A comparison of The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake & Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song by Fiona Farrell

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The poems “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake and “Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” by Fiona Farrell are both protest poems with both poets trying to make their objections about matters which have affected them. William Blake was an English pre 20th century English poet. In “The Chimney Sweeper” William Blake protests about the use of children to clean chimneys, in his poem he strongly disapproves of the church’s support for child labour. Blake often viewed the church as oppressors rather than as an institution for religious guidance. His whole poem is about innocence and hope versus harsh reality.

The theme in Blake’s poem however is less explicit compared to “Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” which is more straight to the point with its rhythm which makes it quicker and easier to read. Blake was also viewed as a rebel as he admired the French revolution which involved the removal of the king and queen, this is because he believed in a more democratic way of ruling. Therefore it is not surprising that he has chosen this subject to write about. Fiona Farrell is a contemporary poet whose whole poem was based on the theme of freedom from the tyranny of the rich. At the beginning of the poem Fiona uses an authentic 19th century ship’s record which lists Charlotte O’ Neil’s name as proof that she was a real domestic servant on her way to seek safe haven in New Zealand. In her poem “Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” the speaker protests against her oppressor, who keeps Charlotte, as a domestic servant.

“My father sold me while yet my tongue

could scarcely cry

‘Weep weep weep weep’ ”

At the beginning of the poem a chimney sweeper, using direct speech, is explaining that he was so young when his mother died and his father sold him that he could barely speak. This opening is very important in the poem as it opens with an enormous sad atmosphere with the premature death of the boy’s mother and the cries of the boy ” ‘weep weep weep weep’ ” We can imagine him crying and it instantly makes us identify with his fear and sadness.

“There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,

That curled like a lambs back was shaved,”

Here Blake uses a simile which gives the readers the impression that Tom’s hair is blond like that of a lamb’s back. The blond hair suggests the innocence of the boy whilst the lamb itself is a symbol of gods love’s and support. Lambs also symbolise vulnerability and sacrifice in the bible.

“so I said:

‘Hush Tom, never mind it, for when your head’s bare,

You know the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’ ”

Here the speaker who starts speaking to Tom tries to comfort him as he suggests that the soot from the chimneys cannot spoil Toms white hair which symbolises purity, this tells Tom that he is too pure and innocent and nothing can make him impure.

“As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight:

That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack,

Were all of them locked up in coffins of black”

In this verse Tom is having a dream where he sees thousands of sweepers locked up in coffins of black. The “coffins of black” are a symbol for the chimneys. This line is also very important because Blake is trying to tell the readers that all chimney sweepers are trapped forever in misery which is the black soot of their job. Many sweepers died in the chimneys of suffocation.

“…by came an angel who had a bright key,

And he opened all the coffins & set them all free.”

In this verse we are told that Tom sees an angel who opened all the coffins and released them this suggests that Tom dreams of becoming free and that one day the bright key which represents freedom will set him free from slavery. It might also mean that he will be resurrected after death, so it is a bit frightening.

“Then down a green plain leaping, laughing they run,

And wash in a river and shine in the sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,

They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind,”

These 4 lines tell us that Tom dreams of playing which he can never do as a chimney sweeper. The naked and white bodies again reinforces Bakes link of the chimney sweepers with purity and innocence, because white is considered a pure colour, and naked is thought to be simple and innocent like a baby, so Blake’s trying to tell the readers that the chimney sweepers are not only pure but also simple like children.

“And the angel told Tom if he’d be a good boy,

He’d have God for his father and never want joy.”

In Tom’s dream the angel tells him that if he does as he is told then he will be rewarded by god. Good could mean obedient or self sacrificing. This is bitterly ironical as the angel who has set them free should be telling Tom to become more rebellious, instead he is telling him to do as he is told which would mean for Tom to endure the hardship of being a chimney sweeper. These two lines in the poem are important as it shows Blake’s view of god and angels as having a bad side as well as a good side.

“And so Tom awoke, and we rose in the dark,

And got with our bags and brushes to work.”

Now Tom has awoke he has got up and gone to work because he believes in what the angel has told him so he gets on with what he is told to do. By these two lines in the poem Blake is trying to suggest to the readers that in order for the chimney sweepers to become free they need to be dead.

” Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm

So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”

Now as Tom does his work he thinks that if he does what he is told then he does not need to be afraid.

In “Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” the story’s ideology is completely different and is more defiant and triumphant.

“You rang your bell and I answered.

I polished your parquet floor.

I scraped out your grate

And I washed your plate

And I scrubbed until my hands were raw.”

The poem starts in the past tense with the slave explaining the jobs she does.

Fiona Farrell also uses rhyme at the end of alternate lines. This creates the musical rhythm that Fiona Farrell wants.

“You lay on a silken pillow.

I lay on an attic cot.

