July 20, 2006

BLAKE'S "LONDON," IV, SWEEPS AND SOLDIERS


Caption: This fuzzy chicken would make a good chimney sweep but she wouldn't stay white very long.

This is the fourth post in a series about William Blake's poem "London" and how poets are often best social scientists. (If this is your first visit to Goat Rope, please scroll back to the last three posts.)

In the third stanza of “London,” Blake moves from the general to the specific in his indictment of injustice and of those who ignore or profit by it:

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.


Chimney sweeps were poor children, sometimes but not always orphans, who were sold into service to master sweeps at an early age, sometimes as young as four. They were compelled—by fire, pinpricks, pole prods or threats—to climb naked up chimneys, some of which were 9 inches wide or less. Often, they worked naked.

After only a little of this, their bodies were burned, cut, scraped and scarred. They typically suffered bone and spinal injuries and deformities as well as eye inflammations and respiratory infections and were particularly prone to cancer of the scrotum, assuming they weren’t killed or crippled from burns, falls, and/or suffocation. If they survived their time of service, the sweeps’ bodies were often ruined for any other kind of employment and they had no chance to learn any other marketable skills. (See Blake by Peter Ackroyd.)

Blake frequently writes of the sufferings of the sweeps. In this poem, he condemns the indifference of the Established Church to the sufferings of the poor. The phrase “Every blackning Church appalls” probably meant that this indifference covers the church with the kind of shroud that usually covers dead things, as in “pall bearer.”

Soldiers in the British army at that time were typically recruited from the poorest classes of society. Discipline could be brutal and routinely involved flogging with a cat-o-nine-tails. Officers came from the propertied classes and regarded the rank and file as property in this period.

As mentioned in a previous post, during Blake's lifetime, British soldiers fought and died in several imperial conflicts, including the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, and the wars of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic era. He believed that the sufferings of the soldiers in colonial ventures accused and condemned the wealthy elite who sent them to fight.

Probably the strongest image in the poem deals with their plight:

And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.


Whose walls would the blood of soldiers run down today?

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1 comment:

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