The Chimney Sweepers I (Songs of Innocence) – British & American Literature

The Chimney Sweepers I (Songs of Innocence)

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 & 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, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & 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 & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & 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 & never want joy.

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

Author William Blake

Summary & Analysis

The poem is narrated by a chimney sweeper. He tells us a little bit about himself first before giving us the lowdown on another chimney sweeper, Tom Dacre. After introducing us to Tom, he relates a very strange dream that Tom had one night (it involved chimney sweepers in coffins, angels, flying, and a few other bizarre things). The poem concludes with Tom and the speaker waking up and going to work, sweepin’ chimneys. Like they do.

Line 1

When my mother died I was very young,

  • The poem opens with the speaker telling us that his mother died when he was just a wee little tyke.
  • How young is “very young”? Five? Six? Three? Yeah, somewhere in there sounds about right. 
  • This line is just a basic, give-you-the-facts kind of opener, don’t you think?
  • Still, there’s at least one thing to notice: the sing-songy rhythm Blake’s got going on. When my mother died I was veryoung
  • Keep a weather eye out to see if this rhythm sticks around in the poem. And check out our “Form and Meter” section for more.

Lines 2-4

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.

  • The speaker tells us more about his childhood. It turns out his father sold him before he could even really speak.
  • Um, did he just say sold? Is he saying he’s a slave? This is headed nowhere good.
  • The phrase “my tongue / Could scarcely cry” is a neat, poetic way of saying “before I could even cry.” Blake’s gettin’ all fancy on us. 
  • Plus, he’s using a little device called metonymy here, too. When he says tongue, he’s really referring to the speaker’s voice (a tongue can’t actually make a sound all on its own). When a poet uses something closely related to something else to refer to that something else, we call it metonymy.
  • In the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most chimney sweepers—people who cleaned chimneys—were young boys, because they were small and could crawl up there with ease.
  • So we’re thinking that the boy’s father sold him to somebody who runs a chimney-cleaning business. After all, he tells us straight up that because his father sold him, he sweeps chimneys, and sleeps in soot.
  • Does the boy sleep in a pile of soot? Or is he so dirty from working that he has soot all over his body? Either way, it does not sound fun. 
  • As it turns out, sometimes, chimney sweepers would sleep under the blankets or cloths they used to collect soot during the day. This was known as sleeping in soot.
  • Notice anything else here? How about that rhythm from the first line—has it changed at all?
  • And what about the rhyme scheme? Did you notice that? It looks like a straight up AABB. Young rhymes with tongue, and weep rhymes with sleep. 

Lines 5-6

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: […]

  • Let’s shift gears, shall we? Enough about this speaker. Let’s learn about his buddy, fellow chimney sweeper Tom Dacre. 
  • Poor little Tom Dacre cried when his head was shaved. His head was curled like a lamb’s back. In other words, the kid had curly hair, like lamb’s wool. 
  • Thanks for the simile, Blake! It’s a fitting comparison, too, when you consider the fact that lambs are innocent, young animals. These kids are young and innocent, too. Or at least they should be. 
  • So why was Tom Dacre’s head shaved? Was this to prevent soot from getting all over his hair? Just to be mean? 
  • Let’s find out.

Lines 6-8

[…] so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

  • The speaker tells us what he said to Tom after his head was shaved. He told Tom to be quiet and not worry about it. Maybe he’ll be glad he has a shaved head. 
  • Why? Well, because according to our speaker, having a shaved head means Tom’s hair won’t get messed up by all that nasty soot. So, in order to have good hair, he has to have no hair?
  • What little children have “white hair”? Does the speaker mean blond? Or is he trying to contrast something about the child with the blackness of the soot? 
  • It could be a little bit of both. After all, when you factor in Blake’s diction here, the lines take on a deeper meaning.
  • The soot would spoil Tom’s white hair. That means something black and dark would sully, mess up, and corrupt something white—something innocent. 

Lines 9-10

And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight

  • More on Tom.
  • Apparently, the night after the speaker tried to comfort poor, bald little Tommy, he had a strange dream, or sight. Or is it a vision?
  • Other than give us some basic info, these lines are doing much poetic pirouetting. Their simple language and perfect rhymes give us just the facts, ma’am (or sir).

