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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Critically analyze The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake.

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In The Chimney Sweeper, William Blake highlights the shocking conditions in which the young chimney sweeps exist, as boys barely old enough to even say sweep instead of "weep," are taken into service . The poem appears as part of Songs of Innocence and there is a distinct recognition by the reader that the boys live in the midst of terrible experiences. The poem of the same name also appears in the Songs of Experience. The Innocence version reveals that the boys do not know any better and accept their situation; even little Tom Dacre is "happy and warm." Tom's dream of the boys who are "locked up in coffins of black" is meant to horrify the reader as the boys' only release comes from the angel with the "bright key."  The symbolism seems to escape the seven year old narrator but is not lost on the reader who understands, even though it is not said, only implied, that these boys will continue in these jobs until they either die from soot in their lungs or get too big to fit up the chimneys. Being "a good boy" is something to be encouraged but, for these boys, there is no reward, except to continue doing "their duty." Failure to do so will undoubtedly result in the "harm" the boys want to avoid as they will be punished if they do not do a good job. Cruelty to children was an unregulated and shocking social issue of the time; one which William Blake felt strongly about.

Hence, the second version appears in Songs of Experience. Here, the tone is mocking and judgmental. The young boy is still the narrator and he still accepts his situation to the point that those who force him to work, his parents, " think they have done me no injury." However, the boy is much wiser and the irony of the situation does not escape him in this version as he can see how contradictory it is to "praise God and His priest and king," whilst young boys suffer as chimney sweeps. The boys in the earlier version are met by an angel and "wash in a river and shine in the sun;" in the latter version, the narrator recognizes only the "misery." 

William Blake is able therefore to express his dissatisfaction with the situation and reveal how acceptance of a situation does not make it acceptable. 

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