Child Labor: Pinsky on Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’

Sometimes I’m reminded how much better life is today than, say, 200 years ago.

It happened that the chimney sweep was scheduled to visit today. A cheerful professional in his 40s, he ran his brushes up and down, from inside and out, and was gone in 45 minutes.

Yesterday, former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky published a short piece on Slate surrounding William Blake’s two poems entitled ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. Pinsky’s title won’t seem understated, but it is: ‘A Perfect Discomfit: William Blake’s two poems … make art by keeping us uncomfortable’.

Uncomfortable, as in horrified. The sale of small – physically and in age – children for work as chimney sweeps was accepted practice into Dickens time a couple of generations later.

These poems and Pinsky’s remarks will reward a close reading. Both poems are works of art; both will make you uncomfortable – profoundly; and Pinsky is a fine poet commenting on a great one.

I must confess that Blake had not been a favorite of mine. Then, I went to a Greg Brown concert where I grabbed a bunch of his CDs. Among them was his 1986 album, ‘Songs of Innocence & Experience’ in which he sets 16 Blake poems to music. It was Brown who introduced me to ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from ‘Songs of Innocence’. After many listenings over a decade, it has lost none of its power.

Do read the Pinsky piece. And do reread the last two verses of the two poems a couple of times.

Yes, things have gotten better over the past 200 years. No more filthy children dressed in black begging to climb your roof to clean your chimney. But we still have a long way to go.