The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 472 words.)