This poem is this close to being a nursery rhyme. Except instead of friendly animals and sunshine we get, uh, sooty chimneys and bald, overworked kids. Imagine your mama singing this one to lull you to sleep. Or, you know, don't.
Those sing-songy rhythms (for more, see our section on "Form and Meter") combined with those neat little end-rhymes make this poem sound almost like a little ditty. And hey, isn't the title of this collection Songs of Innocence?
But how in the world are we supposed to reconcile this one's Raffi-esque sound with its Big Bummer subject matter? Well we think that's just it—we're not supposed to reconcile it. We're supposed to appreciate the contrast.
The sing-songy sound of the poem merely highlights the sadness at its heart. The light sounds and perfect rhymes strike yet another note of irony in the devastating poem. This is not a subject to sing songs about. But how else is a tiny tot supposed to cope?
Maybe little orphan Annie was right—it's a hard knock life. So you may as well sing songs about it.
The poem is called "The Chimney Sweeper," but it's really about a whole bunch of chimney sweepers.
There's the speaker, who is little Tom's friend and fellow sweeper. Then there's Tom, who has a really cool dream. In addition to Tom and the speaker, there is also Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, and thousands of others, who appear in Tom's dream in coffins but are eventually released by an angel.
Which one is the chimney sweeper mentioned in the title? There's really no way to answer that question, except to say that they all are. When all these young kids are treated so poorly, it's oddly fitting that they're lumped into one figure in the title. That's kind of how the world sees them—not as individuals, but as a work force.
It's not tough work imagining a setting for this poem. Our chimney-sweeping speaker is a young British boy in the late 18th century, and he has a lot of chimney-sweeping buddies. They're dirty, they live in squalor, and they have no way out. That's the bottom line.
But when you get into the nitty-gritty of the poem, things start to get a little more interesting. We don't know much about their location (except that they sleep in soot), but we do know what one of them dreams of—a "green plain" (15), "a river" and the "sun" (16). Sounds nice, right?
Right. And that's precisely the point. The contrast between the lovely natural imagery of Tom's dream and black chimneys in which they spend most of their waking life is enough to give anyone the blues. As with many other aspects of the poem, the dream setting highlights the huge gap between the innocence of these young boys and the harsh reality of their experience.
Our speaker has it seriously rough. Orphan, child laborer, possibly homeless. You run down the list of bad ways to live, and he pretty much checks 'em all off. And none of it is his fault.
See, he's a chimney-sweeper, and he didn't have a choice. About any of it. But before you go thinking that our speaker is a woe-is-me kind of kid, consider this: we actually don't hear very much from his perspective. Instead, he spends a big chunk of the poem talking about his buddy, little Tom Dacre.
What's up with that? A poem about chimney sweeping, by a chimney sweeper, and he spends the whole time telling us about some other little guy? Doesn't he know the drill himself? Why bother giving us Tom Dacre's story, once removed?
We think this might be a strategic move. Remember, at the end of the poem, the speaker says Tom was "happy and warm" (23). As in, we have no clue if the speaker feels the same way. And there's good reason to think he's not, because this speaker doesn't seem to believe that "if all do their duty they need not fear harm" (24). He knows Tom's dream is just that—a dream.
This little boy is one seriously wise little kid. He understands the gap between his reality, and the one he deserves—a real childhood, complete with frolicking. But he also knows the importance of believing in something positive, even if it doesn't quite match up with his dreary state of affairs. That's why he tells Tom Dacre not to worry about his unfortunate haircut. Look on the bright side, he says, now you can't be sullied by soot.
Um, Shmoop has had our fair share of bad haircuts. And we hate to say it, buddy, but that's small consolation for involuntary baldness.
"The Chimney Sweeper" is a pretty easy poem. It doesn't include any long, weird words (like eleemosynary, although these boys could certainly use some eleemosynary aid), and the sentence structure is pretty straightforward, except the occasional poetic syntax. There are a few moments where it could stray into the realm of confusing (like in the dream), but in general "The Chimney Sweeper" is a straightforward masterpiece. Sweep away.
Blake never tires of criticizing the Industrial Revolution (a general term to describe the rise of industry, factories, technology, and all sorts of other things), which took place over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Seriously. He really didn't like it. But hey, he was a Romantic poet. And those dudes were all about nature. So can you blame him?
Chimney sweeping was probably the most horrific to Blake, because it involved harming innocent kiddos who should be playing in the sun. And chimney sweeping was all thanks to the good ol' Industrial Revolution, because during that time, more people started living in cities, and as a result there were more chimneys to clean and more tiny tots needed to clean them.
Blake's criticism of the chimney-sweeper's life in this poem, and in its companion in Songs of Experience, is part and parcel of his critique of industrialism, but this one's definitely not his only poem to do so. Just check out his poem "London" to see what we mean.
It's gonna be a bumpy ride, Shmoopers. So hold on tight. We've got a lot of explaining to do.
Like many of Blake's poems, the meter of "The Chimney Sweeper" is all over the place. A little iambic here, a little anapestic there.
Whoa whoa whoa. Iambic? Anapestic? Excuse me? Don't worry, we'll break it down.
First things first: in general, each line of the poem can be divided into four groups (called feet). We know there are four feet in each line because each line has four stressed syllables (with a bunch of unstressed ones peppered throughout to pad the ranks).
But there are several different types of feet employed. Take line 1 as an example:
When my mother died I was very young
Breaking this line up into feet might look a little something like this:
When my moth / er died / I was ve / ry young
So the first and third groups contain two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (this is called an anapest), and the second and fourth groups contain an unstressed syllable followed by a stress syllable. This is called an iamb, and it is the most common foot type in English.
"The Chimney Sweeper" contains lots of anapests (Blake really likes these) and lots of iambs, so we might think of this poem as being a mixture of anapestic and iambic tetrameter. We know, we know—he's breaking some rules. But hey, he's William Blake. We think he's earned the right.
The poem is divided into six stanzas, each of which contains four lines. Hey, that adds a nice little symmetry when you think about the fact that each line has four beats, doesn't it?
And in each stanza, the first two lines rhyme, and the last two lines rhyme. When two lines rhyme in succession, it's called a couplet (because it's like a cute little matchy couple).
You'll notice that as the poem progresses, the rhymes become less regular; for example, "dark" and "work" (21-22) and "warm" and "harm" (23-24) kind of rhyme, but not that well. This type of rhyme is often called a slant rhyme, or half-rhyme, or imperfect rhyme, and they have the eerie effect of unsettling us a bit. As we enter the dark last lines of the poem, the sing-songy perfect rhymes give way to wonkier ones. We're no longer at ease.
In a poem called "The Chimney Sweeper" we expect to meet a sweeper. In fact, we meet several (at least five) specific ones, thousands of other nameless ones, and we also get a pretty close look at their lives and the stuff of their work—brushes, bags, soot. All of these things represent burdens that children should not have to bear, and the poem makes no secret of this opinion.
Soot is black, and the chimney sweepers are black because of all that sooty soot they schlep around in. They are also black, however, in a different sense. Their innocence has been stolen, and they're facing a premature death because chimney sweeping is not exactly an office job if you know what we mean. Black, in this poem, isn't just a color. It is also a symbol of everything that is bad about chimney sweeping specifically, and child labor in general.
Little Tom Dacre used to have white hair (before it was shaved), the naked children in the dream are white, and clouds are white. Whiteness in this poem is a symbol of innocence and childhood and contrasts with the blackness of soot, chimneys, coffins, and all the other bad things (adulthood, death, etc.) the poem mentions.
You can read this one to the kiddos.