Table of Contents
‘The Chimney Sweeper’ is a poem written by William Blake. Deceptively simple in nature, it conveys a deep message to society as a whole.
About the Poet:
William Blake (1757-1827) was a prominent English Romantic poet. In addition, he was also a painter and engraver. Famous works of his include, “The Tyger”, “The Sick Rose”, and “A Poison Tree”.
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 & in soot I sleep.
The poem begins with the persona being a young chimney sweeper. They bring out the dire plight of the chimney sweepers. The persona themselves was sold at a very young age by their own father on account of poverty– before they could even pronounce ‘sweep’ properly. They state how they were forced into chimney sweeping and had to live in harsh conditions.
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."
This stanza begins with a Tom Dacre, who can be gathered to be a fellow chimney sweeper to the persona. The persona states that this boy had cried when his head was shaved, revealing how the heads of chimney-sweeping children were shaved against their will so that their hair does not fall into chimneys. The persona placating him also sheds light on how accepting their misery is the only choice they have.
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;
Here, Tom’s dream that he had that night is detailed. In his dream, “thousands of sweepers” were “locked up in coffins of black”. The black coffin here refers to the soot in chimneys and how children die in chimneys as a result of suffocation while sweeping.
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.
At this point, Tom’s dream turns for the better. An Angel unlocks this black coffin and they are all finally freed. They all play merrily in the sun and at last, find themselves clean.
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.
The happy dream– which is a manifestation of their desires– continues as they leave their “bags” or burden behind and play happily. The Angel advises Tom that God will protect him if he were “a good boy” and he’ll always be joyous. This reveals the illusion of hope Christianity provides for these children.
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.
In contrast to the bright imagery in the previous stanza, the children once again wake to darkness– their reality, that is. They don back their “bags”, this time feeling hopeful that things will turn for the better “if all do their duty”.
This is a heart-wrenching poem. Although seemingly ending on a happy note, in reality, it reveals the hopeless situation of the young chimney sweepers.