There are two ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poems by William Blake. The first appeared in Songs of Innocence in 1789, while a second poem, also called ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ was included in Songs of Experience in 1794. Like many of Blake’s most celebrated poems, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ – in both versions – uses fairly straightforward language, although some words of analysis may help to shed light on the meaning of these two poems.
The Chimney Sweeper (from Songs of Innocence)
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, and in soot I sleep.
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.’
And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, –
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and 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, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
The Chimney Sweeper (from Songs of Experience)
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ‘weep! weep!’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are thy father and mother? Say!’ –
‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.
‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
‘And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.’
In the first ‘Chimney Sweeper’, from Songs of Innocence, a young chimney sweeper recounts a dream another chimney sweeper, named Tom Dacre, had. In Tom Dacre’s dream an angel rescued all of the boys from coffins and took them to a sunny meadow (i.e. heaven). There they were washed clean: this is a spiritual as well as physical cleaning, we assume, prefiguring Charles Kingsley’s famous tale of a chimney-sweeper who undergoes a watery spiritual journey (in his novel The Water-Babies). The message and meaning, in summary, is clear: the only escape from the painful and terrible degradation and suffering of the chimney-sweeps is through death, and the hope of peace in the afterlife.
In the second ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poem, from Songs of Experience, an adult speaker encounters a child chimney sweeper abandoned in the snow. He is a ‘black thing’ (not even human: merely a ‘thing’) among the white snow. The child tells the adult that he is on his own because his parents have gone to church to pray, and have left him to his fate because he seemed happy among the snow. The child’s parents, then, have sold the boy into slavery, but Blake cleverly points out that they don’t consider themselves to be evil for doing so: after all, they have the backing of the church and state, since the government allows small boys to be sold into a life of deadly drudgery as chimney sweepers.
How should we read ‘The Chimney Sweeper’? And which ‘Chimney Sweeper’? Both? Reading the two poems alongside each other, each one called ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and yet offering such different takes on the subject, generates a somewhat different interpretation or analysis than if we read either of them in isolation. It is significant, of course, that the second poem is spoken by an adult, since this is one of Blake’s ‘songs of experience’, while the corresponding ‘song of innocence’ is spoken by one child about another.