There appears to be multiple meanings in William Blake's short poem "The Chimney Sweeper." Blake seems to be imploring for moral change and action by his readers through his innocent child narrator who has been sentenced to a life as a chimney sweeper. Blake uses several poetic tools such as irony, metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, and several symbols to bring his readers to the reality and fate of all chimney sweepers. While the poem seems to denote that a chimney sweeper will have hope and promise only in heaven, reading this poem may reveal many contradictory meanings.
In the beginning of the poem Blake writes "When my mother died I was very young, / And my father sold me while yet my tongue / Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep" (lines 1-3). Blake reveals to his readers that the child is very young, as he is unable to even pronounce the word "sweep." This unfortunate child is abandoned by his parents through death and neglect. One can also assume that this father is most likely a very poor individual since he sold his flesh and blood for money. Whether out of sheer desperation or lack of morals, it can be determined that this young child is not from a family with material possessions or status. I believe when Blake writes "So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep" (3) is more the authors voice rather than the child narrator, because of the word "your." If it is the child speaking then he would have used the word "my." Also, it has already been said that the child cannot pronounce the word "sweep." I feel rather, this is where one can see Blake's intent is to place blame on society for allowing the means of labor to abuse children. Line 4 also symbolizes the cry or weeping of the small child. He is also dirty from the soot and cannot escape his plight even while he sleeps. The letter (s) in the words "sweep," "soot," and "sleep" has the rhythm of the sound of a brush sweeping or brushing against the chimney. It is very doubtful that this child realizes his doomed fate as he is plunged into a man's line of work.
Blake begins with iambic pentameter; however, he is not consistent with this type of rhythm and rhyme. He changes his pattern several times throughout the poem, which I believe heightens the impact of the child's misfortune, such as the sounds of the brush, the abandonment of his parents, and his cries.
In the next stanza Blake shifts the focus from the child narrator to another little boy named Tom who is befriended by the narrator as he is in the same predicament as the child speaker. Blake writes "There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head, / that curled like a lamb's back, was shaved" (5-6). Blake uses simile to compare Tom's curly white locks to that of lambs wool. The color white represents the innocence of the child. The lamb symbolizes Jesus, the Lamb of God and like a lamb led to the slaughter of His death even though he was innocent. The shaving of Tom's head represents that someone is responsible for stealing his innocence and faith, although Blake never reveals who this person is, perhaps one of the adults running the cruel operation. Yet in spite of all this the child speaker says "Hush Tom never mind it, for when your head's bare / You know the soot cannot spoil your white hair" (7-8). Wise beyond his short years, this young child is able to put the unfortunate event into perspective and comfort his crying friend. His words seem to soothe his buddy's wounds in spite of his loss. Blake continues to increase the readers awareness of the social injustice of his day as he multiplies the children from two to thousands in young Tom's dream. The reader is now able to recognize the vastness of this problem. He also gives names to a few children which personalizes the issue to the reader. The narrator begins to tell of Tom's dream as he says "As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight / That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, / Were all of them locked up in coffins of black" (10-12). The only time Tom is afforded the escape from his life as a chimney sweeper is in his dreams. What should be dreams that are sweet instead are dark and gloomy views of himself along with others locked in black coffins. The coffins are not only a representation of death but also of the children's confinement in a dark dirty chimney.
The color black is symbolic for dirt and death which serves as an opposite of the earlier description of Tom's pure innocence. This is also a clear indicator that his innocence has been ruined. Whether these children remain alive or not, they are forever trapped by a coffin or a chimney. Blake allows a glimmer of hope as he writes "And by came an Angel who had a bright key, / And he opened the coffins and set them all free" (13-14). In spite of their sad situation, Tom is able to still hope for a bright future and happiness. This represents that it is not so easy to take away a child's faith. While the word "angel" may be the literal meaning of angel, it could also represent citizens taking a stand and stopping this dreadful societal practice. This also shows the children being set free through death as Blake writes "Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, / And wash in a river, and shine in the sun" (15-16). Onomatopoeia is shown here as one can truly envision and almost hear the children's laughter as they experience freedom. They are finally free from the dirt and ashes and can bathe in a river and bask in the light and the love of God. The river is similar to a cleansing not only of the physical body but also the spiritual body or soul; much like that of baptism. The green plain reminds me of Psalm 23 where one is led to green pastures and the soul is restored. Their innocence is reclaimed when Blake writes "Then naked and white, all of their bags left behind, / They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind" (17-18). They are able to act as children and no longer have to be weighed down with tasks that are meant for grown men. They are finally able to rise up in the ranks and no longer be oppressed by poverty and looked at as an outcast among society. They are finally set free from the literal chimney sweeper's bag as well as the emotional trauma that has been inflicted upon them. Tom is given the greatest promise of all as the Angel tells him "if he'd be a good boy, / He'd have God for a father, and never want joy" (19-20). The joy of finally having a father to love him and nurture him. Above all he is promised the greatest father of all, God. He realizes that he will soon be able to trade all his sorrows for the perfect joy of the Lord.
Although Tom's freedom is only a dream he is happy and optimistic when he awakens. Blake writes "And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark, / And got with our bags and our brushes to work" (21-22). He is quick and almost seems delighted to quickly fulfill his duties. The child narrator explains "Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm; / So if all do their duty they need not fear harm" (23-24). The children understand that if they do what they are told they will one day be in a better place with a father to love them and joy unending.
If Blake accomplishes his goal in writing "The Chimney Sweeper" the children's fate may have a different outcome. If he can stir up enough anger among people to the point where they will become the children's angel; then perhaps this problem of child slavery/labor will end and the children's lives will be as they should be. The irony in this piece is the fact that the children's hopes and dreams cannot be crushed even in the worst circumstances. The children are not aware of the injustice that has been placed upon them but rather finds peace that a brighter day is ahead.
Blake, William. "The Chimney Sweeper." In The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford's/St. Martin's, 2009. 723.