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National Poetry Day: Speaking up for justice

Original illustration from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK  in honour of which I thought I’d share two poems by one of my favourite poets: William Blake. One of the aspects of his work I love is his ability to use poetry to shine a light on the injustices he saw around him, of which there were many.

The Chimney Sweeper

When my mother died I was very young,

And my father sold me while yet my tongue

Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”

So your chimneys I sweep & 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, & that very night,

As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!

That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & 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 & 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 & 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 & never want joy.

 

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark

And got with our bags & our brushes to work.

Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;

So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

Blake is of course highlighting the appalling practice of child labour that was so prevalent in the late 18th and 19th centuries where, as young as four or give, boys were set to clean chimneys which they could more easily negotiate because of their small size. This poem always suggests to me a court case where the child sweeper is giving evidence in the witness box and calling on the jury to do their duty by him and his fellow sweeps.

Another, equally dark poem is London where Blake points an accusing finger at every aspect of British society for the pain and suffering he sees about him as he walks the streets. There isn’t a lot of hope in this poem – rapid urbanisation means children are no longer free to enjoy childhood and people’s physical freedom is restricted by charters. Where Blake was taking a risk, bearing in mind this was written as the French Revolution was in full swing,  was in the image of the walls of the palace streaming with blood. A warning perhaps to the British monarchy that they too could face the same fate as their counterparts across the Channel?

London 

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

 

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

 

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