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Robert Pinsky on the chimney hymns of Blake

By Harriet Staff

In this installment of his monthly “classic poem” feature, Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky examines two of William Blake’s poems, both called “The Chimney Sweeper.” One comes from the Romantic poet’s “Songs of Innocence,” and one from the “Songs of Experience.” Pinsky quotes Eliot— “Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry”—before refining that perspective:

The “unpleasantness of great poetry,” as exemplified by Blake, is rooted in a seductively beautiful process of unbalancing and disrupting. Great poetry gives us elaborately attractive constructions of architecture or music or landscape—while preventing us from settling comfortably into this new and engaging structure, cadence, or terrain. In his Songs of Innocence and Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, Blake achieves a binary, deceptively simple version of that splendid “unpleasantness.”

“Unpleasant” indeed. Here’s the musical, miserable beginning of “The Chimney Sweeper” from “Songs of Innocence”:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!’ ”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, September 14th, 2010 by Harriet Staff.