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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake
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What are the parallels between "The Little Black Boy" and "The Chimney Sweeper"?

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Both "The Little Black Boy" and "The Chimney Sweeper" are from Blake's Songs of Innocence. In both poems, small boys are exploited and have been conditioned to believe that they will one day be rewarded by God for their suffering in life.

The boy in "The Little Black Boy" is a slave. His mother has convinced him that he is dark because he is close to God in all his brilliance, like a sun. The whites who enslave him are not as close to God, which accounts for their light skin. But in the end, the black boy believes, white boys and black boys will be loved alike by God.

In "The Chimney Sweeper," the boy has been sold into servitude as a chimney sweeper. Traditionally, poor children were pressed into this kind of work because they were small enough to fit into chimneys. The poem implies that his parents have done this to him and do not recognize that they have made his life a misery. They are people of faith and apparently don't recognize their own inhumanity.

In both cases, children are exploited and are in the care of parents who try to make their miserable lives more endurable by vague promises of an eternal reward.

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Both of these poems are concerned with children, specifically male children. Both are written in the first person, and both speakers refer to their mothers at the beginning of the poem. The relationship between the mothers and their sons, however, seem to be very different. The speaker in "The Little Black Boy" tells an extensive story of consolation offered to him by his mother, while the speaker in "The Chimney Sweep" lost his mother at a young age and was "sold" by his father.

Both poems refer to English boys with "white" hair, who are secondary to the speaker. In "The Chimney Sweep" the boy is named Tom Dacre. In "The Little Black Boy," the white-haired child is hypothetical, an imagined English boy whom the speaker will meet in heaven.

Both poems also show children looking forward to a lifetime spent with God in which the "black" elements of this life will be lifted from them. For the boys in "The Chimney Sweep", this blackness is the blackness of soot, the darkness visited upon them by life in an industrial town. In "The Little Black Boy," the child looks forward to escaping his physical blackness—his black skin—and becoming pure. Both poems strongly associate whiteness with purity and cleanness.

In both poems, the struggling in this life seems alleviated by the thought of things to come. The chimney sweeps feel "warm" at the thought of doing their duty and returning to God, while the little black boy anticipates being filled with "joy" like a "lamb" when he meets his "white" friend with God in heaven.

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There are many parallels between “The Little Black Boy” and “The Chimney Sweeper.” The speakers of both poems are victims of oppression who see the world from an “innocent” point of view. Both narrators cling to a promise of joy with absolute confidence. Yet there is a hint of dramatic irony in both stories—the experienced reader knows these children are being oppressed, but the children do not know this. The chimney sweeper’s axiom at the end—“So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”—can be read from both the innocent and the experienced perspectives (24). There is the straightforward moral, but there is also an undercurrent of eerie indoctrination. There is an implication that the ignorance of the victims is a part of the problem, but the impossibility of escape is also evident. If the innocence of the child creates ignorance of oppression, then it seems like creating experience would be the solution. On the other hand, the victim cannot do anything about his own situation, so unveiling his eyes isn’t the answer either.

The black/white binary is also explored in “The Chimney Sweeper.” The speaker tells his fellow sweep, little Tom Dacre, that the sacrifices of the sweeps, such as their heads being shaved, are actually blessings: “Hush Tom! Never mind it, for, when your head’s bare,/You know that soot cannot spoil your white hair” (7-8). The speaker is unwaveringly optimistic, although the experienced reader can see how society has completely failed these children. The whiteness of Tom’s hair, symbolizing his innocence, contrasted with the blackness of the soot, symbolizing their severe experiences, embodies their oppression as a whole. In Tom’s dream, the black/white binary remains in the expected classification. He sees “thousands of sweepers […] were all of them locked up in coffins of black” (11-12). Then an angel comes to save them and “set them all free,” and the joy of heaven is represented by the sweeps becoming “naked and white” (14, 17). The blackness of death and exploitation transmutes into the whiteness of joy and freedom. However, this typicality is subverted by our experienced perception.

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