The poem The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence is about two children who are forced to work as sweepers in a Chimney. One of them was sold by his father after the death of his mother.
The other child namely Tom Dacre cries when his head is shaved. The first child tries to console him. In the following night, Tom sees a dream in which he is assured of a better future in the afterworld. The next day, he feels better and goes to work happily.
The poet here is not appreciating this. He rather strongly condemns the religious beliefs which were put in the minds of the poor working class people so that they may keep working, pay taxes and never raise voice against the upper class or Church.
The poem is divided into six stanzas having four lines each and the rhyme scheme is AABB. This poem is one of my favourites. Read the poem after going through the summary. You will experience the pain that Blake is trying the make us feel.
Poem Summary & Analysis
A child narrates his story that when he was very young, his mother died and his father sold him. He was so young that he could scarcely cry “weep! weep! weep! weep!”. In these lines, the meaning is quite clear and easy – the young boy was sold to a Chimney Owner by his father after the death of his mother.
He was so young that he did not even know how to weep. The repetition of the word weep! is not only for poetic effect but to suggest that if he were a little bit mature, he could have wept and pleaded his father not to sell him. However being incapable of expressing his pain, he was sold. From that day, he sweeps the chimneys and sleeps in soot.
Note that he is in an imaginary conversation with the owners of Chimneys. This is why he uses the word “your chimneys“.
In the second stanza, the child tells us about another young boy namely Tom Dacre. He cried a lot when his head was shaved which had curly hair that looked like lamb’s back. The use of lamb’s back symbolises two things. First that he had thick hair because there was nobody to take care of him. Secondly, like the lamb, the child was innocent.
To console him, the first child (or the speaker) says “Hush Tom!, never mind” as this is being done so that the soot of the chimney may not spoil his white hair. This line not only depicts the child’s innocence and love but also his maturity in such a young age.
The child-labour made the young ones become matured and tough before the appropriate age. This deprived them of the joys of childhood. They knew their destiny and had accepted their fate.
Tom felt better and got quiet. In that night he sees in dream thousands of sweepers like Dick, Joe Ned & Jack who were locked up in the black coffins. This line is very deep and symbolic. The “dream” is the psychological picture painted by the Church in the minds of the working class.
In this stanza, the child takes the names of some people who were his friends and died. Here is a revelation by the poet. He tells how thousands of young children who worked in chimneys died. They died at a young age. Their death was not natural but because of the dangerous work which they did.
The poet mentions this idea in the other poem with the same name in Songs of Experience by the symbol “clothes of death“. Another thing worth noticing is the use of “Black Coffins”. Coffins are usually made up of wood. So, I think black coffins simply means the black soot under which they were buried mercilessly.
Just imagine, why would the chimney owners purchase coffins for the young workers?
This stanza continues from the previous one (enjambment). An Angel appears near the black coffins of those young chimney sweepers with a bright key. The idea of an angel and bright key were the tools used by religious people to keep the people working.
Coming back to the poem, the angel opens the coffins & sets them all free. The children then go to a green plain or meadow (imaginary heaven). They run, laugh, leap and wash in a river and shine in the Sun i.e. are free and enjoy at their full.
Now, they are naked and white i.e. free from the “clothes of death” and beautiful like the angels. They fly and rise above the clouds and play in the wind like the angels. The angel then tells Tom that if he becomes or remains a good boy, he will have God as his protector and will enjoy so much that he will never desire more joy.
Let us try to understand this stanza. It can be explained in two perspectives. First, the positive one – the children will get the reward of their hard work in the afterworld. The second perspective is quite negative – the angel here is ironically the religious man who poses like Angel and lectures the innocent children about the better future.
The phrase “a good boy” means that he should obey their masters and work harder. It is like controlling their minds so that they may keep working with full dedication and never question the rich or the religious men.
The next day Tom wakes up. After seeing the dream, he is changed. He rises in the dark and goes to work though the morning was cold. He was happy and warm. He believed that if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
Think, how powerful is the brainwashing! I think the dream and the angel were not real. It was rather a religious man who came to them and told the young children about the bright future in the afterlife.
Tom and the speaker think that they should do their duty honestly and with full dedication. They never think or could understand how they were used. They were happy being slaves and workers. In spite of the fact that they had a fear (of God and Religion and being bad) in their minds, they could never discover it and thought that they are fearless.
Now that you have understood the poem, try reading it. You might love it like me 😊.