Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

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...

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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 sobbing child. Thus comforted, Tom enjoys, in a dream, the light, laughter, and freedom denied him in real life. Significantly, the joy does not dissipate with the start of the day’s work, and Tom, secure in his innocence, remains “happy & warm.”

The last line, “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” is then a paradox. On the level of social protest, the moral is deliberately inadequate and ironic. Yet, it also asserts a fundamental truth, since duty implies not the obligation to climb the chimneys or to acquiesce in the social pattern but the need to retain as long as possible an innocence that allows its possessor to triumph over the restrictions of the material world.

“The Chimney Sweeper” juxtaposes two points of view: that of the poet, who attacks society by indirections, and that of the sweeper, who presents directly the mode of perception characteristic of innocence. The interplay of the two gives the poem its unique depth and complexity.

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Analysis