The Chimney Sweeper
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William Blake wrote The Chimney Sweeper, in 1789. This poem tells the story of a young chimneysweeper and his dream. The analysis will cover the poem’s figurative language and it’s meanings and goals.
Lines 1-4 The first line does not include any poetic element. It hit with the reality and the brutality of its meaning. The second line’s tone however is enough to be a verse “while yet my tongue”. Blake, by omitting the first letter of the word sweep in the third verse, seemingly recreates the child’s lisp so as to highlight his innocence and young age. In those first two lines, we see an image of an anguished child in a state of agony or even in a state of corruption.
The child does not languish in emotion; he quickly states that his mother is dead and that his father sold him at a tender age. He again is very accepting of the fact that he cleans our chimneys and yet sleeps in their dirt. We are forced to look at this child misfortunately.
In line 3 the poem states, Could scarcely cry weep weep weep. The meaning behind the words proves how young this little boy was, and brings compassion to the reader. The child attempt at saying, Sweep! Sweep! which was the chimney sweepers street cry. This section shows that children have a very positive outlook on life. They make the best of their lives and do not fear death.
The poem tells the story of what happened to many young boys during this time period. Often, young boys were sold for the soul purpose of cleaning chimneys because of their small size. These children were exploited and lived a meager existence that was socially acceptable at the time. Voices the evils of this acceptance through point of view, symbolism, and irony.
In line 4 in soot I sleep. The soot is representational of the belief that these children are unfit to enter Heaven because they are dirty. Tom dreams of cleansing his body in the river to clean off the dirt, both the physical dirt and the “dirt” that he was born into.
Lines 5-8 The second stanza has a happier tone than the first. The poet uses a simile in the second verse to denote Tom’s innocence-Lamb eludes to Jesus, hence innocence, and good. Then, Tom’s hair symbolizes his purity. To have his hair shaved off is to rid him of that. Tom’s hair color also reinforces his innocence: white is the color of good. Similarly, Blake also uses a metonymy to illustrate evil-the soot (black) will not sully Tom’s white hair (purity). The color black seems to be very important because it is used to represent sin against innocence, the color white snow.
“Head’s Bare” in line 7. A head full of hair would attract a lot of dirt and built ups through the years of cleaning chimneys. In order to solve this problem, the masters of these children would shave the hair that these kids had in order to see the dirt and clean them easier.
Line 8 “White Hair” the word “white” symbolized innocent. Blake is commenting on the innocence of these children who are forced to clean chimneys at such a young age that in return have no knowledge how cruel the world is. Most boys that cleaned chimneys for a living weren’t the cleanest children. They didn’t have clothes to go change into where their clothes got dirty. A majority of the time they just stayed dirty. So to make it easier most boys shaved off their hair. It was easier to keep clean that way (well when you don’t have any hair at all of course you’ll stay a bit cleaner, but cleaning chimneys isn’t something anyone wants to do if they’re worried about getting dirty, because there really isn’t anyway to avoid it).
Lines 9-12 The third stanza elicits fear and suspense in the reader: Tom has a nightmare-all his chimneysweeper friends are locked up in a “coffin of black”. Again, the author draws on a metonymy to emphasize Tom’s hellish nightmare. The “coffins of black” could also be used as a metaphor for chimneys.
Line 11 “thousands of sweepers” It’s incredible the number of children that were actually involved in making a living this way. But for some it was the only way that they could stay alive. It’s very difficult, especially during these times, to make it all alone. Many mothers had to send their children off to work because they could not support their whole family with the male head of house hold deceased.
Line 12 coffins Children died at an extremely young age through this type of work. When they are in chimneys all day all they breathe in is soot and ash. Even when they finish cleaning them they have to move on to another, so it’s just non-stop.
Line 12 Coffins of black/Clothes of death- These two terms seem to convey the same idea to the reader. Blake probably used these to show his readers that the boys considered their life a sentence, therefore they were embracing death. On a daily basis, the boys clothes and bodes were covered in black soot, having a look of death. The term clothes of death is referring to the soot covered look that the boys had day to day.
Lines 13-16 The tone of the poem finally changes here for the better: an Angel comes to pull the young ones out of their coffins The Angel here could be a metaphor for savior. With the bright key, he frees the chimneysweepers from “evil”: the magic key is the key of freedom; just like the coffins of black represented evil, here the angel with the key is a metonymy for good (a savior holding their freedom). By opening the coffins, we come to think of Pandora’s box, except that freedom is released out of its confines rather than evil The picture that follows is that of children running around and being merry: it is interesting to note that Blake introduces here all 4 elements of earth wind water and fire metaphorically through the Sun, the river and their running down the plain (wind and earth). These last four elements are the vital signs life; it was if the boys after being released found life.
Line 13 Angel In Tom’s dream of being locked up in coffins, an angel with a key opened the coffins and set them on fire so they could not be used again. The children were free as they ran down a green plain laughing. They washed themselves clean of the soot that had stained their bodies for so long in a river and basqued in the sun. coffins: The coffins represent the tightly fitting chimneys that all of the children are trapped in every day. basqued in the sun.: The children were basquing in the sun because they are never exposed to it since their days consist of cleaning the dark and gloomy enclosed chimneys.
