William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper": An Explication

Kimberly Puchalski
Dr. Gross
January 27, 2005
Engl 442

 

In “The Chimney Sweeper” of Songs of Innocence , Blake uses various poetic devices—including metaphor, repetition, anaphora, metonymy, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and multiple meanings—to bring his readers into the terrible existence of all chimney sweepers. Blake denies his readers, or his young subjects, a happy ending unless they realize they must “do their duty” as given by God. While the poem seems to literally assert that there is hope for sweeps only in heaven, reading for spiritual, symbolic, and moral significance provides multiple conflicting meanings behind this short poem. The innocent, hopeful narrator, a young sweep, seems to dare his readers to assist in preventing the moral decay of the lower-class' painful existence.

The first stanza introduces the narrator, a young sweep, and the family background which caused his unfortunate, lowly position:

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. (1-4)

The young sweep was abandoned through death and betrayal by the two people most readers depend upon to support and nurture them throughout adolescence, causing his fate as an unloved and unknown chimney sweeper. Blake does not even give the young speaker a name, using instead the mysterious first person voice. For the father to sell the boy so young, the reader knows that the sweep comes from a poor background, where money (or morals) is short; however, though the sweep is an individual, his name—and individual status portrayed by that name—appears unimportant.

The anaphora “weep” in the third line holds an ironic double meaning: while it could be read literally as the cry of a young child unable to pronounce his “s,” it also symbolizes the weeping—or lack thereof—of the little sweep. Thrown into work so young, the sweep may not have realized the horror of his position until just recently. This double meaning stems from the metonymy of a tongue crying: the reader thinks of words as well as tears. Also, the alliteration of the consonant “s” (“sweep,” “soot,” “sleep”) sounds like a brush repetitiously scraping a chimney wall. The dirty sweep cannot avoid his condition, even in sleep.

Blake has the sweep address his readers' morality in line four—“ your chimneys” (italics mine)— because they assist in his current “soot”-filled existence by hiring him to clean their chimneys. Through this, Blake places the blame for the social epidemic of sweepers onto his readers for not stopping the cruelty.

While the meter of this first quatrain starts as iambic pentameter, Blake disrupts this pattern in each line. In lines one, two, and four, the second feet are trochees, alluding to a possible connection between the mother, father, and chimneys. Blake also uses a spondaic rhythm in the third foot of line one (“ died I ”) and the last two feet of line three (“ cry weep weep weep weep ”). These interruptions catch the reader off guard—a job commonly held by disrupting spondees—and deepen the impression of the mother's death and the crying chimney sweeper. The spondees in line three also help the reader hear a brush (“ weep ” “ weep ”) as it sweeps a chimney. Besides these rhythmic disruptions, Blake also omits a syllable from line three (catalectic) and adds a syllable to line four (hypercatalectic) in order to end line three with a strong, accented close and a rhyme (“sweep”) for “sleep.” A rhyme scheme of aabb is used here and throughout the poem, and the narrator predominately speaks in simple conjunctions, showing his young age.

As the poem continues, the focus shifts from the misfortune of the single sweep to the hardships of his young friend and fellow sweep, little Tom Dacre:

There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head

That curl'd 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.' (5-8)

While the sweep gives reassurance to young Tom that the loss of his hair is for the best, there is much more going on symbolically and spiritually in this stanza. In line six, Blake uses a similie to compare Tom's “white” (innocent) hair to the hair on a lamb's back. The lamb is a representation of Jesus, the Lamb of God, and a symbol of innocence. Tom's white hair also symbolizes his youth, as his hair has not yet darkened with age. In shaving Tom's head, his innocence and spirituality are lost, but—as the next stanza shows—the speaker's nonsensical, comforting words are enough for Tom to accept the loss.

Blake's use of the passive “was shaved” in line six begs the question, “who shaved his head?” He does not give us someone to blame for this taking of innocence. However, it does recollect that Tom's head must be shaved to be a chimney sweeper, and chimney sweepers are present to sweep “your” chimneys. The moral guilt Blake wants his readers to feel is also increased in this stanza because the reader can now see Tom, an individual young boy, crying at the loss of his beautiful white hair. They now have a name, and there the reader visualizes one more bare-headed sweep crying and—aside from his fellow sweep—comfortless.

Like stanza one, Blake disrupts the predominately iambic rhythm in each line of this quatrain. Here, the third feet of lines five (“ Dacre ”) and six (“ lamb's back ”) are spondaic, and the last foot for both (“when his head ”; “so I said ”) are anapests. This gives the lines the “sing-songy” rhythm readers hear when reading out loud—used to show the youth and innocence of the speaker, the sweep, and his happiness in being able to comfort someone else—which continues throughout the rest of the poem. As Heather Glen explains, “the unselfconscious excitement of [the narrator's] speech registers both his own delight and the particular and beautiful reality of the other child” (179). Starting with a spondee in line eight stresses the words “Hush Tom,” and further disrupting with two trochees (“ ne ver mind it”) draws attention to this line and makes the young speaker sound forceful in his order. Interestingly, each line of this stanza has an extra syllable at the end, here and throughout most of the poem. Since Blake seems to be working with an iambic base, he wanted to end with an accented syllable in each line (“ head ,” “ said ,” “ bare ,” “ hair ”) to create a link to the hypercatalectic fourth line from stanza one (“ sweep ”).

Continuing to widen his focus and proclaim the despair of sweeps to his readers as a significant social problem, Blake's subjects increase in number from the narrator and Tom to thousands of hopeless sweepers in the third stanza:

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 lock'd up in coffins of black. (9-12)

To escape the hopeless life, Tom's only resource is his dreams; yet, Tom's dream is a depressing view of himself and “thousands of sweepers” “lock'd” in dark coffins. These coffins symbolize death as well as the darkness of being confined in life as a chimney sweeper. The black of the coffins serves as an opposite to Tom's white hair, shaved off that morning. Black connotes the multiple symbols of death and dirt. Confining the once white-headed, innocent Tom in this black coffin shows that his innocence has been spoiled. The word “coffin” also serves multiple meanings: not only is it a literal coffin, but it is also a dark, confined space—like a chimney. In life or death, the sweeps are “lock'd” in their coffins.

While this stanza holds the same general meter as the second stanza, the spondaic disruption at the end of line eleven (“ Nick, Joe, Ned ”) reminds the reader of line three's spondaic meter (“ weep weep weep weep ”) in the first quatrain.

Optimism seems pointless for the young sweeps; yet, the fifth stanza shows Tom's irrational belief that there is still hope for happiness:

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,

And he open'd 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. (13-16)

While the sweeps cannot free themselves from their coffins, this “Angel” can, and does with a “bright [white, innocent] key.” Besides the literal “Angel,” or servant of God, the Angel may symbolize the caring people willing to help the sweeps lead a happier life. No sweeps are left behind in the claustrophobia of their coffins/chimneys, for the Angel “set them all free.” Here, “free” suggests the freedom of a life without sweeping as well as freedom in the afterlife.

The green of the plain is like the youth of the boys with the soot removed, or the green of a perfect day in Heaven. It contrasts with the white of Tom's hair and the black of the coffins, acting almost as an “in-between” for these absolute colors. In line sixteen, the dirty boys are finally able to wash the soot from their light skin. Washing “in a river” is like baptism, cleaning away sins as well as the dust and dirt from the chimneys. Though Blake says the sweeps literally shine (connecting to the “white” of innocence) in the Sun, this may also mean the spiritual rays of God's love.

The trochaic disruption in the meter of line fifteen (“ leap ing laugh ing”) reminds the reader of the narrator's trochaic rhythm in line eight (“ ne ver mind it”) and, as onomatopoeias, these disruptions sound and feel like the words are “leaping” and “laughing.” The alliteration of “l” here also makes the words sound fun and energetic.

Tom's dream continues, depicting the innocent fun the sweeps can have if they are “good”:

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. (17-20)

They are naked, and just as innocent as when they were first born. All the world's troubles are gone as the sweeps, like the Angel, “rise upon [the] clouds” of heaven and enjoy the fresh “wind” instead of their confining “black coffins.” Like Jesus, the sweeps are resurrected. This “rising” may also symbolize a lift from the lower class positions of sweeps to those of middle or upper-class children. The “bags” the sweeps leave behind are the literal bags a chimney sweeper carries and the figurative emotional baggage of their soot-filled experiences.

Line eighteen is a perfect pentameter (no hypercatalectic syllable), showing a closer connection between the first half of the line (“they rise upon clouds ”) and the second (“and sport in the wind ”). Blake also chooses to alter his rhyme scheme in this stanza. “Wind” is considered a near rhyme with “behind” because they do not sound the same. This disruption in the rhyme scheme shows a disruption in the monotonous, hopeless lives of the chimney sweepers.

Yet, as the poem continues, the readers see that this optimism is still in question:

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark

And got with out bags & our brushes to work.

Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm,

So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm. (21-24)

The “leaping,” “laughing” and “ris[ing] upon clouds” were only part of a dream. The morning is still “cold” (the “shine” of the “Sun” is absent), and it is still “dark” (“black”) outside. Yet, Tom wakes feeling refreshed and ready to pick up his bag and brush again and work his job without despair. Tom feels “happy & warm” emotionally and spiritually, even if he is still a sweep, because he was promised by the Angel that if he was “good” and does his “duty,” he'd gain a “father” and “joy” in the eternal sunshine of heaven. Taken literally, Tom will find happiness only once he is dead.

The fulfillment of this promise, though, is still in question if the reader takes the “Angel” to be the moral society, or readers of this poem. The vague “all” and “they” pronouns allow for multiple readings. If “all” and “they” refer to the readers of this poem, then Blake is challenging them to help the sweeps. As Heather Glen asserts, “by the final line of the poem, the subversive resonances animated by the child's vision have made it impossible to see him merely as a meekly shorn lamb: in his appeal to ‘duty' which ‘all' must obey, he is a figure bearing not peace, but a sword” (157). That sword is the threat that they must “do their duty” through actual and monetary charity, or they need to fear harm from God—or the “thousands” of sweeps.

Metrically, the last two lines of stanza six shift to predominately-anapestic hexameter (“Tho' the mor ning was cold . . .”), possibly to focus the reader's attention to these last two lines as the meaningful moral of the poem. Drawing further attention, the first half of line twenty-four (“so if all do their du ty”) has a hypercatalectic, unstressed syllable. Blake also uses assonance to connect “awoke” and “rose” in line twenty-one, and alliteration to connect “bags” and “brushes” in line twenty-two.

Unfortunately for the sweeps, Tom's dream is only a dream. The conditional “if” the Angel uses in the fourth stanza shows that the fate of the chimney sweeps can go either way. It is not just up to the sweeps, but also their customers (the poem's readers), who must be “good” to end this social plight. Yet, instead of illustrating the cold plight of the sweep, Blake ironically depicts the happy scene from stanza four at the bottom of his illuminated page. The Angel lifts a young sweep from his black coffin while many other sweeps stand by “leaping” and “laughing” at the edge of the river. By focusing on the possible happiness in his illumination, Blake asks his readers to compare the realities of the sweep's lives to what they potentially could be like, and tries to give them moral strength to take on their roles as civil servants.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “Chimney Sweeper.” Blake's Poetry and Designs . Ed. Mary Lynne Johnson and John E. Grant. New York : Norton, 1979. 25-6.

- - - . “Chimney Sweeper.” New York : Thames & Hudson, 2000. 54.

Glen, Heather. “‘Vision and Morality': Songs of Innocence .” Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. New York : Cambridge UP, 1983 . 110-223.

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"Songs of Innocence" excerpt, by Axlerod