The Chimney Sweeper II (Songs of Experience) – British & American Literature

The Chimney Sweeper II (Songs of Experience)

A little black thing among 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 smil’d 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.”

Author William Blake


If there’s one thing that really got William Blake riled up it was chimney-sweeping. Yep, you read that right. Chimney-sweeping. As it turns out, despite what Mary Poppins may have led you to believe, scrubbing flues is not all skipping and singing. Really, it’s a messy business, and in the late 18th century, when Blake was at the peak of his poetry prowess, chimney-sweeping was tantamount to a slave trade.

Blake was so disgusted with the whole chimney-sweeping industry that he wrote not one but two poems about it. The first poem, also called “The Chimney Sweeper,” was published in 1789 in a volume called The Songs of Innocence, and you should definitely check out that version, if you’re interested in more scoop on chimney-sweeping.

Then in 1794 Blake expanded the book and included a whole new set of poems. The new version was called Songs of Innocence and Experience. The songs in the Innocence portion of the book tend to be, well, innocent; those in the Experience portion are darker, more cynical, and generally not so happy-go-lucky (if you can call those earlier poems happy or lucky at all).

This version of “The Chimney Sweeper” is no exception. The Innocence version has an angel, and the chimney sweepers get to frolic in a meadow and fly on clouds. Sounds awesome, right? Well here, our lone chimney sweeper is abandoned by his parents and left out to cry by himself in the snow while they pray in church. Can you say bummer?

But all that bummer is in the name of pointing out an even bigger bummer. See, Blake is using this poor lonely chimney sweeper’s plight as an occasion to criticize society in general. According to Blake, not only have this kid’s parents abandoned him, but larger institutions, like the church, have too, because everybody’s too focused on Heaven rather than their own front stoop.

In addition to this simple, but powerful critique, Blake’s poem also gives a voice to a social group—poor, suffering, working children—who, in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, weren’t allowed to say much, but whose plight was worth publicizing (for Blake).


The speaker sees a child covered in soot, lying alone in the snow. Good start. The child tells him that his parents, who have forced him into chimney sweeping, are praying at a nearby church. The end.

Lines 1-2

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “‘weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!

  • Okay, okay, so this isn’t exactly a sentence. Still, we can work with it. These lines seem to be an observation.
  • The speaker sees a little black thing in the snow. And that little black thing is sadly crying “‘weep! ‘weep!”
  • That’s all well and good, but what in the world is this little black thing? A person? An animal? We’re gonna go ahead and guess that it’s the subject (and title) of the poem—a chimney sweeper.
  • That also means that this little black thing is a young boy, because in Blake’s day, that’s who swept chimneys.
  • The fact that this little guy is referred to as a thing is telling. The speaker doesn’t even see him as a person. Harsh.
  • The chimney sweeper probably looks black because he’s covered in soot.
  • There are more than a few things we can notice about these lines, poetically speaking.
  • First, there’s the stark contrast between the soot-covered boy and the pure white snow he’s sitting in. That’s quite an image.
  • Then there’s the rhyme—snow and woe. That’s a perfect rhyme, nice and neat, and since these two lines go together, we call this a rhyming couplet.
  • Notice anything else? Of course you do: the meter. It goes a little something like this: daDUM dadaDUM daDUM daDUM. Be sure to head on over to “Form and Meter” for more on this lilting rhythm.

Lines 3-4

“Where are thy father and mother? Say!”–
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

  • Instead of leaving the poor kid alone, the speaker asks him a question. He seems a bit concerned for the little guy, because he wants to know where his parents are.
  • But he’s also more than a little abrupt. He practically demands the kid tell him what’s up (“Say!”)
  • The chimney sweeper says that his parents have gone to church.
  • And there’s that perfect rhyme again. Say and way. Look out for this pattern of rhymes to continue—or be broken

Line 5-8

“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.

  • This little chimney sweeper doesn’t stop there. Actually, he’s quite the talker. Now he’s going to tell us his whole story.
  • Because he was happy, smiled a lot, and had fun in the great outdoors, his parents dressed him up in clothes of death and taught him to sing sad notes.
  • Okay, so this isn’t quite literal, right? We mean, what are clothes of death? That’s gotta be a metaphor for something.
  • Does this refer to a chimney sweeper’s uniform? An outfit one might wear in a coffin? The two, for Blake, are synonymous (because chimney sweeping was dangerous, led to the death of one’s childhood, etc.).
  • Did the parents literally teach their child to “sing the notes of woe”? Probably not. This is also a metaphor for the way his parents forced him into this terrible job. And that terrible job has made him cry, so in a way, his parents are responsible for his woe.
  • There are some interesting causal relationships going on here, aren’t there? Apparently this kid’s parents made him miserable by forcing him into this chimney sweeping job because he was so happy. What’s up with that?
  • There are two ways to read this: (1) His parents thought something along the lines of, oh, our boy’s doing fine, so why don’t we put him to work? Or (2) Our boy is just too happy. Let’s give him a rough job to toughen him up a bit.
  • Either way, it doesn’t sound like the best parenting in the world. This mother-father duo is responsible for their son’s suffering.
  • And finally, we’ve got some more rhymes going on here. Only now instead of rhyming couplets, we’ve got an alternating rhyme scheme of ABAB. Heath rhymes with death (well, close enough), and snow once again rhymes with woe.

Lines 9-10

“And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,

  • At the beginning of the final stanza, the chimney sweeper continues his sad story.
  • He says that his parents think they haven’t done him any harm because he still happy, and dances, and sings.
  • The chimney sweeper doesn’t seem very happy, or very tuneful; maybe his parents don’t realize that his “song” is made up of the notes of woe.
  • Since these lines don’t rhyme, we can probably bet that this stanza will follow the ABAB rhyme scheme set up in the second stanza.

Lines 11-12

And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”

  • The chimney sweeper again tells us that his parents have gone to church, where they “praise God and his priest and king.”
  • Well that sounds nice enough, right?
  • Right. But then he goes on to tell this passer-by (our speaker) that this dynamic trio makes up “a heaven of our misery.”
  • Okay, that doesn’t sound so nice. But what does the phrase “make up a heaven of our misery” really mean?
  • Does it mean that God and his priest and king make the chimney sweeper’s misery a little less miserable by adding a dose of heaven to it? We don’t think so.
  • Or does it mean that God, his priest, and his king enjoy themselves at the kids’ expense? In other words—they’re all happy-go-lucky while the kid toils in their chimneys?
  • Or does it mean that God, his priest, and his king think there’s a heaven because they assume that these little chimney-sweeping kiddos are totally happy with their lousy lot (maybe because they dance and sing), when in fact they’re totally miserable?
  • It’s a tricky line, for sure, but in any case, one thing is certain: this little boy is implicating God, the church, and the government in his suffering. And his parents, too, for that matter.
  • He may be a kid, but he definitely has some strong opinions. And we think he might be acting as William Blake’s mouthpiece here. Blake uses the kid’s words to blame these social institutions—religion, the church, government, family—for treating these children as slaves.