The Chimney Sweeper (E) - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of The Chimney Sweeper (E) 

The Chimney Sweeper (E)

The speaker sees a child chimney-sweep in winter, all black with soot, miserably crying ‘Weep!' He asks where the sweep's parents are. The child replies that they are praying in church. Because he was happy and playful, they made him wretched. Because he is still able to be playful, they do not see what harm they have caused and so still praise God and the established social order of priest and King, whose idea of heaven is really dependent on the misery they have produced.

The boy says that his parents have gone to praise ‘God and his priest and King' suggesting they make no distinction between them. He sees the established church that officially serves God as one that also upholds the monarchy / state and, by implication, the hierarchical social order that condones the miserable state of child chimney sweeps.


This poem links exposure of the social evil of the child chimney sweep with the exploitation and vulnerability of innocence. See Social / political background > The spirit of rebellion – society > Child labour and prostitution. It is also concerned with attitudes to the body which are as entrapping of the child as the employment system is.

Two interpretations

The Chimney Sweeper can be read literally and symbolically:

  • Most obviously, it is a protest against the condition of child sweeps and against the hypocrisy of the society that allows this exploitation. The child in this poem would have been sold into forced labour by his parents
  • The poem may also symbolise the way in which the human mind has produced prohibitions and inhibitions regarding instinctual life and sexuality. These prohibitions are then transposed onto wider society. The mind creates an idea of God who is forever saying, ‘Thou shalt not', tying people up in laws and prohibitions. People are led to imagine God as a great, tyrannical ruler. They then need a system of priests and kings to represent his power and his laws on earth.

The ‘clothes of death' can then be read in two ways:

  • Literally, they are the soot which is the only covering for the working sweep. It is the clothing of death because of the sicknesses to which his work gives rise
  • Metaphorically, it is the repressive effect of prohibitions and inhibitions on the body and its instinctual life. The body is therefore imprisoned and dead rather than alive. In Blake's day, the nature of the boy sweep's work had definite sexual overtones. (See Imagery, symbolism and themes)

The destruction of innocence

According to the sweep, the outside world is deliberately cruel and life-denying. He believes his parents are jealous of his capacity for happiness and play and so have handed him over to the experience of misery and repression. At a literal level, they have made him a sweep. Metaphorically, they have repressed him. Although they cannot entirely destroy his innocence, yet they can praise God for ‘saving' the child from his instincts and making him ‘virtuous'. They would see that he is doing his duty by working and obeying parent and master, and thus believe that they are making their child fit for heaven. It is, in fact, true misery for the free, playful and unself-conscious child.

The poem's speaker acts on behalf of the reader in his/her apparently naïve question regarding the child's parents. This emphasises the literal failure of parental care. It also, however, underlines the common tendency to put responsibility onto an external source. The speaker, like the child, can blame parents, God, priest and king - and exclude himself.

Investigating The Chimney Sweeper

  • Compare the attitude of the sweeper here with the approach of the sweep in The Chimney Sweeper (I)
  • In what ways is the (E) sweep portrayed as both vulnerable and ‘experienced'?
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