That’s the way you said it should be, you said.

That’s the poor girl’s lot.”

Now the poems ideology is being revealed as defiant and challenging to her oppressor. The first and second stanzas in the poem “Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” Charlotte tells the readers what she did for her master, the third stanza sees Charlotte O’ Neil express her anger, this is when she begins to become rebellious and defiant.

“You dined at eight

And slept till late.

I emptied your chamber pot.

The poor deserves the gate”

Towards the end however the tense changes to the future with hope and optimism as “Charlotte O’ Neil’s becomes Triumphant.

At this point of the poem Charlotte is using a sneering tone.

“But I’ll never say ‘sir’

Or ‘thank you ma’am

And “I’ll never curtsey more”

In the fourth and fifth stanzas Charlotte O’ Neil starts to talk about the future and hope as she stands up to her oppressor.

Charlotte expresses her views and lot of emotions in her poem. We feel sympathy for her is also used a lot in the poem along even though there is a rebellious mood. These three lines are also used to show Charlotte’s sheer anger at her oppressor. From this point onwards the poem is in the future tense.

“You can bake your bread

And make your bed

And answer your own front door”

Now Charlotte is basically telling her oppressor that he can do all the things she used to.

“………I won’t be there any more.

And I’ll eat when I please

And I’ll sleep where I please”

Now Charlotte is basically telling her oppressor that she will no longer tolerate his oppression and that she will do what she wants.

“and you can open your own front door.”

Here she is basically saying good bye and good riddance. This line is on its own to create a final impact on the reader. It’s as if she’s slamming the door shut on the past.

Since both poems are protest poems the poets use lots of different writing techniques to grab the attention of the readers so they understand the poet’s point of view.

In this poem William Blake uses lots of techniques to achieve effects which capture the reader’s attention. A lot of the poem contains childish rhymes which Blake uses to preserve the innocence of the poem and replicate a little boy’s voice which gives it an innocent atmosphere that Blake wants to achieve. An example of this in the poem is:

“Jack ” and “Black” ‘Run’ and ‘Sun”

There is a bitter irony in the Blake poem as he says

“And the angel told Tom if he’d be a good boy,

He’d have a God for his father and never want joy.”

This is clearly the opposite to “Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” where Charlotte answers back and reminds her master that he has used the words of a hymn to oppress her. So both poems imply criticism of the church.

One of Blake’s most used writing techniques is his use of half rhymes.

“And so Tom awoke, and we rose in the dark,

And got with our bags & brushes to work.”

He uses half rhymes because it allows him to suggest a change in tone. He also uses pronouns e.g. “we” “their” and “they” to add confusion. It’s as if he’s using ‘they’ to mean us as well as the sweepers. This is a bit obscure as throughout the poem the only speaker has been the boy who tells us about Tom.

In addition Blake also uses assonance where he uses repeated double vowels sounds; this is used to builds up the rhythm of the poem and creates a poignant sound effect of the little boy crying.

” ‘Weep weep weep weep’ ”

The poem Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” consists of different parts some of which are in the past tense and have an angry tone, Fiona Farrell also like Blake uses repeated words in the poem but to force the readers to feel Charlotte O’ Neil’s anger, as well as that this Technique also creates rhythm in the poem. In the middle of the poem the tone changes and becomes more sneering.

Blake uses Speech marks in the poem this creates an effect where the readers feel closer to the narrator because we are given his actual words.

“so I said:

‘Hush Tom, never mind it, for when your head’s bare,

You know the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’ ”

Seeing as William Blake’s poem is a protest poem he needs to catch the reader’s imagination, and he does this by the heavy use of symbols, Blake uses symbols to convey a dream-like state where real items become changed into something else by the subconscious. .

“coffins of black,”

This is an example of one use of symbols in Blake’s poem; this particular use of symbol creates the image in the mind of the reader of a whole community of dead sweepers. The black also symbolises the black soot from the chimneys.

In conclusion “Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” uses anger to catch the reader’s attention, compared to William Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper” where the narrator is a young boy who captures the attention of the reader through the sheer sadness of the boy’s loss of his Mother before being sold by his own father when he was young.

Both poems are alike in the sense that of their viewpoints are on the bases of an unfair hierarchy where the people at the bottom of the hierarchy like Charlotte in “Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” and Tom Dacre in “The Chimney Sweeper” suffer miserable lives under the rule of people at the top of the hierarchy like Rich slave owners.

However Blake’s poem is structured differently compared to Fiona Farrell’s poem which has 5 stanzas and are all non regular unlike in the “The Chimney Sweeper” poem where Blake has chosen to construct his poem with regular stanzas. “Charlotte O’ Neil’s Song” also has an uneven verse construction and uses single lines. However Blake uses six stanzas. Both poems, though different, make their point about protest effectively.

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