The Chimney Sweeper (E) - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone


As with the (I) version of The Chimney Sweeper, Blake consciously employs the irony of ‘'weep' as:

  • The sweep's professional advertisement of his labour (‘[S]weep! [S]weep!')
  • The portrayal of the misery of his position (‘[I] weep! [I] weep!)
  • The imperative for the reader to be appalled at the situation (‘[You ought to] weep!')

The statements on happiness in the next two stanzas are immediately undercut:

‘Because I was happy …
They clothed me in the clothes of death
And taught me … woe'

‘And because I am happy …
They think they have done me no injury;
And are gone to praise God …'.

This is heightened by the matter-of-fact tone adopted by the sweep. He is introduced as crying, ‘weep' but his account makes no attempt to pull heart strings. The tone is one of bitterness rather than pathos. It is ironic that the child is rather ‘adult' in his acceptance of his parents' behaviour, compared to the ‘innocent' surprise of the poem's speaker.

The framing perspective of the speaker

Chimney sweepThe poem's adult speaker evokes our sympathy for the sweep in the opening line. Calling the child a ‘thing' could sound rather derogatory or heartless. However, by not calling him a child, the speaker draws our attention to how much the sweep is dehumanised. He is no more than a ‘little black thing', a soot-blackened scrap. Visually, he stands out against the whiteness of the snow. Blake's first readers would have known that sweeper children were left naked or in rags. They would have registered, therefore, the full impact of this picture.

The fact of the child's lack of protection against the snow heightens, too, our sense of the evil done to the child by his parents and employer. They do not provide normal clothing to protect him against the weather. They provide only ‘clothes of death'.

Investigating language and tone

  • How are the mood and tone of this poem different to The Chimney Sweeper (I)?
  • How does the poem's diction:
    • Reinforce the age of the child?
    • Convey the two social worlds portrayed in the poem?

Structure and versification

The rhyme scheme changes after the first stanza. The rhymed couplets of this first stanza, present a self-contained introduction to the child's explanation of his plight. In this first stanza the second line is slowed down by the use of the repeated exclamation ‘weep!' and by being mainly monosyllabic. We are required to pause at this scene, pause again after the speaker's question and after receiving his answer. It establishes a slower, reflective pace and mood.

The following two stanzas are each just one sentence, the first explaining his parents' past actions, the second the consequences of these actions. These lines reflect the liveliness of the child that has not been entirely repressed. The rhythm of lines 1 and 2 of stanza two, for example, describing his activity is lively compared to line three which describes the parents' activity and is entirely in monosyllables.

Notice that, in stanza three, the liveliness of the rhythm of the first line ‘happy and dance and sing' is echoed by ‘God and his priest and king'. The liveliness lacking in the parents' behaviour to their child is present in their response to these figures of authority.

Investigating structure and versification

  • What is the impact of giving the child's activity a lively rhythm?
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