“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake is one part of a collection of poems known as Songs of Innocence. William Blake communicates “The Chimney Sweeper” in the form of a first person narrative. While utilizing the AABB rhyme scheme, this poem consists of six stanzas of four lines also known as quatrains. There are multiple themes conveyed through a myriad of literary devices to note throughout the poem. Two themes of the utmost importance to highlight are the oppression of innocent children and the conflict of commercial values versus human values. Blake uses homophones, similes, and metonymy, a type of metaphor, as literary devices to develop and emphasize these two themes.
The first stanza discusses the background of the narrator, a young sweep, regarding the cause or reason of such a deprived condition. This stanza illustrates the oppression of this poor young sweep and the travesty of the sleeping conditions. The mother dies and the father chooses to sell the young sweep into a tumultuous situation. This leads the reader to believe that the father must have been poor, as he chose to sell his child rather than participate in the nurturing of the young sweep. The narrator was sold at such a young age the word sweep could not even be uttered correctly hence the line in line three: “Could scarcely cry “‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”. (Blake, 2018, p. 820). The word weep seems to be a homophone as it helps to visualize a cry but also means to sweep; this appears to be something that a young child might have uttered as they cleaned the chimney. Line four in this stanza makes note of the horrid conditions in which the narrator is bound to, as soot seems to take the place of a comfortable bed or pillow. There is also some slight alliteration being used in line four with the words so, sweep, soot, and sleep. Line four is as follows: “So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.” (Blake, 2018, p. 820). The second stanza helps to highlight the level of innocence in the children to which these circumstances befall, while showcasing the literary elements of metonymy and similes. Metonymy is a figure of speech that illustrates an object or person in correlation to something else. This is highlighted with the comparison between Tom Dacre’s white hair and a lamb, and the innocence they all represent. The symbolism here is genius, as a child and a lamb symbolically share and define innocence. Comparing the curly hair of the child to that of a lamb seems very fitting; one might suggest that the shaving of Tom Dacre’s hair even signified his innocence being lost. The comparison between the curls in Tom Dacre’s hair to the back of a lamb in line six is made using the word like, which identifies the use of a simile. The phrase “That curled like a lamb’s back,”(Blake, 2018, p. 820), is the phrase in which the comparison is made.
Throughout the poem commercial values and human values clash. Someone has to do the job of a chimney sweeper, however not at the expense of a proper childhood. These children are forced to breath in black soot at the cost of their health which ultimately leads to the loss of life at a young age. The dangers of this soot is highlighted in the third and fourth lines of stanza three, “That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, Were all of them locked up in coffns of black.”(Blake, 2018, p. 821). It looks as if the soot, being black, is the coffin that encompasses the thousands of sweepers and seems to be a primary cause of death. The value of the lives of these children is nonexistent. They are used as cheap labor for a hazardous task, which makes the commercial value of these children extremely high while showcasing the lowly value of these kids as human beings.
There are many travesties to note in this particular poem. The author, William Blake, portrays his logic very distinctly. The oppression of such innocent children is conveyed in such a way as to make the reader cringe with emotions of anger, sadness, and displeasure. The narrator in this poem, an innocent boy, appears to tug at the moral compass of the reader to aid in the prevention of such catastrophic child labor and abuse. These emotions lead to the reader’s contemplation of the commercial advantages of free labor and child abuse, and how they manipulate and affect society’s outlook on the view of human values concerning the less fortunate. William Blake’s use of literary devices to emphasize these points are both entertaining and thought provoking.
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