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The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence)

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence)

by William Blake

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

When my mother died I was very young,

  • The poem opens with the speaker telling us that his mother died when he was just a wee little tyke.
  • How young is "very young"? Five? Six? Three? Yeah, somewhere in there sounds about right. 
  • This line is just a basic, give-you-the-facts kind of opener, don't you think?
  • Still, there's at least one thing to notice: the sing-songy rhythm Blake's got going on. When my mother died I was very young
  • Keep a weather eye out to see if this rhythm sticks around in the poem. And check out our "Form and Meter" section for more.

Lines 2-4

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.

  • The speaker tells us more about his childhood. It turns out his father sold him before he could even really speak.
  • Um, did he just say sold? Is he saying he's a slave? This is headed nowhere good.
  • The phrase "my tongue / Could scarcely cry" is a neat, poetic way of saying "before I could even cry." Blake's gettin' all fancy on us. 
  • Plus, he's using a little device called metonymy here, too. When he says tongue, he's really referring to the speaker's voice (a tongue can't actually make a sound all on its own). When a poet uses something closely related to something else to refer to that something else, we call it metonymy.
  • In the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most chimney sweepers—people who cleaned chimneys—were young boys, because they were small and could crawl up there with ease.
  • So we're thinking that the boy's father sold him to somebody who runs a chimney-cleaning business. After all, he tells us straight up that because his father sold him, he sweeps chimneys, and sleeps in soot.
  • Does the boy sleep in a pile of soot? Or is he so dirty from working that he has soot all over his body? Either way, it does not sound fun. 
  • As it turns out, sometimes, chimney sweepers would sleep under the blankets or cloths they used to collect soot during the day. This was known as sleeping in soot.
  • Notice anything else here? How about that rhythm from the first line—has it changed at all?
  • And what about the rhyme scheme? Did you notice that? It looks like a straight up AABB. Young rhymes with tongue, and weep rhymes with sleep. 

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