The first version of "The Chimney Sweeper" appeared in Blake's collection Songs of Innocence (1789). Need we say more? Yes, as it turns out. That's because this particular song is all about the absence of innocence. The kids in this poem have no childhood whatsoever. They get up before dawn and clean chimneys. In that sense, their innocence has been stolen from them. They're forced to live a "black" life, covered in soot and facing a premature death. They frolic and play only in dreams.
The boys may live black lives, but they're still innocent. The fact that Tom believes that if he does his duty, no harm will come to him shows that he's still hanging on to his childhood despite his awful life.
"The Chimney Sweeper" argues that money is to blame for destroying these kids' innocence. After all, the speaker's childhood is taken away after he is "sold."
Chimney-sweeping was a dirty business, and those kids suffered a ton. Abuse, cancer, early death—you name it, they faced it. So it makes sense that a poem called "The Chimney Sweeper" would face death in some way. It does so in Tom's dream, in which the little guy sees his fellow sweepers in coffins. This might remind us that these kids face an early death, but it also shows us that in many ways, they're dead already; they've lost their childhood, their freedom, and their innocence. According to Blake, the chimney-sweeping life is no life at all.
The death these kids face is both literal and figurative. They'll likely die early because of their dangerous job, but they have already died in the sense that they've lost their childhood and innocence.
When the angel frees the boys from their coffins, it's meant to show that death is the only way out of this chimney-sweeping life.
Chimney-sweeping was a dangerous job, and there was little joy and a lot of suffering for the children involved. Blake talks about how Tom's head was shaved (which made him cry). All the sweepers in the dream are "locked up" in coffins, the speaker was sold by his father, and the only place the children get to play and be children is in Tom's dream. Yep, there's lots of suffering in "The Chimney Sweeper." The sad thing is it's the children who bear the brunt of it, and there's no end in sight.
The poem argues that resurrection and rebirth can only happen after one has suffered. The children can only wash themselves and rise on clouds after they've been locked up and covered in soot.
The suffering in this poem is a result of society's cruel indifference, as represented by the angel's lesson: do your duty and it'll all be fine. Shmoop's left foot.
An angel appears in Tom's dream in the form of a savior who releases the chimney sweepers from their coffins, and tells Tom that if he's a good boy God will love him. It seems like the angel is telling Tom to do his job. Does that mean that, in "The Chimney Sweeper," religion, in a way, participates in the exploitation of children? In a word, yes. Blake uses Tom Dacre's sad, beautiful dream to demonstrate how these boys' religious beliefs keep them contained in their dreadful lifestyle, rather than allow them to rise above it.
"The Chimney Sweeper" suggests that religion sometimes contributes to child suffering, because the angel straight up tells Tom to work hard at his awful job so he can earn God's love. Does that sound fair to you?
The most important religious moment—the angel unlocking the coffins—happens in a dream, which tells us that there's something unreal or totally fantastical about these boys' religious beliefs.