The Chimney-Sweeper

chimney_sweeperWhen 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, and 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, and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!–
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and 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, and 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 and 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, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke, and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm:
So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

Summary

The poem is paired with the poem of the same name in Experience. The narrator is a child sweep who has no mother to guide him. The first stanza describes the process by which he was orphaned. Parents received cash payments for apprenticing their boys to master sweeps.

The speaker of this poem is a small boy who was sold into the chimney-sweeping business after his mother died. He recounts the story of a fellow chimney sweeper, Tom Dacre, who cried when his hair was shaved to prevent vermin and soot from infesting it. The speaker comforts Tom, who falls asleep and has a dream or vision of several chimney sweepers all locked in black coffins. An angel arrives with a special key that opens the locks on the coffins and sets the children free. The newly freed children run through a green field and wash themselves in a river, coming out clean and white in the bright sun. The angel tells Tom that if he is a good boy, he will have this paradise for his own. When Tom awakens, he and the speaker gather their tools and head out to work, somewhat comforted that their lives will one day improve.

The Chimney Sweeper is set against the dark background of child labour that was prominent in England in the late 18th and 19th century. At the age of four and five, boys were sold to clean chimneys, due to their small size. These children were oppressed and lived diminished lives. This was accepted by most of the people in the society at the time.

When Tom wakes in the darkness before dawn, he goes to work happy, despite the cold. The speaker concludes with the moral advice that anyone who does their duty need have no fear of harm. The poem exposes the social evil of the child chimney-sweeps while exploring the theme of the exploitation and vulnerability of innocence.

Speaker

The speaker of this poem is a small boy who was sold into the chimney-sweeping business when his mother died. He recounts the story of a fellow chimney sweeper, Tom Dacre. The poem uses intricate dramatic strategies.

Language and Tone

The speaker is matter-of-fact about his situation as a sweep. He is a good Christian child who has accepted his lot in life. He advises others to do the same and to look for happiness in heaven when they die. He accepts a Christianity which offers future comfort, rather than one which opposes injustice. His words encourage the dream of resurrection which gives joy to Tom and makes his unbearable life endurable. In so doing, the sweep perpetuates the evil.

The poem uses irony: readers note the discrepancy between the boys’ view of their situation and the reality as well as the limitations of the angel’s comforting words.

Oppositions

Some critics have suggested that Blake is offering here a true vision of the joy which is available to the innocent and the redemptive power of the imagination. The boy’s unpaternal human father is replaced by the loving fatherhood of God. However, there is also much in the poem that suggests that Blake is satirising contemporary Christianity and exposing the limitations of innocence which makes it prey to exploitation:

  • weep: although the child is matter-of-fact, his repetition of ’weep’ in line three of stanza one evokes pathos. It is the street cry by which he sells his services, but the child is so young that he cannot yet pronounce the word sweep, and unintentionally turns it into a term of suffering. We see and feel the plight that he himself cannot fully comprehend.
  • sold: the use of this word to describe the father’s act of apprenticing his son accentuates its heartless and unpaternal nature. This system is akin to slavery.
  • The uncomplaining, general terms in which the child tells his story may also suggest the level of insensibility that his society has reached, if such destitution is taken for granted
  • lamb: the child, like the lamb, is sacrificed in in a society which takes infant destitution for granted.

Readers may find relief in the vision of joy and freedom which encourages Tom from stanza three onwards. However, they are brought back to the reality of the situation by the angel’s message. This vision of joy is a reward which keeps the child obedient and in line.

According to this reading, readers are invited to see that the dream is an illusion. A less bleak reading of the poem notes the solidarity and tenderness among the children themselves and the power of their innocent imaginations to offer them hope and comfort. What matters, then, in the lines, ‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for, when your head’s bare, You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair’, isn’t the specious consolation itself so much as the spirit of companionship in which it is offered. The Christian values articulated here by the sweeps is a natural religion of the heart and this provides a contrast with the formal, respectable religion of the Experience version. In the dream all the sweeps’ sufferings are reversed. The dream suffuses the morning whern they awake with fellowship. Dreams for Blake, it should be remembered, were states of real insight into the world of the imagination.

The poem’s ambiguity is carried through to the moral message in its final line:

  • At face value, it is warning the child to do his duty in obeying his employer and carrying out his work, so that he need not fear future punishment
  • However, if all truly did their duty by their neighbour (including employers and a neglectful wider society), Tom’s situation and other injustices would not occur and no one would have anything to fear in the present.

