The Chimney Sweeper

From Songs of Innocence

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, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!—
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & 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, & 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 & 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, & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke, and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm:
So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

Footnotes

  1. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. In these lines we encounter the price of redemption: obedience. Not all can be absolved of sin. The joys of heaven are reserved for “good boy[s]” who follow the rules set before them. One can begin to see the harmful side of the hope for redemption.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The arrival of the angel draws on the Christian narrative of redemption. One of the central philosophies in the Christian tradition is that the toils and pains of human existence are fleeting compared to the joys of the afterlife. The angel serves as an agent of heavenly redemption for the chimney sweepers in their state of earthly suffering. The “bright key” is the solution to the black coffins.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The metaphors Blake uses in this stanza attune us to the central theme of Songs of Innocence and of Experience: innocence and the loss thereof. While most of the poems in the first half of the collection—see “Spring” or “Blossom”—tell of untouched innocence, “The Chimney Sweeper” introduces the tainting touch of experience.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff