young boy in overalls and a hat walking with a chimney sweeping broom over his shoulder

The Chimney Sweeper

by William Blake
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In the last line, what is ironic in the speaker's assurance that the dutiful need not fear harm? Who has failed in their duty to him?

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In the context of this poem, the final line can be read in two ways due to the ambiguous "all" and "they." Little Tom, the chimney sweeper protagonist in this poem has just dreamed of an angel with a "bright key" who has come down to Earth and freed Tom and all his other young friends who are currently in service as chimney sweeps. The angel tells Tom that if he is a good boy, he will eventually go to heaven and have God for his father. As such, Tom himself feels warmed by this dream the next day, and feels that he does not have to fear any earthly harm, as it were, because if he is a "good boy" and does his appointed duties of chimney sweeping, he will eventually reach God, possibly because this line of dangerous work will ensure his early death.

This line can also be read as a caution to those who employ child chimney sweeps. If they did their duty properly, then the chimney sweeps would not have to fear harm. Unfortunately, given the frequently terrible conditions for child laborers at this time, for many the only hope of escape was to die in service as a result of employers failing to do their duty to their workers.

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Dramatic irony and irony of situation are powerful literary devices for poetry as they enable a poem to suggest meanings without stating them.  In "The Chimney Sweeper," William Blake makes very effective use of such irony.

Emotionally charged contrasts and images underscore the ironic understatement of this poem.  As the speaker describes little Tom Dacre, whose white hair was shaved as though he were a prisoner, and whose white skin turns black from the soot, the contrast between his life "in a coffin" and his dreams of "an Angel who had a bright key" the irony of the final lines becomes apparent:  Only by dying will Tom and the others ever be happy and warm; "doing his duty" of chimney sweeping will kill him and, then, he "need not fear harm."

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