The Chimney Sweeper: Songs of Experience - Summary & Analysis

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The Chimney Sweeper

A little black thing in the snow,
Crying ‘‘weep! weep!’’ in notes of woe!
‘‘Where are thy father and mother? Say!’’—
‘‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.

‘‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

‘‘And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.’’

Summary and Analysis


      The poem 'The Chimney-Sweeper' brings before us the sad hazards of the chimney-sweepers of Blake's times. It arouses both pathos and anger. The poet highlights the cruelty and hostility of parents and the society. It satirizes religion at whose altar humanity and human values are sacrificed. Religion is not shown as a source of spiritual succour, instead, it is hostile and unmindful of the downtrodden.

The chimney-sweeper is no more the progeny of a human being because he is a little black 'thing' that woefully cries 'weep', along the street.
The Chimney Sweeper


      The dehumanisation of the chimney-sweeper is the first startling fact that the poet brings to light, and this process of dehumanising carries us upto the last line of poem. The chimney-sweeper is no more the progeny of a human being because he is a little black 'thing' that woefully cries 'weep', along the street. Unlike other boys he does not have a chance to experience parental care and kisses. The parents abandon him to the hardships and miseries. They go to church and pray for God's blessings while their children plod in the cold snow, weeping miserably. The little child says that he had been a happy child who smiled even in the chilly winter and was energetic and active. But the parents, as if they were envious of his happy life, send him to brush chimneys and clothe him in black deadly sooty clothes and make him cry 'weep'. When the chimney-sweeper dances and sings unmindful of his hazards, the parents think that they have done the right thing in sending the child to sweep the chimney and that they have done him no harm. With this conviction the parents go to worship.

      Of course, the parents may have felt guilty but since they find the child seemingly happy they are reassured and go and praise God. Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell used Heaven to represent Reason and Hell to represent the Energies: heaven may be the home of Jehovah, or Urizen, the source of tyranny exercised through the priest and king, both his servants. Thus 'Heaven' as used in The Chimney-Sweeper has an ironic significance.

Irony in the Poem:

      In the first stanza itself we see the Chimney-Sweeper in his black shroud of soot. At such an early stage of life children are privileged to have the tender care of their mother and father. But such essential loving care is denied to the Chimney-Sweeper. The duty of parents is to protect the children from harm and troubles. But here the parents of the chimney-sweeper neglect their child and go to pray. "Because I was happy." the Chimney-Sweeper says,

"They clothed me in the clothes of death

And taught me to sing the notes of woe"

      The clothes that the parents provide for the child are the clothes of death and not any protective covering. With a firm conviction that they have done no injury, the parents go to worship God and praise the priest and king who make a heaven out of the miseries of the child. This 'Heaven' of the last line of the poem is the home of Jehovah or Urizen. the source of tyranny exercised through the priest and the king who are his agents. Thus heaven as used in "The Chimney-Sweeper" has something of this ironic significance.

The King, the Priest and God:

      Leaving the chimney-sweeper as a waif in the street his parents take themselves to the Church to praise God, the priest and the king. The two terms 'the Priest and King' hint at the administrative body of England that ignores the poor unhappy lot and nourishes the richer ones. Instead of loving the poor and trying to uplift them, the religion goes on imposing its age-old dogmas and maxims. The King is God's deputy on earth and God himself is unkind. Here the God is Jehovah or Reason whose abode is mentioned as heaven. The Church and State are seen as being in league to maintain an unjust order of things. The hypocrites and self-deceivers flourish at large in their reign and the down-trodden ones like the chimney-sweepers suffer a lot.

Ironical Exposure of Hypocrisy and Dead Values:

      The Church is held as the main cause for the misery of the poor and the exploited. It has no soft feelings for sufferers, instead it makes them more and more poor. In fact God is a mask or pretext under which they can commit any act of cruelty. The parents of the boy have gone with great complacency to offer their prayers. Their hollowness in selling their children for a few pounds does not hinder their peaceful prayer. They take it for granted that their children are secure, safe and sound. But actually they are dying in their sooty clothes and are being suffocated inside the chimneys.

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