The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake

The Chimney Sweeper book cover
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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While presenting the nonjudgmental viewpoint of the child, Blake makes a passionate indictment of a society that exploits the weak and at the same time hypocritically uses moral platitudes about duty and goodness to further its selfish interests. Moreover, the reader is made aware of his own complicity in social evil when the sweeper addresses him directly with the words “your chimneys I sweep.”

Yet, the poem is more than social criticism. In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake contrasts the two states of being. Usually the condition of childhood, innocence is that state in which evil is not known; it is characterized by joy and love, is normally associated with the peaceful harmony of a pastoral background, and is often guarded by the presence of the good mother. Experience, on the other hand, brings awareness of evil; it is accompanied by feelings of outrage and hatred; and it finds its appropriate setting in the city. In Blake’s philosophy, passage through experience is necessary before entrance into a final state of vision, a higher innocence in which joy is regained but transformed by deeper spiritual awareness.

Although most poems in Songs of Innocence directly reflect the happiness of innocence, a few—notably, “The Chimney Sweeper,” “Holy Thursday,” and “The Little Black Boy”—place innocent children in a world of experience. Surrounded by evil, these children still retain their innocence, an innocence marked not so much by their own freedom from guilt as by their unawareness of the guilt of others.

The chimney sweeper is robbed of everything that should be the accompaniment of innocence. Yet, he bears no ill will, accepting without question both his lot and the moral clichés of a corrupt adult world. He transcends circumstances and in a sense re-creates his world. Deprived of his own mother, he becomes Tom’s protector as he soothes the...

(The entire section is 479 words.)