“The Chimney Sweeper,” a poem of six quatrains, accompanied by William Blake’s illustration, appeared in Songs of Innocence in 1789, the year of the outbreak of the French Revolution, and expresses Blake’s revolutionary fervor. It exposes the appalling conditions of the boys known as climbing boys, whose lot had been brought to public attention but had been only marginally improved by the 1788 Chimney Sweepers’ Act. Blake published a companion poem in Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1794.
The speaker is a young chimney sweeper, presumably six or seven years old, and the style is appropriately simple. Much of the imaginative power of the poem comes from the tension between the child’s naïveté and the subtlety of Blake’s own vision.
In the first stanza, the sweeper recounts how he came to this way of life. His mother—always in Blake’s work the warm, nurturing parent—having died, he was sold as an apprentice by his father, the stern figure of authority. His present life revolves around working, calling through the streets for more work, and at the end of the day sleeping in soot, a realistic detail since the boys did indeed make their beds on bags of the soot they had swept from chimneys.
The second stanza introduces Tom Dacre, who comes to join the workers and is initiated into his new life by a haircut. As Tom cries when his head is shaved, the speaker comforts him with the thought that if his hair is cut it cannot be spoiled by the soot. The consolation is, from any adult point of view, totally inadequate, but for Tom it is effective. He falls asleep and dreams happily.
The next three stanzas give the substance of the dream. Tom dreams that thousands of sweepers locked in coffins are released by an angel. Suddenly, they find themselves in a pastoral landscape, where, freed from their burdens, they bathe in a river and then rise up to the clouds. There, the angel tells Tom, “if he’d be a good boy,/ He’d have God for his father & never want joy.” The dream is an obvious instance of wish fulfillment, and its pathos rests on the fact that while it reveals the child’s longing to escape, the opening and closing of the poem make it clear that his only ways of escape are dreams and death.
The last quatrain opens with a brutal contrast. Having dreamed of playing in the sun, Tom awakes, and the sweepers begin their day’s work, a day to be spent in the total darkness of the cramped chimneys. Yet, restored by his dream, Tom is happy, and the poem ends with the pious moral, akin to the angel’s speech, “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”
The poem is built around a series of powerful, closely related contrasts. The first, introduced in the second line, is that of bondage and freedom, for the child is literally sold into a state of both servitude and imprisonment within the chimneys. This contrast is reinforced by the parallel contrast between black and white. Covered in soot, the sweepers are habitually black; Tom’s white hair is cut off, and the whiteness of his skin is only regained in the dream, when he, along with the other boys, is able to wash in the river. The color contrast suggests the condition of the African slave, whose plight Blake, an ardent supporter of abolition, describes in “The Little Black Boy.” Like that little boy, the blackened chimney sweeper suffers the injustice of a white society that puts commercial values before moral ones and treats him as an outcast from the human condition.
A second group of contrasts juxtaposes work and play, sorrow and joy, tears and laughter. In the streets, the sweeper can only call, “weep weep,” and Tom cries when his...
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