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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Analysis of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"

Summary:

William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" critiques the harsh realities of child labor in 18th-century England. The poem highlights the innocence of children exploited by a corrupt society, contrasting their hopeful dreams with their grim reality. Blake uses vivid imagery and simple language to evoke sympathy and anger, ultimately condemning the social and religious institutions that perpetuate such suffering.

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What is the main idea of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" poems?

In Blake's day, it was quite common for his contemporaries to venerate the Industrial Revolution, to regard it as an unalloyed good driving Great Britain to ever more dizzying heights of progress and prosperity. Very few people, if any, were prepared to consider that not everyone benefitted from this period of rapid economic expansion and that indeed there were many in the country who were considerably worse off, both spiritually and economically, as a result of industrialization.

William Blake, however, was a staunch critic of industrialization and the damaging effect it had on the most vulnerable members of society. In “The Chimney Sweeper” poems, he concentrates on the appalling treatment meted out to child laborers forced to perform dirty, degrading work for a pittance simply in order to stave off starvation.

In the Songs of Innocence, Blake introduces us to a small boy sold into the chimney sweep trade by his father before he was barely old enough to talk. We get a sense here that the boy's father was also a victim of industrial society in that he was compelled to put his son out to work in order to spare himself and his family from outright destitution.

The boy in the poem, like so many of his fellow chimney sweeps, is denied a childhood by his harsh working life. He has been deprived of his innocence at an early age, which Blake clearly regards as an absolute tragedy. The boy, and so many others like him, is a victim of industrialization, where people, including children, are treated as nothing more than economic commodities. Blake, in telling his story, hopes to alert his readers to what's going on in the dark underbelly of a society whose inevitable progress they unthinkingly take for granted.

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What is the main idea of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" poems?

William Blake wrote two poems entitled "The Chimney Sweeper." The first, a six-stanza poem with a dactylic rhythm, is included in Songs of Innocence. The second, a three-stanza poem in predominantly iambic rhythm, is part of Songs of Experience. One of William Blake's tenets is, "Without contraries is no progression." By studying both contrasting sides of an issue, one can arrive at the truth. The matched poems allow Blake to present "two contrary states of the human soul." 

The first version of "The Chimney Sweeper" is written entirely in first person from the point of view of a particularly cheerful and optimistic young sweep. Although his mother died when he was young and his father sold him into the dangerous and unpleasant profession of chimney sweeping, he encourages another sweep named Tom Dacre. Tom then has a dream of thousands of sweepers who were "lock'd up in coffins of black" who were freed by an angel and allowed to run out on a green plain in the sunshine and wash in a river. The angel tells Tom that if he's a good boy, he will "have God for his father & never want joy." The next morning Tom and the narrator rise early and go to work in a happy state, knowing that "they need not fear harm," presumably because God is watching over them. This is a surprisingly naive look at a heartbreakingly unjust plight for children to endure, yet it shows the soul's capability of finding something to be happy about even in the most miserable of circumstances.

The second version of "The Chimney Sweeper" is as dark as the first seems airy. In this poem, the narrator asks a sweep where his father and mother are. The sweep explains in cynical style that he was once happy and optimistic at home and even "among the winter's snow." His parents, seeing his cheery disposition, rewarded him by selling him into the chimney sweep trade. Even now he remains outwardly happy--he is known to "dance & sing"--so his parents go off to church and worship hypocritically believing "they have done ... no injury" to their son. In this way, they ignore the pain they have caused in their desire for material gain, and they are able "to praise God & his Priest & King" even as they "make up a heaven of our misery." This poem shows the soul's capability of recognizing hypocrisy in one's oppressors even while maintaining an outwardly compliant attitude. It is the perfect contrast to the first poem because it represents what the narrator sweep in the first poem might someday come to realize--once he has moved away from "innocence" and gained "experience."

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What is the main idea of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" poems?

