What literary devices are used in the first three stanzas of "The Chimney Sweeper"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A Romantic poet, whose visionary insights into the "warring contraries" of the human mind inspired many other poets and writers, William Blake explores the conflict between commercial values and human values in his "The Chimney Sweeper."

  • Imagery and Simile


This contrast of commercialism and humanity is indicated with Blake's use white and black imagery. Little Tom's innocence is connoted with the simile of his hair being "like a lamb's back," curly and white. Further, in the last line of stanza two, the experienced chimney sweeper consoles Tom with more black and white images, "You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair." And, again in the third stanza, there is black imagery in the last line with "the coffins of black."

  • Alliteration

Blake figuratively sweeps his readers into his poem with alliteration which moves the poetry lines swiftly. For example, in line 3 the repetition of "weep!" underscores the continual crying of the poor boys. Then, in the last line of the first stanza, Blake repeats the /s/ with "sweep, and in soot I sleep." And, again in the second  and third stanzas the /s/ is repeated  "shaved: so I said," / "the soot cannot spoil," and "a-sleeping," "sight," and "sleepers"; this repetition of the /s/ lends a hissing sound which mitigates the encouragement of the words to Tom, thus suggesting the contrast between reality and the dream.

  •  Rhyme and Rhythm

The use of a lyric poem with the rhyme scheme of aabb disguises the seriousness of the poem's theme. The imaginative power of the poem and its light rhyme and rhythm disguise the theme of the cruel exploitation of the innocent boys.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The following are some of the literary devices in "The Chimney Sweeper:"

flashback: Flashback is when a poet describes or narrates what happened before the main action of the poem begins. Blake starts his poem with the young chimney sweep remembering how he got into this situation: 

When my mother died I was very young,

And my father sold me while yet my tongue

irony: When the speaker narrates that he was sold as a chimney sweep before he could even say "sweep," he mispronounces the word as "'weep." Irony occurs when a character in a piece of literature unintentionally says something different from what he means. Here, the irony is that when the boy mispronounces "sweep" as "'weep," he unintentionally conveys the truth of his situation.

repetition: The repetition of "'weep" demonstrates the boy's literal act of being sent into the street to drum up business by offering his services, but it also works as a poetic device to emphasize the cruel nature of his situation: it is something to weep over, for he is being robbed of his childhood and will possibly die young, as many sweeps contracted cancer.

juxtaposition: Juxtaposition is putting together two contrasting ideas that the poet wishes to link. In this case, Blake juxtaposes the singsong nursery rhyme form to the horrible story of a young child sold to be a chimney sweep. This juxtaposition underscores the pathos or emotional pain of the child's situation.