Last Updated September 13, 2023.
With his depictions of chimney sweepers, Blake sought to call attention to the practice of employing society’s most vulnerable people in such horrendous jobs. Like other Romantic-era poets, Blake considered childhood a time of purity and wonder. He believed that children have a natural connection to the spiritual and imaginative realms, unburdened by the constraints of adulthood. Therefore, “The Chimney Sweeper” serves as a critique of the corrupting influences of society and the loss of innocence through the exploitation of child labor.
Symbolism and imagery play an important role in “The Chimney Sweeper.” In Songs of Innocence, the angelic figure symbolizes hope and salvation for the young chimney sweepers, contrasting their bleak reality with the possibility of a brighter future. Conversely, in Songs of Experience, the “clothes of death” and “notes of woe” symbolize spiritual and moral darkness.
This poem has contrasting symbols and ideas to highlight the difference between the promise of heavenly rewards and the reality of exploitive labor. For instance, there is the beautiful and clean countryside in which the children play in their dreams.
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Contrast this with the speaker’s declaration, “So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.” These are two competing visions of the world; one is a dark, grimy, and unnatural place. The other is pure and carefree. As a poet of the Romantic era, Blake was concerned about losing a connection with nature. Here, as in many of his other works, Blake distinguishes between these two realities and clarifies which one is virtuous and which one is corrupting.
As a critique of religious institutions and their allowance of dangerous child labor practices, this poem also contains religious symbols. Tom, the child with the dream, has his head of white hair “curled like a lamb’s back,” shaved. Christian imagery often compares Jesus Christ to a sacrificial lamb. Just as Jesus died for the greater good of humanity, the freshly sheared Tom and the other young and innocent chimney sweepers have become the sacrificial lambs of industrialization.
This poem is not without irony and paradox. One of the most striking instances of irony occurs when the speaker says that the churchgoers:
are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.
Paradoxically, these lines suggest that the sweepers find solace and even a form of happiness in their suffering, starkly contrasting conventional notions of well-being. The irony lies in the fact that the Church and government, represented by the “Priest & King,” are complicit in child labor and exploitation, yet they promise heavenly rewards to those who endure suffering; as the first part of “The Chimney Sweeper” says, “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” The sweepers’ misery is paradoxically framed as a way to heaven, revealing the moral hypocrisy of institutions that, in Blake’s view, should advocate for justice and compassion rather than perpetuating societal injustices.
Furthermore, the idea of a “heaven of our misery” challenges traditional religious interpretations of heaven as a place of bliss and salvation. This suggests that the Church’s teachings have become twisted and become a justification for the suffering of the innocent. By using irony and paradox, Blake forces readers to confront the disconnect between religious ideals and the grim realities faced by the chimney sweepers. It highlights the moral ambiguity of a society that uses religion to maintain an unjust social order.
It can be difficult...
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to follow the meter of both parts of this poem. While each stanza contains four lines, they regularly shift between anapestic (three syllables in each foot, with the first two syllables unstressed and the third syllable stressed) and iambic tetrameter (four feet per line, with each foot containing one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable).
The different meters provide a contrast to each other within the poem. The steady, simple, and childlike rhythm of iambic tetrameter complements the innocent and hopeful tone of the heavenly dream, as it mirrors the simplicity and purity of the young speaker’s perspective.
Conversely, the more irregular and dissonant rhythm of the anapestic meter emphasizes the parts of the poem that deal with the hardships of the chimney sweepers. Combined with the use of imperfect rhymes in certain places (such as “dark” and “work” and “warm” and “harm”), Blake creates a mood of unease that is meant to unsettle the audience.