Study Guide

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence) Quotes

  • Innocence

    When my mother died I was very young,
    And my father sold me while yet my tongue
    Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! (1-3)

    Seriously? His own dad sold this kid into chimney sweeping slavery? Treating your own kid like a commodity has got to be high on the list of parenting no-nos. How can you hang on to kid-dom when your own dad doesn't see you for what you are—a child?

    There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
    That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: […] (5-6)

    Tom Dacre is compared to a lamb, which is pretty much the most adorable, innocent animal on the planet (save sloths, of course). The fact that he is shaved, and no longer resembles a lamb, suggests that his childhood, his lambishness, is gone, all thanks to the brutal chimney-sweeping industry.

    ["]You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair." (8)

    While the whiteness of Tom's hair seems to suggest innocence, we can't help thinking of old age as well. The fact that Tom already has white hair suggests that he is already old, that he has already lost his childhood, while it also suggest that he's innocent and unspoiled at the same time. Nifty contrast, huh?

    That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
    Were all of them locked up in coffins of black. (11-12)

    The children are locked up in coffins when they should be out playing and enjoying their childhood. It doesn't get much more horrifying than that. It's like these tykes are doomed from the start. How can you have a childhood, when you know you'll come to an early end?

    Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
    And wash in a river, and shine in the sun. (15-16)

    Ugh, what a bummer. Tom's dream shows us what innocence should look like, and yet the only place it exists in the poem is in his mind. In a way, innocence is just a fantasy, something to hope for, and nothing more, at least for the children in the poem. It is a dream, in more senses than one.

    Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
    They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind; (17-18)

    The nakedness and whiteness of the children suggests innocence, because they're in their totally pure, natural state. But there's something weird about that rhyme on "behind" and "wind." The fact that it isn't perfect suggests that there is something imperfect about this picture of innocence. Maybe that imperfection comes from the fact that this isn't real at all; it's a pipedream.

    Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
    So if all do their duty they need not fear harm. (23-24)

    This description reminds us of the children playing in the dream, but it's more than a little weird. Tom shouldn't be happy, since he's living a pretty rough life, right? But he just woke up from an awesome dream, and that dream seems to help him get through the day.

  • Death

    When my mother died I was very young,
    And my father sold me while yet my tongue
    Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! (1-3)

    We're gonna go out on a limb here and say that this is a kind of metaphorical murder. This father literally took away his kid's personhood. The guy who buys the child is guilty of the same crime, a crime that doesn't see children as children but as objects or slaves to be exploited for profit.

    There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
    That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: [...] (5-6)

    These lines remind us of the expression "lambs to the slaughter." The shaving of Tom's head is the first step in a process or career that will slowly kill him. It may not literally kill him, but it will definitely destroy a part of his life that he can never have back.

    ["]You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair." (8)

    The fact that Tom has white hair suggests that he is an old man, or that he resembles an old man. And since the elderly are generally a whole lot closer to death than the young, the line suggests that Tom's aging much more quickly than he should. He's still a child, after all.

    As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight—
    That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
    Were all of them locked up in coffins of black. (10-12)

    The speaker again reiterates the idea that children employed as chimney sweepers are dead in some way (their innocence is gone, that's for sure). The rhyme on "Jack" and "black" emphasizes the connection between the black death of the coffin and the chimney sweeper named Jack.

    Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
    They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind; (17-18)

    The children rise on clouds, almost as if they were on their way to Heaven. In a way, they haven't been released from death, but from their horrible lives. Now, in the dream at least, they're well on their way to a happy afterlife… maybe.

    And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
    And got with our bags and our brushes to work. (21-22)

    In many ways the children are already dead. Dark doesn't just describe the absence of light, but also the condition of their lives. It recalls the "coffins of black" and suggests that children are sort of like zombies—the walking dead. Plus, the fact that "dark" kind of rhymes with "work" suggests that there is some connection between working and death. Yep, we can empathize with that one.

  • Suffering

    And my father sold me while yet my tongue
    Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! (2-3)

    The child is the object of the verb "sold," which tells us that his suffering is forced upon him by somebody else. Moreover, he is sold before he can even speak, which implies he's been suffering for a long time, and has no say in the matter.

    There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
    That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: [...] (5-6)

    It might not seem like a big deal to have one's hair cut, but it totally is for Tom. The poor kid cries. His outburst shows that even something so simple, like getting a haircut, can represent a form of suffering for a child. It also kind of seems like he's being shaved for slaughter.

    That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
    Were all of them locked up in coffins of black. (11-12)

    These poor kids are prisoners—condemned to death—and yet they haven't done anything wrong. How is that fair? And note the passive construction here. The children are "locked up" by somebody else, which reminds us of the beginning of the poem, when the speaker is forced into this work by his own dad. From youth to death, it seems, these kids have no control.

    Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm; (23)

    Given the first twenty-two lines of the poem, this line has to be ironic, right? How could Tom be "happy and warm" when the life of a chimney sweeper is full of so much suffering? "Warm" rhymes imperfectly with "harm," which tells us that there is something fishy going on here.

    So if all do their duty they need not fear harm. (24)

    The lines suggest that children should just suffer, if that is their lot, and nothing bad will happen to them. Wait. What? That doesn't sound right. Frankly, it's hard not to read these lines ironically, as if they were a parody of the kinds of advice we usually give children (things like, "stay in school," or "follow the rules").

  • Religion

    There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
    That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: [...] (5-6)

    The lamb is an important symbol in Christianity. Jesus is often described as the Lamb of God, the one who sacrificed himself to atone for the sins of humanity. So does that make Tom Dacre a Christ-like figure? If so, how does that change the way we see the kid?

    And by came an angel who had a bright key,
    And he opened the coffins and set them all free; (13-14)

    The angel is a savior. The poem suggests here that only God's representative—somebody with some serious connections up in Heaven—can release mankind from death. The strange thing is that this whole thing happens in a dream, the realm of fantasy and unreality.

    Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
    And wash in a river, and shine in the sun. (15-16)

    The image of the children washing in a river suggests baptism, the process by which children are cleansed of their sins after they are born (in Christian faiths). The lines suggest that somehow the children have sinned, or are covered in sin, and must be cleansed.

    Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
    They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind; (17-18)

    The image of the children rising on clouds makes it kind of seem like they're on their way to Heaven. They are leaving their "bags" and clothes "behind," but the bags and clothes here might just be a symbol of their mortal life. They are leaving that behind and going to a better place. But are they really? What's this angel really offering them?

    And the angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
    He'd have God for his father, and never want joy. (19-20)

    Okay, let's break this down. The angel's comment sounds nice enough. But upon closer look, it almost sounds like he's laying down the law. Does God only accept people who are good? And does being good mean Tom has to do his chimney-sweeping duty, as the last lines of the poem suggest? This doesn't quite sound fair. In order to be good and get to heaven, Tom has to slave away in other people's chimneys down on earth? These lines, especially when you combine them with the last lines of the poem, definitely make us suspicious of the angel's meaning.