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The Chimney Sweeper: 'When my mother died I was very young'

William Blake, read by Mimi Khalvati


The Chimney Sweeper: 'When my mother died I was very young'

William Blake, read by Mimi Khalvati


Poem introduction

In his two 'Chimney Sweeper' poems, Blake addresses a political issue inspired by activists trying to get laws passed against the use of children as chimney sweeps, and the frightening conditions they worked in. As young as four or five, too young to say ‘Sweep, sweep’ properly to advertise themselves, but small enough to squeeze up narrow chimneys, naked and with heads shorn, these children were condemned to early deaths, by lit fires in the chimneys, respiratory problems or cancer of the scrotum. Climbing chimneys also left them with deformed spines, knees and ankles. This first poem adopts the voice of an older sweep looking after a younger innocent – white-haired like the lamb of God – but this is an ironic device, given its distance from the poet’s own voice. Blake satirises the piety and hypocrisy of the church, adopting a nursery rhyme scheme to do so, a tripping rhythm and the use of many childlike ‘ands’ to tell his story, infantilising language to heighten the contrast between the child’s innocence and its exploitation.

The Chimney Sweeper: 'When my mother died I was very young'

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 & 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, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & 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 & 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 & 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 & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.