William Blake wrote two poems called "The Chimney Sweeper" for Songs of Innocence and of Experience. In the iteration of the poem in Songs of Innocence, we are treated to a childlike view of the chimney sweeper's lot in life, one that justifies a corrupt social hierarchy by asserting that those who "do their duty" (24) will go to Heaven. Conversely, in the version in Songs of Experience, Blake presents us with a chimney sweep abandoned by hypocritical parents who "'praise God and his Priest and King, / Who make up a heaven of our misery'" (11-12). The main idea of both poems is to illustrate the corrupt nature of a society that exploits human labor, but the way in which both poems come to this idea is different. The Experience version is overt in its dealing with corruption, as it's hard to miss Blake's blatantly critical tone. The Innocence poem, however, is more subtle; in it, the chimney sweepers are satisfied with their lot, as they have been convinced that performing their miserable duty will earn them eternal salvation. In communicating this notion, Blake subtly suggests that society has twisted religion in order to oppress the working classes, thus making the main idea of this poem more indirect than the Experience poem. 

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What is the theme of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"?

The theme of "The Chimney Sweeper" is the cruelty of life and society from the perspective of a child. As in much of Blake's more somber poetry, life and society are intermingled. The first line tells us that the speaker was very young when his mother died. We do not know what killed her, but the cruelty of her early death is directly connected with the speaker's fate, whether or not she died of natural causes or natural causes exacerbated by deprivation.

The theme of a cruel, miserable life is emphasized throughout by contrast with the poet's vision of paradise in the children's dreams. In the fourth stanza, an angel lets the sleeping children into this idyll, where the greenery, the sun and the river are in direct opposition to the grim, dark urban landscape they inhabit in their working hours.

Tom Dacre and the other children are too good for this cruel world. This is why the only way to preserve the pure whiteness of Tom's hair is to cut it off, so that it will not be contaminated by the filthy environment in which he is forced to exist. These dichotomies between the cruel, dark world of child labor and the beautiful world of the children and their dreams serve to highlight the theme of cruelty in the poem.

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What is the theme of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"?

The theme or message Blake wishes to convey in this poem is that it is cruel to allow innocent children to be treated the way the chimney sweepers are.

As we learn from the poem, the chimney sweepers come from the ranks of children born into terrible circumstances who are "sold" at an early age to clean chimneys. They get none of the pleasures associated with childhood, such as a chance to play in nature and sunshine. Instead they have their heads shaved, work all the time, and live in soot. In the young narrator's dream, they are "locked up in coffins of black." The coffins represent both the dark, narrow chimneys where the young boys spend most of their days and the literal coffins in which they are buried when they die young.

The innocence of the chimney sweeper who believes that if he behaves he will "never want joy" contrasts with the reader's heartbreaking knowledge or experience that no matter how "good" he is, a chimney sweep will lead a life of misery. Blake is trying to arouse readers' emotions so that they won't turn away from and ignore the plight of these innocent children. He is saying that no child should have to live this way.

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What is the theme of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"?

Like many of Blake's poems, this poem criticizes the treatment of children under the extremely lax child labor laws of the poet's time. It also has a religious theme, suggesting that the children in the poem look to God to protect them as they go about their business: "if all do their duty, they need not fear harm."

In this poem, however, Tom's dogged attachment to his dream of "the Angel who had a bright key" as a beacon of light in his dark world serves to elicit pathos in the reader. The child is able, to a certain extent, to maintain his innocence by clinging to the promise of God's love, but is it true that he "need not fear harm"? In reality, a child such as Tom should not dream of "thousands of sweepers," presumably his own age, "locked up in coffins of black." An association is drawn between Tom and Jesus, the lamb, in that his hair "which curled like a lamb's back" is shaved, his innocence symbolically taken away as he is forced too early into the world of work. Tom is "happy and warm" in this world because it is all he has recently known, but the lingering feeling we are left with as readers is that these children should not be put in this position to begin with.

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What is the theme of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"?

When you first read The Chimney Sweeper, you see it is about children. Since it is about children, you would think it would be about the innocence of childhood. In reality the theme is about the loss of innocence. It is a sad tale of children, who have no childhood at all.

The child in the poem is sold by his father, after his mother dies, into chimney sweeping. He befriends Tom Dacre, a boy who is upset because he has to have his head shaved. The speaker of the poem, tries his best to comfort Tom. After they realize that life is going to turn out okay for them, they get up and go back to work.

