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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Poetry XLI -- Chimney-Sweeps

As most of you know, I am now in law school.  While I embrace the material (and it is, truthfully, remarkably exciting and engaging stuff), I definitely miss my regular indulgence in the otherwise finer literatures of fiction and poetry.  And what with the extraordinary quantity of reading I’m doing, and that just simply to keep afloat, I feared I’d never—at least for these next three years—be able to, well, take to calmer, more artistic waters.  It turns out my fear is only mostly affirmed; while I certainly don’t have time to read much else of anything save the Law, such studies recall with not inconsiderable frequency the general, essentially mundane, but overall poignant, concerns and citizenry that inspire pretty much everything any great author has ever treated.  Property Law has done it now, and with significance, twice (I mentioned it over at my other blog, should you care to look).  Wednesday, it recalled, though less directly even than Kafka, William Blake.

A London chimney-sweep, whose title, we’re lead to assume from the judge’s opinion and holding, was superior in the boy than as to any previous owner (save, of course, the mythical first owner who never appears in such cases), found a jeweled brooch.  While the case further disregards the socio-political treatment and purview of the little dirty boys hired out, Dickensian-style, to the upper and middle classes of the citified home-owners, we do get a glimpse of it out from between the lines.

The boy takes the brooch to a local jeweler for appraisal.  The proprietor's apprentice, who answers his call, claims it worth but a pittance and takes the brooch, awarding the boy the “estimated” cash value.  The boy, however, doesn’t want the money; he wants the brooch, which, naturally, the apprentice refuses.  What I don’t get is what happens next.  Somehow, the chimney-sweep manages to hire a lawyer (and I suspect this speaks more of the tremendous range of class of legal service providers available in London than any likely, or even possible, condescension of the highbrow), and win a judgment from the court awarding him something like 65 pounds.  Those of you who know at least as much as the little bit I do about 19th century money in England should get the significance of this.  What you may not get is the true earth-shaking-ness that this award was landed by a chimney-sweep!

Perhaps Blake can give an indication.

If you’re unfamiliar with Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (essentially parallel pieces exploring the differences in life and the examination thereof as dependent upon Reader's perspective, that of innocence or experience, or the given situation in life, chiefly by age, which is, of course, always some point along the continuum between either innocence or experience), I highly recommend you read them—a lightning fast read, even if you take the time to get what he’s doing.  I’m not going to get into it all here, but at least be aware that Blake understood, and with the aforementioned Dickensian perceptivity, what life meant to a chimney-sweep boy: something as black and hopeless as the soot they’re coated in.  Oh, and the mortality rate was staggering!  Yeah, and they were kept in small herds by pimps who often beat and abused them.  (Okay, I’ll stop.  Enjoy the poetry.  They, are, I think, some of the very finest there are, and certainly among my favorites.)

The Chimney-Sweeper
by William Blake
from Songs of Innocence
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

There’s 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.”

And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, —
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and 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 and 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, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.


The Chimney-Sweeper
by William Blake
from Songs of Experience
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! ‘weep! weep!’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are they father and mother? Say! —
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled 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 the king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.’


Once enough, you think?  Read them again.  Examine the poetic conventions that hold them together.  Look at how they compare, one to the other.  How do they fit within their respective collections, “Innocence” and “Experience”?  Who is Blake’s audience—is it multifaceted?  What is he saying to those who read?  Are the chimney-sweepers part of that audience? 

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