How To Be A Good Boy

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, and in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, –
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened 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.

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

I’m not normally one to mark anniversaries, but the 250th anniverary of the birth of William Blake, one of my literary heroes, seems worth making an exception. In London, Blake, more than a century before Freud’s image of the super-ego, visualises the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ that constrain our desire and force us to conform to the demands of the state and its celestial silent business partner.

The Chimney Sweeper, above, is, among other things, a dramatisation of how those manacles are forged from the moment of birth: the child’s poverty and slave labour have forced him to rationalize the denial of freedom and happiness by internalising the demands of authority through dutiful acceptance: ‘So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep’ has a flippant matter-of-fact quality to it, as though the child were only dimly conscious of the awfulness of his conditions.

He resorts to darkly comic mental contortions to console his fellow sweepers: better to have your hair shaved off than get it dirty.

From the dark reality of the sweeper’s dreams -‘coffins of black’- ‘good’ authority figures come forth: the negative image of the forces that hold the child in slavery, and from these he learns to be a good boy, to accept his punishments, do his duty.

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