What is the theme of the poem "The Chimney Sweeper" by William Blake?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of "The Chimney Sweeper" is the cruelty of life and society from the perspective of a child. As in much of Blake's more somber poetry, life and society are intermingled. The first line tells us that the speaker was very young when his mother died. We do not know what killed her, but the cruelty of her early death is directly connected with the speaker's fate, whether or not she died of natural causes or natural causes exacerbated by deprivation.

The theme of a cruel, miserable life is emphasized throughout by contrast with the poet's vision of paradise in the children's dreams. In the fourth stanza, an angel lets the sleeping children into this idyll, where the greenery, the sun and the river are in direct opposition to the grim, dark urban landscape they inhabit in their working hours.

Tom Dacre and the other children are too good for this cruel world. This is why the only way to preserve the pure whiteness of Tom's hair is to cut it off, so that it will not be contaminated by the filthy environment in which he is forced to exist. These dichotomies between the cruel, dark world of child labor and the beautiful world of the children and their dreams serve to highlight the theme of cruelty in the poem.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme or message Blake wishes to convey in this poem is that it is cruel to allow innocent children to be treated the way the chimney sweepers are.

As we learn from the poem, the chimney sweepers come from the ranks of children born into terrible circumstances who are "sold" at an early age to clean chimneys. They get none of the pleasures associated with childhood, such as a chance to play in nature and sunshine. Instead they have their heads shaved, work all the time, and live in soot. In the young narrator's dream, they are "locked up in coffins of black." The coffins represent both the dark, narrow chimneys where the young boys spend most of their days and the literal coffins in which they are buried when they die young.

The innocence of the chimney sweeper who believes that if he behaves he will "never want joy" contrasts with the reader's heartbreaking knowledge or experience that no matter how "good" he is, a chimney sweep will lead a life of misery. Blake is trying to arouse readers' emotions so that they won't turn away from and ignore the plight of these innocent children. He is saying that no child should have to live this way.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Like many of Blake's poems, this poem criticizes the treatment of children under the extremely lax child labor laws of the poet's time. It also has a religious theme, suggesting that the children in the poem look to God to protect them as they go about their business: "if all do their duty, they need not fear harm."

In this poem, however, Tom's dogged attachment to his dream of "the Angel who had a bright key" as a beacon of light in his dark world serves to elicit pathos in the reader. The child is able, to a certain extent, to maintain his innocence by clinging to the promise of God's love, but is it true that he "need not fear harm"? In reality, a child such as Tom should not dream of "thousands of sweepers," presumably his own age, "locked up in coffins of black." An association is drawn between Tom and Jesus, the lamb, in that his hair "which curled like a lamb's back" is shaved, his innocence symbolically taken away as he is forced too early into the world of work. Tom is "happy and warm" in this world because it is all he has recently known, but the lingering feeling we are left with as readers is that these children should not be put in this position to begin with.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When you first read The Chimney Sweeper, you see it is about children. Since it is about children, you would think it would be about the innocence of childhood. In reality the theme is about the loss of innocence. It is a sad tale of children, who have no childhood at all.

The child in the poem is sold by his father, after his mother dies, into chimney sweeping. He befriends Tom Dacre, a boy who is upset because he has to have his head shaved. The speaker of the poem, tries his best to comfort Tom. After they realize that life is going to turn out okay for them, they get up and go back to work.

The theme of this poem is all about the loss of innocence for children. When mother's died, father's were usually left without a choice. They had no way to care for their children. Some of them felt they had no choice, other than sell their children for work. It is a heartbreaking poem of children who have to not only deal with the death of a parent, but take on an adult role as well. It is also heartwarming that an angel appears to them in a dream and lets them know that everything is going to be alright. The children are comforted in the fact that there is someone looking out for them. It is a short poem, but has a big impact on what the meaning is.   

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial