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It is important to know that, at the time this poem was written, England was undergoing important changes. Most people left their farms to seek employment in the city. Even if they found jobs, salaries were so low that a breadwinner could hardly pay the rent and provide for his family. As a result, slums developed, where poor people lived in very unhealthy conditions.
At the same time, the industrial revolution was in full swing. It was common practice to employ children in factories. They also worked on farms and in mines. Children were required to work up to 16 hours per day. Their living and working conditions were deplorable. Many of them were mistreated and underpaid. Certain types of work were initially performed by very young children. Because of the widespread opposition to child labor, the working-age was eventually raised to ten years old.
The main reason for so many children working was extreme poverty. The new laws regarding the poor were very strict and unyielding, and if you were poor, your life was extremely difficult. People were in desperate need of food because few families could provide it. To relieve the strain on the rest of the family, children were frequently contracted out (sold) to owners of mines, factories, or farms to work and stay.
The practice of hiring children to sweep fireplace chimneys in London was common at the time. Chimneys were narrow and not always straight, but the children were small and could fit in these small and dark spaces. It was dangerous to climb up chimneys of two- and three-story buildings. Smoke from wood or coal-burning fires filled the chimneys with soot, a black residue. Many of the chimney sweeps developed lung diseases because of their work.
Form and structure
The poem consists of six stanzas with four lines (quatrain). The poet uses paired rhyme (aabb, ccdd). In the final stanza, the rhyme pattern changes.
The chimney sweep explains to the reader that his mother died when he was a child. When his father sold him to a chimney sweeper, he was very young (he could barely say the word ‘weep’). This is how he ended up cleaning chimneys. He sleeps in ‘soot’ because he most likely lacks the resources to wash his clothes on a regular basis.
He tells the reader about Tom Dacre, another chimney sweep. Tom has curly white hair and appears to be very young, as he cried when they shaved his head. The speaker tries to console him by telling him that if he doesn’t shave his head, his hair will be covered in the black soot from the chimneys, which will be very uncomfortable because he won’t be able to wash it.
Tom had a dream that night. He had a dream that he and the other chimney sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, were imprisoned in dark coffins.
Then an angel appeared and unlocked the coffin, releasing them. They could run around on green grassy fields, wash themselves in a river that flowed nearby, and then simply stand around in the sun, clean and happy.
They left everything behind, including their dirty clothes and cleaning supplies, and were lifted into the sky, where they floated on the clouds and played in the wind. The angel told them that if they were good, they would have God as a father and find joy and happiness that would last forever if they were good.
When Tom awoke, he was relieved by his dream. The thought that there would come a time when life would be better than it is now made him feel better. Even though it was cold outside, he was warmed by his dream and the hope it instilled in him. That is why he is ready to go to work because he knows there will be a reward if he does what is expected of him.