The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake

The Chimney Sweeper book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What is the theme of the poem ''The Chimney Sweeper''?

Expert Answers info

Harrison Murray, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseTeacher (K-12)

bookM.A. from Clemson University

calendarEducator since 2019

write1,336 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Social Sciences, and History

One theme of "The Chimney Sweeper" by William Blake is that even the innocents in life will suffer.

In this poem, the speaker's mother died while he was "very young." After this, he was sold by his father, and he notes that his speech was still so underdeveloped that he could only call out "'weep" instead of the blended "sw" necessary in "sweep" that comes with age and experience in language. This is especially poignant as it directs the reader to the innocence of the child, which is reflected in his toddler-like speech.

The speaker's friend Tom had his head shaven in order to do the work of chimney sweeping, and it made him cry. The speaker tries to encourage him, and that night Tom has a dream. In this dream, the little chimney sweepers are "locked up in coffins of black," symbolizing both the death toll of this cruel work on young children and the black and coffin-like chimneys that they are forced to sweep clean. This dream is the only place where the children experience joy in the poem, and when Tom and the speaker awake, they must return to the dangerous labor.

The poem ends with verbal irony as the speaker notes that if the kids do their "duty, they need not fear harm." Of course, much harm did befall the young chimney sweepers, but in the speaker's innocence, he cannot see the truth. This makes the theme of suffering even more heartbreaking.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2006

write16,149 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

William Blake's poignant poem of the poor, innocent little boys made to climb through chimneys and clean them to the point that their bodies become deformed as they grow and their lungs fill with the soot, points to the horrific exploitation of children as its theme.

So pitiful is the life of these little chimney sweeps that their only solace is in the hopes of dreams and of death.

And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

For the new chimney sweeper, little Tom goes to sleep, dreaming of a new life after death that will console him for the terrible deprivations he suffers in his life. Thus, Blake subtlely exposes the brutal conditions under which these children are exploited as the innocent retains hope, 

Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm

"The Chimney Sweeper" exposes the cruel injustice of a society that places commercial value over human value with its theme of the inhumane treatment of the little boys who are chimney sweepers.

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial