"The Chimney Sweeper" is the title of a poem by William Blake, published in two parts in Songs of Innocence in 1789 and Songs of experience in 1794. The poem "The Chimney Sweeper" is set against the dark background of child labour that was prominent in England in the late 18th and 19th century. At the age of four and five, boys were sold to clean chimneys, due to their small size. These children were oppressed and had a diminutive existence that was socially accepted at the time. In the earlier poem, a young chimney sweeper recounts a dream had by one of his fellows, in which an angel rescues the boys from coffins and takes them to a sunny meadow; in the later poem, an apparently adult speaker encounters a child chimney sweeper abandoned in the snow while his parents are at church or possibly even suffered death where church is referring to being with God.
Songs of Innocence:
The Chimney Sweeper
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep![a]
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."
And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, -
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
Songs of Experience:
The Chimney Sweeper
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father and mother? Say!"--
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."
In 'The Chimney Sweeper' of Innocence, Blake can be interpreted to criticise the view of the Church that through work and hardship, reward in the next life would be attained; this results in an acceptance of exploitation observed in the closing lines 'if all do their duty they need not fear harm.' Interestingly, Blake uses this poem to highlight the dangers of an innocent, naive view, demonstrating how this allows the societal abuse of child labour.
In Experience, 'The Chimney Sweeper' further explores this flawed perception of child labour in a corrupt society. The poem shows how the Church's teachings of suffering and hardship in this life in order to attain heaven are damaging, and 'make up a heaven' of the child's suffering, justifying it as holy. Interestingly, the original questioner of the child ('Where are thy father and mother'?) offers no help or solution to the child, demonstrating the impact these corrupt teachings have had on society as a whole.
Scholars agree that the "of Innocence" poem "The Chimney Sweeper" is the 12th object in the order of the original printings of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience and the "of Experience" version of the poem was 37th in the publication order. The following, represents a comparison of several of the extant original copies of the poem, their print date, their order in that particular printing of the poems, and their holding institution: