Voices of Earlier English: William Blake's Chimney Sweeper

This one is much more intricately speculative. It is a performance inspired by philological imagination, not just the result of looking at data. But it felt right to do this with this poet and this text in particular.

Late 18th century non-standard London English. Non-rhotic. The speaker is accustomed to reciting in a more standard fashion. But his attitude toward the topic of the text, combined with his own linguistic background, is triggering uneven phonological input from the dialect of the city's working poor, which is his native vernacular. (H-dropping, whine/wine merger, innovative diphthongizations, /ł/ vocalization, fluctuating line/loin merger, sporadic opening of initial /v/ to [ʋ].)

The Chimney Sweeper (p. 1789)
By William Blake

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.

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, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & 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 & 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 & 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 & never want joy.

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


William Blake came from rather humble roots. He had little formal education and was largely taught self-taught with his mother's encouragement and help.

There is a scattering of work containing speculations about Blake's dialect of English, such as G. E. Bentley Jr's Blake's Pronunciation, as well as the relevant chapters of Margaret Anne Hood's Voice of Song: A Prosodic and Phonological Approach to William Blake. Unfortunately it is all quite inept work that fetishizes rhyme in unacceptable ways. Hood and Bentley naively assume that rhyming practice always reflects somebody's living speech. This assumption may be valid for certain genres in certain contexts, like Elizabethan theater or, to a degree, the Sanqu verse of the Yuan Dynasty. But it is not some universal. It was certainly not true for Blake, whose rhyme aesthetic was acquired from reading older literature. The rhymes of Shakespeare and Milton were available to him regardless of whether they remained (or ever were) exact rhymes with identical syllabic nuclei. Blake's rhymes of the type symmetry/eye rely on literary precedent, not living speech, and are not a reflection of "cockney" anymore than E. A. Poe's melody/eye. It hardly matters that such rhymes had not been aurally perceptible for well over a century. Many of Blake's other rhymes like halter/water, for which Shakespeare's verse offers an exact precedent, need not reflect anything to do with pronunciation. Rhymes of the type scorn/dawn are proof only that Blake was influenced by non-rhotic pronunciation, which is a trivial point since non-rhotic rhymes are increasingly common in Southern English poets from the 1770s onwards.

The inexact rhymes of his verse are for the most part not out of keeping with the versification norms of 18th century English. There are only a handful (breathes/sheaves is the best candidate) that might be construed as betraying dialect phonology. But Blake's use of rhymes with neither phonetic identity nor literary precedent, such as milk/suck means that something else might be going on. Blake did not in any sense write "in dialect." He wrote the literary English that he acquired by voracious autodidactic reading, possibly with very occasional unorthodox rhymes inspired by his vernacular. The common characterizations of him as a "Cockney poet" are inaccurate and unhelpful.

But the question of what kind of accent he spoke with, and what kind of accents he read verse aloud in, is worth asking though it cannot be definitively answered. He associated for a lot of his life with people who would have spoken what had by then become the "vulgar" sociolect of the London working poor. His mother, judging by her one surviving sample of writing, seems to have spoken it or something similar. And no boarding school had ever beaten him into presentability, phonological or otherwise.

For most of the history of Modern English, non-standard London speech was simply a non-standard dialect like any other. In the mid 18th century, amid the class insecurities precipitated by increased social mobility, an obsession with propriety and gentility in language (as in all other things) led to the diabolization and widespread caricature of the speech of London's working poor. If Blake was in the habit of giving recitations, he would have usually tried to do so in a quasi-standard accent, at least with some audiences. But with other audiences, he would have let more elements of the lower sociolect emerge. In situations like that, it's not uncommon for the two target varieties to operate simultaneously in competition with one another, with the speaker veering between the two. 

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