William Blake masterfully uses many literary devices to portray the hopeless life of a young chimney sweep in his poem “The Chimney Sweeper”. The poem has a young, nameless first person narrator which gives the poem a sense of youthful innocence and anonymity that is in direct contradiction to the horrible conditions they suffer. Most of the poem has dark tones that is punctuated by a happy dream of freedom and joy with his true father his creator. The poem ends with a bleak and almost sinister twist of irony that leaves the reader feeling sorrow and shame for the chimney sweepers.
Irony is one of the most powerful literary devices employed by Blake. It is seen running through the poem starting with the first lines. The boy’s mother died and his father sold him before he could “cry ‘weep ’weep ’weep. We don’t know why the boy was sold but we could assume that the father wanted to give the boy more opportunity than he could afford to give.
This is extremely ironic because the boy is sold into servitude in deplorable, deathly conditions. More irony is evident in the last lines of the poem where the narrator speaks of the sweeper doing their duty to avoid harm.
Children should only have the duty of being happy children, not pleasing their masters and working terrible jobs like slaves. Tom’s dream can also be ironic because the angel frees them but if the children really were freed from their lot in life they would either be dead or orphans.
Another ironic situation in the poem is in its religious contexts. In Toms dream he is told by the angel that if he is good and does his work God will be his father. As Christians, we are taught that God is everyone’s Father but it has an irony to it because these children were fatherless orphans.
The use of vivid imagery also helps Blake express the sweeps lot in life. Little Tom Dacre’s hair was curly like a lamb which invokes a sense of cleanliness and innocence. He cries when it is shaved but is told it is for the better because the black soot will only ruin it. Tom dreams of thousands of boys sleeping in dark coffins which are opened by an angel. In line 11, the boys are given names which personalize the boys as individuals and rehumanize them for the reader. They are all let free to run and play and cleanse themselves in a river and feel the sun.
These images again invoke a sense of childlike innocence that the sweeps were not allowed. We see the boys floating on clouds, playing in green fields, splashing in a river all of which can be equated with heaven and peacefulness. The images of the dream and the reality of the situation are very polarized and help the reader sense the bleak, helpless mood of the poem. Symbolism is evident throughout the poem as well. The color black runs through the poem and symbolizes death or evil just as the black soot of the chimneys brings the death of the sweeps at the hands of their evil masters.
Being in a chimney would be very much like being in a black coffin as described in line 12. In line 17, the boys are naked and white which are symbols of birth, life and freedom. The coffin is a symbol of death associated with the chimney. The boys swept chimneys and slept in soot which is very dark and symbolizes death that the sweeps will certainly succumb to. The angel in Tom’s dream is a symbol of freedom for the boys. It is the only part of the poem that is hopeful and bright. Christians view lambs as a symbol for Christ, our savior.
The adults in the poem shave away the hair that looked like a lamb because it would hinder the sweep in his new job. The hair is a symbol of purity and innocence that the masters take away before they get to work in the chimneys. In conclusion, Blake’s use of these literary devices helped him write a scathing poem directed at the adults and church to open their eyes to the plight of these children. The tone of the poem is driven home with the masterful use of irony, tone and symbolism. The reader that Blake was writing for can feel the plight of a subjected, exploited child and hopefully push for change.