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.
In the first ‘Chimney Sweeper’, from Songs of Innocence, a young chimney sweeper recounts a dream another chimney sweeper, named Tom Dacre, had. In Tom Dacre’s dream an angel rescued all of the boys from coffins and took them to a sunny meadow (i.e. heaven). There they were washed clean: this is a spiritual as well as physical cleaning, we assume, prefiguring Charles Kingsley’s famous tale of a chimney-sweeper who undergoes a watery spiritual journey (in his novel The Water-Babies). The message and meaning, in summary, is clear: the only escape from the painful and terrible degradation and suffering of the chimney-sweeps is through death, and the hope of peace in the afterlife. A rather grim conclusion, but then given the hardship endured by the poor, and especially the children of the poor in the late eighteenth century, it is easy to see how religious salvation, and the release from pain and suffering made possible by death, could be seen as the only solution to such hardship.
As so often in Blake’s poetry, the child in the poem is given a voice, and his suffering began before he could even speak: infancy (from the Latin meaning literally ‘unable to speak’) turns up numerous times in Blake’s work. Here, the boy tells us, ‘my father sold me while yet my tongue / Could scarcely cry’. As with his other poems, Blake gives a voice to the voiceless.