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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What is the significance of meter and rhyme in "The Chimney Sweeper"?

Quick answer:

Blake uses a combination of irregular meter, rhyme, and structure to convey the disjointed world of the chimney sweeper.

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Blake employs an irregular meter and rhyme to convey the disjointed world of the chimney sweeper.

Generally speaking, each line in this poem has four metrical feet. Sometimes those feet are iambic (having two syllables) and sometimes they are anapestic (having three syllables). Let's take a look at a few examples.

And taught / me to sing / the notes / of woe /

(Stressed syllables have been bolded.)

The second foot in this line has three syllables, unlike the others, which have two. This type of foot is anapestic and lends a sense of unpredictability to the line. After all, who could imagine asking a child to sing in the midst of suffering? The shock of this request highlights the appalling attitude of the young child's parents.

Compare this to the predictability found in line 6:

And smil'd / among / the win/ ter's snow /

The meter is even here, and each foot is iambic. There is a sense of steadiness, which is important, because this line is reminiscent of a time of innocence in the child's life. Before he was asked to sweep the chimneys, he "smil'd" in the innocent beauty of snow.

The meter also feels unsteady when the child must answer for the location of his parents:

They are both / gone up / to the church / to pray./

Again, in the child's response, we see a blend of anapestic and iambic feet. This irregularity in meter mimics the child's sense of instability as he ponders the purpose of his own suffering while his parents ignore his plight. While they "praise God" at the church, he lives in "misery."

This poem's rhyme follows an unpredictable pattern, as well: aabb caca efef. Not only does the second stanza take part of its rhyme from the first stanza, but those exact words are repeated, making snow and woe, with a hollow-sounding rhyme, all the more poignant. The rhyme pattern of each stanza is continuously evolving, which furthers the mood of unpredictability and turmoil. This young chimney sweeper has learned that those who should protect him are unwilling to do so, and even organized religion offers him no sense of hope.

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