William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience is one of the earliest works of British romanticism. The literary genre of romanticism followed the Enlightenment, which focused on the power of rationalism and scientific advancement. As such, much of the writing that took place did not concern itself with the inner lives of people.
Blake helped change all that with his pioneering work that incorporated the inner life of man, a life that featured the mysteries of the universe, the power of the imagination, and the beauty of nature. As a romanticist, Blake also looked at the plight of the ordinary man, a plight that had intensified with the effects of the industrial revolution and urbanization.
One poem that specifically addresses social injustice is “The Chimney Sweeper.” This short poem looks at the issue of child labor, which was becoming problematic in the late eighteenth century. In this poem, the speaker, a child chimney-sweeper himself, tells a brief story about the dream of another young sweeper, Tom Dacre. Tom’s dream is, in turn, about a number of deceased child chimney sweepers.
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned or Jack,
Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free;
This poem does not get specific about the problems associated with child labor in the chimney-sweeping business, except to note that it can get your hair dirty. The excerpt above, however, understates the tragedy with its reference to so many deceased young sweepers. If the job is so dangerous that children are dying by the thousands, shouldn’t the world take notice and demand some sort of action be taken on the children’s behalf?