Nelson Hilton argues that the poem celebrates the children’s resilience and the restorative power of the imagination at the same time as it condemns their exploitation:

Critics often cite its last line, “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” as an instance of irony in Songs, but if one thinks of irony as “saying one thing while meaning another,” the term is too limited. The glees of Songs say several things while meaning them all — and “innocence” entails the accepting of them all. On the one hand, little Tom Dacre has a dream which evidently recycles the consoling scene of instruction offered by the frame narrator, and believes it to such extent that “Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm.” Ideology and the imaginary combine for this real power. On another hand, the poem’s slightly older speaker’s detachment and unselfconsciousness (as in his transitions “so,” “And so”), heighten our sense of his pain and the force of the actuality he relates: “So your chimneys I sweep” (emphasis added).

Structure and texture

“The Chimney Sweeper” consists of six quatrains, each following the AABB rhyme scheme, with two rhyming couplets per quatrain.

The first three lines are bleak, the first dividing into two halves of trochaic metre with the emphases on:

When my mother died I was very young’.

There is a natural caesura after the word ‘died’ which indicates a pause perhaps to accommodate the distress of the sweep. The enjambement from the second to third lines conveys a rush of emotion which is brought up short by the repetition, exclamation marks and emphatic monosyllables of ‘weep!’

After the first three lines the metre alternates between anapaestic and iambic feet, which is usually found in comic or light-hearted verse. This enhances the relentlessly positive tone adopted by the speaker, which contrasts with much of the content. It underlines the suggestion of an innocent speaker who does not appreciate the full implications of what he is saying, or of one who uses words and happy visions to blot out the painful reality of his life.

Imagery and Symbolism

Lamb – Lambs are associated with innocence and playfulness. But also with vulnerability and sacrifice.

white hair – White is the colour associated with innocence and purity. The image provides a contrast with the blackened children and their squalid conditions.

coffins of black – The claustrophobic confines of grimy chimneys may have seemed like living coffins to their young occupants, many of whom lost their lives through their job.

Angel / bright key – The idea of the angel releasing the children into paradise reverses the fate of Adam and Eve who were banished from Eden, guarded by cherubim with a sword Genesis 3:23-24.

wash in a river – Washing in a river represents renewal and evokes a pastoral idyll. The image resonates with many biblical images of healing and of new life associated with rivers

A green plain – Blake often refers to a green, usually the village green, or the use of the adjective, green, in a way intended to evoke growth, fertility and spring as well as the freedom to play and a communal life in which everyone has a place.

Themes

Plight of the marginalised

apprenticesThe poem is engaged with the lives of the marginalised. Their blackness provides ideological justification for viewing them as subhuman. The only solace is from their fellows (stanza 2). ‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for, when your head’s bare, You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’ Here what matters isn’t the specious consolation itself so much as the spirit of companionship in which it is offered. The Christian values articulated here by the sweeps is a natural religion of the heart not the formal, respectable religion of the Experience version.

The world as mental

Since Blake believes the world to be mental, dreams are a region of the soul’s reality, places of the imagination. The inner freedom of the dream world enables Tom to face the world happy and inwardly warm. In the dream section of the poem the children are liberated by an angel and get a glimpse of a state beyond experience but the religious, baptismal image of emancipation is also dark because it implies that their release is related to death.

Ideology

Ideology in the form of false religious teachings allows the innocent children to be exploited exploited without their being aware of the exploitation. While the children return to work nourished by the angel’s words these words are sinister and full of threat – the angel represents power and the employers. He talks like a stuffy adult. The children are interpellated, internalising their own enslavement. This last line echoes the masters’ voice.

The boys carry on with their terrible, probably fatal work because of their hope in a future where their circumstances will be set right. This same promise was often used by those in power to maintain the status quo so that workers and the weak would not unite to stand against the inhuman conditions forced upon them. As becomes more clear in Blake’s Songs of Experience, the poet had little patience with palliative measures that did nothing to alter the present suffering of impoverished families.

Imagination

Blake’s attitude to Christian belief about the future life

Blake attacks the pious hope of future solace in heaven, advocated by some Christians as a way of avoiding the uncomfortable reality of injustice and exploitation. This taught people to accept present suffering and injustice because of the promise of bliss and the absence of all suffering in the next world. For Blake, this was the distorted perspective of fallen humanity.

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. It is represented by a verse from a 19th century hymn:

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.
Mrs C.F.Alexander

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 The Chimney Sweeper, the father betrays the child and abuses his authority by selling him into an apprenticeship. Whether from necessity or choice, he has colluded with the system of oppression.

Innocence and imagination

While condemning the children’s exploitation the poem might also celebrate the way that they comfort each other in their innocence and the power of imaginative vision to transform grim experiences.