young boy in overalls and a hat walking with a chimney sweeping broom over his shoulder

The Chimney Sweeper

by William Blake
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

“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.

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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.

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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.”

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

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 head is shaved, but in the dream, the scene that is the subject of Blake’s illustration, the boys leap, laugh, and play.

The final antithesis is that between death and life, coldness and warmth, darkness and light. The sweepers endure a death-in-life, the literal cold and dark of their days matched by their deprivation and the cold indifference of society. In Tom’s dream, however, the washing in the river assumes the significance of a baptism into a better life and counters the ritual head shaving of the entry into prison. The child glimpses a new heaven and a new Earth before he returns to the fallen world.

From these contrasts, certain images acquire symbolic significance. The bags, abandoned in the dream and picked up again with the brushes the next morning, suggest the terrible burden of the child’s life; the soot indicates the corruption of a society that uses and abuses him; and the coffins represent both the chimneys in which he works and the actual death to which he will soon come. In contrast, the sun, river, and plain express the joys that should be natural to childhood. Yet, even symbols associated with happiness intensify the harsh facts of existence. The bright key recalls imprisonment; the harmony of the leaping boys emphasizes their isolation in the chimneys; and the lamb, whose curling fleece Tom’s hair resembles, is often, as is the sweeper, a helpless victim.

These emotionally charged contrasts and images underscore the ironic understatement. The speaker describes his life plainly, indulging in neither denunciation nor sentimentality. The facts speak for themselves, however, forcefully opposing the three pieces of comfort in the poem, the first provided by the speaker for Tom, the second provided by the angel, and the third offered by the speaker as a final moral. When God the Father, like the father on earth, seems to have turned His face from the child, injunctions for Tom to be good and to do his duty betoken a bitter irony.

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