The theme of this poem is all about the loss of innocence for children. When mother's died, father's were usually left without a choice. They had no way to care for their children. Some of them felt they had no choice, other than sell their children for work. It is a heartbreaking poem of children who have to not only deal with the death of a parent, but take on an adult role as well. It is also heartwarming that an angel appears to them in a dream and lets them know that everything is going to be alright. The children are comforted in the fact that there is someone looking out for them. It is a short poem, but has a big impact on what the meaning is.   

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What is the theme of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"?

William Blake wrote two poems with the title "The Chimney Sweeper," and they are very different from each other. One poem is a "Song of Innocence" and is written entirely in first person by a chimney sweeper. In this poem, the sweeper has a positive attitude about having been sold as a chimney sweep when he was very young. He encourages a fellow sweeper, Tom Dacre, who was sad to have his head shaved. He helped him look on the bright side by pointing out how the soot would not be able to spoil his white hair now. After hearing that encouragement, Tom Dacre dreams of several young sweepers who are "lock'd up in coffins of black." In his dream, an angel opened the coffins and freed the boys, who then were able to play in the grass and "wash in a river and shine in the Sun." The theme of this poem is that no matter how dismal one's life is, one can always dream and hope of a pleasant future to come, and one can always find something to be thankful for. 

The second poem, a "Song of Experience," takes a much darker view of the chimney sweep's fate. The poem starts out by asking a little sweeper where his parents are. Lines 4 - 12 are spoken by the sweeper in first person. He states his parents have gone to the church to pray. He explains that since he was a child of a cheery disposition, they sold him to be a chimney sweeper--evidently believing his positive personality could endure the hardship. The sweeper admits he is still happy and dances and sings, which causes his parents to assume "they have done me no injury." He then states that his parents have "gone to praise God & his Priest & King, / Who make up a heaven of our misery." By saying that the parents are "making up" a heaven, the poem suggests not only that the Christian Heaven is a mere fiction, but also that the happiness they imagine their son enjoys is also a fantasy of their own creation, one that helps them justify what they have done to their child for money. The theme of this poem is that people use religion to justify their actions and that just because a person displays outward happiness does not mean that he is happy inside, or that those who have caused him hardship should not be held accountable.

Blake's "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience" included many paired poems. The former took an innocent, naive view of the world while the latter took a hardened, pessimistic view of the world. Blake believed that "without contraries there is no progression." In other words, looking at two opposing viewpoints can result in progress toward understanding and truth. These contrasting poems with their contrasting themes are meant to help us better understand the issue of childhood hardships.

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What is the theme of the poem ''The Chimney Sweeper''?

One theme of "The Chimney Sweeper" by William Blake is that even the innocents in life will suffer.

In this poem, the speaker's mother died while he was "very young." After this, he was sold by his father, and he notes that his speech was still so underdeveloped that he could only call out "'weep" instead of the blended "sw" necessary in "sweep" that comes with age and experience in language. This is especially poignant as it directs the reader to the innocence of the child, which is reflected in his toddler-like speech.

The speaker's friend Tom had his head shaven in order to do the work of chimney sweeping, and it made him cry. The speaker tries to encourage him, and that night Tom has a dream. In this dream, the little chimney sweepers are "locked up in coffins of black," symbolizing both the death toll of this cruel work on young children and the black and coffin-like chimneys that they are forced to sweep clean. This dream is the only place where the children experience joy in the poem, and when Tom and the speaker awake, they must return to the dangerous labor.

The poem ends with verbal irony as the speaker notes that if the kids do their "duty, they need not fear harm." Of course, much harm did befall the young chimney sweepers, but in the speaker's innocence, he cannot see the truth. This makes the theme of suffering even more heartbreaking.

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What is the theme of the poem ''The Chimney Sweeper''?

William Blake's poignant poem of the poor, innocent little boys made to climb through chimneys and clean them to the point that their bodies become deformed as they grow and their lungs fill with the soot, points to the horrific exploitation of children as its theme.

So pitiful is the life of these little chimney sweeps that their only solace is in the hopes of dreams and of death.

