William Blake wrote two versions of his poem “The Chimney Sweeper”, firstly in 1789 and secondly in 1794. They both describe the lives of children as chimney sweeps. Three poetic techniques carefully explored by Blake are imagery, tone and diction to bring a sense of sympathy to his audience. Though these poetic techniques are handled in both poems, they are shown through different perspectives.
In both versions of the poem, images of death are depicted similarly using the color black. In the 1789 version, the speaker says that chimney sweeps are “lock’d up in coffins of black” and in the 1794 version, the speaker mentions that there is a “little black thing among the snow.” This outlines the blackness of the soot on the children, depicting the daily turmoil the children have to endure. Furthermore, illustrating the chimneys as ‘coffins’ describes their conditions: chimneys, like coffins, are claustrophobic and terrifying. Also noted in the 1794 edition, the speaker says “They clothéd me in the clothes of death.” This conveys the image that chimney sweeps live in fear, and that their work is that of death. Their clothes are black, like mourning, which once again illustrates death in both versions. Another type of imager is that of Heaven and God. The person who takes the children out of their work daily is referred to as an ‘Angel’, “And by came an Angel who had a bright key/And he open’d the coffins & set them free.” He is mentioned as an Angel because he is the one who literally ‘frees’ them from their work.
However, the tones of the two poems contrast; with one having a positive view on life and God, the other with a negative view. In the 1789 version, the speaker does not give out a personal opinion and listens to what he is told. God is seen as someone good, giving hope to people, “And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy/He’d have God for his father &never want joy.” The tone of this poem is hopeful and prospective, the speaker looks forward to the future, saying that if the work is done, nothing will go wrong, “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” On the other hand, the speaker of the 1794 poem is bitter; he blames his parents for having to work as a chimney sweeper, and looks on with detest, “They think they have done me no injury.” The speaker of this version is outspoken and, unlike the speaker of the 1789 version, is accusatory of God, “…God & his Priest & King/who make
up a heaven of our misery.” God, like the child’s parents, is being blamed for the anxiety the chimney sweeps have to suffer.
Diction is also an important element in both versions of the “The Chimney Sweeper.” In the 19 version of the poem, William Blake uses the word ‘white’ to raise feelings of both purity and innocence. In line 8, the speaker says “You know what that the soot cannot spoil your white hair” and in line 17, “Then naked & white, all their bags left behind.” This also is a reminder of childlike innocence; how the children want freedom from their work. Other words mentioned in this version of the poem that invoke a similar tone are ‘bright’ and ‘shine.’ In the fourth stanza of the poem, the speaker says, “Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run, and wash in a river and shine in the Sun.”
The phrase ‘wash in a river’ gives the thought of baptism, the children are being cleansed. This furthers the tone of innocence in the poem. The 1789 version is dominated by words of despair, such as ‘woe’, ‘black’ and ‘misery.’ It begins from the first line of the poem, which says “A little black thing among the snow.” This exaggerates the blackness of the soot upon the child. In line 8, the speaker refers to saying ‘sweep’ as “the notes of woe” and in line 12 calls his and other chimney sweeper’s lives as ‘misery.’ This choice of diction conveys a more serious tone to this version of the poem and helps to arouse more irritation at the fact that young children were being forced to work.