England in the Late 18th Century: William Blake and The Issue of Child Labour
Through his poems, Blake aims to describe the tragic life of young chimney sweepers who were sold by their parents for very little money in an attempt to escape from incredible poverty.
William Blake is considered a Pre-Romantic poet of English Literature who was well-known for his dedication towards the political and social issues of his time. This is reflected in his books. His most important works are generally considered to be Songs of Innocence and Song of Experience, published in 1789 and 1794. In both Songs, there are two poems titled The Chimney Sweeper in which Blake deals with child labour. What lead him to discuss such a thorny and delicate issue?
Firstly, we have to look back at the historical context of 18th century England. The conditions in which these children worked were horrendous. They worked for around six to seven hours every day and started working when they were only just five years old. They had to be tiny, agile and thin to get into a chimney. For this reason, when they turned twelve, they weren’t able to do this job anymore. Of course, this was only if they even managed to reach the age of twelve, as they could easily fall ill and contract incurable diseases, like cancer, due to the lack of hygiene and the ashes they breathed in. In 1788, there was a small breakthrough thanks to the so-called Chimney Sweepers Act which decided that children should only start working at eight years of age, that they should be provided clothes at least once a year and that they should be washed at least once a week.
Therefore, Blake, through his poems, wanted to describe this terrible life of children, sold by their parents and essentially forced into working in horrible conditions.
The Songs represent the dualism between good and evil. In Innocence, Blake underlines man’s purity through his image as a child, since the child is considered to be a state akin to divinity.
In Experience, violence, obscurity and disillusionment prevail over man. In these poems, Blake uses the issue of child labour to emphasize such things.
Firstly, the poet criticizes society’s abuse of child labour, particularly that it is legitimized by the Church, who promise a reward for the children’s hard work. The main character, Tom Dacre, dreams about his reward: sun, water, and warmth in an unreal Heaven. There, all the children who died from breathing the toxic fumes can be released from their coffins and run naked and clean in the fields.
Then, his criticism is even bitterer and it is linked to words such as death, pain and poverty. Blake reveals his anger towards society’s indifference regarding the children’s exploitation.
Thankfully, nowadays the concept of childhood is nearer to what Blake wanted it to be: the most creative, inventive and innocent age in life. However, there are still places in the world where the problem of child labour remains. Reading these poems, written two centuries ago, might reignite a discussion concerning a topic that is not truly a matter belonging to the past, as some would believe.