Analysis of Chimney Sweeper by William Blake

 

William Blake is an English poet in the Romantic Age. This poem is taken from his most popular collection is called the Songs of Innocence published in 1789. A sympathizer of the American and French revolutions in the 18th century, he was socially and politically conscious and was considered as a nonconformist who questioned the oppressive authority of the Church and State. He is also considered as a spiritual and mystical poet, incorporating the world of the divine into his poetry. He is established as one of the most moving poets in the English language.

The poem is narrated by the Chimney sweep in simple language, and is a dramatic monologue. It is divided into six stanzas and each stanza contains four lines, in rhyming couplets.

The Chimney Sweeper is a poem of social protest and focuses on childhood, one of the most important preoccupations of the Romantics. Blake discusses child labor in London and focuses on the chimney sweepers, who were very young, and were bought, sold and traded into a life of hard labor, to climb down chimneys which were roughly only seven inches square. Many suffered deformity as a result and the practice was abolished in 1875.

 

Major Themes in “The Chimney Sweeper”: innocence, suffering, Misery, death, and hope

 

Deep End Analysis of the poem

 

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.

 

Word Pun: use of the word weep for sweep. Most chimney sweepers like the speaker cannot pronounce the word sweep and it signify the pathetic state of the child labor. Weep may suggest the actual weeping of the little boy.

Rhyme couplet: AABB, regular rhyme scheme suggests the regularity and monotonic nature of their work routine.

Enjambment: shows the continuation of their routine of labour

Metonymy – tongue (use of the body part to represent the entire person) tongue could scarcely cry suggests the small age of the speaker.

Assonance and Alliteration: Weep! weep! weep! weep! / Could scarcely cry (assonance suggests the energy/audibility of the trade call and alliteration /k/ sound is a harsh sound which reveals the harsh reality of the child.)

1st person, monologue: reveals a personal experience, voicing the message to an audience in the dramatic monologue form.

Visual imagery: in soot I sleep (visually portrays the unhealthy life condition of chimney sweepers)

Symbol: soot/black color suggests the death

 

The stanza vividly introduces the pathetic lives of chimney sweepers and how the children are exploited for hard labor. It further suggests what conditions drag children to such a risky life. By calling ‘your chimneys’ the speaker puts the blame before the original audience who are responsible for their plight.

 

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.”

 

Simile: curled like a lamb’s back (beautiful)

Recurrent imagery: soot; suggests the death is all over their lives.

Visual imagery: white hair, that curled like a lamb’s back

Symbolism: lamb is a symbol of innocence/ white is a color symbol for purity (Shaving the lamb is suggestive to that they are ready to be slaughtered like lambs or it shows a picture of shaving a head of a prisoner before imprisonment)

 

In the second stanza, the little narrator tells us the woeful tale of Tom Dacre. This is a very famous character in Blake’s many poems. Tom was called ‘Dacre’ because he belonged to Lady Dacre’s Almshouse, which was situated between St. James Street and Buckingham Road. The inmates of the Almshouse were foundling orphans, who were allowed to be adopted by the poor only. It may be a foster father who encased the boy Tom by selling him to a Master Sweeper.

 

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;

 

Hyperbole: thousands of sweepers; suggests the extent of exploitation of children

Alliteration: such a sight! (adds a positive energy to the melancholic lives of Tom Dacre)

Visual imagery: coffins of black (creates a disturbing image)

Metaphor: coffins of black to suggest chimneys. / tom was a-sleeping (sleeping suggests a period of rest after a long day of labor.)

Passive structure: were locked up (shows the passivity of children and there is a force behind them who keep them locked up)

Color symbol: black – darkness, evil, death 

 

The last line reveals the fate of the chimney sweepers. Their lives have been forcibly trapped into a deathly occupation which ultimately seals their fate. Tom Dacre’s dream seems to be the realistic truth of the lives of thousands of sweepers.

 

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.

 

Symbol: Angel (messenger of god - religion) green plain: better lives (these symbols may suggest the role and preaching of the priests)

Visual imagery: bright key/ a green plain/ shine in the sun (positive imagery – showing hope and prosperity)

Kinesthetic imagery: leaping, laughing they run/ wash in a river

 

This shows the childhood desire of Tom Dacre to be free and live a better life. The inner belief of children that one day, an angel would come and release them from their life of misery and give them a life full of happiness and wealth. The stanza is full of religious connotations.

 

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.

 

Metaphor – their bags (burden of their hard work)

Visual imagery – naked and white (free and pure)

Kinesthetic imagery – rise upon clouds, sport in the wind

Parable - And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

 

The image of clouds floating freely is Blake’s metaphor for the freedom from the material boundaries of the body and an important visual symbol. The message of the suggestive parable is: The Angel told Tom that if he would be a good boy he would have God for his father and there would never be lack of happiness for him. The conditional sentence raises the questions: how he can be a good child? is it working without complaining or accepting the injustice upon them as fate? or what happens if not? (is it an open threat to the society? Blake seems to be critical about the way religion is used to shape and control the people)

 

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.

 

Symbolic – rose in the dark (death/afterlife)

 

In the last line of the poem, a moral has been thrown to us: If all do their duty, they need not fear any harm. The last stanza shows the reality of the sweepers’ life. The antithesis between the vision of summer sunshine and this dark, cold reality is deeply ironic. Even though the victims have been mollified, the readers know that innocent trust is abused. Again the last line of the poem with a condition raises a number of questions. It shows how people are exploited by means of the religion. Blake seems to be critically speaking on behalf of the children who are exploited without their knowledge.

The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake contains a number of layers down to be analyzed. Hope you got some idea through the analysis using major stylistic devices. If you have new ideas to put forward, please add them in the comment section for the benefit of the readers. If anything to be amended or added, please feel free to mention them in the comment section. Share the post if you find this useful to you.

 

Sources:

G.C.E. (A/L) Resource book, NIE

https://literarydevices.net/the-chimney-sweeper/

https://poemanalysis.com/william-blake/the-chimney-sweeper-when-my-mother-died/

 

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