The Chimney Sweeper (I) - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

In The Chimney Sweeper, Blake uses several images and refers to related biblical ideas with which his contemporaries would be familiar with. Blake develops his own symbols in these poems as well as using established ones. He also refers to a Platonic belief that had become common among some Christians.

Lamb – A lamb is often associated with innocence and playfulness, whilst a child sweep has been exposed to cruel treatment. However, lambs are also associated with vulnerable sacrifices for human evil. See Big ideas from the Bible > Sheep, shepherd, lambs.

white hair – White is the colour associated with innocence and purity, which increases sympathy for a young life being defiled by its squalid conditions. Blake's readers would also recognise it as an allusion to the vision of the ‘Son of Man' Daniel 7:9 which was associated with Jesus. He is reminding his readers either that a maltreated child still bears the image of God, or that there is something divinely human about the child.

Chimney sweepscoffins of black – The claustrophobic confines of grimy chimneys may have seemed like living coffins to their young occupants, many of whom lost their lives through their job. It also refers to the idea that bodies are dead things. A platonic belief was that human bodies were more or less prisons for the soul.

However, Blake believed that it was mistaken to look for ‘release' in the future. He felt that humans do not need freeing from their bodies, but from the perception that reality can only be experienced through the senses. (Compare The Garden of Love and To Tirzah.) Therefore, focussing the child only on the hope of release in the future gives him a false idea about his body, and so about his freedom to change his life.

Angel / bright key – The idea of the angel releasing the children into paradise reverses the fate of Adam and Eve who were banished from Eden, which was then guarded by cherubim with a sword Genesis 3:23-24. It also echoes the vision of Jesus in heaven who holds the keys of life / death in Revelation 1:18

wash in a river – With poor sanitation and no running water, washing in a river represented a thorough clean, as well as evoking a pastoral idyll. It would also remind Blake's readers of the many biblical images of healing and of new life that are associated with rivers, for example:

Blake may be using the associations negatively, showing how the feeding of such imagery to the child has encouraged his escapist dream.

[child] - Underlying the poem, though the term is not used, is the fact that the speaker is a child. All Blake's associations with the image of the child are therefore in the background of the poem and affect our understanding of it. The fact that the word is not used means we have to remind ourselves that it is a child speaking, even though society has forgotten this. To their society, and to themselves, they are sweepers, not children; this is the core of their plight.

Village greenA green plain – Blake often refers to a green, usually the village green, or the use of the adjective, green, in a way intended to evoke the same associations:

  • The colour green is associated with growth, fertility and spring
  • Village greens were places of play and freedom. They represented the importance of play, and therefore of imagination, in human life
  • Village greens were not owned by anyone but were common land. They, therefore, represented another kind of freedom, freedom from the rule or demands of a landowner or authority figure. They were the opposite of ‘chartered' towns which were under the authority of their officials.

When the children play on the green plain, all these ideas of fertility, freshness, play and freedom are invoked.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Take one of the above images
    • What did you initially associate with it?
    • What do you now understand about it?
      • How does this change the way in which you now perceive the poem?

Themes

Blake's attitude to Christian belief about the future life

Blake attacks the pious hope of future solace in heaven, advocated by some Christians as a way of avoiding the uncomfortable reality of injustice and exploitation. This taught people to accept present suffering and injustice because of the promise of bliss and the absence of all suffering in the next world. For Blake, this was the distorted perspective of fallen humanity.

The distortion of Christian belief that makes it a means of controlling people's behaviour

Blake opposed the way in which he felt the Church condoned the established social order without questioning it. Christian teaching about respecting authority led to the sense that being ‘good' meant accepting the status quo as though it had been designed by God to be that way. It is represented by a verse from a 19th century hymn:

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.
Mrs C.F.Alexander

Blake felt such a view was contradicted by the care for the poor and stance against injustice demonstrated by Jesus and the early church.

Parental care and authority

In Blake's work, parents are often perceived as inhibiting and repressing their children. Their own fears and shame are communicated to the next generation through the parental desire to ‘protect' children from their desires and their sexuality. According to Blake, parents misuse ‘care' to repress children and bind them to themselves, rather than setting the children free by rejoicing in, and safeguarding, their capacity for play and imagination.

In The Chimney Sweeper, the father betrays the child and abuses his authority by selling him into an apprenticeship. Whether from necessity or choice, he has colluded with the system of oppression

Attitudes to the body and the life of the senses

This connects with Blake's opposition to John Locke. (See Religious / philosophical background > Blake's religious world > Dissenting attitudes to Locke.) Blake believed that humans are essentially spiritual beings and that the body should be an expression of a person's spiritual nature. Yet, Blake felt that people do not believe this. They believe that their bodies are purely physical and that reality consists solely in what can be understood via the senses. In this way their senses trap them in a materialist approach to life and they are unable to experience themselves, including their bodies, as spiritual beings.

In The Chimney Sweeper, the child is encouraged to deny his body altogether.

Investigating themes

  • Start to compile a dossier of the areas over which Blake takes issue with eighteenth century expressions of Christianity
    • What new aspects of Blake's criticism have you found in The Chimney Sweeper?
      Find out more using the synopsis and commentary of The Chimney Sweeper (I) or investigate the imagery, symbolism and themes in The Chimney Sweeper (E).
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