‘Can I see anothers woe,/ And not be in sorrow too’: Sentimentalism of Blake and Dickens

Though Dickens has been accused of being pejoratively “sentimental,” (Kaplan 37) we should take into consideration what “sentimental” meant to Dickens and his contemporaries or the philosophical tradition that argues that the sentiments were inherently “moral.”(Kaplan 37)  According to Fred Kaplan, the eighteenth century writers who imposed moral value on “sentiment” were David Hume and Adam Smith.  Hume argues that “the ultimate ends of human actions can never…be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependence on the intellectual faculties….” (Kaplan 37)  Hume’s optimistic definition of human nature is complemented by Adam Smith who created the genial metaphor of the “internal…impartial spectator,” the “man within the breast,” a second self that we all possess, against whose altruistic and benevolent standards we judge our thoughts and actions. (Kaplan 37) Dickens, who inherits this tradition, by describing humiliated children, social outcasts and their cruel fate, provokes sorrow and anger towards social injustice.

This “sentimental” tradition can apply to the case of William Blake who, like Dickens, depicts people at the bottom of the social scale and arouses readers’ grief and wrath upon social evil and hypocrisy.  Blake and Dickens can be said to have the same interest which is not in accurately representing society but in creating a social world within their works that accurately embodies “the moral paradigms.” (Kaplan 59)  To represent their concern and anger, they both unnaturally amplify “the voice of the artist” substituting a personal vision for mimesis. (Kaplan 59)  In other words, they by substituting a secular text for what had once been the mission reserved for scripture, run the risk of compounding “the potential blasphemy and hybris.” (Kaplan 59)

To prove their “moral” sentimentalism, we will examine Dickens’ Bleak House and Blake’s “Chimney Sweeper” which will help us to understand how their sentiments are deeply related to morality.  First, let us turn to Jo, a crossing sweeper in Bleak House.   Next is a citation of a passage in which the state of Jo is described: “It must be a strange state to be like Jo!  To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and the corner of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows!  To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postman deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language – to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb!” (274)  Here Dickens describes Jo’s utter ignorance about reading and writing in a comical yet pathetic way and brings our attention to the result of a lack of education.

This condition also leads Jo to religious ignorance.  Though Jo admires the size of the edifice of “the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts,” he has no idea what it is all about. (274)  Jo’s ignorance symbolizes the fact that the Society, which tries to perform the mission of doing good to people abroad, never extends aid to Jo, however near its building may be to him.  Furthermore, Jo’s ignorance about the religion is also described as “[i]t must be very puzzling to see the good company going to the churches on Sundays, with their books in their hands.” (274)  It is noteworthy that “the great Cross of the summit of St. Paul’s Cathedral” (326) is degraded just as “the crowning of the great, confused city” in the eyes of Jo, which is “so far out of his reach.” (326)  Mark Spilka points out that “Dickens satirizes the senselessness and futility of contemporary faith.”(213)  Dickens’ satire is even more effective as it is mingled with moral compassion and sympathy for Jo.

A sharp attack on the established church is also delivered in “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.  A striking difference with Dickens’ depiction of Jo is that poems are narrated by a sweep so that we can share the same point of view with the victim and feel the same pain and sorrow: “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.”  It is likely that Blake’s contemporary readers also “weep” and “cry” in the bottom of their heart, as the sweep does.

Blake depicts not only the sweeps’ miserable lives but also a false picture of the promised afterlife in Tom’s dream of an angel.  In Tom’s dream, the sweeps begin “lock’d up in coffins of black.” Then “And by came an Angel who had a bright key,/ And he open’d 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.”  The angel of this poem is “unable or unwilling to alter the harsh facts of life of this world, only active in an idealistic afterlife.”(Marsh 111)  Thus we are faced by scandalous cruelty and injustice, and the religious propaganda that sustains injustice.  Blake urges us to change things and help the sweeps gain their freedom, to attack their father, employers, and the “angel”-Church.  When we pay attention to the ironic tone of the last line “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” our wrath towards the social injustice is aroused.

Next, let us turn to “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience.  Here is a citation of the first stanza: “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.”  Blake attacks the hypocrisy of the Church and also the parents’ collusion with it.  The parents don’t have to feel guilty because they are persuaded that their son will go to heaven.  They are grateful to the whole establishment, Church and state.  It is clear that Church, state and parents collude in “a hypocritical lie.”(Marsh 115)

Blake also concentrates on problems of understanding, which is crucial in social reform and improvement: “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 make up a heaven of our misery.”  The sweeps are ignorant because of a lack of education, therefore they can believe they are “happy” and can “dance & sing.”  In spite of this cruel fact, employers and parents “think they have done” them “no injury” thanks to the false system of religion and faith.  As Karl Marx identifies education as a crucial stage in a society’s progress towards equality, Blake brings our attention to the importance of education.

The sweeps’ lack of education is reminiscent of Jo in Bleak House.  Let us look at the scene in which Jo is compared with a drover’s dog: “He [A dog ] and Jo listen to the music, probably with much the same amount of animal satisfaction; likewise, as to awakened association, aspiration or regret, melancholy or joyful reference to things beyond the senses, they are probably upon a par.  But, otherwise, how far above the human listener is the brute!  Turn that dog’s descendants wild, like Jo, and in a very few years they will so degenerate that they will lose even their bark – but not their bite.” ( 275)  Here Dickens suggests as dogs will lose their “bark,” Jo lacks the ability to utter words loudly to resist the social evil.  However, it is also implied that Jo should have the potential for violence against social injustice by the word “bite,” though Jo himself never show any revolutionary power to the end.

In conclusion, both Blake and Dickens are sentimental in that “sentiment” means a radically “moral” feeling and they both try to arouse feelings such as anger, sorrow, and sympathy in readers and incite them to reform society.  This sentimentalism we can also find in their depiction of the deaths of victims.  Just after Jo’s death the narration continues: “Dead, your Majesty.  Dead, my lords and gentlemen.  Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order.  Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts.  And dying thus around us every day.”(705)  Dickens is attempting purposely to arouse his readers’ innate moral sentiments, reminding them that “the more emotionally sensitive they are to death the more morally attentive they will be to the values of life.” (Kaplan 50)  This is exactly the case with Jo.  It goes without saying that Blake’s depiction of the deaths of the sweeps has the same effect.

 

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles.  Bleak House (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971)

Kaplan, Fred.  Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature (Penguin: Princeton University Press, 1987)

Marsh, Nicolas.  William Blake: The Poems  (Houndmills: Palgrave: 2001)

Spilka, Mark.  Dickens and Kafka: a mutual interpretation (Gloucester: Indiana University Press, 1963)