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The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake
It is important to know that, at the time this poem was written, England was undergoing important changes. Most people left their farms to seek employment in the city. Even if they found jobs, salaries were so low that a breadwinner could hardly pay the rent and provide for his family. As a result, slums developed, where poor people lived in very unhealthy conditions.
At the same time, the industrial revolution was in full swing. It was common practice to employ children in factories. They also worked on farms and in mines. Children were required to work up to 16 hours per day. Their living and working conditions were deplorable. Many of them were mistreated and underpaid. Certain types of work were initially performed by very young children. Because of the widespread opposition to child labor, the working-age was eventually raised to ten years old.
The main reason for so many children working was extreme poverty. The new laws regarding the poor were very strict and unyielding, and if you were poor, your life was extremely difficult. People were in desperate need of food because few families could provide it. To relieve the strain on the rest of the family, children were frequently contracted out (sold) to owners of mines, factories, or farms to work and stay.
The practice of hiring children to sweep fireplace chimneys in London was common at the time. Chimneys were narrow and not always straight, but the children were small and could fit in these small and dark spaces. It was dangerous to climb up chimneys of two- and three-story buildings. Smoke from wood or coal-burning fires filled the chimneys with soot, a black residue. Many of the chimney sweeps developed lung diseases because of their work.
Form and structure
The poem consists of six stanzas with four lines (quatrain). The poet uses paired rhyme (aabb, ccdd). In the final stanza, the rhyme pattern changes.
The chimney sweep explains to the reader that his mother died when he was a child. When his father sold him to a chimney sweeper, he was very young (he could barely say the word ‘weep’). This is how he ended up cleaning chimneys. He sleeps in ‘soot’ because he most likely lacks the resources to wash his clothes on a regular basis.
He tells the reader about Tom Dacre, another chimney sweep. Tom has curly white hair and appears to be very young, as he cried when they shaved his head. The speaker tries to console him by telling him that if he doesn’t shave his head, his hair will be covered in the black soot from the chimneys, which will be very uncomfortable because he won’t be able to wash it.
Tom had a dream that night. He had a dream that he and the other chimney sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, were imprisoned in dark coffins.
Then an angel appeared and unlocked the coffin, releasing them. They could run around on green grassy fields, wash themselves in a river that flowed nearby, and then simply stand around in the sun, clean and happy.
They left everything behind, including their dirty clothes and cleaning supplies, and were lifted into the sky, where they floated on the clouds and played in the wind. The angel told them that if they were good, they would have God as a father and find joy and happiness that would last forever if they were good.
When Tom awoke, he was relieved by his dream. The thought that there would come a time when life would be better than it is now made him feel better. Even though it was cold outside, he was warmed by his dream and the hope it instilled in him. That is why he is ready to go to work because he knows there will be a reward if he does what is expected of him.
1 When my mother died I was very young,
2 And my father sold me while yet my tongue
3 Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! weep! weep!’
4 So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
Metonymy (a word or phrase that stands in for another word) – the poet refers to the ability to speak with the word “tongue.”
The words ‘cry’ and ‘weep’ are repeated to emphasize the horror of his situation. His mother has died, his father has sold him, and he now spends his days cleaning chimneys. Although the boy is young, he is sad and most likely cries (weeps), but he is too young to name his emotions.
Repetition: The word ‘weep!’ is emphasised to make the reader aware of the plight of the children who had no choice but to work because of poverty.
‘Your chimneys,’ all those who use chimney sweeps are complicit in child exploitation. They are oblivious to the suffering inflicted on these children and do nothing to improve their circumstances.
The black, sticky substance emitted by chimneys is known as’soot.’ The children will be covered in it after a day of cleaning chimneys. It is unlikely that they would be able to take a proper bath to get rid of the dirt due to their poor living conditions. They could also be overtired. There is no caring adult who ensures that they wash their hands before going to bed. As a result, they sleep covered in dirt. They must have been in a lot of pain.
This line also makes the reader aware of how difficult their lives were.
5 There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
6 That curled like a lamb’s back, was shav’d: so I said,
7 ‘Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
8 You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’
‘little Tom Dacre’ To most people the chimney sweepers are anonymous boys, covered in black soot. They lose their individuality and their humanity. By naming the boy the speaker wants to show the reader that they are boys, they are nothing more than little children.
Line 5 – 6
Simile: ‘his head that curled like a lamb’s back’. The boy’s hair is compared to the wool of a lamb which is white and curly. It is significant that a lamb is chosen for the comparison – a lamb is associated with innocence and is also a Biblical allusion (reference). Tom is an ‘innocent’ – he is in this situation because he comes from a poor family. Just like the lamb, he has no choice about what happens to him.
Diction: ‘spoil’ – means to diminish or destroy the value or quality of something.
Synonyms are: mar, damage, impair, blemish, disfigure, blight, flaw, deface, scar, injure, harm.
