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William Blake Study Guide

William Blake Study Guide

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Published by: ilenutza70 on Apr 27, 2010
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11/15/2014

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In The Chimney Sweeper, Blake called attention to one of the blind-spots of
“enlightened” English society. Chimneys had to be swept, and often their flues were
narrow. Children, as young as four, were hired or sold to contractors who used them
to brush soot from caked flues and carry it away in bags. In 1788 Parliament passed a
law to prohibit the use of children under the age of eight as chimney-sweepers, to
force their masters to allow them to wash once a week, and to prevent their being sent
up into burning chimneys where they might be, and too often were, burned to death.
These laws were largely ignored and rarely enforced.

This is one of the most disturbing of all the Songs of Innocence because it is difficult
to see what Blake is getting at. Do we take the Angel at face-value? If we do, the
poem may seem hopelessly naïve because the reality for the child sweeps has not
changed one bit because of the Angel’s intervention; the boys still have to get up next
morning and go touting for business. Is Blake using irony, and suggesting that even
the intervention of angelic forces will not help these little lads? Is it right that Tom
Dacre should go happily back to work, or has he been deluded by an entirely false
sense of ‘duty’ – misled, that is, by his own ‘innocence’. And to whom is the
advice/admonition/ warning “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” actually
directed? Is Blake seriously suggesting that if the boys do their duty, everything will
turn out fine? Or does the ‘all’ include all those people – society, state, church, king,
parliament - who have betrayed the child sweeps by ignoring their plight?

The child tells how his father sold him to a master sweep when he was so young that
he could not even pronounce the words 'sweep, sweep' (the traditional street cry
chimney sweeps called out to advertise their presence). The boy comforts Tom Dacre,
another child-sweep whose blond hair has just been shaved off. Tom goes to sleep and
dreams that an angel sets free all the sweeps so they can run, play and swim freely in
the innocence of youth. The angel tells Tom that if he is a 'good boy' God will love
him and he will never 'want joy' (lack happiness). Tom awakes, warm and cheerful,
and the poem ends with the moral: 'So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm'.

This child-monologue uses the child's innocent perspective to present what could be a
biting and savage indictment of social and psychic repression: the child's consoling

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vision of the pastoral after-life may be a glorious and 'innocent' celebration of
Heaven, or it may equally well show the extent to which the child-speaker has been
conditioned into acceptance of his slavery in this life.

The moral at the end of the poem is the statement of the young sweep who narrates
the poem. Obviously it is nonsense: the climbing boys all 'do their duty' but still come
to great harm. Yet is the sweep merely repeating the moral code which he has been
taught by society? One thing is certainly true: the child/narrator of the poem is not
innocent; he is at some level aware of the deception that forms the heart of the poem –
“So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” The poem is ABOUT innocence,
but it is not narrated from an innocent standpoint. The child/narrator is neither a fool
nor an innocent in terms of knowledge; perhaps he unites with Blake in protesting
against the exploitation of the little chimney sweeps through the sheer blatant naivety
of the cruel temptation that rounds off the poem – suffer in cheerful silence and all
will be well.

The poem thus holds a mirror up to its readers: it is you who deceive children with
this false morality, just as it is 'your chimneys' (verse 1, line 4) that are responsible for
having boy sweeps in the first place.

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