In William Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper,” we are given a glimpse of the harsh. Realities surrounding child labor which affected England in the late XVIII and early XIX centuries. It was first published in 1789 in a recollection of poems titled Songs Of Innocence (Soman 2011). Told through the voice of a young boy who was sold into the chimney sweeping business. The poem illustrates on the issue of child labor by providing a first-hand account from someone that transpires innocence. By doing this, William Blake manages not only to awaken sympathy. And pity on the reader towards the childre. But also poses a direct criticism towards society itself and various social institutions of the time for not intervening and helping these children.
The poem is divided into six quatrains, each following an AABB rhyme scheme (Todd, Bella). In the first stanza, the author introduces the teller of the poem, a young boy whose mother had perished and was consequently sold by his father into working as a chimney sweeper (Kennedy, Gioia 441). With this introduction, William Blake gives rise to a dark and sad scenario in an attempt to capture the reader’s emotions. This is further supported when the young child recalls on how he couldn’t even pronounce the word “sweep” when he was introduced into the chimney sweeping business.
This would constitute a direct allegation of his young age. In addition to this, he tells us with a childish and innocent tone of some of the harsh conditions which child chimney sweepers like him had to endure, “So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep,” (Kennedy, Gioia 441). By recalling on these events, William Blake attempts to capture the reader’s emotions by raising pity on them; first by displaying the young age of a child who’s not even old enough to pronounce a word correctly, and second, by hinting at the harsh and likely dangerous conditions that this child is often confronted with (Mayhew 2009).
On the second stanza, the author introduces Tom Dacre, one of the young boy’s new recruit’s. When doing so, we are again reminded of the young age of these children because of Tom’s weeping emotions towards having his head shaved and also because of the narrator’s innocent and nave attempt to comfort Tom, expressed in the following quote “Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair,” (Kennedy, Gioia 441).
On the following three stanzas, Tom falls asleep and a recount of a dream he has is told. In Tom’s dream, he imagines himself along with other chimney sweepers being liberated by an Angel from their coffins of black. Many have interpreted this as Tom’s desire to be set free from his oppressive conditions at work. Thus, the liberation from the coffins symbolizes the angel bringing death to the children and therefore relieving them from their oppressive states (Mayhew 2009). In this sense, the author could be portraying in Tom’s dream a sign of hope for a better life but also the deaths that many of these children are likely to have witnessed on their dangerous work.
In addition to this, William Blake’s attack at social institutions such as the church and religion is evident. Tom’s dream of hoping an angel would come and save all the chimney sweeper children and encouraging them to be “good boys” and do “their duties” (final stanza), can be thought of as false hopes which religion manages to impregnate on these children, while not taking real action in their situation (Mayhew 2009). Tom’s hope for a better tomorrow displays naivety and innocence typical of young children, causing the reader to develop further emotions of pity and sorrow towards their situation.
At the final stanza Tom awakens and the boys return to their dangerous job with a slight optimism influenced by the dream and hope of a better tomorrow if they do their duties. As mentioned earlier, William Blake criticizes religion for impregnating false hopes in these children and for not taking action in their aid. However, some critics state that William Blake also blamed humanity as a whole for the situation of these children (Mayhew 2009). They argue that William’s Blake attempt of using promised future happiness in Tom’s dream is a direct criticism of the way the oppressed were subdue at the time (Todd, Bella).
The fact that society at the time allowed for children to work and live by such inhumane conditions puts a burden of responsibility on everyone. The author attempts to display this in the first stanza with the word “your” in the line “so your chimneys I sweep,” (Kennedy, Gioia 441). By doing this, William Blake in a way implicates the reader as being part of that circle of exploitation surrounding the children because society as a whole allowed for it to happen.
“The Chimney Sweeper” certainly does an ideal job at presenting the harsh reality of child labor which affected England at the time. William Blake’s attempt of telling the poem through the voice of a young chimney sweeper raises feelings of compassion and pity on the reader while also invoking feelings of guilt on society as a whole. Therefore, “The Chimney Sweeper” can be regarded as a very emotive poem that reflects William Blake’s thoughts and emotions about child labor in XVIII century England.