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The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence by William Blake - critical appreciation

 The Chimney Sweeper

Songs of Innocence

William Blake

The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence by William Blake

Chimney Sweeper from Song of Innocence by William Blake –Critically appreciate the poem.

Answer: The poem The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence by William Blake brings into light the pathetic condition of those children like Tom and his fellow friends who confront the situation every day. 

However the poet, William Blake portrays the wretched condition of those children making Tom as their representative through a dream vision. When the French Revolution was going to occur in 1789, William Blake brought out his Songs of Innocence, which included The Chimney Sweeper. The poem is in first person, a very young chimney sweeper is exposing the evils of chimney sweeping as a part of the cruelties created by sudden increase in wealth.

However, the poem, The Chimney Sweeper comprises six quatrains, each following the AABB rhyme scheme, with two rhyming couplets per quatrain. The first stanza introduces the speaker, a young boy who has been forced by circumstances into the hazardous occupation of chimney sweeper. The second stanza introduces Tom Dacre, a fellow chimney sweeper who acts as a foil of the speaker. Tom is upset about his lot in life, so the speaker comforts him until he falls asleep. The next three stanzas recount Tom Dacre’s somewhat apocalyptic dream of the chimney sweeper’s ‘Heaven’. However, the final stanza finds Tom waking up the following morning, with him and the speaker still trapped in their dangerous line of work.

There is a hint of criticism here in Tom Dacre’s dream and in the boys’ subsequent actions. However, Blake decries the use of promised future happiness as a way of subduing the oppressed. The boys carry on with their terrible, probably fatal work because of their hope in future where their circumstances will be set right. 

This same promise was often used by those in power to maintain the status quo so that workers and the weak would not untie to stand against the inhuman conditions forced upon them. As becomes clear in Blake’s Songs of Experience, the poet had little patience with palliative measures that did nothing to alter the present suffering of impoverished families. 

What on the surface appears to be a disdainful moral to lazy boys is, in fact, a sharp criticism of a culture that would perpetuate the inhuman conditions of chimney sweeping on children. Tom Dacre (whose name may drive from ‘Tom Dark’ reflecting the sooty countenance of most chimney sweepers) is comforted by the promise of a future outside the ‘coffin’ that is his life’s lot. Clearly, his present state is terrible and only made bearable by the two-edged hope of a happy afterlife following a quick death.

Blake here critiques not just the deplorable conditions of the children sold into chimney sweeping, but also the society, and particularly its religious aspect that would offer these children palliatives rather than aid. That the speaker and Tom Dacre get up from the vision to head back into their dangerous drudgery suggests that these children cannot help themselves. Thus the poem was used as a broadsheet or propaganda against the evil of Chimney Sweeping.   


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