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Metaphor in The Chimney Sweeper

Metaphors for Death: Blake relies heavily on both metaphors for death and metaphorical deaths. These metaphors primarily occur in Tom’s dream, wherein the chimney sweepers are locked in black coffins which evoke images of soot and ash. The suggestion is that the life of a chimney sweep is a sort of death. Tom’s dream then takes place in a paradisiacal realm, suggesting that dreams and perhaps death are, unfortunately, the only refuges for the little chimney sweepers.

Metaphors for Innocence: The majority of the metaphors in this “The Chimney Sweeper” relate to the central theme of innocence and its loss. Tom’s dream is full of metaphors of cleansing and rebirth. The river signifies a metaphorical cleansing of sin. The bright “shine of the sun” acts as a purifier, drawing on the metaphor of brightness as purity. The angels bring the “naked and white” child workers into the heavenly afterlife. Nudity is a common metaphor for purity and innocence. The leaving behind of bags is a metaphor for redemption, as the sins of the material world are left behind before the children enter the afterlife.

Metaphor Examples in The Chimney Sweeper:

The Chimney Sweeper

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"Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,..."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

Nudity is another metaphor for a return to innocence. In Christian iconography, angels, cherubs, and the infant Jesus are all typically portrayed as naked to denote their complete purity. The leaving behind of baggage is another powerful metaphor. In Christian theology, redemption is a movement of the soul and requires an abandonment of the body and materiality. Thus, enlightenment takes on both luminous and physical registers: a shift from darkness to light, as well as a lightening of one’s load.

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"And wash in a river, and shine in the sun...."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

The setting of the dream is an Edenic afterlife. Each of the details Blake chooses suggests a return to a state of grace. The “wash in the river” promises a cleansing of the chimney soot and, more figuratively, a baptismal cleansing of sin. The “shine in the sun” draws again on the metaphor of brightness—the white hair and bright key—as purity. The sun, then, becomes a purifying force.

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"That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack, Were all of them locked up in coffins of black...."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

Tom’s dream brings forth an important metaphor: the drudgery-filled life of a chimney-sweeper is a kind of death. The blackness of the coffins evokes multiple motifs and symbols to reinforce this view: soot, experience, oblivion. As will become clear, Blake deepens the meaning of the dream.

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"There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head, That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved; so I said,' Hush, Tom!..."   (The Chimney Sweeper)

In this stanza, Blake blends metonymy and metaphor to convey Tom Dacre’s state of innocence. Tom Dacre’s hair represents his innocence. It is “like a lamb’s back,” evoking the lamb of God, a Christian symbol of piety and innocence. Blake explores the role of the lamb more deeply in “The Lamb,” another poem in Songs of Innocence. The shaving of Tom’s head is akin to the act of sheep-shearing, a moment of innocence lost. The same pattern can be found in the contrast between the whiteness of Tom’s hair and the darkness of the chimney soot. Whiteness is a classic literary motif of purity, and darkness is one of experience.

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