If you've ever owned a chimney, you know that it can get pretty dirty. In addition to the ash that's left in the fireplace, there's a whole lot of soot that gets stuck on the inside of the chimney that you can't see unless you climb up in there with a flashlight. Messy. Unfortunately, that stuff has to get cleaned, or you could have a serious problem. As in, a giant fire that consumes your house. Not good.
While nowadays we have easier ways of doing this dirty job, in the wayback days (as in 200 years ago) somebody used to climb up the chimney and scrub-a-dub-dub all that soot. It was a dirty job, worthy of Mike Rowe's full attention. And the thing is, not just anybody could do it.
See, you had to be really small to fit up in the chimney, so they used to give the task to kiddos—some as young as four or five years old. Most of the children engaged in the profession were orphans and paupers, and they were apprenticed to somebody known as a master-sweep, who was their boss and also in charge of taking care of them.
Chimney sweeping was a nasty business, and the children who worked as chimney sweepers didn't bathe very often (usually just once a week), which means they were probably often covered in soot and looked, um, not their best.
The job was also dangerous. Children could get stuck and suffocate (which did happen), or get burned and bruised on a regular basis. In addition, chimney sweeps often developed what became known as soot wart, a form of cancer related to prolonged exposure to the carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) from the nasty black stuff. In other words, this was not your morning paper route. This was a dangerous job, given to society's most vulnerable. Are your injustice bells ringing?
William Blake's certainly were. The dicey dangers and widespread injustice of the chimney-sweeping profession really stuck in his craw, so much so that he wrote not one, but two poems called "The Chimney Sweeper."
The first poem (the one we're discussing here) was published in 1789 in a volume called Songs of Innocence. These little poems were beautifully illustrated (this is the first of Blake's so-called Illuminated Books) and took children and the joys of childhood innocence as their subject. As you've probably guessed by now, many of the poems in Songs of Innocence, like "The Chimney Sweeper," are about the ways in which childhood innocence is destroyed, taken away, or ruined by mean old adults.
For Blake, innocence is, in many ways, a total joke. It doesn't exist, because it's always tainted by the world of experience—chimney-sweeping, death, poverty, etc. So, in 1793, a few years after he published Songs of Innocence, he decided to publish another version, with a ton of poems added, including the second "The Chimney Sweeper."
And this time, he changed the title to Songs of Innocence and Experience, Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. While the poems in the "Experience" portion of the book tend to be darker, many of the poems in the "Innocence" part are pretty bleak as well.
What does a five-year-old chimney sweep in 18th-century England have to do with you? More than you might think. Child labor may be a relatively small problem in the United States today—thankfully, there are a few laws that have something to say about that— but it's still a Big Problem around the world.
According to UNICEF, 150 million kids are engaged in child labor in developing countries, where laws against kids working are often less strict, or even nonexistent (source). Sometimes they work in the family business or sell things on the streets, sometimes they work under horrible conditions for little pay in factories. Sometimes, they're just forced to beg for cash, and then hand it over to their shady bosses for pennies in exchange.
Sure, there aren't many children out there sweeping chimneys anymore, but there are still lots of places in the world where children work long hours and encounter dangerous health risks. Like Blake's chimney sweeper, these kiddos are forced to grow up too soon. They're not even given a chance at innocence because experience keeps getting in the way. Seriously, Shmoopers, it's kind of hard not to care.
The William Blake Archive
This awesome website has all of Blake's gorgeous illuminated books.
William Blake page at Poets.org gives you the scoop on Mr. Chimney.
Tons of poems, and some great analysis of his work.
Robert Pinsky on "The Chimney Sweeper" Poems
Read the former poet laureate's take on these masterpieces.
"The Chimney Sweeper"
Listen to the poem in a proper British accent. Can't you just hear Blake?
"The Chimney Sweeper" Illuminated
The poem as it was meant to be seen. Ain't it purdy?
Songs of Innocence and Experience
Here's the title page for Songs of Innocence and Experience in all its glory.
Here's a group of the young hard workers.
William and Catherine Blake's Headstone
Strangely not on their graves, but nearby nevertheless.
This one's probably the most famous portrait of our poet.
The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake
You know you want it.