The Chimney Sweeper (E)

H. The Chimney SweeperA 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.

‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

‘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 made up a heaven of our misery.’

Summary

The speaker sees a child chimney-sweep in winter, all black with soot, miserably crying ‘Weep!’ He asks where the sweep’s parents are. The child replies that they are praying in church. They have made him wretched and turned him into a child labourer because he was happy and playful. The boy says that his parents have gone to praise ‘God and his priest and King’ suggesting they make no distinction between them. The established church upholds the hierarchical social order that condones the miserable state of child chimney sweeps. This poem links exposure of the social evil of the child chimney sweep with the exploitation and vulnerability of innocence. According to the sweep, the outside world is deliberately cruel and life-denying. He believes his parents are jealous of his capacity for happiness and play and so have handed him over to the experience of misery and repression. At a literal level, they have made him a sweep. Metaphorically, they have repressed him. Although they cannot entirely destroy his innocence, yet they can praise God for ‘saving’ the child from his instincts and making him ‘virtuous’.

Speaker

The poem’s adult speaker evokes our sympathy for the sweep in the opening line. Calling the child a ‘thing’ could sound rather derogatory or heartless. However, by not calling him a child, the speaker draws our attention to how much the sweep is dehumanised. He is no more than a ‘little black thing’, a soot-blackened scrap. Visually, he stands out against the whiteness of the snow. Blake’s first readers would have known that sweeper children were left naked or in rags. They would have registered, therefore, the full impact of this picture. The chimney sweep himself, when it is his turn to sweep, exhibits a very different understanding of his situation than the chimney sweep in the innocent version does. His analysis is informed by experience.

Language and tone

chimney_sweep_bwThe sweep’s tone is largely matter-of-fact tone adopted by the sweep. The tone is one of bitterness rather than pathos. It is ironic that the child is rather ‘adult’ in his acceptance of his parents’ behaviour, compared to the ‘innocent’ surprise of the poem’s adult speaker.

Irony

As with the (I) version of The Chimney Sweeper, Blake consciously employs the irony of ‘’weep’ as:

  • The sweep’s professional advertisement of his labour (‘[S]weep! [S]weep!’)
  • The portrayal of the misery of his position (‘[I] weep! [I] weep!)

Oppositions

The statements that concern happiness in the poem are immediately undercut:

‘Because I was happy …
They clothed me in the clothes of death
And taught me … woe’

‘And because I am happy …
They think they have done me no injury;
And are gone to praise God …’.
Blake uses the image of the child but combines this with the contrasting image of ‘clothes of death’.

Structure and Texture

The rhyme scheme changes after the first stanza. The second line of the first stanza establishes a slower, reflective pace and mood of the poem with the repeated exclamation ‘weep!’ and by being mainly monosyllabic. The reader is required to pause at this scene, pause again after the speaker’s question and after receiving his answer.

The second and third stanzas consist of just one sentence each. The rhythms of these lines reflect the liveliness of the child that has not been entirely repressed. What is the impact of giving the child’s activity a lively rhythm?

Imagery and symbolism

Children – On account of their playfulness and freshness, Blake saw children as symbols of the imagination and artistic creativity. He also used them as an image of innocence and gentleness. The sweep here is clearly vulnerable and open to exploitation, whilst also representing natural physical joy and creativity.

Sexual symbolism – Surprisingly, perhaps, in Blake’s day the sweep was also symbolic of sexual activity. Because they crept up and ‘unblocked’ narrow passages they were seen as fertility symbols. By using the figure of the sweep Blake combines an attack on the exploitation of child workers with an attack on an attitude to bodily life which stunts the lives of children emotionally and spiritually.

Themes

The distortion of Christian belief that makes it a means of controlling people’s behaviour

Blake opposed the way in which he felt the Church condoned the established social order without questioning it. Christian teaching about respecting authority led to the sense that being ‘good’ meant accepting the status quo as though it had been designed by God to be that way. Blake felt such a view was contradicted by the care for the poor and stance against injustice demonstrated by Jesus and the early church.

Parental care and authority

In Blake’s work, parents are often perceived as inhibiting and repressing their children. According to Blake, parents misuse ‘care’ to repress children and bind them to themselves, rather than setting the children free by rejoicing in and safeguarding their capacity for play and imagination. They betray their children to an exploitative social system but also to a way of thinking and behaving that destroys spontaneity and freedom.

The effects of ‘fallenness’ on repression of sexuality and other emotions

Blake believed that inhibitions lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy.