The Chimney Sweeper: Songs of Innocence

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The Chimney Sweeper

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, and in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved; so I said,
‘‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for, when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’’

And so he was quiet, and that very night,
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.

And by came an angel, who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins, and let them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind;
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke, and we rose in the dark, 
And got with our bags and our brushes to work. 
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm: 
So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.


Analysis

      The century in which Blake lived witnessed the most painful after-effects of Britain's industrialisation. The labourers were poor, often without work due to ill-health. This poverty compelled many a father to sell his children to master-sweeper who employed these children on poor payment. In those days it was not an extraordinary sight to see the children sweeping the soot of chimneys even when fire was burning below in the fire place. It was these inhuman atrocities that led Blake to write this poem.


In the dream Tom has a vision of the emancipation of the chimney sweepers. The beatific vision of the angel culminates in the little boys Complete freedom from misfortunes.
The Chimney Sweeper


Development of Thought :

      Coming to Blake's work 'The Chimney-Sweeper', we see that the speaker is a young chimney sweeper. The speaker says he lost his mother, and his father sold him to a master sweep when he was too young to cry "weep: 'weep: 'weep." The speaker then tells us how one of his fellow sweeps, Tom Dacre cried when his curly hair was shaved. The speaker consoles him that as Tom's hair is cut his white hair will not be soot-stained. That very night when Tom sleeps he has a sweet dream. He finds thousands of his fellow sweeps locked up in black coffins. Then there comes an angel with bright keys who opens the coffins and sets them all free. The unbridled children float happily in the air and sport there. The angel tells them that if they behave properly they can have God as their father. The next day, though it is cold outside Tom feels the warmth imparted by the dream and he goes peacefully to brush the chimneys. The poem ends didactically and reminds us that to do our duty is the way to happiness.

Blake's Sympathy :

      Evidently enough, the poem throws light upon the miserable life of young children who are subject to inhuman treatment in the society of industrialised England. Though the poet finds society indifferent to the miseries of young boys he is sure that in the hands of God they will be treated kindly. Blake portrays greedy fathers who sell their children for a few pounds and abandon them to the eternal hell of suffering. Since the chimneys were too narrow only small children were employed as chiney sweeps.

Choking Chimneys :

      Generally all the labourers of the factories suffered from the unhealthy atmosphere of the factories. Worse were the conditions of chimney sweeps who, being little boys, could not stand the choking chimneys. They were treated like animals. They had to wake up in the night and go on sweeping until noon. They put the soot in their soot-bags and came out like little black spirits. At home they slept on poor beds and were fed poorly. They were paid very poorly and nobody thought of their health.

The Coffin of Soot :

      Tom's dream is a replica or the realistic picture of his life. The coffin of soot in which he saw his fellow workers locked up is nothing but the coating of soot that stuck on their body when they came out after sweeping the chimney. They were compelled to go into these chimneys. The term 'coffin' also suggests the danger of death that lurked in the work the little boys did. Tom dreams that the sweeps are shut up and locked in a black coffin. But they are not locked up for ever. The angel with bright keys liberates them and they play and revel in the air. Here also, their innocence is preserved with the help of God. Like the 'Little Black Boy' who suffers injustice on earth but gets justice in heaven, the chimney sweepers also suffer much on earth but will be free to sport on clouds when they are liberated by the angel.

      We have to remember the fact that the children went up naked into the chimneys because to put on clothes was to invite more danger from fire. So the phase - "Then naked and white" - of Line 17 is noteworthy. The soot sticks on their naked body and so their whole body should be purged of it. That is why they are said to be having a complete wash in the river and rising to the cloud.

Be A Good Boy :

      In the dream Tom has a vision of the emancipation of the chimney sweepers. The beatific vision of the angel culminates in the little boys Complete freedom from misfortunes. The little boys bereft of their parents are told by the angel that God will be their kind father if they behave gently. It is not to be misunderstood that the boy is not gentle and so he has to become gentler. The words of the angel simply stand as an encouragement.

The Moral :

 The poem comes to an end with a moral uttering: "So if all do their duty they need not fear harm." This means that if the chimney sweep accepts his wretched condition and derives comfort from glimpses of Innocence in dreams, he can preserve his humanity from being swept off altogether. In Tom's vision the boys have died and they are to go heaven. But in a way they are confined within 'coffins of black' during their lives too. This is a poem of innocence, though to the boy the phrase has no second significance. His faith is simple and it accepts what it is taught. So he feels that, in spite of darknes, dirt and cold, he will not be in harm, provided he does his duty.

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