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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake

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What is the summary of "The Chimney Sweeper" from Songs of Experience by William Blake?

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This poem is written in iambic tetrameter and consists of three quatrains. The rhyme scheme is AABB CDCD EFEF.

The character of the poem is a chimney sweep who is crying and alone in the snow. He tells the reader that he has been sold by his parents "because [he] was happy upon the hearth". His parents are now in church praising God, while the boy wears the "clothes of death" and sings "songs of woe".

The themes in this poem are the forced child labor and the hypocrisy of Christianity. The boy is full of woe: he is living a miserable existence. Chimney sweeps were subject to cruel masters and often suffered from terrible diseases from inhaling soot or fell to their death. The boy's parents, however, are praying to "God and king," who the boy sees as having made the "heaven of misery".

This final line refers to the fact that there are people who benefit from his misery: his parents who sold him and his new owners who use him as merely a tool to make money. This line could be seen as a plea from the child for the church and the king to speak up on behalf of the chimney sweeps, to use their power to put an end to the practice of using very young children in this way. Ultimately the child feels forgotten, isolated, and doomed.

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Of course, with so many of Blake's poems, in this selection needs to be balanced against the partner poem that he writes. However, in this poem, we are presented with a young chimney sweeper who weeps in the snow whilst his parents are at church. He says they made him a sweep because he was happy, and now, because he still appears happy, they think they have not hurt him. They system of church and government, he says, rationalises his misery and creates a heaven for the ruling classes out of the misery of the poor.

Note how this poem completely undercuts the naive and innocent hope in God and heaven and a reward for all those who "do their duty" in "The Chimney Sweeper" from Songs of Innocence. This poem clearly identifies the structural nature of poverty with its last line that recognises how the structures of society "make a heaven of our misery." You might also want to think about the stark images that the chimney sweeper uses to describe his plight: his parents clothed him in "clothes of death" and taught him to sing "the notes of woe" as they enslave him to a terrible profession which exploits him and makes him worse than a slave.

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