailments. They got a lot of broken bones, and just the work itself stunted their growth. It was a life that would be haunted by death every single day. What you’re going to see is a poem of social protest. In this poem a child is innocent and he doesn’t understand his reality. Blake is going to use a play on words because notice how the word weep weep weep sounds an awful lot like sweep sweep sweep and then sleep. The child’s naïve innocence is frightening to us because we know more than the child does how wrong his reality is. He thinks being sad is normal, but we know it isn’t. When we get to the middle of the poem, little Tom Dacre has a dream which let’s us know he’s been sold a false bill of good- he’s been told he just needs to hold out for the next life- and if he hangs in here and does his duty in this one- in the next one he’ll be happy. The last line, “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.’ Is stated very simply and cheerfully but it’s supposed to make the reader angry. And who is the reader? Excellent question- because he answers it- right after he says weep weep, he says so “YOU”RE chimney’s I sweep. The child talks in the second person- the reader- us- are people who want clean chimneys and so we’re willing to have children sleep in soon. The illuminated plates, btw, in this poem are of small, dancing children- and they are natural extensions of the vines and leaves- all the children have a light happy quality, it’s green and the whole thing looks like a paradise- so you can see what I mean when I say the picture is part of the commentary. This is what the children SHOULD be doing- not what we read in the poem. I think we’re ready to read- let’s do it. Garry- read the first three stanzas. Read Stanza 1-3 What are your thoughts so far? Well, it’s certainly written in the language of a nursery rhyme. But we feel pity for the boy. He’s looking for the bright side of getting his head shaved and the speaker basically says, it’s okay- it will keep your hair from being gross. Of course, even today we feel the cringe of guilt because all of us absolutely agree that this is horrifically wrong but are also guilty, in large part, of ignoring the plight of child labor around the world. In a sense, we’re asleep. Exactly-now let’s read the rest of the poem. In this part Tom is going to have a dream where an angel comes with a key- as we know- keys are often symbols of freedom because they unlock things. Tom’s dream is beautiful- the boys dive in the river, wash away the soon, play in the warmth of the sun- which is capitalized. But then we get the judgement to the readers’s again. The Angel speaks- but the irony we pick up is what the angel says- he says if the boy is a good boy he’ll have God as his father and he’ll never want joy- what a play on words. The word “want” can mean he’ll never lack it, or it may mean he won’t want it. When we get to the final stanza Tom wakes up in the dark cold morning. He’s happy with hope, but Blake has already communicated to his readers that this hope is false. Garry’s let’s read it. Read Stanzas 4-6 What are your thoughts here. Well, the word innocence, obviously is being used by Blake to mean unexpanded consciousness. The child is innocent because he is not aware, but we ARE aware- the condemnation of the exploiters is unambiguous. Blake is heartbroken at the plight of the children around him- these children- who he names- representative, no doubt, of the London children he knew= Ned, Dick, Joe, and Jack- are clearly denied the human experience- and although his example of child suffering is very specific, it is not hard to extrapolate across time and space. If that is the Song of Innocence, I can’t imagine what the song of experience is going to be like. Well, for one thing it’s shorter. This poem is only three stanzas- that’s half the length of the one we just read. In some ways it’s very similar. It plays again with the sound of “weep”. There’s images of snow – the cold- and the black soot that goes with the job. The difference in this poem, is that the child is no longer innocent. He knows who’s responsible for his plight. He knows where the blame falls- who did this to him. He also knows that there is no angel. There is no sun. There is not river- no naked innocence. In this version, there is dialogue. There is dehumanization. The first line “A little black thing among the snow”- this is not a racial statement- he is a dirty thing in the cold and he is crying. Someone asks the child where his parents are- and he responds- Garry – Read stanza 1 A little black thing among the snow, Crying “weep! weep!” in notes of woe! “Where are thy father and Mother? Say?” They are both gone up the church to pray. A couple things to notice is that this poem has lots of punctuation- Blake makes the reader stop between each word weep- after mother and father, after woe. But the blame is clear- the responsibility for the despearation of this child falls at the foot of the church. Now, remember, Blake’s family were dissenters. They read the Bible for themselves- they knew the truth of Scripture as it was written in the Holy Bible- and it is from this place that we see Blake’s rage. How could the organization responsible for implementing Jesus’s words, “Let the little children come to me” or his actions- the only miracle repeated in the New Testament is Jesus multiplying bread- how can this organization use their authority in this way. Let’s read the rest of this poem. This poem is frank. It’s pessimistic. Because I was happy upon the heath, And smil’d among the winter’s snow, They clothed me in the clothes of death, And taught me to sing the notes of woe. “And because I am happy and dance and sing., They think they have done me no injury, And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King, Who make up a heaven of our misery.” One of the things to notice is that he uses the pronoun “they”- which isn’t clear. Who clothed him in clothes of death- his parents? What are clothes of death- well, it seems to me it’s the soot covered clothes that have made him black- the ones that will kill him. But they is in the plural- and I think the blame is to be spread around. His parents are resp9onsible to keep him clothed and safe. The church is responsible to keep him clothed and safe. But he also throws the word King- and I would suggest, that is deliberate as well. The State is equally liable- all and deliberately ignoring what is in their best interest to ignore- that the child labor propping up their way of life is immoral, unchristian dare I say- demonic. And it implies in this last stanza, that they are quite happy to delude themselves. They think of themselves as good people because they go to church and practice all these good things while ignoring the responsibilities given to them. Which takes us to this last line which is actually a paradox- a paradox is something that doesn’t seem like it would make sense- but look how interesting of a turn of phrase- make up a heaven of our misery- they make their lives better- they make their lives a heaven on the backs of the chimney sweepers- and the sweeper in this poem knows it. It seems Blake has taken the chimney sweeper and made him a symbol for how easy it is to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of the poor and helpless in any society in pursuit of our own comfort and luxury- a lesson that, of course, resonates throughout the ages and across the globe. Indeed it does. And so, in this spirit of conviction inspired by the endless words of Blake, we close out our time in Regency England- as it delights and challenges us. Next week we’ll be back on the other side of the Atlantic with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Great Gatsby- that will be a great series. So, please join us next week, but between now and then, please stop in to see us on any of our social media platforms: FB. Insta, Twitter, Linked In, visit our website for copies of this poem, links to the Willima Blake Archives, copies of the poem, and of course free listening guides. Don’t forget- of course- to text this episode to a friend- peace out!
The panel discusses how to advocate for unpopular policies, Pete enters Lefty Shark Tank to defend the concept of a wrongful incarceration tort, and everyone debates which lefties could defeat Trump in a "vibe-off". At one point Aisling says William Blake has been "dead for four hundred years" even though she knows full well it's actually more like two hundred. Zero points to Aisling.The panel this week was legal editor Oren Nimni, lieutenant editor Brianna Rennix, podmaster-general Aisling McCrea, and editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson. Your host is Pete Davis. Music at the end by the always-wonderful Danny Bradley.This episode was edited by Dan Thorn of Pink Noise Studios in Somerville, MA.
We talk about the visionary poet, painter and printmaker William Blake. Death of God theologian Thomas JJ Altizer helps us parse the radical theology with his book "The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake".
For the Romantics Dreams played a very special role in our lives. It was an indication of our imaginative capacities to reach into other realms. In this poem we experience a dream that Blake had about an ant that becomes isolated from its community. We learn more about Blakes view of imagination, the self, innocence and the loss of innocence in "A Dream."
This is a great example of William Blake's expression of the dialectic process. There are two nurse's songs in Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. Each one reveals the inner feelings of a nurse as she is watching over a group of her wards. Each poem is in contrast to the other and speaking through the other.This is a shorter episode because these poems are both more on the surface. But they are valuable to understanding Blake's book as a whole.