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

Imagery and symbolism

Blake uses the image of the child but combines this with the image of ‘clothes of death', a sharp contrast to the life we associate with children.

Children - On account of their playfulness and freshness, Blake saw children as symbols of the imagination and artistic creativity. He also used them as an image of innocence and gentleness. In the [3New Mary, Joseph and Jesus in EgyptTestament3], Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who become like little children in their innocence and humility.

Much of the moralistic teaching of Blake's day stressed the infant and boy Jesus as a figure with whom children could identify. However, the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth and childhood include experience of human violence and so emphasise the vulnerability of the child. The sweep here is clearly vulnerable and open to exploitation, whilst also representing natural physical joy and creativity.

‘Clothes of death' - Literally, this refers to the soot which was the only covering for the working sweep. It is associated with death because of the sicknesses to which his work gives rise. Metaphorically, these clothes suggest the body and the Platonic belief that human bodies were more or less prisons for the soul (see Impact of classical literature > The cultural influence of classical ideas > Plato's idealism). This attitude influenced some church teaching (although it was contrary to the view of the Bible) which overly focused on ‘the sins of the flesh' from which death was a welcome release.

However, Blake believed that it was mistaken to look for ‘release' in the future. It was not that people needed freeing from their bodies, but freeing from the idea that the senses were the only way of experiencing reality. That perspective resulted in putting all kinds of prohibitions on the way people should behave. It was this that made the body imprisoned and dead, rather than alive. (Compare The Garden of Love and To Tirzah.)

Sexual symbolism - Surprisingly, perhaps, in Blake's day the sweep was also symbolic of sexual activity. Because they crept up and ‘unblocked' narrow passages they were seen as fertility symbols. By using the figure of the sweep Blake combines an attack on the exploitation of child workers with an attack on an attitude to bodily life which stunts the lives of children emotionally and spiritually.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Compare the image of ‘clothes of death' with the image of ‘coffins of black' in The Chimney Sweeper (I)
    • In what ways are they similar?
    • Do you see any differences?


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. 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. They betray their children to an exploitative social system but also to a way of thinking and behaving that destroys spontaneity and freedom.

The effects of ‘fallenness' on repression of sexuality and other emotions

Blake believed that inhibitions lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy.

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, he believed people did 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.

Investigating themes

  • Look at some other Blake poems that deal with the theme of parental authority and make notes on the various aspects portrayed
    • What new ideas have you gained from The Chimney Sweeper (E) to add to what you have already found on this theme?
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