Analysis Pages

Historical Context in The Chimney Sweeper

Historical Context Examples in The Chimney Sweeper:

The Chimney Sweeper


"Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm: So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm...."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

Many scholars read this poem as a work of social criticism. In the final couplet, Tom finds solace in the knowledge that “if all do their duty,” redemption will await. It is worth noting again that child labor in Victorian England was a predominantly church-organized institution. Taken from that perspective, Tom’s conclusion becomes problematic. Christian orthodoxy in its various forms has often justified a life of suffering as a means of entering heaven. When the church is responsible for the suffering, there is a systematic misuse of religious doctrine. The works of Charles Dickens expose these flaws, and Blake does the same here.

"Could scarcely cry “'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!' So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep...."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

Blake chooses a 2nd-person addressee that stands in for English society: in other words, those whose chimneys are swept. This choice gives the poem an accusatory tone. Indeed, Blake’s contemporary readership would have been attuned to worker’s rights issues and may well have possessed first-hand experiences with such child laborers. The dense internal “-eep” rhymes in this couplet give the lines an exceptional force.

"When my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue..."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

William Blake wrote Songs of Innocence and of Experience during the height of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The expansion of factory production created an enormous need for labor. This need was often filled by child laborers. Children began to serve in numerous lines of low-wage work, including chimney-sweeping. Charles Dickens wrote often and accurately of the plight of Victorian-era London’s young chimney sweepers in works such as Oliver Twist. As Blake makes clear, such labor was akin to slavery. Infants were sold into labor programs known as “work houses,” many of which were run by the Anglican church.

Analysis Pages