The 19th C was time of great change and rapid progress where mankind made a significant leap from the Agrarian to an industrial economy, Just as the changes were significant, so were the challenges and exploitation at the time. It is within this backdrop that Blake in his two poems; And did Those Feet in Ancient Times and The Chimney Sweeper: Songs of Innocence addresses the issue of exploitation (Blake, 1808).
And did Those Feet in Ancient Times is based on a popular narrative in England at the time that Jesus of Nazareth, accompanied by Joseph of Aramathea who was a tin Merchant visited England during is unknown years. The tone of the poem itself is joyful and urging people to action. Indeed it is no surprise that it was popularized during World War one at a time when the war seemed to be dragging on forever with high casualties when it was edited and published by Robert Bridges (Lienhard, 1999).
The poem itself is composed of sixteen lines written in four line stanzas and is divided into two distinct parts. The first half of the poem is made up of four questions beginning with the word And. This is the part that refers to the folk tale that Jesus might have set foot in England and by doing so, made England a very likely candidate for the New Jerusalem which is a common metaphor for heaven amongst the Christian community especially the Church of England. However the last question poses a twist in that it asks if the New Jerusalem was built amongst the satanic mills which are a direct opposite to the green mountains, pleasant pastures, and clouded hills that were present when Jesus was there (Blake, 1808). As such this line now brings us forward from those pleasant ancient times to Blakes current world that was filled with the horrors of industrialization. The second part of the poem transforms the writer to a man of action commanding an unknown entity to give him a bow, arrows, spear and a burning chariot that he may wage war with the view of rebuilding Jerusalem.
One needs to keep in mind the fact that in Christian theology, the second coming of Jesus would lead to a new earth and a New Jerusalem that would be a paradise. Most important, there will be no pain or suffering in this new World and this was probably the only source of hope for the millions of people who had migrated to cities to work in horrific conditions of the mills. However to Blake, if Jesus divine feet actually set foot in England, he had already made it special and instead of waiting for his second coming, then men had to fight to destroy this source of oppression and make a better world for themselves. The poem is therefore a war cry to humanity not to slumber but to take action against the alienation of mankind to his/her natural environment.
The second poem, The Chimney Sweeper: Songs of Innocence Is a dramatic monologue that also reflects Blakes social protest against how children were being exploited during the age of industrialization. Indeed, a parliamentary committee that looked into the employment of children in 1817 reported that children as young as four years of age were sold to master sweeps since the average sizes of London chimneys were seven inches square. To encourage the children to climb faster, lighted straw or pins were forced on the feet of the boy climbing behind. In the end, most of these children ended up with spinal deformities. The practice was finally abolished in 1875, 50 years after Blakes death (Tooke, 1817).
The poem is written in a simple language with rhythmic couplets and presents a stark contrast between the lives of child sweeps and a dream of Tom Dacre who is a new recruit. The poem begins with a similar account as to that provided in the committee with a boy explaining that he was sold after the death of his mother. The poem the goes on to directly implicate the reader in the Childs exploitation by stating in the last line, So your chimneys I sweep. Tom Dacre is then introduced and as he sleeps he dreams that he and his friends are locked up in black coffins which represent the bleak nature of their existence which they would never be able to get away from as being laid in a coffin represents finality and death. But then an angel comes and lets them free and in symbolic reference to the resurrection the boys rise upon the clouds (Norton, n.d.).
Sadly this freedom does not come free but is attached to a cruel condition which is that if Tom becomes a good boy which would imply passively accepting their duty and suffering, they will have God as their father and this is a direct indictment to the churchs teaching which emphasized on meeckingly accepting ones situation even if that situation was a life of exploitation. Looking at it this way, one realizes that the church not only played a part in the oppression of the disadvantaged but was indeed an instrument of oppression. Indeed, Tom wakes up in the morning feeling happy and warm even though it was cold a clear indication that because of the dream, he is resigned to live as a sweep and accept all that is being expected of him just so that God can be his father.
There is therefore no doubt that both poems by Blake are a form of social protest against the injustice and human degradation that was so apparent during the age of the industrial revolution and an indictment of the church which had not only failed to speak out against it but went to the contrary and sided with the exploiters maintain the state of affairs (Norton, n.d.).
Blake, W. (1789). The Chimney Sweeper: Innocence - Poetry Foundation. Retrieved July 05, 2016, from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43654
Blake, W. (1808). Jerusalem ["And did those feet in ancient time"] - Poetry Foundation. Retrieved July 05, 2016, from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/54684
Lienhard, J. H. (1999) Poets in the Industrial Revolution- The Engines of Our Ingenuity. Retrieved July 05, 2016, from http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1413.htm Norton, G. (n.d.). William Blakes Chimney Sweeper poems: A close reading. Retrieved July 5, 2016, from http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/william-blakes-chimney-sweeper-poems-a-close-reading
Tooke, W. (1817). Report from the Committee of the ... House of Commons on the employment of Boys in sweeping of Chimneys. ... Ordered ... to be printed June 23, 1817 (Great Britain., Parliament., House of Commons.). London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy.
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