"The Chimney Sweeper" is half childlike nursery rhyme and half nightmare. Strange combo, right? We've got those perfect, neat little rhymes and the sing-songy rhythm. But then we've got the subject matter, which criticizes parents, religion, and government, for their exploitation of child labor.
Phew. That's enough to set any mind reeling. And maybe that's the point. The sounds of this poem straight up don't match its subject matter. So what's the deal, then? How are we to make sense of it?
Our hunch is that we're not. Blake just might be cleverer than we give him credit for. By writing about such heavy stuff in such a light tone, he reminds us of how the parents and the church see this chimney-sweeping kid.
They assume that because he dances and sings, he's a-okay toiling in chimneys day in and day out. But if they were paying attention to what he's singing—notes of woe, to be exact—they might start singing a different tune themselves.
Not to state the obvious or anything, but the poem's called "The Chimney Sweeper" because its about a chimney sweeper. A young, abandoned, crying one, to be exact.
A brief brush-up on the history of chimney sweeping tells us that this wasn't exactly a plumb job. In fact, it was tantamount to slavery in ye olden days of jolly old England, when kids were sold off to handlers, who made them sweep folks' chimneys in exchange for food and shelter.
So while when we read "The Chimney Sweeper," our first thoughts often go to Dick Van Dyke, in Blake's day, this short, to-the-point title would have had a very different connotation. No skipping, no singing. No fun.
Luckily, Blake lays the setting out for us pretty clearly in the first line. We're "among the snow," where a young chimney sweeper waits for his parents to get out of a nearby church.
So let's zoom out for a minute. It's winter, and it's late 18th-century England. Being a chimney sweeper is just about as bad a life as a kid could choose. And, if you're Blake, the plight of the chimney sweeper is a grave injustice. These kids have no say in their lives. According to Blake, they've been abandoned by their parents, by the Church, by the government, and even by God.
In other words, it ain't a nice world to grow up in. And yet, that's exactly the world this little kid finds himself in. For more on this world, check out Blake's other "The Chimney Sweeper"—the Songs of Innocence version.
Spoiler alert! This poem has two speakers. Yep, two. First, there's the dude that spots this little kiddo freezing in the snow and asks him, "hey, what's up with that? Where are the 'rents?"
Then, there's the kiddo himself. Much of the poem is made up of his speech to the poem's actual speaker. So we get the meat of the meaning in the voice of a little kid, who's forced to labor in other folks' homes in exchange for, well, not much.
Why that change? Why not just stick with the original guy, and tell the chimney sweeper's story through him? We think Blake was up to something.
Remember, these kids didn't have much of a voice. They were sold off when they were quite young—sometimes four or five years old—to work hard with no compensation (other than food and shelter). Maybe, just maybe, Blake wanted to give those kids a voice, and allow the chimney sweeper to tell his own story.
Okay, so if that's the case, then why wouldn't he just write the whole poem in the voice of the chimney sweeper? Hmm. Fair question. But, as it turns out, Blake already did just that—with his Songs of Innocence version of this poem.
In this Songs of Experience version, the choice of having an adult speaker, looking down on this little tyke is very effective. We feel complicit in this man's participation in the chimney-sweeping system. We, too, are looking down at this kiddo, wondering where in the world his parents could be, and feeling pretty broken up about the whole shebang. And then it hits us—this speaker (and all the other passers-by), probably have some very clean chimneys…
"The Chimney Sweeper" is a pretty easy poem; a young child narrates most of it, and he uses simple words and simple rhymes. There are a few strange sentences, especially the last one, but overall Blake shouldn't give you any trouble.
In poetic terms, Blake loved children for their undistorted view of the world and for their innocence. He once claimed that the best or ideal readers of his works (even the really crazy stuff he wrote later in his life) were children.
Because of the value he placed on children and childhood innocence, Blake often writes about children and even features child-speakers, especially in the Songs of Innocence and Experience. "The Chimney Sweeper" is no exception.
Yeah sure the poem's set-up features some boring adult, but the rest of the poem is narrated by the child. Like many of the child-narrators of Blake's poem, he is strangely aware of things like oppression and injustice, but also manages to still be a kid.
Take a look at line 6:
And smiled among the winter's snow.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a perfect line of iambic tetrameter. That means it consists of four iambs ("and smiled" is one, "among" is one, and so forth), all in a neat little row. daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. Cute, right?
Unfortunately, Blake was never one to keep things neat and pretty. For an example, we'll turn to line 1:
A little black thingamong the snow.
You'll notice that there are an odd number of syllables here, which means our line isn't perfect, per se. The first two groups are iambs (daDUM daDUM), but the next two contain a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable—DAdum. This, folks, is called a trochee. Then, the line ends with a single stressed syllable—snow. It's like a little bonus. In a line that's supposed to have eight syllables, we get nine. Sweet.
Let's look at one more line:
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
The first, third, and fourth groups are iambs; but what about the second group, which contains two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable—dadaDUM? This is called an anapest, and Blake is a big fan of droppin' those suckers in his iambic lines. Look for more of them in this, and other Blake poems.
Like many of Blake's short lyrics, the poem rhymes, and those rhymes come in a pattern—a rhyme scheme. Since this poem also consists of three four-line stanzas (a.k.a. quatrains), we can break the rhyme scheme down by stanza. It looks a little something like this:
Stanza 1: AABB
Stanza 2: CACA
Stanza 3: DEDE
All the lines marked "A" rhyme with each other, all the lines marked "B" rhyme with each other, and so on. You'll notice that Blake sets up a pattern of rhyming couplets in the first stanza, but then promptly abandons that rhyme scheme altogether for the next two. What's up with that?
Soot is black; the child is, presumably covered in it, but he's also "black" in another way. He seems marked for death—he wears the "clothes of death" (7)—and stands in stark contrast to the white snow. The whiteness of the snow is a symbol of nature, of naturalness, and it contrasts with the very unnatural life of the chimney sweeper.
It's kind of surprising but there's a lot of music in this sad poem. We have two references to "notes of woe," and in the last stanza the chimney sweeper says he is happy and sings and dances—or at least people think he's happy because he sings and dances. Music thus refers both to misery ("notes of woe") but also to things that one can do to stave off sadness and comfort oneself. Which makes sense—there are sad songs, happy songs, and songs for just about every emotion in between.
The sweeper tells the speaker two times that his parents have gone to church. But in this poem, that's definitely not a good thing. The child's parents, for example, are more concerned with their religious obligations than they are with the fact that they're child is out alone in the snow. Moreover, it seems like God and his "priest" are no good either; they "make up a heaven" of the child's misery.
Blake's poem is about a child who has, essentially, been abandoned by his parents. He is sitting in the snow and weeping. There is nothing sexual going on here.