“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake is a dramatic monologue, meaning the speaker of the poem is a specific persona the author embodies. In this case, the persona is that of a child laborer who works as a chimney sweeper.
The situation of the poem refers to the context. The titular chimney sweeper describes what his life is like as an impoverished orphan who must perform dangerous, dirty work out of necessity.
He describes his friend Tom, a fellow chimney sweeper, who cried when “they”—presumably, the employers—shaved his head. Tom also has a vision in which he believes the chimney sweepers will find peace in the afterlife. The speaker, likely steeled through experience, encourages Tom.
The bleak tone of the poem suggests that Blake’s intended audience was likely the public in London at the time. Blake wrote his poems during the Industrial Revolution when child labor was common, especially in the field of chimney sweeping. Children were often used because their small size allowed them to climb into the chimneys. Of course, this was a legitimately dangerous task, and many children were injured, while some died.
Blake criticizes the conditions in which these children worked in order to raise awareness among the people who were likely to pay for their services. Blake wrote several other poems that are critical of life at the time, including “London.”