Social Criticism in Blake's Chimney Sweeper and Hayden's Monet's Waterlilies
The late eighteenth century in England children as young as five years of age were bought, sold, and traded into a life that was completely at the mercy of their owner. These were children without a childhood. Almost two hundred years later America followed suit with this behavior as black Americans were forced to sit in the back of buses, use separate facilities, and attend different schools. The corruption of these contrasting societies is vividly depicted in William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" and Robert Hayden's "Monet's Waterlilies", respectively. Both poems offer a clear understanding of how society can negatively shape a being with false stereotypes. Both poets observed how humans were stripped of their civil, social, and personal rights in societies that were flourishing with life. Hayden and Blake were not only poets, but they were also activists. Each wrote about societies that were plagued by ignorance and hypocrisy, which led to the deterioration of human nature.
William Blake had a "sense of social outrage" (Davis 56) that was apparent through much of his poetry. In his 1789 poem "The Chimney Sweeper", Blake criticizes a society in which children are treated as slaves. Sold by their parents at ridiculously young ages to the chimney sweeping organization, these children entered a life of torment and misery. Being forced to work in such tight and dangerous conditions led chimney sweeps to illness, deformities, and finally their death. A twelve year old boy "at the end of his career" (Ackroyd 125) was best described by a social reformer as, "...a cripple on crutches, hardly three feet seven inches in stature...His hair felt a hog's bristles, and his head like a warm cinder...He repeats the Lord's prayer" (qtd in Ackroyd 125). It is this insightful observation about religion that spurred Blake's view of child labor in London.
Throughout his poem, he makes reference to biblical figures such as an Angel and God the Father. He uses these sacred terms to show the level of hypocrisy that was imbedded within both the Church and State at that time. For example, in lines twelve through fourteen he writes,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free...
This Angelic character is the first mention of religion in "The Chimney Sweeper", and he is portrayed as the heroic figure. The reader would assume that the sweepers shall be saved! However, Blake goes on to say,
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father, and never want joy (19-20).
In essence Blake is stating that these boys will go to heaven if they are good little sweepers. This is apparent in his last line, which states,
So if all do their duty they not fear harm.