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A critical analysis of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘The Little Black Boy’

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  • Pages: 4
  • Word count: 867
  • Category: Poems

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Write a critical analysis of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘The Little Black Boy’ looking for points of contrast and comparison between the poems.

It is possible to call Blake a ‘Social Observer’ who was an eidetic visionary of the social injustices of his time. It is clear that there is a common link between the poems, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘The Little Black Boy’ – Blake had an emotional response to the inhumane use of child labour in those days of heightened industrialism; which also raised many moral dilemmas for the people of his era, as it does today. Both poems consist of a child speaking and both convey parallel conditions of social sin.

The poems raise religious questions of the existence of an all loving God. In ‘The Little Black Boy’, Blake is not suggesting that God is evil; instead he is suggesting that God treats people differently because black people go through a harder life. However, having said this, the poem offers the proposal that the little black boy is, in a sense, superior to the little white boy,

“Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear.”

This quotation shows that the little black boy’s “sun-burnt face” is able to “bear the beams of love” from God but because the English boy is white, it indicates that he cannot stand the power of God’s love, whereas the little black boy, who has suffered through life, can. This could also suggest the equality of the two races – that both boys have a place in the scheme of things, but the little black boy already has the power of God so he can help the little white boy cope. In “The Chimney Sweeper”, Blake also questions the doctrine of the established church, asking if an all loving God would shamelessly allow the employment of young boys to sweep chimneys. We also get the feeling that these young boys are given a false sense of belief through the use of religion. This can be seen in the quote,

“the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,

He’d have God as his father & never want joy.”

This draws our attention to the fact that they have been brainwashed into conditional love, which the use of religion has taught them – if they are good then they will go to heaven. Blake saw this as taking advantage of a vulnerable child, and raised awareness of the injustice that society proposed on young, innocent boys through his poetry.

One critic said that “The Little Black Boy” was written in iambic pentameter; which is the white man’s style of writing. This could be supported, because the steady iambic pace could suggest a child-like speech to the poem, therefore indicating that the little black boy has learnt this off by heart. Other critics have concluded from the final stanza that the “black boy [is] just a shadow of the white.” But one could argue that in the final stanza, because the little black boy is acting as a guardian, offering to “shade” the white boy, he could consider himself stronger.

Blake believed that any kind of restriction was anathema, he was very interested in the human spirit and because of the Industrial Revolution of the time he was especially concerned that people’s creativity and spirit’s were being restricted. The young boy in “The Chimney Sweeper” has an extremely restricted lifestyle brought to him by the “bags”, which could symbolize the weights of society, and the only way he can escape from this life is when an Angel “open’d the coffins and set them all free.”

There is a possible indication that the only way they can be free is after the restrictions of death, when they can finally reach heaven and be rid of their “duty”. Bearing in mind that Blake was a dissident poet, there is always an ambiguity with Angels in his poetry. In this particular poem, the Angel offers Tom conditional love and the regular rhythm implies the Angel’s words are false as they slip off the tongue suspiciously easily. In “The Little Black Boy”, Blake refers to the little white boy’s soul being as “white as an angel”. This is not necessarily something positive – he perceives Angels with such scepticism that the same can be said for the little white boy.

Both poems envisage the idea of liberation; in “The Little Black Boy”, Blake describes how he hopes love and equality will be possible in the future through the child speaker. The little black boy himself foresees him and the little white boy playing together in heaven without prejudice. In “The Chimney Sweeper”, the young boy, Tom, imagines freedom through the Angel; he must suffer in this life in order to have a good life in heaven. Blake makes these points of liberation equally clear in the poems by the repeated theme of conditional love in “The Chimney Sweeper” and the inclinations of equality in “The Little Black Boy”. Through these visions Blake tackles recognizable social and moral injustices which present the reader with an insight into the future.

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