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William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"

Updated on June 30, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

William Blake

Source

Introduction and Text of "The Chimney Sweeper"

Each of the six quatrains in William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" from Song of Innocence plays out in two rimed couplets. Some offer perfect rimes, while others feature slant or near rime. Blake is throwing out some social commentary in this poem. Such a stunt is usually a failure despite the poetic acumen of the poet.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Blake's propensity for propaganda was strong, and he almost always can be found demonizing religion, religious concepts, while suggesting that spirituality is an appropriate endeavor. When poets choose to politicize their themes, they usually make foolish, incoherent choices for their images, metaphors, or personifications. This poem finds itself in the somewhat foolish category, despite the correct stance of decrying child abuse through unhealthy labor practices.

The Chimney Sweeper

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.

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."

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;

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.

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.

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.

Reading of "The Chimney Sweeper"

Commentary

The speaker in Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" offers a drama depicting the misery of children yoked into squalid labor conditions in 18th century London.

First Quatrain: Rime for Rime's Sake

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.

The narrator of this story is a boy, who remains nameless. Readers will know only that this nameless boy's mother died when he was quite young. He learned from his father that she died even before the narrator could talk. As a poor little boy, he could, "scarcely cry 'Weep! weep! weep! weep!' / So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep."

Second Quatrain: A Second Named Boy

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."

Suddenly and without warning, the narrator shifts his attention to a second boy, whose name is "Tom Dacre." Poor little Tom Dacre began to cry when someone started to shave his head. Tom has wooly lamb-like curls.

The nameless narrator tries to comfort little curless Tom, telling him how his hair would get all filled with soot from chimney sweeping. It was therefore useful to have a bald head which would be easier to clean than all that head full of curls. The narrator is trying to make little Tom feel better about having this head shaved by offering his common sense about the efficacy of hair washing after sweeping chimneys.

Third Quatrain: Helped by Logic

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;

Little Tom seems to be helped by the speaker's logic; Tom has stopped crying, at least. That night Tom has a dream in which he sees many chimney sweepers. Among those sweeper are four boys that Tom knows—Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack.

However it is sad that the boys are "locked up in coffins of black." Blake begins his symbolic foray, offering "coffins of black" to symbolize the sooted chimneys, in which the boys will have to pass their days laboring instead of playing healthy games. Their precious days of childhood are stolen from them as they are forced to labor in work they did not choose.

Fourth Quatrain: Keys to the Coffin

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.

Tom's dream then makes a remarkable shift. An angel appears with a "bright key." As predictable as the black coffin symbolizing the sooted chimney, the bright keyed angel appears on schedule to use the key to open up the coffins freeing the boys.

The foolish notion that coffins and chimneys require keys stifles the impact of the this poem's usefulness. As readers have experienced before, however, Blake's artistic choices turn silly as he fumbles to symbolize concepts and ideas.

Coffins and chimneys remain keyless, despite dreams and symbolism. In Tom's dream, nevertheless, after the boys are released from their coffin prisons, they run, jump, laugh, and wash themselves in the river. The dream has become a lovely scene of healthy boyish activity.

Fifth Quatrain: A Surreal Dream

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.

The dream grows even more surreal as the romping boys find themselves floating upward on clouds while they "sport in the wind." The angel tells Tom that if he behaves appropriately, he will be happy and have "God for his father."

Sixth Quatrain: Liberation Through Faith

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.

Then Tom awakens from his lovely dream to find that he and all the other boys must arise from bed while it is still dark outside. They must get dressed, scoop up their sweeping gear, and go trudging off to their hard labor of sweeping the damn dirty, sooty chimneys.

However, Tom is still warm and happy because of the beautiful dream he has experienced. The narrator, however, takes a sinister, pessimistic view of the situation. He remarks to Tom with sarcasm: "So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm."

Tom remains liberated from his earthly chores because he now has faith delivered to him by the angel in his dream. The others, however, remain skeptical and even cynical that faith can keep one remain balanced and even happy. Those cynics echo Blake's overall view of religion, as can be seen in his treatment in "The Garden of Love."

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© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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