Experience & Religion : William Blake & Jane Kenyon

The Chimney Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath.
And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death.
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy & dance & sing.
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.

-William Blake, from The Songs of Experience

In this short tale of abuse Blake gives us a terse bit of social and ecclesiastic criticism. The reader, drawn into the poem by the unattributed first three lines, is encountered by a “little black thing”, a child reduced to an object. The cry of “weep, weep” recounts the words of Jesus in Luke 23:28 (“Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children,”), an allusion further strengthened by the use of “woe”. His parents worship some warped Trinity, not God the Father, Son, and Spirit, but God, the Church, and the Government. But there’s defiance in this messianic child. The song they told him to sing was “sweep, sweep” to sell his services, but he cries out to the people to repent. Though he was stricken and afflicted yet he is happy and dances and sings. (Chimney Sweeper from the Songs of Innocence can be found here.)


Staying at Grandma’s

Sometimes they left me for the day
while they went — what does it matter
where — away. I sat and watched her work
the dough, then turn the white shape
yellow in a buttered bowl.

A coleus, wrong to my eye because its leaves
were red, was rooting on the sill
in a glass filled with water and azure
marbles. I loved to see the sun
pass through the blue.

“You know,” she’d say, turning
her straight and handsome back to me,
“that the body is the temple
of the Holy Ghost.”

The Holy Ghost, the oh, oh . . . the uh
oh, I thought, studying the toe of my new shoe,
and glad she wasn’t looking at me.

Soon I’d be back in school. No more mornings
at Grandma’s side while she swept the walk
or shook the dust mop by the neck.

If she loved me why did she say that
two women would be grinding at the mill,
that God would come out of the clouds
when they were least expecting him,
choose one to be with him in heaven
and leave the other there alone?

-Jane Kenyon

In a similar vein is Jane Kenyon’s poem about a girl abandoned for the summer at her overbearing grandmother’s. There’s menace in the lines describing the grandmother, it isn’t hard to see the frightened girl as the white dough turned yellow. The grandmother seems threatening, turning her “handsome” back on the girl, shaking the “neck” of the mop. It’s clear that the way the Holy Spirit has been presented to the girl that being his temple is a scary thing, “the oh, oh, the uh-oh”. The sense of exclusion culminates in the final stanza, when God himself arrives taking one woman, leaving the other behind.

These two poems taken together present real world religion warts and all, from over-zealous believers to hypocritical leeches, but both children are remarkably insightful in their understanding of the kingdom. The chimney sweeper is joyous despite being the suffering servant and the little girl knows better about love than the adults around her. These two poems taken together serve as a reminder that unless we become as little children we shall by no means enter the kingdom of God.

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