Our speaker has it seriously rough. Orphan, child laborer, possibly homeless. You run down the list of bad ways to live, and he pretty much checks 'em all off. And none of it is his fault.
See, he's a chimney-sweeper, and he didn't have a choice. About any of it. But before you go thinking that our speaker is a woe-is-me kind of kid, consider this: we actually don't hear very much from his perspective. Instead, he spends a big chunk of the poem talking about his buddy, little Tom Dacre.
What's up with that? A poem about chimney sweeping, by a chimney sweeper, and he spends the whole time telling us about some other little guy? Doesn't he know the drill himself? Why bother giving us Tom Dacre's story, once removed?
We think this might be a strategic move. Remember, at the end of the poem, the speaker says Tom was "happy and warm" (23). As in, we have no clue if the speaker feels the same way. And there's good reason to think he's not, because this speaker doesn't seem to believe that "if all do their duty they need not fear harm" (24). He knows Tom's dream is just that—a dream.
This little boy is one seriously wise little kid. He understands the gap between his reality, and the one he deserves—a real childhood, complete with frolicking. But he also knows the importance of believing in something positive, even if it doesn't quite match up with his dreary state of affairs. That's why he tells Tom Dacre not to worry about his unfortunate haircut. Look on the bright side, he says, now you can't be sullied by soot.
Um, Shmoop has had our fair share of bad haircuts. And we hate to say it, buddy, but that's small consolation for involuntary baldness.