Line 14 free When William Blake writes “set them all free,” this seems like a representation of setting the souls of all the children free into heaven. They are now at peace. Death is an escape, making it possible to leave all of them problems that were in the real world, and just concentrating on being happy in the afterlife with no worries.
Lines 17-21 The children’s innocence is emphasized by the use of a metonymy: naked and white are synonymous to purity and virtue. Furthermore, when all the children leave their bags behind and float away on clouds, metaphorically it was as if they were leaving life’s worries behind and being insouciant, just as normal children would. In the third verse, the Angel has a conversation with Tom: He promises him that God would always be there for him if he remains a good boy. Surprisingly we learn that God’s fatherhood is conditional, but is worth having: God’s love is so powerful and awesome that living a life without joy so as to receive His love is not an issue.
Line 17 “their bags left behind” Finally in heaven the souls of the boys are at peace. They can now rest. In heaven the boys can be young again and experience the things they never got to do because they had to be grown ups to help support their family or support themselves.
Line 17 naked & white The children left their lives naked & white leaving everything behind rising up into the clouds gliding and sailing in the wind. The angel that freed them from their coffins told Tom that if he remains a good boy that he will stay in heaven with God to look out for him. Naked & white: By cleaning themselves in the river, the children are now given an new life. They are white representing purity and naked representing innocence.Clouds: The clouds here are representing heaven. They may also represent an new cloud for them since the only clouds that the children were used to were the black clouds ascending from the thousands of chimneys in England Line 20 God (The present of religion) The constant theme of religion continually appears in both Chimney Sweeper poems.
In “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence, the view of religion is one from a very innocent and naive perspective, much like many other poems in Songs of Innocence. The view of God in “The Chimney Sweeper” is one that is kind and gentle because the angel comes down and “open’d the coffins & set them all free.” From this the children would see heaven as a sense of great comfort because once they get there all their pain will be gone. In “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience, the boy no longer believes that God is kind, merciful, and will save him. He blames God, the church, society, and his parents for the situation he is in. The innocent and naive perception of religion no longer is existent in this young boy. He has seen how cruel it really is. Songs of Experience is from a perspective of someone who has been able to see how cruel the world can be and that can reflect all the things you believe in and the things that are most important.
Line 20 Gone to Praise God/God is his father These two terms show another strong theme throughout all of Blake’s poems, the presence of God. Blake used the belief of God as the building blocks of these, as well as his other poems. Blake plays both sides however, as either the believer or the disbelieving. In the Songs of Innocence, Blake uses the a sarcastic remark’s, implying that all will be better when the boys die, that things will get better in the end. The last line of this poem relates to the theme of a Godly presence. In Songs of Experience, however blake uses more of a hypocritical sense that the same people that are at the church preying to their God, are forcing such a hardship upon these boys. In reading the two poems, blake is attempting to show the reader how hypocritical man can be.
Lines 22-25 The last stanza brings us back to earth with a thud. The lack of figurative language only serves to emphasize this reality; Tom resumes his everyday life. However, we notice one change: the cold morning does not have the same effect on Tom. Ever since his dream, the chimneysweeper was spiritually fulfilled. He knows now his purpose and reward in life: by doing his duty, he gets handsomely rewarded with God’s love.
Line 21 And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark This line is characteristic to so many factories in England at this time because the day was so long, workers had to wake up very early before the sun came up.In the Sadler Committee’s testimony, line 4151 states that the hours of labor were “From 5 in the morning till 8 at night.”This is equivalent to a fifteen hour day! Line 21 Awoke Come to find out this was all a dream But this seems to give comfort to the small boy; knowing that when he dies he will be in a better place, better than the one he lives in now. He will never want for anything, and he will be in a state of pure bliss.
Line 23 Tom was happy & warm Tom woke up with the others as usual before the sun had risen while it was still dark. The children got their bags with their equipment and brushes for cleaning the chimneys and went to work. The typical weather in England was cold, but Tom was happy. If they were good and did their work properly, they would have nothing to fear. Nothing fear: He was happy because of his dream of his after life. He rememered that the angel said if they were good, they would be taken care of Line 23 Was cold In both poems, Blake makes reference to coldness. I feel that blake uses this to show that the boys life as chimney sweepers was a cold and hard life to live.
Blake was trying to convey how cold and difficult everyday life is, especially for the young boys during this time. (Coldness is generally associated with being uncomfortable, the boys were cold, thus they were uncomfortable!) Line 24 Harm “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” Both of these lines describe the harsh punishment that these children had to go through. These childern were beaten if they were late with no explanation. They had to bascically work to death before they could get a bite to eat. They received more cruel punishment than Tom in “The Chimney Sweeper.” Tom only had his hair shaved off so he wouldn’t get it dirty. These children could have easily died from dehydration or brutalation. These children are treated no different than how some children are treated today. Only these days it’s called Child Abuse and we have laws to protect children.
The poem’s figurative style is relevant to its: the first and last stanzas, with their lack of figurative elements, represent reality while the middle stanzas are richly filled with metaphors and metonymies, suggesting their fanciful content. Only when we read the last verse of the poem do we realize Blake’s goal: he is advising not only the Chimneysweeper but also us as well to do our duty (our duty to fill our lives with dreams and imagination and faith) in order to dispel our fears.