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William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Blake

Introduction and Excerpt from "The Chimney Sweeper"

Each of the six quatrains in William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" from Song of Innocence plays out in two rimed couplets. Some offer perfect rimes, while others feature slant or near rime. Blake is throwing out some social commentary in this poem. Such a stunt is usually a failure despite the poetic acumen of the poet. While this poem does target a societal flaw, it perhaps can be considered at least halfway successful in execution.

Blake's propensity for propaganda was strong, and he almost always can be found demonizing religion and religious concepts that he found repugnant, while suggesting that spirituality is an appropriate endeavor. When poets choose to politicize their themes, they usually make foolish, incoherent choices for their images, metaphors, or personifications, causing their speakers to sound stilted and contrived, if not silly. This poem finds itself in the somewhat foolish category, despite the correct stance on decrying child abuse through unhealthy labor practices.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Excerpt from "The Chimney Sweeper"

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. . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit "The Chimney Sweeper," as Poetry Foundation.

Reading of "The Chimney Sweeper"

Commentary

The speaker becomes a vague presence in the piece despite his strong opening. The speaker's remaining nameless likely emphasizes the fact that despite the social criticism, the critic has no workable solution to the problem.

First Quatrain: Rime/Rhythm for Rime/Rhythm's Sake

The narrator of this story is a boy, who remains nameless. Readers learn immediately that this boy's mother died when he was quite young. He claims that his father sold him into forced child labor before the poor narrator could talk, or as he so dramatically expresses it, before he could even cry out or, "weep." It became a fortunate happenstance that the poet could rime "weep" with "sweep" and "sleep."

Rime that comes by way of a happy event may add to the drama while not diverting meaning or pleasure in the arrangement of the poem. More often rime can come across as contrived. It can lead to the unhappy event of choosing a word solely for rime instead of meaning. Blake, in this instance, nearly skates by with the convenient rime of "weep," "sweep," and "sleep," but the repetition of "weep" four times seems a bit overdone. In this case, it is likely the fault of maintaining rhythm that is the culprit leading to contrivance.

Second Quatrain: A Second Named Boy

Suddenly, the narrator shifts his attention to a second boy, whose name is "Tom Dacre." The naming of a second boy only emphasizes the fact that the main character of this piece is not named. It remains an unsatisfying flaw having to listen to an anonymous speaker, who has named another character and refers to several others by name.

Poor little Tom Dacre began to cry when someone started to shave his head. Tom has wooly lamb-like curls. The nameless narrator tries to comfort little Tom, telling him how his hair would get all filled with soot from chimney sweeping. It was therefore useful to have a bald head, which would be easier to clean than all that head full of curls. The narrator is trying to make little Tom feel better about having this head shaved by offering his common sense about the efficacy of hair washing after sweeping chimneys.

Third Quatrain: Helped by Logic

Little Tom seems to be helped by the speaker's logic; Tom has stopped crying, at least. That night Tom has a dream in which he sees many chimney sweepers. Among those sweeper are four boys whom Tom knows—Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack. However, it is sad that the boys are "locked up in coffins of black."

Blake's speaker begins his symbolic foray, offering "coffins of black" to symbolize the sooted chimneys, in which the boys will have to pass their days laboring instead of playing healthy games. Their precious days of childhood are stolen from them as they are forced to labor in work they did not choose.

Fourth Quatrain: Keys to the Coffin

Tom's dream then makes a remarkable shift. An angel appears with a "bright key." As predictable as the black coffin symbolizing the sooted chimney, the bright keyed angel appears on schedule to use the key to open up the coffins freeing the boys.

The foolish notion that coffins and chimneys require keys stifles the impact of this poem's usefulness. As readers have experienced before, however, Blake often allows his speakers artistic choices that turn silly as they fumble to symbolize concepts and ideas.

Coffins and chimneys remain keyless, despite dreams and symbolism. In Tom's dream, nevertheless, after the boys are released from their coffin prisons, they run, jump, laugh, and wash themselves in the river. The dream has become a lovely scene of healthy boyish activity.

Fifth Quatrain: A Surreal Dream

The dream grows even more surreal as the romping boys find themselves floating upward on clouds while they "sport in the wind." The angel tells Tom that if he behaves appropriately, he will be happy and have "God for his father." For Blake's sensibilities, the notion of being "good" and thus deserving dispensation from "God" was anathema. Thus, he allows a very young boy to experience such nonsense in a surreal dream.

It will be noticed that the original narrator, who remains nameless, almost disappears after the second stanza, in which he had offered advice to Tom Dacre. His narration on Tom's dream takes center stage.

Sixth Quatrain: Liberation Through Faith

Then Tom awakens from his lovely dream to find that he and all the other boys must arise from bed while it is still dark outside. Here the original, nameless narrator steps back in but only vaguely as one those who "rose in the dark."

They must get dressed, scoop up their sweeping gear, and go trudging off to their hard labor of sweeping the dirty, sooty chimneys. However, Tom is still warm and happy because of the beautiful dream he has experienced. The narrator, however, takes a sinister, pessimistic view of the situation. He remarks with sarcasm: "So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm."

Tom remains liberated from his earthly chores because he now has faith delivered to him by the angel in his dream. The others, however, remain skeptical and even cynical that faith can keep one balanced and even happy. Those cynics echo Blake's overall view of religion, as can be seen in his treatment in "The Garden of Love."

Questions & Answers

Question: In William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper," what does Tom's dream mean?

Answer: Tom's dream in Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" attempts to emphasize, and thereby symbolize, the miserable lot of the boys who are tasked with the dirty, unhealthy job of cleaning chimneys.

Question: What causes Tom to change his negative attitude in William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"?

Answer: In Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper," after his dream, Tom becomes convinced that he is secure despite the dirt and danger of his present circumstances. Quite accidentally, the poet has revealed a truth about the power of faith.

Question: What is surreal in William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper"?

Answer: In Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper," the nameless boy narrator recounts a dream that one of the other boys, Tom, has one night. The dream becomes surreal as the narrator processes the several images which Tom has relayed to him. One example of surrealism is the image of an angel with a "bright key" to open up the coffins in the dream--coffins do not have locks, nor do chimneys, for which "coffins" becomes a symbol.

Question: Was William Blake a Christian?

Answer: No, William Blake was essentially an atheist; he believed in the human imagination as the only salvation. He considered belief in God, Christ, saints, and Christianity as "devil worship"--likely he remained unaware that to describe that heinous belief he was employing Christian terms.

Question: Is "Tom" the narrator in Blake's poem, "The Chimney Sweeper"?

Answer: The narrator in William Blake's lackluster piece of propaganda called "The Chimney Sweeper" remains nameless. The nameless narrator tells his tale using Tom and his dream to protest the conditions under which the boys have to labor, which would be a fine thing to protest, but using a poetic form brings limitations that ultimately blemish the activism.

Question: Why does the boy in Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" remain nameless?

Answer: Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" is a piece of propaganda, like many of Blake's pieces. When a poet places political positions in a poem, s/he often loses sight of important poetic features. It is my opinion that that is what happened to Blake in many of his poems. His zeal to demonize and criticize caused him to overlook bits of information that is vital to a poem's expression.

Question: Is William Blake an American poet?

Answer: No, William Blake was born November 28, 1757, in Soho, London, United Kingdom, and died August 12, 1827, in London, United Kingdom.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes