Sunday, September 14, 2014

Black and White in Blake

Blake’s Songs of Innocence focuses on the innocence of childhood. The major focus seems to be on Christianity and children’s perspective on the world. Many of the poems signify a corruption from the adults who no longer see the world in the way a child does. The illustrations provide intricate and colorful visuals to supplement the poems. I view them as playing cards almost and I appreciate the use of color in them. It allows details to be seen more clearly and provides meanings that sometimes are not directly expressed in the text. I noticed the use of color within the actual text of the poems as well.

In “The Chimney Sweeper,” a little boy was sold into chimney sweeping when his mother died. He describes little Tom Dacre crying while getting his white hair shaved. It was the color of a lamb’s back, signifying the color white and also implying innocence with association to the Lamb of God. This was necessary so that the black soot from the chimneys didn’t cover his head. The sweeper boys are covered in black soot, implying that their innocence and childhood has been stolen from them. They were sold into this business, lacking the freeing experience of a normal childhood. An angel is described as coming down to open the black coffins of the sweepers. I view this as a metaphor for being trapped and also a signifier of an impending death. Chimney sweeping for children can lead to injury and health issues. When they were set free, they ran to wash themselves of the soot in the river and were once again “naked and white.” I believe this was the dream of Tom because it states that he awoke in the dark and rose with bags and brushes to work. However, he was happy and warm because he dreamt of something hopeful. Although miserable, he was able to find a light in the day. This signifies that the children sweepers are yearning for a brighter future, one that doesn’t leave them covered in black soot. The illustration of the poem shows a crowd of young boys being free, naked and white. The background shows darker images of boys, possibly those that have not yet had a chance to wash themselves of the soot. This shows the contrast between the two ways in which these boys are living, one that they are stuck in and the other that they crave.

I also see the use of black and white in “The Little Black Boy.” A little boy claims that although he was born black, his soul is as white as an angel. His mother taught him about God and how he lives in the rising sun, signifying that he gives light to the world. She also explained to him that he is black because of exposure from the sun. I see this as God giving him light, because he is the sun. The poem also states that the blackness is a cloud and that one day, God will vanish the clouds. The little black boy claims to the little English boy that “when I from black and he from white cloud free,…[I’ll] be like him and he will then love me.”  My interpretation of this poem is the black boy wanting to escape from the stigma of being black, and wanting to be white in God’s light. He wants to befriend this English boy because he wants to be like him. He views black as a bad thing, although his mother explained to him that it is not. The little black boy is hopeful that one day, he will be white and in the spirit of God. The illustration shows a the little English boy and the black boy standing side by side at the knees of God, once again showing the contrast between them. The English boy is actually touching God, while the black boy is standing father back, reaching his arm out as if he is yearning to be white and with God and of innocence.

The colors black and white are often associated as being the extremes of the color spectrum. White signifies peace, innocence and light, while black signifies evil, corruption and darkness. I believe that this can be evidenced in the details of “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Little Black Boy.”


  1. I really like the base of your paper, focusing on the two extremes black and white in the poems. However I feel that you stray away from a deep analysis of what the colors signify and emphasize a focus on the content instead. Your last paragraph when you bring back your focus to analyzing the colors is insightful and I'd like to see more analysis of this.

  2. Your first paragraph doesn't actually do anything - there's no argument, nor even any interesting details.

    Focusing on black and white is maybe too easy, especially when you're not really trying to tease out how we "should read the text differently" because of Blake's use of color. You're taking a straightforward, conventional meaning (which admittedly Blake does indulge in), and never do anythign further with it - how are you using color to read the text differently than we would without paying any attention to it at all?

    You don't pay any attention to the ways in which Blake reverses expectations about the use of color in "The Little Black Boy," for instance. In the one line that you quote "when I from black and he from white cloud free,…[I’ll] be like him and he will then love me" you ignore the use of white and pay attention only to the black - what does it mean that the little white boy is freed from whiteness even as the little black boy is freed from blackness? You stick so closely to the most direct interpretation that you go with it even when there is obviously a problem with that interpretation in the very line you quote.

    The most direct way of improving this essay would have been to focus more narrowly - rather than explain all of the obvious things going on with black & white in both poems, you might have worked at greater length with the more complex details - why, for instance, is there nothing about the use of other colors, nor of the role of blackness (which will protect the little white boy from the sun, that is, god).

    Next time, focus more on developing a detailed argument, and don't spend as much time picking low-hanging fruit. Maybe most importantly of all, pay attention to the details of the text which would complicate your argument, not just those that go along with it.

    Rina says much the same thing, by pointing out that you focus on the content rather than the argument...