What is the subject of poem "The Chimney Sweeper"?

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amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem is a harsh and justifiable critique of child labor. During Blake's lifetime, children were often used to climb through the flues in order to sweep the chimneys out. Boys as young as four years old were trained to do this. This was, of course, very dangerous. Children could be injured and even killed as a result of burns, cancer, and suffocation. 

In the poem's first stanza, the child is so young he can not yet say "sweep." He can only say "weep" which is tragically fitting since it resembles crying. The sound is also evocative of a baby bird crying for food or for its mother. This underscores how vulnerable these children are. 

The speaker of the poem tells us about one such child, Tom Dacre. Some child sweeps would also get stuck in the chimneys. Those that come out would be soot-stained and could have inflamed eyes. Tom has a nightmare about other sweeps stuck in black coffins. The experience of being stuck in the chimney is compared to that of being in a coffin. 

Then Tom dreams of an angel coming to rescue them all. He imagines them being free on a green plain. This symbolizes a freedom in life, to run and play as children should. Then he pictures them rising upon clouds, perhaps a reference to the heavenly afterlife. A more morbid interpretation of these dreams is that the only escape for the child worker is through death and dreams.