The Story of a Chimneysweeper
The poem “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake is set around a dark background of child labor. In the 18th and 19th centuries, boys of four and five were sold because of their small physical size to work as chimney sweepers. In this poem, one of the characters by the name of Tom Dacre has a dream where an angel rescues the boys from coffins and brings them with him to heaven. The story is told by one of the young chimney sweepers whose name remains untold. To help his readers to understand this poem, and to add an even more dramatic effect, Blake writes the poem in first person. The reason behind the first person narration is actually simple. Blake wants to help his readers to feel as if they are the one telling the story. By doing this, the reader can envision what it was like to be the young chimneysweeper who is looking over at his fellow worker, Tom.
Within the first two lines of the poem, readers get a background of the events that will be portrayed in the poem. The narrator’s mother had passed away when he was very young. Stereotypically, in society, the mother has always been the more caring of the two parents. Had the narrator had a mother, the story may have turned out differently. In the second and third lines of the poem, Blake writes, “And my father sold me while yet my tongue could scarcely cry ‘weep! weep! weep!” (Blake 2). The fact that the father had sold the young boy tells us that the boy comes from a poor family. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the father to sell the boy. Also, the boy is not old enough to voice his own opinion or even talk, meaning that his father already determined his fate. The boy was treated as property rather than as a human being. In the last line of the first stanza, Blake writes, “So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.” (Blake 4) Other than the title, this line is the first line where Blake tells us why the boy had been sold, and what the rest of the poem will be about. The fact that he includes that the boy will be sleeping in soot, really displays how poor the conditions are when being a chimneysweeper.
In the second stanza, the readers are introduced to a new character, named Tom Dacre. Tom is also a young boy, about the same age as the narrator, who also works as a chimneysweeper. The reader only gets one physical feature of Tom described to them: “There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried in his head, that curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved” (Blake 5). From this one can gather that as a young boy chimney sweeping, they get their head shaved. Since all the boys get their heads shaven, it is almost like giving them a uniform and taking away their identity. After this, the unnamed narrator offers Tom words of reassurance saying that the soot from the chimney couldn’t ruin what wasn’t there. This was important because as of this point in the poem, everything that had happened had a dark and depressing tone.
In the next stanza, Tom Dacre has a nightmare. At first, Tom was quietly sleeping in his bed, when suddenly he has a nightmare. The fact that Tom was quiet at first means that what the narrator said may have helped calm him down. The reader might also assume that Tom may have had anxiety when going to sleep thinking about his life as a chimneysweeper. The dream itself consisted of thousands of chimney sweepers being locked up in coffins of black. Blake decides to name off four of the chimney sweepers, however, all with names that are one syllable and have a maximum of four letters. One of the reasons that Blake may have done this is to continue to make this subject personal. Whenever anyone gives something a name, that object now holds a greater meaning to that person. In other words, now that there are four named children in Tom’s dream, Blake is able to make the dream seem even darker.
Blake changes the tone in the next line. “And by came an angel who had a bright key, and he opened the coffins and set them all free;” (Blake 13). There was a major contrast in this line from the last. Angels are usually seen wearing all white. This one, in particular, was carrying a bright key, which unlocked all of the dark coffins. Blake added this adjective to say that the children were now free from their slave-like jobs. “Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, and wash in a river, and shine in the sun.” (Blake 15). Blake changes this nightmare over to a dream in this stanza. Now Tom Dacre is dreaming of what kids his age should be doing instead of cleaning out people’s chimneys. Blake also includes that Tom dreams how the boys will be washing in the river. He includes this because it is as if Tom feels that once he is free from sweeping, he will be clean. Secondly, Blake includes the boys shining in the sun, which symbolizes brightness and warmth. One can infer that working in a chimney would be the exact opposite of that.
The fifth stanza is still a continuation of the dream. “Then naked and white, all their bags left behind, they rise upon clouds and sport in the wind” (Blake 17). Being that the boys are naked symbolizes freedom. It shows that they are free of all of their tools and gear that are needed to chimney sweep. It was also crucial that the skin tone of the boys was white. White is the color of purity and is the opposite of the soot color inside the chimneys.
In the last part of the dream, the angel tells Tom that if he is a good boy, he will end up having god as a father and never wanting joy. The angel is telling Tom what he needs to do in order to be like the other boys in his dream. This is important now Tom will follow all of the directions given to him by the people who run the chimney sweeping business. The angel tells Tom that he will end up with God as a father. A reader can assume that Tom’s father was probably the same as that of the narrator. When Tom eventually does go up to heaven with God, he will never want joy because he will have everything that he needs, unlike he did when he was with his real parents.
In the sixth and final stanza of the poem, the dream ends, and the readers can see a change in Tom Dacre’s outlook on life, where he used to be negative, and now he is positive. “And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark, and got without bags and our brushes to work. Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm; so if all do their duty they need not fear harm.” (Blake 21). This poem is full of light, and dark contrasts throughout and this last stanza is no different. The first line is how Tom arose from his sleep where an angel was talking to him, into the cold dark morning to set out to work. It was crucial to include those adjectives because they brought back the reality that was chimney sweeping. There was also a contrast in the sense that he was dreaming of naked children running around, and now he has to awake and grab all of his gear to get to work. The children were free, and now he has physical locks on him with all of his gear. Even though the morning was cold, Tom seemed to be happy and warm. The reader can infer that this is because of what the angel had told Tom. He is doing all of his duties, so he need not fear harm.
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