What is the main idea of “The Chimney Sweeper” poems by William Blake?

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rmhope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Blake wrote two poems entitled "The Chimney Sweeper." The first, a six-stanza poem with a dactylic rhythm, is included in Songs of Innocence. The second, a three-stanza poem in predominantly iambic rhythm, is part of Songs of Experience. One of William Blake's tenets is, "Without contraries is no progression." By studying both contrasting sides of an issue, one can arrive at the truth. The matched poems allow Blake to present "two contrary states of the human soul." 

The first version of "The Chimney Sweeper" is written entirely in first person from the point of view of a particularly cheerful and optimistic young sweep. Although his mother died when he was young and his father sold him into the dangerous and unpleasant profession of chimney sweeping, he encourages another sweep named Tom Dacre. Tom then has a dream of thousands of sweepers who were "lock'd up in coffins of black" who were freed by an angel and allowed to run out on a green plain in the sunshine and wash in a river. The angel tells Tom that if he's a good boy, he will "have God for his father & never want joy." The next morning Tom and the narrator rise early and go to work in a happy state, knowing that "they need not fear harm," presumably because God is watching over them. This is a surprisingly naive look at a heartbreakingly unjust plight for children to endure, yet it shows the soul's capability of finding something to be happy about even in the most miserable of circumstances.

The second version of "The Chimney Sweeper" is as dark as the first seems airy. In this poem, the narrator asks a sweep where his father and mother are. The sweep explains in cynical style that he was once happy and optimistic at home and even "among the winter's snow." His parents, seeing his cheery disposition, rewarded him by selling him into the chimney sweep trade. Even now he remains outwardly happy--he is known to "dance & sing"--so his parents go off to church and worship hypocritically believing "they have done ... no injury" to their son. In this way, they ignore the pain they have caused in their desire for material gain, and they are able "to praise God & his Priest & King" even as they "make up a heaven of our misery." This poem shows the soul's capability of recognizing hypocrisy in one's oppressors even while maintaining an outwardly compliant attitude. It is the perfect contrast to the first poem because it represents what the narrator sweep in the first poem might someday come to realize--once he has moved away from "innocence" and gained "experience."

iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Blake wrote two poems called "The Chimney Sweeper" for Songs of Innocence and of Experience. In the iteration of the poem in Songs of Innocence, we are treated to a childlike view of the chimney sweeper's lot in life, one that justifies a corrupt social hierarchy by asserting that those who "do their duty" (24) will go to Heaven. Conversely, in the version in Songs of Experience, Blake presents us with a chimney sweep abandoned by hypocritical parents who "'praise God and his Priest and King, / Who make up a heaven of our misery'" (11-12). The main idea of both poems is to illustrate the corrupt nature of a society that exploits human labor, but the way in which both poems come to this idea is different. The Experience version is overt in its dealing with corruption, as it's hard to miss Blake's blatantly critical tone. The Innocence poem, however, is more subtle; in it, the chimney sweepers are satisfied with their lot, as they have been convinced that performing their miserable duty will earn them eternal salvation. In communicating this notion, Blake subtly suggests that society has twisted religion in order to oppress the working classes, thus making the main idea of this poem more indirect than the Experience poem.