Social Issue, Symbols, and Themes of Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” Poems During the seventeenth century, people in England substituted burning wood with coal to use their fireplaces to avoiding paying hearth taxes. The burning of coal left soot on the interior walls of the fireplaces that needed to be removed to keep the fireplaces clean. Homes would be polluted with fumes of the coal residue if the fireplaces weren’t cleaned regularly (“A History of Chimney Sweeping”).
Since children were small enough to climb inside the narrow interior of the chimneys, they were employed as chimney sweeps that worked in harsh conditions (Nurmi 17). As a result, the lives of young chimney sweeps in London during the eighteenth century stirred William Blake to write two poems that reveal his outlook towards their work experience. “The Chimney Sweeper” poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience contained themes and symbols regarding a severe social issue.
The lack of labor laws in England enabled employers such as master sweeps to have their child apprentices work at the age of six or seven. Some apprentices became sweeps at ages four and five (Nurmi 16). Martin K. Nurmi explained, “Unlike the usual apprenticeship, in which the fee is paid to the master, binding children—both boys and girls—to a master sweep usually brought a payment ranging from twenty shillings to five guineas from the master to the parent, if there was one, or to whoever had the child at the time” (16).
Orphans, especially, were compelled to work as sweeps. Since the sixteenth century, the sweeps worked extensively for hours yet were still given poor treatment. In “exchange for a home and food and water,” they worked as “indentured servants to their master” (“A History of Chimney Sweeping”). For seven years, the children were apprenticed as sweeps despite the fact they became too big to climb chimneys by their seventh year. The result of a sweep’s apprenticeship did not guarantee them the opportunity to become qualified artisans since work was insufficient.
Instead, the sweeps normally relied on the church to support them financially because the injuries and illnesses they received as apprentices disabled them from doing physical labor (Nurmi 16). Nurmi described, “Chimney sweeping left children with kneecaps twisted and spines and ankle deformed, from crawling up chimneys as small as nine or even seven inches in diameter, with ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’ of the scrotum resulting from the constant irritation of the soot, with respiratory ailments, and eye inflammations” (16).
Occurrences of sweeps falling from chimneys were common as well (“A History of Chimney Sweeping”). Additionally, the duration of the sweeps’ labor was extensive. They start working before the sun rose by offering their services to people on the streets until noon. When it was time to stop working, the sweeps had to carry “heavy bags of soot” back “to the cellars and attics where they slept” (Nurmi 17). The sweeps slept on the bags they used to collect the soot they swept. Although the sweeps were exposed to soot daily, they often worked six months without washing (Nurmi 17).
The treatment of the chimney sweeps was not revealed in Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper poems. ” Thus, a reader who is not aware of the treatment of young chimney sweeps would not fully understand the themes and symbols Blake included in his poems. After examining the social issue that negatively affected the chimney sweepers of Blake’s time however, a reader will not only comprehend the poems but, he or she may also appreciate how Blake used poetry to express his perspective on how his society failed to care for its youths as well as his sympathy for chimney sweepers.
The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence, for example, was written to appeal to the readers’ sympathy. The first stanza read, “When my mother died I was very young, / And my father sold me while yet my tongue / Could scarcely cry ‘weep! weep! weep! weep! ‘ / So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep. ” (Blake 1-4). The speaker of the poem firstly revealed that his mother has passed away when he was young and that his father sold him to a life of chimney sweeping before the speaker could pronounce the word, “sweep” (Carbatonic Funk).
As a sweep, the speaker revealed that he is exposed to soot constantly. In the second stanza, Blake appealed to the readers’ sympathy once more by introducing them to Tom Dacre. Blake wrote, “There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head / That curl’d like a lamb’s back, was shav’d, so I said: / ‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare / You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair. ‘” (Blake lines 5-8). Tom is a new sweeper in the poem who represented “other neglected children in poverty” (Heath).
Blake also made Tom into an ndividual instead of “another faceless young chimney sweep” by giving him “a name, feelings, and emotion” (Carbatonic Funk). Giving Tom his individuality can be seen as Blake’s method of telling those who exploited children for financial gain that children have “basic human rights and deserve to be treated respectfully” (Carbatonic Funk). In addition, the removal of Tom’s white hair symbolized his “sacrificial life to society” (Heath). Blake had the speaker compare Tom’s hair to “a lambs’ back” because the lamb symbolized “the Christian theme of Christ’s purity, sacrifice to humanity and temporal neglect of His Father” (Heath).
More Christian references were made when Tom dreamt about an angel that liberated his fellow sweeps from their suffering. The next references do not appear until the fourth and fifth stanzas however. Instead, the third stanza read, “As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, / That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack, / Were all of them locked up in coffins of black” (Blake line 10-12). The coffins represented the oppressive lifestyle that forced the sweeps to work in dark, narrow chimneys (Nurmi 17, Reiser).
When the angel opened the coffins and librated the sweeps inside, readers can interpret this occurrence as the angel librating the sweeps from their “oppressive lifestyle” and welcomed them to vivid and clean environment that contrasted greatly with the dullness and filthiness of their reality (Reiser). The fourth stanza and the first two lines of the fifth stanza read, “And by came an Angel who had a bright key, / And he open’d the coffins & set them all free.
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run, And wash in a river and shine in the Sun. Then naked & white, all their bags left behind, They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind” (Blake lines 13-18). Despite the optimistic imagery, the dream may indicate that the sweeps were “not free from the oppression until the afterlife” (Reiser). Additionally, the angel is a “representative of the repressive society in which these children live” because he is associated with the very church that does nothing to help the sweeps (Carbatonic Funk). According to the two last lines of the fifth stanza, the Angel told Tom that “…if he’d be a good boy / He’d have God for his father, & never want joy” (Blake lines 19-20).
