“The Chimney Sweeper” (Songs of Innocence and Experience)

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘Weep! weep! weep! weep!’
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.

 

“The Chimney Sweeper” (Songs of Experience)

 

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.”

 

Both versions of the poem “The Chimney Sweeper” are tragic; except the version from Songs of Innocence, amidst its sadness, tugs at one’s heart because it reveals the hope the narrator -the little boy- has in regards to his terrible circumstance.  In the first stanza we learn that he was sold into labor as a chimney sweeper, and apparently quite young as he indicates he could barely understand what was going to happen to him: “And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘Weep! weep! weep! weep!’”  In the following stanzas, the narrator seems to have taken on a parental role towards the other chimney sweepers, attempting to comfort them as they perhaps are just entering that occupation; while, the narrator is, at this point, already well versed with the job duties.  Some of his words of comfort explain what sort of things they had to endure, such as the shaving of their hair, and/or it could indicate the toll -hair loss- chimney sweeping was taking on them.  He tells the other little boy, “‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for, when your head’s bare,You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’”  As the poem continues, the narrator’s voice returns to the reader, conveying wishful thinking, as they indicate that all the tragedy and darkness will once again return to light and hope; unfortunately, it also reveals that such a reality, is in fact not one.  It would only happen when they die, and have gone to heaven.

And, thus death is what is now brought into the picture with the second version of the poem, as in death of hope.  However, the narrator -a little boy’s voice, once again- is responding to another’s voice who has, essentially, asked him where his parents are.  The voice then replies with a bitter response.  The child seems angry and betrayed by his parents whom -as told in the original poem, first stanza- have sold him off as a chimney sweeper.  His anger seems also seems to be also towards God, as he says, “And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,Who make up a heaven of our misery.”  One could infer that, as opposed to the first version of the poem, where the narrator tries to instill a glimmer of hope in the other children’s minds, that a vast amount of time must have passed up to this point.  It seems as though the act of dreaming or wishing or praying is no longer an option.  He has come to accept his doom.  On the other hand, it could also represent the moment in which he was originally sold off; where he too is full of grief, like the “Tom” he tries to comfort in the first poem.

-Marcy Martinez