And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

For the new chimney sweeper, little Tom goes to sleep, dreaming of a new life after death that will console him for the terrible deprivations he suffers in his life. Thus, Blake subtlely exposes the brutal conditions under which these children are exploited as the innocent retains hope, 

Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm

"The Chimney Sweeper" exposes the cruel injustice of a society that places commercial value over human value with its theme of the inhumane treatment of the little boys who are chimney sweepers.

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What is the theme of William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"?

This poem is a harsh and justifiable critique of child labor. During Blake's lifetime, children were often used to climb through the flues in order to sweep the chimneys out. Boys as young as four years old were trained to do this. This was, of course, very dangerous. Children could be injured and even killed as a result of burns, cancer, and suffocation. 

In the poem's first stanza, the child is so young he can not yet say "sweep." He can only say "weep" which is tragically fitting since it resembles crying. The sound is also evocative of a baby bird crying for food or for its mother. This underscores how vulnerable these children are. 

The speaker of the poem tells us about one such child, Tom Dacre. Some child sweeps would also get stuck in the chimneys. Those that come out would be soot-stained and could have inflamed eyes. Tom has a nightmare about other sweeps stuck in black coffins. The experience of being stuck in the chimney is compared to that of being in a coffin. 

Then Tom dreams of an angel coming to rescue them all. He imagines them being free on a green plain. This symbolizes a freedom in life, to run and play as children should. Then he pictures them rising upon clouds, perhaps a reference to the heavenly afterlife. A more morbid interpretation of these dreams is that the only escape for the child worker is through death and dreams. 

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What influenced William Blake to write "The Chimney Sweeper"?

Blake was very interested in the social conditions of his day and had radical ideas about the welfare and education of children. He would undoubtedly have witnessed at first hand the usually deplorable conditions in which child chimney sweeps were forced to work. Because of coal fires London was an extremely smoky city even up till comparatively modern times and the narrow chimney openings needed someone small to climb into them to clean out the soot that otherwise would have blocked the flu or caught fire. Therefore very small and young boys were used for the task and their lives were frequently at risk. Even if they survived falls and other hazards such as getting trapped, the constant inhaling of soot and fumes would have been very damaging to their respiratory systems. Blake's empathy for them surely inspired poems like this.

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Can you explain the ironies, imageries, and symbols in William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"?

In your question about Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" you ask for a bit more than we can answer in one answer (suggested length 90 words), but I'll give some information that will help you make sense of the poem.

First, I'm assuming you're studying the poem from Blake's Songs of Innocence rather than the poem from Songs of Experience of the same name, so I'll answer your question about that poem.

In short, the first stanza gives the young boy's history (the speaker's history).  The details are an accurate depiction of how boys were sold into virtual slavery to become chimney sweepers in Blake's time.  Some sweeps were orphans and some were sold by parents who couldn't afford to raise them.  The "occupation" usually led to an early death from inhaling soot.

The speaker then tells the story of another sweep, Tom Dacre, who cries when his hair is cut, which was the usual practice to keep soot from getting into a sweep's hair. 

The speaker tells Tom not to worry because cutting his hair will keep the soot out--in other words, he gives him a rationale.  But the point is really that he is taking the point of view of the exploiting adults in the situation and the point of view of society.  The speaker is essentially telling Tom that "It's for your own good." 

The remainder of the poem presents society's view, and the church's point of view, suggests Blake, that Tom should not worry about the abuses he suffers now, because he will be rescued when he goes to heaven.  The speaker and Tom are naive and they buy into the line of thought that justifies their suffering of abuses.

In the poem, then, two sweeps adjust to their situation by looking forward to their future rewards.  The reader is left to infer that they are being naive by buying into a line of thought that justifies their being abused.  There is no irony on the part of the speaker because he isn't aware that he's being naive.

Concerning symbols and imagery, Tom's hair is "curled like a lambs back":  innocent, pure.  This simile, image and symbol establishes the innocence of young boys made to be sweeps, and points forward to their naivete.

The black coffins represent the chimneys and the black bodies of soot-covered sweeps.   

By the way, in the second poem of the same name, the chimney sweeper, though also a child, is more aware of the issues involved and is not so naive.  Though still a child, he understands how sweeps are being abused. 

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