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The Chimney Sweeper, William Blake, Detailed Analysis

Songs of Innocence and Experience 1789 (from bookshelf)

This poem is set in the late 18th century when only young boys were used as chimney sweepers because they were able to fit up the narrow chimneys which needed cleaning. The poem concerns itself with two young chimney sweeps, Tom Dacre and the unknown narrator. It tells of their innocent and slightly naive dreams of a better future in heaven. The narrator focuses on Tom’s dream of what heaven will be like. William Blake passes judgment about the state of poverty and social injustice encountered in the city of London.

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The “Chimney Sweeper” uses a simple AABB rhyme scheme; this makes it seem repetitive and child-like, highlighting the youthful age and innocence of the narrator. A good example of his use of language is in the first verse “Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep” (V.1, l.1). The poem consists of six quatrains with an uneven rhyme that changes continuously. The cheerful tone of the first two verses contrasts with the dark ominous tone of the latter stages of the poem.

The turning point of the poem occurs in the third verse, as the narrator moves away from the brutal reality to the innocent hopes and aspirations of the young boys. These hopes, which revolve around death and heaven, leave the reader feeling deeply saddened. The poem underlines Blake’s anger and disapproval of the current state of poverty in London as well as the ruling of the state. He is also criticizing the exploitation of children. William Blake is clearly disgusted with the conditions these youths must work.

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By using such simplistic language William Blake really highlights the youth of the chimney sweepers thus making the horrors of their situation all the more poignant. The narrator uses a lot of metaphors. ‘Were all of them locked up in coffins of black’ (V.3, l.1.), the coffins of black evoking an image of the chimneys the boys are forced to clean and the life they are unable to escape from that can only result in death. This shows that the young sweepers are not as innocent as suggested, as they are aware of the fate that awaits them.

Also, Tom Dacre is used to illustrating another point. He is originally frightened but later feels “happy and warm” (V.6, l.3), showing that one can experience a certain degree of happiness, even in the worst of circumstances. The narrator on the other hand does not show any positives about his situation, this shows that he is possibly older as he is also taking care and calming down his friend in an earlier verse, “Hush, Tom! Never mind it,” (V.2, l.3).

The narrator also uses stark contrasts between life and heaven (V. 3-4), showing how these young boys welcome and even look forward to the afterlife. William Blake creates a beautiful, vivid and child-like view of heaven through alliteration, ‘down a green plain leaping laughing they run’ (V.4, l.3). At the end of the poem, he uses irony to criticize the employers by using a phrase that was commonly said to enslaved children. “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”, (V.6, l.4). It is ironic because encouraging the young boys to work harder, will cause them much pain and suffering and will eventually kill them.

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I personally find this poem very inspiring and moving as Blake challenges the authority of the state head-on. It shows the innocence and naivety of the young children whilst having underlying darkness. I enjoy the fluidity and simplicity of the poem. It almost has a nursery rhyme-type feel to it whilst conveying a very important message.

The Chimney Sweeper

William Blake

Songs of Innocence and Experience 1789

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, 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 thousand 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.

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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.

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