William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper,’; written in 1789, tells the story of what happened to many young boys during this time period. Often, boys as young as four and five were sold for the soul purpose of cleaning chimneys because of their small size. These children were exploited and lived a meager existence that was socially acceptable at the time. Blake voices the evils of this acceptance through point of view, symbolism, and his startling irony.
Blake expresses his poem in first person, as a young chimney sweeper. This gives his poetic voice creditability because the subject of the poem is chimney sweepers. In addition, using first person creates a deeper sense of sympathy in the reader. This young boy, the poetic voice, lost his mother while ‘he was very young’; (554). Soon after the loss of his mother ‘his father sold him while yet his tongue/ Could scarcely cry ‘ ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”; (554). This sympathy allows the reader to realize not only how these children lived, but also how they felt and how they were deprived of their childhood.
Blake also uses symbolism to express the evils of exploiting these small boys. Most of this symbolism appears to be about death. This gives the poem a dark mood. For example, Blake writes ‘So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep’; (554). Most of the boys who were sold into chimney sweeping died very young because the soot inhalation destroyed their lungs. In this quote sleeping in soot symbolizes dying in soot, or from the soot. Blake also symbolizes these boys’ fate with the lines ‘That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack/ Were all of them locked up in coffins of black’; (554). In this quote the ‘coffins of black’; symbolize the chimneys (554). Ultimately this all symbolizes the boys’ death because of their terrible life cleaning chimneys at such a young age. In the next stanza an Angel comes ‘And he opened the coffins and set them all free,’; which symbolizes the boys’ death and escape to heaven. All of these symbols cause feelings of sympathy in the reader, hopefully causing them to want to help these children escape their fate.
Blake also uses startling irony in this poem. This irony shocks the reader into realization of how terrible life is for these small boys. Some of the verbal irony Blake uses lies in the first stanza. The poetic voice claims that ‘his father sold him while yet his tongue/ Could scarcely cry ‘ ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”; (554). These words have a double meaning. They can mean that the speaker was not yet over mourning for his mother, or they can mean that he was so young that he was not yet able to sound out the s sound properly. In this case, he would stand on the corner and, instead of repeating the word sweep in an attempt at getting someone to hire him, he would repeat the word ”weep!”; (554). Another, more startling irony is that these young children hoped and lived for death because only in the after life could they become children. Blake emphasizes this with the line ‘So if all do their duty they need not fear harm’; (555). These children lived with such torment and fear that they did what they were told so they could die and go to heaven, the only place they could live their childhood as a child should. This provokes sympathy and realization in the reader causing them to see the evil that has been accepted for so long.
Blake remained a pioneer of his time by realizing the evils within his society and voicing them to other through his poetry. This is accomplished through his use of point of view, symbolism, and irony. Because of Blake’s poetry, maybe some people realized how terrible of a life these young chimney sweepers lived.