William Blake is a social commentator and a first generation Romantic poet who has written many poems describing the hardships of social conditions. With his social vision, he explores the humane protest incorporating religious allusions. His system of symbolism focuses on children who are exploited and neglected by adults. I am exploring four of William Blake’s poems, ‘The Chimney’ Sweeper’, ‘Little Black Boy’, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘London’ where he fiercely condemns a society which is cruel, corrupt and unjust. Thomas Hood is another social critic and I will look at his focus on morality in the poem ‘The Song of Shirt’.
William Blake wrote two poems with the same title of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from different narrative perspectives. One of them focuses from a child’s perspective displaying the harsh realty of child labour in the 1700’s. The poem begins informatively, adopting a sad and miserable tone. ‘When my father died I was very young’. The poem has a rhythmic structure similar to a nursery rhyme to subtly reflect the child’s purity and innocence. William Blake cleverly creates a link between the innocent voice of the child and the cry of the chimney being swept. ‘Scarcely cry weep weep weep weep’.
This ironic comparison echoes the child’s innocence in the readers mind. In the second stanza the poet emphasises the realism of these barbaric happenings. ‘There’s little Tom Dacre’ Giving the child a name reminds the reader that the child is real and individual, enhancing the condemnation of the social conditions. On the same line Christ is linked with barbarism. ‘Head, that curled like a lambs back, was shaved’ William Blake has created a link between the biblical allusion of the lamb and the unjust treatment towards the children.
William Blake creates another link using a symbolic use of colour. soot cannot spoil your white hair’ and ‘lock’d up in coffins of black’ The connection of the child’s innocence and the inevitable suffering is displayed by contrasting the child’s white hair and the child being locked up in a black coffin. The black coffin symbolises the child being ordered and laboured until a resultant death. William Blake continues to condemn the social conditions of the children by linking in biblical language and allusions. ‘And by came an Angel’, ‘rise upon clouds’ and ‘Have God for his father’. These religious references appear in the child’s dream.
Consequently, the poem’s tone and mood is uplifted because the child’s imagination provides an escape from the suffering. The link to religion gives additional hope about an afterlife. The poem attacks the social condition by adopting a tone of resignation and acceptance from the innocent child’s point of view. ‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm. ‘ William Blake provokes the reader’s sentiment for the child and anger at the hardship of the conditions. The child’s dream escapes the state of deprivation and appeals to the reader’s pity.
By 1789 the plight of chimneysweepers had aroused considerable humanitarian concerns. William Blake’s second poem on ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ is the voice of an experienced victim. This poem adopts a tone of resentment, accusation and condemnation to violently attack the social conditions of children. The voice of the victim displays social injustice factually, without sentiment. ‘Where are my mother and father? Say? They have both gone up to the church to pray’ William Blake has channelled his views through an angry victim to portray the negligence of the children’s parents.
Irony appears from linking his two poems on chimneysweepers because in the first poem the child’s innocence sees religion as hope, but the experienced victim is condemning religion for hypocritically allowing the parents who have sold their children to feel justified. ‘They have both gone up to the church to pray. ‘ Another example is when the child reassures his friend that there is hope, but the second poem prosaically describes the children having no escape: ‘They clothed me in the clothes of death. ‘ The poem’s tone goes from resentment to anger.
Unlike the first poem about chimneysweepers, this ends depressingly. ‘make up heavens of our misery. ‘ The victim feels although sins are forgiven, reality is suffering. William Blake wrote another poem called ‘London’ where he fiercely attacks the general society. It is the voice of a critical observer looking at everyday life. There is a sense of the poet himself being explicit in his criticisms. He creates a vision of social disaster by firstly explaining how life is heavily restricted: ‘I wander thro’ each charter’d street’ and ‘charter’d Thames. Life is carefully marked and controlled; individuality is lost to the constrained world. He uses biblical language, ‘Marks of weakness, marks of woe. ‘
This is Ezekiel and alludes to the marks of Cain in the Bible. These allusions would be obtuse to a modern reader but it was the language of the London streets in 1790. William Blake is condemning the social conditions by accusing the world of controlling people and distorting their individuality. He uses repetition to create emphasis on the Earth being insistently controlled. ‘In every cry of every man, In every infant, in every voice’.
This is not an isolated incident, this supplies the poem with urgency and anger. William Blake describes Creativity to be restricted and man being oppressed. ‘The mind-forg’d manacles I hear’. It’s like Earth is chained by its predisposition. William Blake is an acerbic voice of a social conscience packed full of bitterness. ‘youthful Harlots curse’ He uses prostitution to condemn the general society because prostitution was forced on the Harlots by marriage laws. The poem ends acrimoniously, ‘And blights with plague the marriage hearse’.
By juxtaposing marriage with death William Blake is making a mockery of marriage and ending the poem with a dark sense of misery and hopelessness. William Blake condemns the social conditions describing woman with no dignity, connecting the suffering with biblical language and using a dark and poignant tone to enhance the attack on society. The anguish of the Sweepers is used to condemn a life of misery. Thomas Hood also attacks the woman’s loss of dignity in the poem ‘The Song of Shirt’. ‘A woman sat, in unwomanly rags. ‘ Thomas Hood pleas to the society, provoking morale.
To add emphasis and a sense of urgency Thomas Hood uses repetition and alliteration. ‘Work-work-work. ‘ This highlights the tough conditions by supplying the poem with an angry tone. He does this in every stanza to leave the words echoing in the reader’s head. ‘Stitch! Stitch! Stitch. ‘ Thomas Hood focuses on woman losing their dignity and almost becoming invisible as humans. ‘Like the engine that works by steam. ‘ Creating a connection between woman and engines enhances Thomas Hood’s attack on a society that forces woman to work. Written by William Blake, ‘The Little Black Boy’ is a poem focused on prejudice.
William Blake condemns the society by appealing to the reader’s pity on the black boy who feels deprived and unimportant through prejudice. ‘But I am black as if bereav’d of light. ‘ He feels God hasn’t blessed him at birth. ‘And I am black, but O! my soul is white,’ William Blake has expressed the contrast formed by prejudice with symbolic use of colour. As the poem progresses optimism appears through the boy’s acceptance. ‘I’ll shade him from heat till he can bear. ‘ He discovers that God gave him protection to the Sun by having black skin.
He ironically discovers a sense of self-worth because he will have to protect the white English boy. William Blake uses poetic techniques to uplift the mood and tone of the poem as it reaches its conclusion. ‘I’ll stand and stroke his silvery hair’. The alliterative quality creates a happy feeling sensed by the reader. The poem condemns society for creating a prejudice that effects innocent children. It subtly incorporates biblical language and allusions to show how the little black boy can see a way out from his deprivation and suffering through his religious beliefs. And round the tent of God like lambs we joy’. God will give him comfort and self-worth when he dies.
William Blake shows the suffering of prejudice from an innocent child’s perspective to supply the reader with anger to the society for creating the injustice and pity for the little black boy for having to suffer. He creates a more subtle condemnation against social conditions of his time by displaying the black boy’s feelings of self-worthlessness and created hope in the poem. Thomas Hood attacks people who enforce hard labour on woman by repeating a word linked with working in every stanza.
He condemns the social condition by accusing people of taking woman’s dignity, provoking the reader’s sentiment and anger. William Blake condemns the society of his time by supplying the poem with emotive feelings of children. Through the children’s thoughts, William Blake provokes morale and anger to social injustice. William Blake incorporates biblical allusions in his poems to help the reader create a link between suffering and religion. He condemns the society for holding back individuality, creating prejudices and causing misery throughout the world.