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.

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