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Children are now welcomed to earth as presents bundled in pinks and blues. In the 1800’s children were treated as workers straight from the womb. Children trained early in age to perform unbearable tasks (Ward 3). Imagine how it felt to be unwanted by a parent and sold to a master who also cared nothing about them. Many children earned a few pennies by becoming chimney sweeps or working in the streets running errands, calling cabs, sweeping roads, selling toys or flowers and helping the market porters (Ward 3). The young children did not have much choice on which job (life) they wanted, but by far sweeping chimneys was the most dangerous. The children were forced into confined areas filled with comb webs, where they sacrificed their lives to clean. William Blake does a great job depicting hardship of children in the 1800’s in “The Chimney Sweeper” through the use of diction and imagery.
Starting with the first stanza, Blake creates a dark and depressing tone. He uses words such as died, weep, soot, and cry to support this tone. In the first two lines the child shares his family with us, stating his mother’s death and the fact that his father sold him sharing that the child must come from a poor background “When my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue”(Lines 1-2). The image of a poor child getting tossed into another unhappy place sets the tone for the beginning of this poem. Blake uses the word “weep”, instead of “sweep” in the first stanza to show the innocence of the child “Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep”(3). The fact that the child cried “weep” instead of sweep shows that the child could not be any older than four. Blake describes that they sleep in soot also meaning they are sleeping in their death bed. The average life span of children who work in chimneys is ten years due to the harsh work environment. The child portrays sorrow in the last line of the first stanza “So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.”(4)
A name is given in the second stanza “Tom Dacre” used to show the realism of the event described in the poem. The second stanza contains the only simile in this poem, “That curl’d like a lamb’s back”(6), symbolizing the lamb as innocence and when they shave the child’s head it’s like they are taking the innocence away from the child.
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In the third stanza the child escapes reality in a dream. Tom laid there quiet and that night when he went to sleep he had a wonderful dream “And so he was quiet, & that very night, As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight”(9-10). In Tom’s dream he sees himself and “Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack” (other chimney sweeps) “lock’d” up in black coffins “That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black”(11-12). The color black is used in this stanza as a symbol of evilness and the word coffins is used as a symbol of death. The coffins also represent being locked up in a chimney for a lifetime. The color black in this stanza is used to clash with the child’s white hair that was just shaved off earlier. Yet again Blake is showing the reader that the innocence of this child is stripped away.
Although happiness is known to be out of reach for these young chimney sweepers, they still hope for it. In the fourth stanza Tom is still dreaming about being set free from his life as a chimney sweep. Blake uses many more joyous words in this stanza such as bright, laughing, and shines to show the optimism in the children’s minds. The sweeps need freedom from these coffins (chimneys), but they cannot free themselves. The Angel portrayed in this stanza can free them and he does “And he open’d the coffins & set them all free” (14). The Angel is symbolizing friends that want to help these children live happier.
The Angel sets all of the chimney sweeper’s free, freedom of life without torture and pain. Blake states that the boys go running through a green plain leaping and laughing and the boys then wash themselves in a river “And wash in a river and shine in the sun” (16). Blake is stating that the boys are enjoying themselves and also cleansing their sins away. Blake conveys imagery in stanza four very well. The reader can easily imagine the boys frolicking in a beautiful green pasture almost like if they were in heaven.
The narrator states “Then naked & white, all their bags left behind” (17). showing that the children are still innocent. The children left their “bags” behind are the bags that the chimney sweepers actually carried around on a day to day basis. The word “bags” can also symbolize the baggage left be hide from their past. The second line in the fifth stanza states “They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind” (18). The young chimney sweepers rise up from earth (like angels) above the clouds into heaven, where they play in the fresh air. The narrator uses this line to show what the children will experience in heaven.
The next two lines showed the true sadness of this poem. “And the Angel told Tom if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for his father & never want joy” (19-20). These lines are stating that the children have something to look forward to after life on earth. The anguish of these lines is that the children are looking forward to death. The imagery is very bold, young children rising from the earth, naked and white and playing above the beautiful, white clouds.
The dream of happiness and freedom ends here in the last stanza. The brightness, joy, and warmth were all just a nighttime dream. The children awoke and the sun was gone “And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark” (21). Tom awoke feeling fresh and ready for a new day. They picked up their bags and brushed and headed to work with peaceful thoughts in their minds. The morning was cold, but the children were warm as the dream stayed present in their minds. The last line of this poem, fear does not exist in the minds of the chimney sweeps “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (24). The Angel made a promise to these children that if they were good and did their duty, then they would gain a father and live in eternal happiness.
Blake did an amazing job of depicting the lifestyle of children in the 1800’s by using diction and imagery. The secret of this poem lies in the extraordinary multiplicity of viewpoints and tones of voice which the poet plays off against each other in the reader's mind (Harrison 1). The poem started out as a troubled story of a child being abandoned by his parents and lead into a life of a chimney sweeper. His childhood ended abruptly when his life as a worker began. The child only escaped his new life in dreams. His faith that happiness would come to him helped him and the other chimney sweepers get through their lives. This beautifully written poem established the difference between life lived and lived life.
Harrison, James. “Blake’s The Chimney Sweeper.” The Explicator Vol. 36 (1973).
Kennedy, X.J., and Dana Gioia. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 10th ed. New York; Longman, 2007.695.
Ward, Peter. “Children in the 1800’s.” 2004.22 Feb.2008