In 1789 (the year of the beginning of the French Revolution), Blake brought out his Songs of Innocence, which included ‘The Chimney Sweeper.’
The poem is in the first person, about a very young chimney sweeper who exposes the evils of chimney sweeping as a part of the cruelties created by the sudden increase in wealth.
The poem was used as a broadsheet or propaganda against the evil of Chimney Sweeping. The Chimney Sweeper’s life was one of destitution and exploitation. The large houses created by the wealth of trade had horizontal flues heating huge rooms that could be cleaned only by a small child crawling through them. These flues literally became black coffins, which killed many little boys. A sweeper’s daily task was courting death because of the hazards of suffocation and burns. These children were either orphans or founding or were sold by poor parents to Master Sweepers for as little as two guineas. They suffered from cancers caused by the soot, and occasionally little children terrified of the inky blackness of the Chimneys got lost within them and only their skeletons were recovered.
The Chimney Sweeper Analysis
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry “‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
In these twenty-four lines of William Blake’s poem, ‘The Chimney Sweeper,’ a little boy, is telling the story of his despairing life as well as the sad tales of other chimney sweeper boys. The little boy narrates that he was very young when he died. He was then sold by his father to a Master Sweeper when his age was so tender that he could not even pronounce the word ‘sweep’ and cryingly pronounced it ‘weep’ and wept all the time. The pun intended through the use of the word ‘weep’ three times in the third line of this stanza holds pathetic significance. Most chimney-sweepers, like him, were so young that they could not pronounce sweep and lisped ‘weep’. Since that tender age, the little boy is sweeping the chimney and sleeping at night in the soot-smeared body, without washing off the soot (blackness).
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
In the second stanza, the little narrator tells us the woeful tale of Tom Dacre. This is a very famous character in Blake’s many poems. Tom was called ‘Dacre’ because he belonged to Lady Dacre’s Almshouse, which was situated between St. James Street and Buckingham Road. The inmates of the Almshouse were foundling orphans, who were allowed to be adopted by the poor only. It may be a foster father who encased the boy Tom by selling him to a Master Sweeper. Tom wept when his head was shaved, just as the back of a lamb is shaved for wool. The narrator then told Tom not to weep and keep his peace. The narrator told Tom to be calm because lice will not breed in the pate without hair and there will be no risk for hair to catch fire.
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;
The third stanza continues the story of Tom who was calmed by the consoling words of the narrator. That same night while sleeping Tom saw a wonderful vision. He saw in his dream that many Chimney sweepers, who were named Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, were dead and their bodies were lying in caged coffins, made of black-colored wood.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
In the fourth stanza, the vision is completed. An Angel, who was carrying a shining key, came near the coffins. The Angel opened the coffins containing the bodies and set all the bodies free from the bondage of coffins. The freed little sweepers of the chimney ran down a green ground, washed in the water of a river, and dried themselves in the sunlight to give out a clean shine. This was really a very delightful moment for these chimney-sweepers, who got freed from the shackles of bondage labor, exploitation, and child labor.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.
In the fifth stanza, the little boy continues narrating the dream vision of Tom. All the little boys were naked and white after washing. They were naked because their bags of clothes were left behind. They cast off the burden of life along with the bags of soot at the time of death. Now naked and white, the little chimney sweeper boys ride the clouds and play in the wind. The image of clouds floating freely is Blake’s metaphor for the freedom from the material boundaries of the body and an important visual symbol. The Angel told Tom that if he would be a good boy he would have God for his father and there would never be a lack of happiness for him.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
In the last stanza of Blake’s poem, The Chimney Sweeper, the narrator tells that Tom woke up and his dream vision broke up. Tom and other little sweeper boys rose up from their beds in the dark. They made themselves ready to work taking their bags for soot and the brushes to clean the chimney. The morning was cold, but Tom, after the dream, was feeling warm and happy.
In the last line of the poem, a moral has been thrown to us: If all do their duty, they need not fear any harm. The last stanza shows the reality of the sweepers’ life. The antithesis between the vision of summer sunshine and this dark, cold reality is deeply ironic. Even though the victims have been mollified, the readers know that innocent trust is abused.
Personal Comments to The Chimney Sweeper
‘The Chimney Sweeper’ consists of six quatrains, each following the AABB rhyme scheme, with two rhyming couplets per quatrain. Through this poem, the poet sheds light on the pitiable condition of the chimney sweepers who were being exploited by their Masters.
This is a poem that describes the rampant bondage labor, child labor, exploitation of children at a tender age, and the pitiable condition of the orphaned children or the poor children who were sold by their poor parents.
In all, this poem sarcastically attacks the advanced societies that keep their eyes shut toward these children, but act as being generous among their near and dear ones by holding or attending some charity shows/functions for the poor and down-trodden people in their country. Moreover, it is surprising to note here that these social evils even today prevail in our society.