The message appeared to encourage hopefulness and patience. However, its only purpose was to have Tom believe that he can only achieve happiness if “he’d be a good boy” by continuing to work for those who oppress him (Blake line 19, Carbatonic Funk). Nonetheless, Tom was encouraged to be patient and hopeful when he awoken from his dream. To demonstrate Tom’s positive mindset, Blake wrote on the sixth stanza, “And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark / And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm; / So if all do their duty they need not fear harm. (Blake lines 21-24). Accordingly, the last stanza also demonstrated Tom’s innocence as well as his unawareness of the reality “that he is a victim” of an oppressive society (Reiser). Furthermore, Tom’s optimism helped express the theme that reveal how one can experience contentment “even in the worst of circumstances” (Reiser). Unlike Tom, who does not “fully understand his situation or suffering,” the sweep in “The Chimney Speaker” from Songs of Experience “understands the complexity and hopelessness of his situation” (Heath).
The sweep acknowledged that there’s nothing he can do to acquire the contentment he longs for in the very society that oppresses him. Although the perspective of the sweep from Songs of Experience contrasted greatly from Tom’s, Blake used the sweep’s negativity to continue criticizing society for its treatment of chimney sweepers (Carbatonic Funk). In the first stanza of “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience for example, the negative tone of the sweep can be recognized when he said, “A little black thing among the snow: Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe! (Blake lines 1-2). By describing himself as “A little black thing among the snow,” the sweep revealed how his society does not perceive him and other sweeps “as valid members of the civilized culture” (Blake line 1, Carabonic Funk). The “darkness” of the “little black thing” also represented “sadness’ because the sweep “is soiled with work and despair” (Blake line 1, Heath). Therefore, the sweep was not “Crying weep, weep” to reveal his youth but instead to wearily demonstrate the “culmination of the hardships and experience” that matured him (Blake line 2, Carbatonic Funk).
After expressing his weariness, the sweep rhetorically asked with sarcasm, “Where are thy father & mother? say? / They are both gone up to the church to pray. ” (Blake 3-4, Carbatonic Funk). The sweep’s parents did not invite him to attend church with them because he was not allowed to (Nurmi 18). Without a justifiable reason, the beadle would drive them away if chimney sweepers tried to attend church (Hanway, qtd. in Fact and Symbol in “The Chimney Sweeper”). Additional examples of how the sweep was neglected by his parents are revealed on the second stanza.
The sweep explained, “Because I was happy upon the heath / And smil’d among the winters snow: / They clothed me in the clothes of death, / And taught me to sing the notes of woe. ” (Blake lines 5-8). Accordingly, the sweep explained that his parents had him become a chimney sweeper because he enjoyed being near heaths and walking on snow. He described the clothes his parents clothed him in to be “clothes of death” because he wore those clothes to work in an environment that can kill him (Blake line 7).
He also described the songs they taught him to sing as “the notes of woe” because he sang in reaction to his miserable life as a chimney sweeper (Blake lines 8). The sweep continued to describe his parents’ ignorance and then, criticized those who have the most authority on the third stanza. He said, “And because I am happy & dance & sing, / They think they have done me no injury: / And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King, / Who make up a heaven of our misery. ” (Blake lines 9-12). The sweep behaved in a way his false optimism conceals his pessimism.
Consequently, his parents believed that they did nothing to harm him and attend church to praise the very being and people that take advantage of the chimney sweepers’ labor to fulfill their own contentment. In addition, the sweep may be criticizing God for allowing society to mistreat the chimney sweepers as well (Reiser). The sweep’s criticism towards those with authority over him and other sweeps suggested the theme that revealed how people cannot claim that they are religious and righteous when they enable the exploitation of others.
Without knowing about the exploitation of chimney sweepers in London during the eighteenth century, a reader would not be able to acknowledge the message “The Chimney Sweeper” poems conveyed. Studying about history of chimney sweeping helps a reader interpret the symbols and themes of the poems with less difficulty. The interpretation of symbols and themes enable the reader to realize that both poems express the oppressiveness the sweeps endured. The interpretation also discloses William Blake’s perspective on the harsh lives of sweeps during his time.
Most importantly, the reader’s knowledge of the history of chimney sweeper can help develop appreciation for how Blake used poetry to express his sympathy for the sweeps and his outlook on his society’s failure to care for their wellbeing.
- “A History of Chimney Sweeping. ” www. ctsweep. com. Nayaug Chimney Services, LLC. 2010. Web. 12 March. 2013. Blake, William. “William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from Songs of Innocence and from Songs of Experience. ”
- Dr. Nancy Rosenberg England. 2013. Web. 13 March. 2013. Carbatonic Funk. “William Blake’s The Chimney Sweeper in the Songs of Innocence and Experience. ” Yahoo! Voices.
- Yahoo! Inc. , 6 Sep. 2007. Web. 13 March. 2013. Heath, Dianne. “Analysis of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ by William Blake. ” Social Science Medley. 30 Mar. 2011. Web. 12 March. 2013. Heath, Dianne.
- “Analysis of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from the Songs of Experience. ” Social Science Medley. 19 Sep. 2011. Web. 12 March. 2013. Nurmi, Martin K. “Fact and Symbol in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. ”
- Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed Northrop Frye. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, 1966. 15-22. Reiser, K. L. “An Analysis of Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ Poems. ” Yahoo! Voices. Yahoo! Inc. , 27 April. 2007. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.