‘The Chimney Sweeper: A little black thing among the snow’ by William Blake was included, along with one other poem that uses the same title, (‘The Chimney Sweeper: When my mother died I was very young’) in Songs of Innocence and Experience.
The first, which sought to encourage an end to the practice of chimney sweeping is added onto with this poem. Blake describes in these lines the terrible job the young chimney sweep has to complete. But, unlike the previous poem, religion does not bring them comfort. ‘When my mother died…’ ended with the speakers describing how Tom turned to religion and knew that if he did his duty there was nothing to fear. He’d “have God for his father & never want joy”. Now, those thoughts are gone.
Explore The Chimney Sweeper: A little black thing among the snow
In the first lines of ‘The Chimney Sweeper,’ the speaker describes a small “black thing among the snow”. This is of course the child who has lost both his parents. The child describes how he’s had everything taken away from him because of his desire to play in the fields. Now, as he tries to find happiness in his life, those who are in a place to help him think he’s fine. His singing and dancing make everything think they’ve done nothing wrong by allowing child labor to continue. Those at the top use these unseen children to create their worlds.
Within ‘The Chimney Sweeper: A little black thing among the snow’ the poet explores troubling themes of childhood, suffering, and organized religion. The latter comes into the poem in the last lines as the speaker, a young child, describes the way that those with power turn to God bu turn their backs on him. Their religion allows them to ignore this child and all those like him. The poem suggests that the Church also took from the child his youth and happiness while absolving the guilty of their guilt and sins.
There is an intense amount of suffering in this short poem. The child’s voice comes through loud and clear making that suffering even more real as he speaks about his lost happiness and how he places the blame squarely at the feet of the Church.
Structure and Form
‘The Chimney Sweeper: A little black thing among the snow’ by William Blake is a short three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of AABB, CACA EFEF. This perfect sing-song-like pattern contrasts starkly against the subject matter The child, who is telling his story, is in a very bad way. His childish voice comes through in tandem with the horrors he’s had to suffer.
While Blake does use the meter in the poem it is not entirely consistent. Throughout, the majority of the beats are either iambic or anapaestic. The first is made up of one unstressed and one stressed syllable while the second is made up of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed. In general, the majority of the lines are written in iambic tetrameter. A reader should also take note of the double stresses that appear. Such as with “weep! weep!” in stanza one.
Blake makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Chimney Sweeper: A little black thing among the snow’ these include but are not limited to alliteration, assonance, and imagery. The first, alliteration is seen throughout the poem. For example, “happy” and “hearth” in stanza two as well as “praise” and “Priest” in stanza three.
Assonance is seen through the repetition of vowel sounds, such as “notes” and “woe” in stanza one, line two. Another good example is “snow” and “clothes” in lines two and three of the second stanza.
This poem uses imagery quite powerfully in the first lines. Blake is able to tap into various senses, while also appealing to a reader’s emotions. They should feel empathy for this young child who is in the first line only a “little black thing”.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.
In the first stanza of ‘The Chimney Sweeper: A little black thing among the snow’ the speaker begins by describing something the show. It becomes clear quickly that this “thing” is actually a young child. The fact that the first line describes the child as a “thing” is disturbing, and it’s supposed to be. Blake hooks the reader in with this description, making it quite obvious that he’s going to make a political statement about the treatment of children.
The child cries out, both of his parents have “gone up the church to pray”. There is no one to care for him. No parents to provide for him or an organization that cares what happens to him. There are many who might say they care but then do nothing to prove it. The use of a perfect rhyme scheme in these lines, in addition to assonance, “notes” and “woe” and alliteration “weep! weep!” make his words all the more disturbing.
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
The child thinks back to his earlier days and how happy he used to be. All of this was taken from him. “They,” the church, “clothed” the child in “death” and forced him to ‘sing the notes of woe”. He was taught the darkest parts of life during a very important time period in his life. He should’ve been free to be happy and joyful in nature but instead, he’s a chimney sweeper.
And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”
In the final four lines of the poem the speaker says that the men and women who might help him, those that go to church, think he’s okay because he “dance[s] and sing[s]”. They don’t know that these things are done only to get by and sometimes in order to find some comfort somewhere. They think that they’ve done him “no injury”. The child speaker places the blame for his circumstances at the feet of “God and his Priest and King”. The Church, and more broadly organized religion, is at fault for his “misery”.
William Blake was not the only poet to use his platform to speak out against child labor. Another popular poem on a similar subject matter is ‘The Cry of the Children’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Readers might also find ‘Discord in Childhood’ by D.H. Lawrence to be of interest. It compares domestic conflict to a storm outside a childhood. Another that focuses more broadly on the troubles of childhood is ‘Blackberry-Picking’ by Seamus Heaney. If you have read the first of Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper: When my mother died I was very young’ it is quite beneficial to go back and add those lines to these. Also, take a look at our list of the 10 Best Poems About Childhood, some of which are much more optimistic than Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper: A little black thing among the snow’.