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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Discuss the theme of exploitation in "The Chimney Sweeper."

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The theme of exploitation dominates “The Chimney Sweeper.” In both poems of the same name, Blake attempts to highlight the appalling working conditions that these children are forced to endure and the damaging effects that these conditions have on them.

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William Blake was scathing of what he saw as the damaging consequences of the modern industrial economy. Far from seeing it as an engine-room of progress and prosperity, he regarded it as bringing widespread suffering and misery to the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

In both poems by the name “The Chimney Sweeper,” Blake focuses on the exploitation of child labor and the damaging effects it has on the children forced to work to save themselves and their families from total destitution. In the Songs of Innocence poem, we are introduced to a poor young waif sold into the chimney sweep trade by his father before he could barely talk. He tells us about the thousands of young chimney sweeps now “locked up in coffins of black,” an obvious reference to how dangerous it is for young boys to work in this business.

In the shorter Songs of Experience poem, the chimney sweep isn't an orphan, but he might as well be. It's bad enough that he's the victim of exploitation, but it's even worse that his parents have such unwavering faith in the religious and political establishment that creates such exploitation in the first place. In effect, the boy's parents are actively conniving in their son's exploitation.

In both poems, then, we see a savage indictment of the role of adults in constructing and maintaining a system of exploitation that grinds down and destroys their own children.

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William Blake wrote two poems entitled "The Chimney Sweeper." One appears in Songs of Innocence, and the other appears in Songs of Experience. Both poems deal with exploitation in the form of child labor. In the Songs of Innocence poem, the father sold his son to work as a chimney sweep when he was barely talking. The job of a chimney sweep was dirty and dangerous to health, as symbolized by the dream that "little Tom Dacre" has of "thousands of sweepers" being "lock'd up in coffins of black." This represents the early death these children would often succumb to due to accidents, illness from breathing in the soot, and poor living conditions ("in soot I sleep"). The children in the poem can only dream of what should the lot of any child: running on the grass, bathing in a river, and playing in the sunshine. The children are exploited because they are deprived of the normal joys of childhood and receive minimal care while earning money for their "masters."

In the poem from Songs of Experience, a similar picture is painted, but the focus is less on the poor conditions of the exploited children than on the hypocrisy of the parents and society that allow such exploitation. In this poem, the child chimney sweeper who is the persona of the poem is not an orphan; both parents are alive. In fact, they go "up to the church to pray" while their son is forced to "sing the notes of woe" that are the chimney sweep's chant. It seems that the parents chose their happiest and most good-natured child to exploit, probably because they thought he would be hardier and would be less likely to complain. Here they are exploiting not just the child's youth, but his personality type, for their own financial gain. Whereas in the first poem the father may have sold the child into the sweep trade because the mother had died and he was unable to care for him, in the second poem the parents seem less needy and more culpable for what they have done to their son. Additionally, "God & his Priest & King" are implicated in the exploitation. Religion and government are endorsing the exploitation of children: "Who make up a heaven of our misery."

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"The Chimney Sweeper" appears in Blake's Songs of Innocence. We would expect it to be in Songs of Experience since it is a poem about exploitation of young children. However, the narrator, a young chimney sweep, is still innocent. He tells the story of his mother dying young and the father who "sold" him into chimney sweeping when he could hardly talk. He describes the conditions the chimney sweepers live in: sleeping in soot, having their heads shaved, rising before dawn in the cold, and going to work in dark places with their scrub brushes.

He dreams of an angel who "sets free" the chimney sweeps:

Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
To Blake, young children should expect such an ordinary childhood of playing in nature under the sun, but to the chimney sweep, it is a glimpse of paradise. 
The heartbreak in the poem arises from the slippage between the chimney sweeper's innocence in believing that "a good boy" achieves "joy," and the reader's awareness of the reality that for chimney sweepers "joy" is unlikely. 
The chimney sweeper's innocence extends to the last line:"So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm."
The reader knows that the chimney sweep, vulnerable and unprotected, has every reason to fear harm. But the line carries a deeper meaning: if "all," including a society willing to avert its eyes to the lives of the chimney sweeps, would, in fact, do its "duty," it would not need to "fear harm." Blake thus warns readers of their responsibility not to exploit the weak and defenseless.

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