Allen Ginsberg’s 1979 Naropa Class on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence continues
AG: Then, (next), “The Chimney Sweeper”:
“When my mother died I was very young,/And my father sold me while yet my tongue,/Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep./So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep./ There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head/That curl’d like a lambs back, was shav’d, so I said./ Hush Tom never mind it, for when your head’s bare,/You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair./ And so he was quiet, & that very night,/As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight,/That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe Ned & 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./Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run/And wash in a river and shine in the Sun./ Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,/ They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind./And the Angel told Tom if he’d be a good boy,/ He’d have God for his father & never want joy./ And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark/ And got with our bags & our brushes to work./Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm,/So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”
In those days, the chimney sweeper thing was (a) very literal child labor horror. The little kids, five-six-seven years old, were enslaved (and) employed because they were small enough to climb up chimneys to sweep them out. And the death rate was enormous. Kids didn’t survive their twelfth or thirteenth year doing that, breathing all the soot. Till finally laws were passed governing the hours of work, forbidding employers to send kids up and ignite a chimney, which was one of the (jobs). Let me find that.
Peter Orlovsky: (That’s terrible!)
AG: Yeah. It was a really monstrous scene. You might check that. It’s very interesting. Because I thought this was some kind of (exaggeration). I didn’t realize how literal Blake’s pity was and how literal the problem was.
Let’s see what there is in this. [to Student] – Could you look that up in there on “The Chimney Sweeper”? “Chimney Sweeper”? under “Children”? – it’s kind of interesting anyway. Under (the heading) “Children” (in the index to Blake Prophet Against Empire) Erdman has “at asylum”, “bought and sold”, “freed”, “hungry”, “nourished for slaughter”, and “at school”)
“Chimney Sweeper” (page 132). Let’s see what he’s got about that. I read this the other day and it was striking. This is on page 132 of the Erdman, Prophet Against Empire:
“Popular movements did exist, but except for the almost subterranean strike of London blacksmiths for a shorter work day they were largely humanitarian or pious in orientation and in no immediate sense revolutionary or broadly directed. In 1788 philanthropists secured a piece of protective legislation for the ‘climbing boys’ which provided that a boy should not be apprenticed before he was eight, should be thoroughly washed once a week, and should not be compelled to go up and ignite a chimney. Blake’s “(The) Chimney Sweeper” deals with the first two points: ‘I was very young,'” and my “father sold me while yet my tongue/ Could scarcely cry ”weep!'” And children were literally sold into slavery as chimney sweepers. “In dreamland ‘thousands of sweepers’ ‘wash in the river’ and rise ‘naked & white.’ This was possibly written during agitation for the passage of the bill, which would be ‘a bright key’ like the one in the poem, opening the black coffins in which the boys were ‘lock’d up.’ Another Song of Innocence, “The Little Black Boy”, assists the philantropic agitation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was formed in 1787 and began soliciting subscriptions in November, 1788.”
Now, let’s see. When was the date of Songs of Innocence? Seventeen …
AG: … eighty-nine. Seventeen when? Have you got that there?
Student: Seventeen eighty-nine.
AG: Yeah. So actually the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (was) formed in 1787, subscriptions (began in)1788, and Blake’s “Chimney Sweeper” (was published in) 1789. Kind of (an) interesting actuality behind the poem for “The Little Black Boy” and for “The Chimney Sweeper”.
AG (to Student): Did you actually find anything in there? On this scene? Anything on “The Chimney Sweeper”? No, I guess not. About children, however, there are a few interesting remarks that Foster Damon has to make. “CHILDREN are the State of Innocence, still close to the Eternity from which they come ‘trailing clouds of glory’ (to quote Wordworth’s “Ode..”‘, which delighted Blake….” (Blake knew Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality“). “Little children always behold the Face of the Heavenly Father” is a little annotation to Berkeley‘s writing. ‘”That is Heaven,” said Blake to (Samuel) Palmer” his friend, “indicating a group of children playing outside for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Quoting the Bible – “Childless himself, he adored children, and not only the Linnell children adored him in return. His first published book, Songs of Innocence, was addressed to them.” (the children of John Linnell). He wrote to his friend (Trusler) “about his own designs – ‘”Particularly they have been Elucidated by Children, who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my Pictures than I ever hoped.'” So apparently he was very much aware of the reaction of little kids to his pictures and poems – his friends’ children. “The god who demands” a sacrifice of children “is Moloch. Children symbolize the fecundity of … imagination…. Jesus is surrounded” – this is all little quotes from other works of Blake – “by Beams of Glory in which are seen all around him Infants emanating from him; these represent the Eternal Births of Intellect from the divine Humanity.” “Charity, in the eighty-eighth illustration of Dante” by Blake, a late work, “is surrounded by five infants.” Charity. The virtue of charity is surrounded by infants.”
to be continued