Analysis of the Poem
William Blake’s "The Chimney Sweeper" is considered to be one of Blake’s more outspoken works, as it provides harsh social commentary on the issue of child labor. His use of anecdote, tone, biblical allusion, and design all contribute to the continuation of the theme of innocence in Blake’s Songs of Innocence.
Many prominent Blake critics have suggested that "The Chimney Sweeper" was “inspired by the agitation which was then trying to pass laws against the use of children as chimney sweeps” (Damon 269). Britain’s Act for the Better Regulation of Chimney Sweepers and their Apprentices stipulated that sweepers “should not begin work until they are eight, they should be washed once a week, and they should not be made to climb chimneys with fires in them” (Ferber 16), but this law was loosely enforced, and Blake felt greater emphasis should be placed on the safety of these sweeps.
With this focus on advocating for children’s rights, Blake spends the first half of the work exposing the dangers of the job of chimney sweeping and the exploitation of children in this line of work. The first stanza highlights the fact that “boys (and even a few girls) as young as five were apprenticed by their parents to master sweepers in what amounted to both child labor and involuntary servitude” (Essick 52). Throughout the first three stanzas, Blake uses powerful imagery to illustrate the terrible conditions in which the children worked. The soot in which the narrator sleeps is not metaphorical, but literal—“climbing boys did indeed sleep on the bags of soot they swept” (Lindsay 35). Blake describes an environment in which the boys were surrounded by soot to represent the soot that was in the boys’ lungs. Also, the “coffins of black” (SIE, Copy Z) represented “the narrow chimneys in which children sometimes got stuck and suffocated” (Lindsay 35).
Blake’s attempt to invoke pity in the reader is also supported by his use of anecdote. The work is written through the perspective of an experienced chimney sweep who was so young that he couldn’t pronounce the word “sweep.” “The child’s lisp in pronouncing his cry ‘sweep!’…had its pathetic significance” (Damon 270) in that it invokes pity in the reader; Blake used the child’s inability to form speech, a problem associated with young children, to show the injustices of putting such young children in such a dangerous line of work. As an experienced sweep, the narrator consoles a new recruit, Tom Dacre, who “cried when his head…was shav’d” (SIE, Copy Z), a common practice, “since hair would collect large quantities of soot” (Essick 52-3). However, the speaker reassures Tom that the shaving of his head is a good thing, for “the soot cannot spoil your [his] white hair” (SIE, Copy Z). The speaker’s ability to find “the silver lining of every cloud” (Essick 53) embodies the tragedy of the poem—the children’s ability to remain innocent and optimistic in such a hopeless, oppressive environment.
The second part of the work is focused around a vision that Tom has in which an angel appears to “set them all free” (SIE, Copy Z) from the oppressive conditions of chimney sweeping. A common motif in Blake’s works, angels “mercifully bring death, particularly to children” (Damon 22). Specifically, in "The Chimney Sweeper," “an angel unlocks the coffins of the chimney sweepers” (Damon 22), signifying that the angel is bringing death to the children, thus liberating them from their oppressed state. In his dream, Tom dreams of the freedom to frolic in nature, “to wash in a river and shine in the Sun” (SIE, Copy Z). Tom’s dream is the epitome of a child’s innocence, as it shows that a child can still be optimistic, even when in the worst of situations. This innocence “can be both imaginative and pathetic at the same time—imaginative because the innocent child can ‘transcend’ his outer environment…and pathetic because the child so obviously suffers from that outward existence” (Adams 260). Blake uses the fact that “the child must indulge in symbolic compensations for his real lot” (Adams 261) to invoke sympathy in the reader and develop a pitiful tone. However, Tom’s dream of death also represents the experience that comes with the children’s exposure to death in their dangerous line of work. Thus, Tom’s dream embodies the incredible coexistence of innocence and experience that Blake describes throughout the poem.
The Angel’s focus on being “a good boy” (SIE, Copy Z) and doing “their duty” (SIE, Copy Z) brings about Blake’s questioning of religion and the accusation that it brings about false hope. In context of the poem, “being ‘good’ means continuing in Tom’s enforced labors” (Essick 54), presenting an open-ended conflict in the mind of the reader. Though Tom is reassured by the speaker’s efforts and the Angel’s promise that if they “all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (SIE, Copy Z), the Angel is acting as an agent to quiet revolt against the injustice of this oppressive labor. In essence, Blake is showing the downsides of innocence, for “the comforting sentiments of innocence will have terrible consequences for these boys” (Essick 54).
In addition to blaming religion for giving the sweeps false hope of a better life, Blake, as a part of his social commentary, also blames humanity in general for allowing and encouraging such a dangerous and inhumane practice. By using the word “your” in the line “so your chimneys I sweep” (SIE, Copy Z), Blake “implicates the reader in the circle of exploitation” (Essick 53). Blake claims that by supporting the sweeping industry, society as a whole is perpetuating and encouraging the oppressive conditions in which the young sweeps live. “The sweeps’ trust in the justice and benevolence of the very world that has injured them is terribly pathetic” (Leader 46); Blake invokes a feeling of guilt in the reader by juxtaposing Tom’s dream with subtle accusations of society’s betrayal of these young children.