Study Guide

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience) Quotes

  • Sadness

    A little black thing among the snow,
    Crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe! (1-2)

    The rhyme on "snow" and "woe" is a neat one, because we associate the whiteness of snow with goodness, not the evil blackness of the chimney. The rhyme, however, reminds us that part of the child's sadness has to do with the fact that he is out in the cold, both literally and metaphorically, in that his parents don't seem to care about him—at all.

    "Because I was happy upon the heath,
    And smiled among the winter's snow (5-6)

    The past tense is important; the chimney sweeper defines his sadness indirectly, by saying he used to be happy, back then, before his parents made him wear the "clothes of death." And it turns out the whole reason they made him wear those clothes is because he was happy. How does that work?

    They clothed me in the clothes of death,
    And taught me to sing the notes of woe (7-8)

    Parents are supposed to make their children happy, or at least try to; in the poem, they seem to cause nothing but sadness. They teach their child the "notes of woe," which is the sweeper's way of saying they have forced him into a life that is miserable. They sound like great parents, right? Oh wait.

    And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
    Who make up a heaven of our misery" (11-12)

    It's not just the parents that cause sadness; apparently just about everybody is guilty. "God and his priest and king" are also responsible for making a paradise for themselves out of the child's misery. Ironically, the entire social order (the church, the state, and the family) is only concerned with making adults happy, not children. At least, according to this poem.

  • Death

    A little black thing among the snow,
    Crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe! (1-2)

    The child seems already dead; he's not a child but a "black thing," almost like a corpse that has rotted. The child is black partly as a result of the soot from his job, which is a handy way the poem connects chimney-sweeping and its most dire result—death.

    They clothed me in the clothes of death,
    And taught me to sing the notes of woe (7-8)

    The suggestion at the beginning of the poem is made clear here; the child is basically dead, garbed in a funeral shroud. He wears the "clothes of death" that his parents gave him. In that sense, they've as good as killed him. Yikes.

    And because I am happy and dance and sing,
    They think they have done me no injury (9-10)

    It's strange that the sweeper is "happy" and dances and sings, but we have to look at this remark in light of his "death." His commitment to enjoying himself as much as possible is a protest against death, a way of making himself feel alive. Or is he really happy at all? Is he just faking it?

  • Happiness

    Because I was happy upon the heath
    And smiled among the winter's snow (5-6)

    The chimney sweeper says he was "happy upon the heath"; a heath is a wide open space, associated with wildness and freedom. So, for this kid, happiness is freedom to frolic. But now that the kid's no longer free, he can't be happy, right?

    And because I am happy and dance and sing,
    They think they have done me no injury (9-10)

    Happiness is here again close to sadness; the chimney sweeper says he sings, but remember, he sings notes of woe. So is he really happy? Or does he just sound happy, if you're not paying attention?

    And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
    Who make up a heaven of our misery" (11-12)

    The phrase "make up a heaven of our misery" suggests that happiness is often a product of sadness; "God, and his priest and king" can only make themselves a heaven, after all, if they have the child's misery.

  • Abandonment

    "Where are thy father and mother? Say!"—
    "They are both gone up to the church to pray" (3-4)

    Even though the chimney sweeper's parents seem to be innocently attending church, this really looks like abandonment to the modern eye. The child is out in the cold, alone, and apparently crying, all because the parents think church is more important. But did they come to that conclusion themselves, or is society giving them those priorities?

    They clothed me in the clothes of death,
    And taught me to sing the notes of woe (7-8)

    The parents really don't look too good here; they clothe and instruct their child, but they clothe him in the "clothes of death" and only teach him about sadness. In a way, the parents have abandoned their parental duties, as well as their child.

    And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
    Who make up a heaven of our misery" (11-12)

    The sweeper reminds us again where his parents are, and this time suggests that the church and state have also abandoned the children for whom they're responsible. They're so concerned with their own heaven they've forgotten their children.