The provocative situation of using children’s innocence as the tool of social injustice and pressure is discussed in the poem “The Chimney Sweeper” (1789) by William Blake. During the 18th-19th centuries, chimney sweepers in England were usually young boys whose families suffered from poverty, and those boys were sent to live and work in terrible conditions to help their families.
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In his poem, William Blake discusses the particular features of the social development in England, while focusing on such issues as social injustice, pressure, and challenges experienced by young, innocent chimney sweepers and using the hopeful tone and symbolic language.
The life story of a young chimney sweeper is presented in the first stanza of the poem in the form of an emotional monologue. The boy states that his mother died when he was young, and he was sold when he “Could scarcely cry “’ weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!” (Blake 3).
The author pays attention to the awful living conditions of chimney sweepers using only one phrase, “So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep” (Blake 4). While utilizing the sound devices and rhythmic structure of the stanza, Blake emphasizes the sad irony of the described situation.
Readers learn the name of the protagonist from the second stanza. Tom Dacre was a young boy whose hair “curled like a lamb’s back,” but he was shaved to become a chimney sweeper (Blake 6). The metaphorical simile allows associations with angels and with the idea of innocence.
Although the reader can feel the drama of the situation, it is presented as optimistic for the boy because even black soot could not spoil his white hair. The opposition of the white and black colors is observed in all parts of the poem because this stylistic device accentuates the tragedy of innocent children enforcing to work as sweepers.
The next stanzas describe Tom’s dreams in which he sees young sweepers locked up in “coffins of black” (Blake 12) and an Angel with a bright key who opened the coffins and “set them all free” (Blake 14). Tom’s hopes for a better future are represented in his dreams, and the author uses religious symbols and images to emphasize the utopian dreams of an innocent boy.
Sweepers from the dreams received the relief from their sufferings, and Tom learned that “if he’d be a good boy, / He’d have God for his father & never want joy” (Blake 19-20). Tom accepts the inevitability of working as a sweeper during his life because of having hope for a better future.
The controversial character of such a position is depicted in the last lines of the poem, “Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm; / So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (Blake 23-24). Tom’s happiness depends only on his hopes and dreams, which cannot become a reality. The ironical tone of the last line is opposite to the hopeful tone of the whole poem. Tom is ready to perform his duties because he is pressed to think about them as his social duties.
Tom has no opportunity to have a real childhood because of the personal and social circumstances. Moreover, the boy cannot understand this problem and the position of a victim because of his age and innocence. William Blake’s poem is symbolic, and it presents a difficult social and economic situation in England depending on much irony and a rather optimistic tone of the poem. Tom Dacre is not afraid of his duties or death because he hopes for a better life and being freed by an Angel.
Blake, William. The Chimney Sweeper. n.d. Web. 06 July 2013. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172910>.