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