Study Guide

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience) Themes

  • Sadness

    "The Chimney Sweeper" is one Big Fat Bummer. It's just chock full of misery. The speaker sees the child crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe," and then he tells the speaker that he learned those notes from his parents, of all people. In the poem's final stanza, the sweeper blames the church, a priest, and a king as well, claiming they make a "heaven" out of his "misery." Everybody seems to be responsible for making the child unhappy, or for ignoring his feelings, and the kid seems to have no say in any of it, which is the biggest bummer of all.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Why is the chimney sweeper sad? And how sad is the sweeper, really? How do you know?
    2. What does he mean by saying he learned the "notes of woe" from his parents? Why do you think the sweeper use the phrase "notes of woe"?
    3. Who's to blame for the chimney sweeper's sadness?
    4. How do you think the speaker feels about all this?

    Chew on This

    This speaker just doesn't get it. He's right there with the parents and society, thinking that this kid is totally content. And that means he's also to blame for this kid's misery.

    The poem argues that sadness isn't always our fault; the chimney sweeper is "taught" the "notes of woe" by his parents, after all, who also force him to work in chimneys.

  • Death

    The speaker of "The Chimney Sweeper" describes the chimney sweeper as a "black thing." Black is the color of death and other bad things. The chimney sweeper is well aware of the death-like quality of his life as well; he tells the speaker that his parents dressed him in the "clothes of death." Does that mean that in a way, his parents have murdered him? Metaphorically speaking, anything's possible.

    Questions About Death

    1. What does the speaker mean by "clothes of death"?
    2. Does this kid seem aware that he might be headed towards an early death at the hands of chimney-sweeping? Do you think his parents are aware? Or the speaker?
    3. Does this poem seem more concerned with death than its counterpart in Songs of Innocence?

    Chew on This

    Even though the child isn't actually dead, he's essentially dead to his parents, who would rather go to church; by lying alone in the snow, however, he also might die for real.

    Even if we are close to death, there are ways to feel alive; the chimney sweeper, for example, dances and sings.

  • Happiness

    Okay, okay, so "The Chimney Sweeper" isn't very happy. but the chimney sweeper mentions happiness several times. At first, the sweeper says he used to be happy, before he was mistreated by his parents and forced to clean chimneys. But then, in the final stanza, he says he is still happy in some sense. This raises the question: what does it mean to be happy for a kid who's forced into the chimney-sweeping life?

    Questions About Happiness

    1. Why does the chimney sweeper say he is happy? Do you think he really means it? Or is he just saying that?
    2. Why does the chimney sweeper talk about dancing?
    3. How are happiness and sadness related in this poem? Can you have one without the other?

    Chew on This

    The kid is happy (and yes, he's really happy), because kids are resilient, and that's what this poem is really about.

    This kid isn't happy at all. He's just faking it to save his parents the trouble of doing anything about it.

  • Abandonment

    When we first meet "The Chimney Sweeper," he is alone in the snow. It sure looks like he's abandoned. At the end of the first stanza, and again in the third stanza, the sweeper talks about how his parents have left him to go to church and pray. Plus, we can't help but wonder if this little guy isn't a chimney sweeper precisely because his parents decided to make him one. And isn't that a kind of abandonment, too? They may be around, sure, but they've left their kid to be exploited by an unfair industry.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Is this child literally abandoned? Or just metaphorically? How do you think this poem would define abandonment?
    2. Is the chimney sweeper upset about being alone, or just upset that he has to work as a chimney sweeper?
    3. Do you think this speaker will abandon the kid, too?

    Chew on This

    Abandonment need not be literal; "The Chimney Sweeper" argues that forcing kids to work, ignoring them to go to church, and the like are just as bad as actually ditching them altogether.

    In this poem, the abandonment isn't a conscious decision. The parents abandon their kid because their priorities are out of whack. They think it's more important to pray than to feed your kid.