Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” and Child Labor


William Blake published “Songs of Innocence” in 1789; child labor was very much exploited and lowly disputed against. Chimney sweeping child laborers specifically were subjected to low wages, deadly working conditions, and harsh punishments for not meeting standards. Blake was anti child labor. In his poem “The Chimney Sweeper”, Blake discusses his detest for the current regulations on child labor. Child labor laws of 1789 were inefficient to say the least. Children were allowed to work as young as eight years of age. One of the only restrictions was that the children must be washed once a week, and that they must not climb chimneys with a lit fire inside. Blake made note of this cruel abuse when he stated that “boys (and even girls) as young as five were apprenticed by their parents to master sweepers in what amounted to both child labor and involuntary servitude.” He compares the children to slaves by saying involuntary servitude because they are not able bodied for the work they are doing, nor are they able to decide their fate in this situation, as they are only children. Further into the poem, Blake continued on the severe working conditions. Young boys had to sleep on bags of ashes that they swept. He goes on to describe the narrow and soot filled chimneys as “black coffins” to imply digging themselves into an early grave and not living their lives as children should be. The children had high risk of getting trapped and choking to death in the chimneys. Finally, Blake brings into context the idea of a merciful angel bringing the child laborers to their early death. Death was something to look forward to when these children had such horrible lives. This mention of the angel really drives Blake’s point home, instilling in the readers a strong sensation of empathy for the poor children laboring themselves to death.

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