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Poem Analysis: “We Wear the Mask” and “The Chimney Sweeper.”
We are in front of two poets of entirely different extractions. Both men lived lives remarkably different from each other and had a myriad of experiences that are difficult to intertwine and relate.
However, there is something about both authors than can serve to connect them; both struggled from recognition yet finally got the praises they deserved. To Blake, a man with a handful of traits, and artistic inclinations it proved hard to gain mainstream recognition for his works. The same happened to Dunbar, who had to struggle against racial prejudice to finally be able to gather the critics’ acceptance. After reading both poems, we have found a link that would allow us establishing parallels between such dissimilar authors; the link is social criticism.
Social criticism proves an important theme in both poems. On one hand, Dunbar criticizes the dominant white society that forces African-Americans to smile while their history has been nothing but full of pain and sorrow. On the other, Blake, a romantic; criticizes the Industrial Revolution and all the situations it had caused, such as child labor; poverty, and squalor.
In this essay, we aim to compare and contrast the themes found in both poems. We shall do a separate analysis of each poem, concerning their subjects; cultural traditions, and historical background as to provide a thorough analysis of the writing pieces. In the end, we shall compare and contrast the issues found in each poem.
THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER ANALYSIS
Social Criticism in the Chimney Sweeper. The first line of the poem gives us an idea of the situation the character lives “When my mother died I was very young, / And my father sold me while yet my tongue / Could scarcely cry” (Blake 1-3). This shows us a situation of semi-forced child labor. The issue of the boy being sold is of capital importance here because it was a much used practiced around England. If parents could not care for their sons, they often sold them, so they learned a trade with another tradesman. Blake was an eccentric man and a scholar. He was capable of describing a gloomy atmosphere of despair in just a few phrases (Damon 2).
By mentioning the issue of child labor, the poet addresses a sensitive subject in everybody’s minds. Every single person likes progress, but they often feel disgusted by how humans achieve growth. That is one of the subjects Blake tries to highlight in his poem, how progress costs a hefty price, and people turn their backs to the other’s suffering. Most people decide to turn their backs on the other half as long as they keep on working to keep things the way they are.
Historical Background to the Poem. Although the date of the poem is never specified, we know the action takes place during the Industrial Revolution. Industrial Revolution turned England into an economic power and permitted many people to overcome the economic disparities they suffered. To others, that was not the case, what should have brought a better life, did not. Workers faced brutal conditions, and they barely lived on the wages they received (Saylor Foundation 2). The poem recounts the struggle kids met working under those conditions. Industrialization served its purpose, but the lives of a substantial amount of children were forever scarred by the evils of a world that was not shaped for them.
Symbols in the Poem. In the poem, we have found two key symbols: The color black, and the dream. The first relates to the ominous nature of the children’s work. The coffin-like place that can be the interior of a chimney. Dark becomes the ever-present color in their lives. They live in a dark place; they work in a dark place, and they are covered in black soot all the time. Their lives are dark, and the only moment they have to escape their fate is by dreaming.
This takes us to the other symbol; the dream. “And by came an Angel who had a bright key, And he opened the coffins & set them all free; / Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run, / And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.” (Blake 13-16). The only moment they have to be kids is when they are dreaming; that is why their reveries relate to all they have left behind. They have changed their childhood for money, and it still is not enough
WE WEAR A MASK ANALYSIS
Social Criticism in the poem. The poem is clearly a protest poem. In the same way, Dunbar decided to follow the African-American oral traditions of protest songs to depict the issues faced after the abolition. Dunbar follows the African tradition of encoding messages within his poetry. His work is not directly vindictive, but it reeks of protest. This coding also implied that despite the abolition, Dunbar still felt that it was dangerous to speak plainly about the issue of discrimination black citizens faced even though they were now free. In the same way, we can see in Dunbar’s poem a sense of longing as he intends to depict the lives of the African-Americans in the south although he did not live it (Gwynn 441).
In a strict sense, they were no longer slaves but they were not free, they were still subject to the hatred and separation of the white population who saw them as a threat instead of equals. The mask Dunbar speaks of says it all. It speaks of concealment; it speaks of difference. “Why should the world be over-wise,/ In counting all our tears and sighs? / Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask.” (Dunbar 6-9)
Historical Background to the Poem. Dunbar was the child of a couple of former slaves. It is likely that situation had marked him deeply; for the transition from slavery to freedom was not easy and many now-free slaves had a hard time asserting their freedom and understanding how the world around them worked. However, the most difficult part of the African-Americans during the reconstruction era was finding and securing a job. Freedom would be of no use without means of subsistence. Many slaves worked for their owners and those owners still considered them slaves, although they paid them a little compensation (van Zelm 4). To individuals such as Dunbar, securing a job writing, or even attending to college was a dream that did not always occur.
Symbols in the Poem. We have found two key symbols in the poem: the smile and the mask. The first relates to the face most African-Americans have to put when someone speaks about abolition as if they were given a gift, instead of the righteous retribution they deserved for the centuries of slavery. People expect African-Americans smile and be grateful for receiving freedom, but freedom is not a gift; it is a right. When Dunbar writes “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries / To thee from tortured souls arise. / We sing, but oh the clay is vile” (Dunbar 10-12) he is trying to tell that the happiness of freedom is also laced with the bitterness of the long memories of slavery. It is impossible to forget slavery, and although they “sing” praises to freedom, they never forget all the slaves who died unable to be free as they desired.
In the same way, we have the mask. The mask means concealment. However, who are they concealing from? It seems they are concealing from the white population, as they need to appear strong not to be damaged anymore. They need to stand strong and united as a sign of their identity. That is why “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— /This debt we pay to human guile; / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,” (Dunbar 1-4). The mask hides their cheeks so they would not see them show their grief, allowing them to stay strong in a world that did not want them there; in a world that was outright against their inclusion.
We have shown how social criticism is what unites both poems. Despite their different backgrounds, both poets were able to convey a sense of social need that made their poems more than mere cries for help. Both poems served to raise awareness on issues people mostly do not see. Both depictions obey the same needs; both poets wrote their pieces based on the need of telling something. However, these poems escape mere “telling”, as their stories are more than just a recollection. Their poems are experiences; experiences of how those we overlook live, and the struggles they face.
Blake, W. “The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172910>.
Damon, S. A Blake Dictionary; the Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Providence: Brown UP, 1965. Print
Dunbar, P. “We Wear the Mask.” Poetry Foundation. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173467>.
Gwynn, R. S. Literature: A Pocket Anthology. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.
“The Industrial Revolution and the Romantic Spirit.” The Saylor Foundation. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <http://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ENGL203-Subunit-3.1.3-Industrial-Revolution-and-the-Romantic-Spirit-FINAL1.pdf>.
Van Zelm, A,G. “Hope Within a Wilderness of Suffering: The Transition from Slavery to Freedom During the Civil War and Reconstruction in Tennessee.” Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <http://www.tn4me.org/pdf/TransitionfromSlaverytoFreedom.pdf>.
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