The “Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence by William Blake highlights the devastating consequences when young boys are taken into service as chimney sweepers. The poem is part of Blake’s works of social protest. Sweepers were not only innocent victims of the cruelest form of exploitation but were also associated with the environmental concerns related to industrialization and other adverse effects of the increase in wealth. The “Chimney Sweeper” in the Songs of Innocence is a monologue by a sweeper in a simple language and rhyming couplets. The core part of the poem is the dual contrast that distinguishes the grim realities of the sweep boys and the ecstatic vision of liberty in the dreams of one of the sweep boys Tom Dacre, a relatively recruit. William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” explores the conflict between human values and commercialism through the use of white and black imagery and symbolism, alliteration in addition to the use of the rhyme scheme of “AABB” which disguises the seriousness of the poem’s theme.
The different and conflicting aspects of commercialism and humanity are indicated with the distinct use of white and black imagery and symbolism. Children are often associated with playfulness and freshness. Indeed, in his poem, Blake saw and portrayed children as symbols of imagination with great artistic creativity. Children in the Chimney Sweeper are used as images of innocence and gentleness. The poem illustrates how the innocence of children is exploited (Nurmi, 16). For instance, Tom’s innocence is connoted with the simile of his hair being “like a lamb’s back,” curly and white (5-6). Additionally, the metaphor comparing Tom’s hair with a lamb’s back might also imply that the treatment of the children is no better than that of animals. Blake relies on the white and black imagery in the last line of the second stanza, when the experienced sweeper consoles Tom, particularly the statement “you know that the soot cannot spoil white hair” (8). Blake also references uses imagery in the last line of the third stanza by considering the coffins as black. The dream of Tom Dacre, one of the sweepers in the fourth and fifth stanzas is a vision of a world where the little boys are not exploited but live in a bright, beautiful and innocent environment as should be case if the aspect of chimney cleaning did not exist in England in the 1970s (Nurmi 15).
The Chimney Sweeper comprises six quatrains each that illustrate the AABB rhyme scheme, with two rhyming couplets per quatrain. Blake utilizes the AABB rhyme scheme ironically to distract the audience from the seriousness of the poem. The child-like anapaestic rhythm, characterized by two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one, emphasizes an aspect of over-simplicity. Blake proceeds to attack and criticize the practices associated with the sweep boys in the safety of the light rhyme. He utilizes the minimalistic rhythm to disguise his criticism of religion particularly the church for not only failing to criticize the practice but also for perpetuating false myths that facilitated the dispossession in the 18th century (Vines). It is evident while Tom Dacre’s dreams help him cope with the conditions working as a chimney cleaner, the dream does not imply a happy ending since the dream emphasizes the importance of being committed to duty in efforts of avoiding harm. It is a known fact, children as supposed to enjoy life and explore their creativity as they develop. Therefore, it is implied children are not required to be responsible for their survival. While Tom Darce dreams envision an angel saving them, the “black coffins” suggest that these children are likely to die due to dire working conditions or continue working the chimneys until they outgrow them. The fact that the angel is unable to save Tom in his dreams permanently implies that the church in the 18th century was reluctant to fight for human values (Nurmi 16). To no small extent, Blake decries that the promise of future happiness both worldly and after-life is a technique that is used to subdue the weak and the oppressed merely. Blake criticizes the religious aspect of the society that offers the children palliatives than aid (Vines). Indeed, the creative power of the poem in addition to the light rhythm disguises the theme of ruthless exploitation of the innocent poem and the lack of effort to stop the practice.
Right from the first stanza, William Blake draws his readers into the poem with alliteration, which has an impact of moving the poetry lines swiftly. For instance, in the third line of the poem, the repetition of the term “weep” not only highlights but also emphasizes the crying of the exploited boys (3-4). In the last line of the first stanza, Blake repeats “s” in“sweep and in soot I sleep” which gives an impression of steady flow. Similarly, in the second and third stanzas, the “s” is repeated severally including “shaved: so I said,”/ “the soot cannot spoil,” and “a-sleeping,” “sight” and “sleepers.” The repetition of the “s” sound throughout the poem creates a hissing sound which, to no small extent, works to lessen the impact of the words of encouragement to Tom. The fact that the alliteration works to mitigate the effect of encouraging phrases from the experienced sweeper further illustrate the divide better reality and dream in the poem. Blake wrote the chimney sweeper intending to portray the social injustice that was not only child abuse but also to illustrate a society with no moral values that is focused on making money. The alliteration, particularly the repetition of the “s” sound in several instances throughout the poem, works to illustrate how passionate Blake is about social injustices issues. Indeed, while in many cases alliteration is majorly applied to create a flow, the aspect of alliteration in the Chimney Sweeper manages to facilitate the swift flow of lines in addition to emphasizing the theme of suffering and innocence.
“The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence is reflective of the life that two children, who are robbed of their childhood, are living while working as chimney sweepers. The poem presents a very authentic approach through which to reflect on the suffering of the children considering that they do not experience the joy of childhood. In the poem, William Blake illustrates extensive and creative imagery and symbolism in addition to the application of alliteration, which demonstrates the terrible working conditions of children. The use of white and black imagery and symbolism set the mood associated with dark and vivid pictures that showcase the mistreatment of children. The application of alliteration in the poem also works to showcase the conflicting interests between human values and economic values. The poem builds a close connection to the audience through a creative application of literary devices, as it reflects on how young children suffered for the creation of wealth. Undeniably, the literary devices applied throughout the poem transform “The Chimney Sweeper” in the songs of innocence from a condescending moral lesson of young boys to a sharp criticism of culture and associated aspects that support and perpetuate the inhuman conditions of chimney sweeping on children.
Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. 18 May 2019 <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43654/the-chimney-sweeper-when-my-mother-died-i-was-very-young>.
Nurmi, Martin K. Fact and Symbol in “The Chimney Sweeper” of Blakes Songs of Innocence. New York: New York Public Library, 1964.
Vines, Timothy. “An Analysis of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence in Response to the Collapse of Values.” The Bruce Hall Academic Journal, 2005.