The Chimney Sweeper (I) - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of The Chimney Sweeper (I)

The chimney sweeper

A child chimney-sweep tells his story. His mother died in his infancy and, while the child was still very young, his father sold him as a sweep. He goes on to tell of another child, Tom Dacre, who cried when his head was shaved. The sweep consoled him, and that night Tom dreams of liberation.

In Tom's dream, an angel sets the children free from their ‘dark coffins' (the sooty chimneys or their bodies in death) so that they can play on the open green, wash in the river and enjoy the sun (when their lives have made them black with soot and kept them in cramped dark chimneys away from the sun). They then leave everything behind and play in the wind, riding on clouds. The angel tells Tom that if he is good, he will have God for his father and be eternally happy.

When Tom wakes in the darkness before dawn, he goes to work happy, despite the cold. The speaker concludes with the moral advice that anyone who does their duty need have no fear of harm.

This poem links exposure of the social evil of the child chimney-sweep with the theme of the exploitation and vulnerability of innocence.

For an understanding of contemporary conditions, see Social / political background > The spirit of rebellion - society > Child labour and prostitution.


The speaker is matter-of-fact about his situation as a sweep. He is a good Christian child who has accepted his lot in life. He advises others to do the same and to look for happiness in heaven when they die. He accepts a Christianity which offers future comfort, rather than one which opposes injustice. His words encourage the dream of resurrection which gives joy to Tom and makes his unendurable life endurable. In so doing, the sweep perpetuates the evil.

Two critical views

Some critics have suggested that Blake is offering here a true vision of the joy which is available to the innocent. The boy's unpaternal human father is replaced by the loving fatherhood of God. Blake is implying that those who see from the standpoint of experience are insensible to this, but the true ‘duty' of the boy is to perceive the ‘truth' of such visions via the power of imagination.

However, there are aspects of the poem which do not support this reading. There is more to suggest that Blake is here satirising contemporary Christianity and exposing the limitations of ignorant innocence which makes it prey to exploitation:

  • Although the child is matter-of-fact, his repetition of 'weep' in line three of stanza one evokes pathos. It is the street cry by which he sells his services, but the child is so young that he cannot yet pronounce the word sweep, and unintentionally turns it into a term of suffering. We see and feel in his plight what he cannot fully appreciate
  • We feel the force of ‘sold' in describing the father's action, which seems a heartless, unfatherly act. Society has consigned the soot-blackened sweep into a servitude as bleak as that of The Little Black Boy
  • The uncomplaining, general terms in which the child tells his story may also suggest the level of insensibility that his society has reached, if such destitution is taken for granted
  • The comparison of Tom's hair to a shorn lamb reminds us of the vulnerable lamb as an animal used in sacrifice or for food. The child, like the lamb, is sacrificed and devoured in this system of child sweeps and in a society which takes infant destitution for granted.

Deceptive joy

Readers may feel and appreciate what the child suffers in the first two stanzas. They may, therefore, find relief in the vision of joy and freedom which encourages Tom from stanza three onwards. However, they are brought back to the reality of the situation by the angel's message. This vision of joy is a reward which keeps the child obedient and in line.

According to this reading, readers are invited to see that the dream is an illusion. It keeps the child looking beyond this life and prevents him seeing what life could, and should, be like in the present. The moralising message of the final line underscores this through its ambiguity:

  • At face value, it is warning the child to do his duty in obeying his employer and carrying out his work, so that he need not fear future punishment
  • However, if all truly did their duty by their neighbour (including employers and a neglectful wider society), Tom's situation and other injustices would not occur and no one would have anything to fear in the present.

Investigating The Chimney Sweeper

  • In a group, explore the ways in which Blake develops sympathy with the children in the poem
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