Monday, June 13, 2011

Industrial Revolution

When looking at the differences between the Romantic authors and the Victorian authors, it is interesting to compare Blake’s two “The Chimney Sweeper” poems and Mayhew’s “A Boy Crossing-Sweeper”. Considering the poems were written decades apart, there are far more similarities than differences in the social and economic status of the poor during the two periods.

Both Blake’s works are written as poems with similar rhyming schemes. Blake writes, “And by came an Angel who had a bright key, / And he open’d the coffins and set them all free. / Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run / And wash in a river and shine in the Sun” (page 81, lines13-16). This imagery is more fanciful than Mayhew’s, and Blake’s two poems interact to weave together elements of both hope and despair. Mayhew’s work is written in a more narrative form, and the story told by the crossing-sweeper is extremely bleak. For example, the boy ends his story by saying, “It’s awful cold, and gives us chilblains on our feet; but we don’t mind it when we’re working, for we soon gets hot then” (page 513). The only positive portion of the boy’s story is his belief that his sister would have kept him if she hadn’t married. However, what little hope or positive feelings that exist in these works are overpowered by the reality of the situations.

Overall, the stories are shockingly similar. Both boys work in horrifying conditions with little pay and none of the love and fun children ought to experience. Both boys are aware of how close they are to starvation or disease. The crossing-sweeper earns so little that he feels compelled to beg in addition to shoveling snow or sweeping. While the industrial revolution may have increased the numbers of children living like these sweepers, it is interesting to note that similar jobs existed during both time periods. The cause of the social problems and economic disparity was not the industrial revolution. The increase in industry merely exacerbated a preexisting problem.

For this reason, it seems to me that the two time periods are more alike than they are different. Obviously, technology, demographics, and lifestyles were changed with the industrial revolution. However, the underlying social, economic, and political characteristics that made up England could not have changed too drastically if the images of England’s raggedy children remain the same. For example, Blake wrote, “They clothed me in the clothes of death, / And taught me to sing the notes of woe” (page 89, lines 7-8). These rags, hardships, and pain are echoed by Mayhew, who writes, “When we gets home at half-past three in the morning, whoever cries out ‘first wash’ has it. First of all we washes our feet, and we all uses the same water. . . . Very often the stones cuts our feet and makes them bleed; then we bind a bit of rag around them” (page 513). The image on page 511 further exemplifies the social conditions and problems observed by both Blake and Mayhew —and it could have been drawn in either time period.


  1. Sarah,

    Very good comparison of Blake's and Mayhew's texts, with insightful exploration of the two authors and their respective eras. One important distinction that I am not sure you observed, since you don't mention it here, is that Mayhew's work is not fiction. He went around London interviewing working class adults and children, and then reproduced their responses to his questions as a seamless narrative which is more a transcript than a story. It is interesting to consider the speakers' perspectives with that in mind, since the chimney sweepers speak as Blake imagined they would, while the crossings sweeper speaks in his own, real voice. Is one more "authentic" or meaningful than another?

  2. I like this comparison between the two writer's and the two periods. Times were certainly tough during those two periods to inspire such writing and such interviews. I have noticed, however, that I haven't seen the accounts of physical abuse of that time mentioned in the text. I guess physical abuse is a secondary thought to one who is hungry, cold, and homeless. Reading Roald Dahl's "Boy" makes it clear that physical abuse was a matter of fact at the turn of the century, and likely wasn't new at that time.