By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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.
Let’s start with the first ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poem, from the 1789 volume, followed by some words of analysis.
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.
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.
A rather grim conclusion, but then given the hardship endured by the poor, and especially the children of the poor in the late eighteenth century, it is easy to see how religious salvation, and the release from pain and suffering made possible by death, could be seen as the only solution to such hardship.
As so often in Blake’s poetry, the child in the poem is given a voice, and his suffering began before he could even speak: infancy (from the Latin meaning literally ‘unable to speak’) turns up numerous times in Blake’s work. Here, the boy tells us, ‘my father sold me while yet my tongue /
Could scarcely cry’. As with his other poems, Blake gives a voice to the voiceless.
What about the second poem titled ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ written by Blake, published five years later? Here is the other ‘Chimney Sweeper’:
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 this second ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poem, from Songs of Experience, an adult speaker encounters a young chimney sweeper abandoned in the snow. He is a ‘black thing’ (not even human, note: merely a ‘thing’) among the white snow. If whiteness symbolises purity, the blackness of the soot-covered child stands in stark contrast to the surrounding 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.
Blake, of course, disapproves of this and the fact that the speaker of this second ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poem is an adult, talking to an innocent little child left shivering in the snow, underscores the injustice of the situation.
‘Because I was happy upon the heath, / And smiled among the winter’s snow’: children enjoy the freedom occasioned by the wild, open heath, and snow is a novelty to them to play in. But that doesn’t mean they want to be left to forage on the snow-covered heath, without food or shelter or parents to support them. As a result of being abandoned like this, the child has learned the ‘notes of woe’, and the hardship and misery of the world.
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. Adults should know better: the speaker who finds the chimney-sweep in the snow in the latter poem is in a better position to help the boy and change the society that allows such suffering than the boy speaker in the former poem.
About William Blake
William Blake (1757-1827) is one of the key English poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He is sometimes grouped with the Romantics, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, although much of his work stands apart from them and he worked separately from the Lake Poets.
Blake’s key themes are religion (verses from his poem Milton furnished the lyrics for the patriotic English hymn ‘Jerusalem’), poverty and the poor, and the plight of the most downtrodden or oppressed within society. He is not a ‘nature’ poet in the same way that his fellow Romantics are: he seldom writes with the countryside in mind as his principal theme, but draws on, for instance, the rich symbolism of the rose and the worm to create a poem that is symbolically suggestive and clearly about other things (sin, religion, shame, cruelty, evil).
In form and language, Blake’s poetry can appear deceptively simple. He is fond of the quatrain form and short lines (usually tetrameter, i.e., containing four ‘feet’). But his imagery and symbolism are often dense and complex, requiring deeper analysis to penetrate and unravel their manifold meanings.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.