Lines 11-12

That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

  • Tom saw thousands of sweepers “locked up” in black coffins, and at least a few of them were named Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack. 
  • Yeah, real original, Blake. Couldn’t you come up with some more exciting names, like MacGyver, or Rambo?
  • We’re thinking these names might be a bit boring for a reason. They’re generic, stock and standard names. There has got to be a billion Jacks in the world, don’t you think? So by choosing these names, the speaker is emphasizing just how many of these poor chimney sweepers there are in the world. Each chimney sweeper is like an everyman. Or everyboy, we guess.
  • The phrase “were all of them” is a bit strange. Normally we would say “that thousands of sweepers…were all.” The wonky word order makes it seem kind of like a kid is talking, and it also helps Blake keep up the sing-songy, childlike rhythm that he established earlier in the poem.
  • Okay, now let’s turn to the image of these black coffins in which Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack are locked up. Why are the coffins black? 
  • Who knows. But it probably has something to do with soot, right? After all, that’s the only black thing we’ve seen so far in the poem.
  • So in the dream/vision, Tom is seeing these little tykes quite literally shut up in black coffins, but we readers associate those black coffins with the soot in which these poor young chimney sweepers sleep. 
  • In that case, we might think of these coffins as metaphors for the chimney sweepers’ current state of affairs. They’re already boxed up in black chimneys. Why not black coffins next?
  • Did we mention this poem is kind of a bummer?

Lines 13-14

And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;

  • The dismal picture in Tom’s dream doesn’t last. And thank goodness.
  • Now, an angel shows up with a “bright key” and lets all the sweepers go free.
  • This could be a reference to Matthew 16:19, the verse in which Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Maybe Peter’s that angel, coming down to give these kiddos a much-deserved ticket to the Promised Land.
  • In any case, the imagery here is a nice, uplifting contrast to those creepy, suffocating, black coffins. But still—the imagery here is all about death.
  • So is he saying that death is the only way out of this awful, sweepy mess?

Lines 15-16

Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

  • After the sweepers were set free (in Tom’s dream), they went and played. Sounds good to Shmoop. These kids definitely deserve some me time, and what better way to get it than frolicking on the plain, by the river, and in the sun?
  • Why do the sweepers now “shine” in the sun? Are they shining like the key, or is this just the reflection of the water on the bodies? Are they in heaven, glowing like little angels?
  • Does this have something to do with how they appear after they have been freed from black coffins and chimney sweeping?

Lines 17-18

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;

  • Okay, now Tom’s dream is getting just plain weird. The former chimney sweepers are naked and flying on clouds in the wind? Yowza.
  • But hey, at least they’re burden free. Those bags they leave behind? They probably contain their chimney-sweeping equipment, which they won’t need while sporting.
  • In that sense, we can think of these bags as an example of metonymy. These bags represent something that they’re closely related to—the chimney-sweeping profession.
  • The thing to notice here is how free these boys are. They’re not boxed in coffins or chimneys. Hey, they’re not even boxed in by clothing. For once they get to act like the kiddos they are.

Lines 19-20

And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.

  • Tom has a conversation with the angel, who tells him that, if he is good, God will be his father and he’ll never lack joy.
  • Does God only act as a father to children who are good? That’s what seems to be going on.
  • The word “want” means to desire, but it used to mean “lack.” The angel tells Tom that he will never be deprived of joy if he’s good (because God will be his father).
  • What’s interesting here is that the angel, who freed all the boys, is talking specifically to Tom here. He gets singled out, whereas before, he was just one in a crowd of Neds and Jacks.

Lines 21-22

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work. In these lines, the speaker finishes narrating Tom’s dream, and describes how he (Tom) awoke and the two of them grabbed their chimney-sweeping equipment and went off to work really early in the morning. But why? Lil’ Tom was having such a nice dream. And it was blissfully chimney-free. One thing to note here, beyond the wonky word order in line 22, is the slant rhyme or near rhyme at the ends of the lines.

Dark does not rhyme with work in the strictest sense of the word (but it’s pretty close). All the other rhymes so far have been (for the most part, with the exception of behind and wind) spot-on. So why change it up now? Maybe Blake wants us to feel a little off-kilter when we get to the final lines of the poem, which pack quite the punch.

Lines 23-24

Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
Here it is, Shmoopers—the big finale. The speaker tells us that despite the fact that it’s totally frigid outside, and these kids are having to get to (hard) work in the wee small hours, Tom’s all right with it all. Wait. Tom was just awakened from an awesome dream, only to have to go to work. How can he be so happy and warm? Ah, this is where things get interesting. See, Tom’s happy and warm because he believes (thanks to the lesson the angel gives him in that dream) that if you do your duty, no harm will come to you.

In other words, if he keeps chimney sweeping like a good little boy, he’ll be taken care of. Hold your horses. Does that sound right to you? Given everything you know about how awful chimney sweeping is, and that many of these tiny tots were forced into it, is the speaker really saying that no harm will come to them if they keep doing it? We don’t think so.

Shmoop is calling his bluff. We think Blake is being ironic here, to show us that these kids suffer twofold. Not only do they physically suffer, but they also suffer mentally and emotionally, too.

We might think of Tom’s belief is a coping mechanism; the only way to get through the day is to believe that they don’t have to fear harm. But the sad part is, they totally do. And remember that slant rhyme we saw in lines 21 and 22? It kind of threw us off balance as we entered the finale of the poem.

Well, what do you know? There’s another slant rhyme here. Warm and harm may look alike, but they definitely don’t rhyme perfectly. And that has the effect of unsettling us even further. It hints that not everything here is as it seems.