The speaker talks about spoiling the boy’s beautiful curly white hair, but at the same time, the reader knows that it is not only the boy’s hair that is spoiled. These children’s lives are harmed and scarred because they are forced to do work that is not suitable for children. They should be learning and playing and acting like children; instead, they have to work and live in horrible conditions. These children lead harsh lives and they lose their innocence.
9 And so he was quiet, and that very night,
10 As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!
11 That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
12 Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black;
“Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack” – the speaker uses names to emphasize that each chimney sweeper is a person, not just some nameless dirty boy who comes to do dirty work that no one else wants to do but is forced to do.
These names are also very common, and they are used to remind the reader that there are “thousands of sweepers,” or poor people in the same desperate situation.
“lock’d up in coffins of black”
Literally, this line simply reflects Tom’s dream – all of them are locked up in dark coffins.
However, if one thinks about the lives these boys lead, this is actually what happens to them every day. They work in very confined spaces (like being inside a coffin). It is dark and black where they work.
The idea of a coffin is also significant – although these boys are children, their childhood is dead. They can no longer be like children or act like children. In a sense, their future is uncertain because they might die while doing their jobs or contract an illness that will lead to death.
This image of being ‘lock’d up in coffins of black’ is a metaphor for their lives.
13 And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
14 And he open’d the coffins and set them all free;
15 Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run,
16 And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Line 13 – 14
Biblical allusion: Revelations 1:18 – Jesus Christ has the keys to the grave. In Tom’s dream, an angel opens the coffins and sets them free.
The implication is that after death they will finally be free from the terrible circumstances on which they live.
Line 15 – 16
Contrast: These images are of children who do the things they are supposed to do: they jump and laugh and run outside. The chimney sweeps are not treated like children and there is no time to do the things that children normally do.
The ‘green plain’ is an open space where there is fresh air and grass in which to play. This in sharp contrast to their current lives where they spend their days in dark cramped circumstances. They live in a city where there are no open spaces and they in the evenings they probably return to miserable little hovels where they have to share the space with many others who are equally dirty.
In the dream, they have an opportunity to wash – something which they can rarely do in their ordinary lives. In the dream they are clean and shiny; in reality, they are grimy and dull from all the soot.
Biblical reference: The idea of being pure and being washed is common in the Bible and refers to a cleansing of sins. In this context, the ‘sins’ refer to the wrongdoing of a society that forces children to work and live in shocking conditions. In the afterlife, they will be free from these ‘sins’ and they will be pure and clean.
Personification: ‘Sun’ is written with a capital letter and is used to refer to the presence of God. In God’s presence, the order will be restored and the children will be allowed to do the things God intended for them to do. Their innocence (symbolized by the lamb’s wool) will be restored.
17 Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
18 They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind.
19 And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
20 He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.
Symbol/metaphor: ‘naked and white’ – These images are about purity and innocence. They are restored to the way in which God intended them to be.
‘all their bags left behind’ – literally the bags in which they carry their earthly belongings and the tools with which they do their jobs. Figuratively they leave behind all their cares and suffering. They are freed from the difficulties of their earthly lives.
Metaphor: ‘they rise upon clouds’ – They are lifted above their earthly cares and sorrows, as symbolized by the metaphor “they rise upon clouds.” This is also a metaphor for being in heaven.
‘They play in the wind’ – They enjoy themselves in the wind. The wind represents their freedom. The children are liberated and have no more worries. They have escaped from their dreadful lives as chimney sweeps.
Line 19 – 20
Tom is singled out because the Angel speaks to him. Once again the reader is made aware of the fact that these children are individuals and each of them is valuable.
Pathos: The promise of the Angel that ‘he’d have God for his father’ makes the reader realize that these children are without parents who love them and who take care of them. One is reminded of the speaker’s father who sold him to the chimney sweep. Being part of a family must be something that these chimney sweepers long for. This evokes feelings of sympathy and pity in the reader.
Diction: ‘never want joy’ – he will never be without joy. This sentence summarises the life the boys will have after death: It will be filled with joy. They will lack nothing. Once again, this is in sharp contrast to the lives they live at the moment.
21 And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
22 And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
23 Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
24 So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
Lines 21 – 23
‘rose in the dark’ and ‘the morning was cold’ and ‘got with our bags and our brushes to work’
These lines reflect the reality of these boys’ lives – they have to get up very early while it is still dark and cold. This is very different from Tom’s dream where they could leave their bags behind and play in the warm weather.
Line 23 – 24
Irony: The speaker tells us that even though it’s cold outside and these children have to work hard in the early morning hours, Tom is fine with it all. He is cheerful and warm because he believes that if you do your duty, you will be safe. In other words, if he continues to sweep the chimney like a good little boy, he will be taken care of. Blake uses irony to demonstrate that these children suffer physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Tom’s belief can be thought of as a coping mechanism; the only way to get through the day is to believe that they don’t have to fear harm or to remember that things will be different one day, in heaven. Unfortunately, they suffer as a result of being exploited.
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