The Chimney Sweeper

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"The Chimney Sweeper" is the title of a poem by William Blake, published in two parts in Songs of Innocence in 1789 and Songs of Experience in 1794. The poem "The Chimney Sweeper" is set against the dark background of child labour that was prominent in England in the late 18th and 19th centuries. At the age of four and five, boys were sold to clean chimneys, due to their small size. These children were oppressed and had a diminutive existence that was socially accepted at the time. Children in this field of work were often unfed and poorly clothed. In most cases, these children died from either falling through the chimneys or from lung damage and other horrible diseases from breathing in the soot. In the earlier poem, a young chimney sweeper recounts a dream by one of his fellows, in which an angel rescues the boys from coffins and takes them to a sunny meadow; in the later poem, an apparently adult speaker encounters a child chimney sweeper abandoned in the snow while his parents are at church or possibly even suffered death where church is referring to being with God.

Copy L of "The Chimney Sweeper" in Songs of Innocence currently held by the Yale Center for British Art[1]
Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy L, 1795 (Yale Center for British Art) object 41 The Chimney Sweeper

The poem from Songs of Experience was set to music in 1965 by Benjamin Britten as part of his song cycle Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.