William Blake

The Chimney Sweeper

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The Chimney Sweeper Summary

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William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” is a two-part poem about a few chimney sweeps in late eighteenth-century England. Because of their small size, children around the ages of four and five were sold to companies to clean out chimneys. The first part of the poem was published in Songs of Innocence in 1789; the second was published in Songs of Experience in 1793. William Blake himself illustrated the collection, known as Songs of Innocence and Experience, as he was also a painter. The first part of the poem follows an AABB rhyme scheme, and the second begins with rhyming couplets and transitions into ABAB.

A young chimney sweep narrates the first part of the poem. He says that his father sold him when he was so young he could barely speak. He tells the story of his fellow chimney sweep, Tom Dacre, who cried when they shaved his head. The narrator soothed him by saying that now the soot can’t spoil his white, curly hair.

That night, Tom has a dream that thousands of the chimney sweeps are all “locked up in coffins of black.” An angel opens the coffins with a key, and all the sweeps run out into a field and wash in a river. Then, naked from washing, they rise into the clouds and play in the wind. The angel tells Tom that if he is good, he will have God for his father and never want for anything.

When Tom wakes from the dream, he and the narrator get their bags and brushes and get back to work. Tom is comforted by the fact that he will never come to harm if he does his duty, as the angel told him.

In the second part of the poem, which is found in Songs of Experience, a chimney sweep is described as a “little black thing among the snow” crying notes of woe. A stranger asks him why he is crying, and the child replies that his father and mother have gone up to the church and left him. He was a happy child until his parents had him put on the clothes of death and taught him to sing the “notes of woe.” His parents have gone to praise “God and his priest and king,/Who make up a heaven of our misery.”

In the first part of the poem, the narrator says that the soot will “spoil” Tom’s white, lamb-like hair. A lamb is often used to describe the perfect sacrifice of Christ, so Blake is using Tom’s head as a metaphor for the sullying of innocence. The image of the black coffins in Tom’s dream evokes the black chimneys where the children work and the soot in which they sleep. They also symbolize the hopeless state of the children’s lives. The “bright key” that unlocks the coffins could be a reference to Matthew 16:19 when Jesus gives his disciple the keys to heaven.

Blake is criticizing the church for its belief that working hard will keep you from physical harm. Tom buys into the message given by the angel, but in reality, he could very well end up like the chimney sweep in “Experience” who is left alone in the snow.

The second part of the poem is likely told from the point of view of an adult who comes upon the chimney sweep. The adult refers to the child as a “thing” rather than a person, giving the reader insight into the social standing of a chimney sweep. The child repeatedly mentions that his parents are worshipping God, as he lies abandoned in the snow. Blake is making a point that the church was so preoccupied with matters of heaven that it ignored (and even supported) the suffering happening in the streets.

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience represents Paradise and The Fall. Before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Good and Evil, they were innocent. After the fall, they acquired knowledge or “experience.” In much the same way, Tom finds hope that God will care for him regardless of the circumstances, but the sweep in Experience has been left in the snow to die.

Blake intended to question some of the socially-accepted practices of the day that he found objectionable. “The Chimney Sweeper” points to the suffering and misuse of children. Likewise, in “The Little Black Boy,” which appears in the Songs of Innocence, Blake takes on the subject of slavery, which was still legal when the poem was published. In it, he implies that slaves are closer to God because of their suffering and that the English people are far from God because they uphold the institution of slavery. Blake also criticizes the church’s repression of sexuality in “The Garden of Love” and points to religious corruption in “A Little Boy Lost.”