Blake and Wollstonecraft: The Problem of Poverty and Salvation

For this blog post, I wanted to explore William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” from “Songs of Innocence” by comparing it to Mary Wollstonecraft’s views on the poor. “The Longman Anthology” mentions that Blake admired Wollstonecraft and that both were part of the same group of “artists and religious dissenters joined by progressive politics and support of the French Revolution” (Perspectives 171). Both rejected the way the poor were treated, but they approached the issue in different, and perhaps conflicting, ways.

In “The Chimney Sweeper,” Blake writes through the eyes of a young boy who works cleaning people’s chimneys. Part of an industry of exploitation and toil, Blake makes no attempt to cover up the harshness of his situation: the boy was sold by his father before he could speak, sleeps in soot, and works with other crying children (Lines 1-4). After quickly establishing the impoverished life of these children, the majority of the poem dives into young Tom Dacre’s dream, where he saw “thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, / Were all of them locked up in coffins of black” (Lines 11-12). These coffins can be interpreted as the early deaths that often followed these young children who were forced to work in extremely dangerous and hazardous places (the Notes in the back of the Penguin edition notes that boys usually died of skin cancer from the heat at a young age). This fate, of just being another anonymous Dick, Joe, or Ned in a line of dead bodies, is inescapable for the poor children with no means to change their social mobility or place in life. 

An angel then appears in the dream to set them all free, reminding the boy that “if they all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (Line 24). This echoes the sentiment that Wollstonecraft fights against, that the poor will reach salvation after a life of toil, and must suffer through “the will of Heaven” (Perspectives 129). Blake believes that this indoctrination from the Church is just a way to force these children into a life of submission, telling them they will be rewarded for their “duty” after they die. These children take solace in religion, which is an elusive, far-away ‘reward’ to their current life. Wollstonecraft directly ties into the rejection of this fantasy, claiming that “it is, Sir, possible to render the poor happier in this world […] They have a right to more comfort than they at present enjoy; and more comfort might be afforded to them, without encroaching on the pleasures of the rich” (Perspectives 129). What stands out to me is her focus on “in this world,” and how they must move away from this ‘salvation solution.’

However, Wollstonecraft seems to be coming at this issue of poverty from a middle class point of view, stating that humanity should get rid of the system of inheritance and allow for fluctuating wealth among members of a family. However, does this inheritance-based approach really help the children like the one in Blake’s poem who’s “mother died when I was very young, / And my father sold me” (Lines 1-2)? How does Wollstonecraft’s approach help those of the lowest class, with no property or wealth of their own? Both push back against the popular idea that the poor will be compensated in heaven and therefore do not need to be helped now, but both don’t really provide a truly concrete answer on how to help. 

One thought on “Blake and Wollstonecraft: The Problem of Poverty and Salvation”

  1. I love the poem you chose! It’s interesting about how the poem talks about the working class and religion as they will be “rewarded.” This theme of being blessed in the afterlife because you are poor is one that is commonly seen in the Bible, especially Luke 6:20 that states “’Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’” When reading this poem, I saw it as hopeless because to get out of their current situation they would need to change society and wages as a whole. Blake draws out this need for change while showing what the short-term solution for the children is, it is a hopeful but sad one. He seems to ask the children to accept their poverty.

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