Vatche Melkonian


Dramatic Irony in The Chimney Sweeper

In William Blake’s poem, The Chimney Sweeper, the contrast between the author’s critical outlook on the occupation of a chimney sweep, and the speaker’s own view of his situation, as being one himself, creates a strong sense of dramatic irony.  William Blake creates this contrast in two steps; first, by portraying the speaker as being innocent and naïve toward his situation, and second, by criticizing this same situation in both a harsh and humorous way.  These two voices, both being radically different then one another, form together in creating both this strong sense of dramatic irony, and the author‘s critical message to his readers.

The portrayal of the speaker and his occupation as a chimney sweep is centralized within the first two stanzas of the poem, where the boy recalls an incident pertaining to his fellow “employee”, Tom Darce.  This incident involves an unwanted, and forced haircut, in which Tom Darce’s head “curle[s] like a lamb’s back” as it is shaved(6).  The speaker then goes on to resolve this event by reassuring Tom that “when [his] head is bare…the soot cannot spoil [his] white hair”(7-8). Within these two quotes, the images of the “lamb’s back” and the “white hair”, both help in creating a strong sense of innocence, which is greatly apparent within the speaker’s opinions of his “job”.   Although reader’s catch on quickly to the fact that the boy’s occupation takes place in a horrid atmosphere, and that the occupation in itself is borderline inhumane, the speaker does not share in this epiphany, and goes on with his life, still ignorant to his current position.  

As the speaker’s portrayal progresses within this situation, Blake then takes his second step in creating this dramatic irony, by contradicting himself in his criticisms of chimney sweeping.  William Blake’s contradictions almost cross the border of becoming sarcastic statements, for he creates a humorous tone, and then jumps to a serious and more critical one.  An example where Blake takes this jump is when he is mocking the speaker as he cries “ ‘weep ‘weep ‘weep’ weep’”, showing that he is too young to even speak the word of his dreadful occupation.  Blake then jumps to the description of one of the boy’s dreams, which portrays the thirst for freedom, and the weariness from the heavy darkness, that each sweeper shares.  Also within this dream, the idea of an “Angel” bringing a “bright key”, to unlock the shackles of these boys, creates another strong opposition to Blake’s former humorous attitude.  Another contradiction within this poem comes from the same image of the “lamb’s back”, which the author uses to create a humorous criticism of chimney sweeping, and then goes on to oppose it with the image of the “coffins of black”, that are also in Darce’s dream(12).  

The images from white innocence, to black death, ties directly in with the innocence of the speaker, which is hidden under the black soot of his own ignorance.  Just as in the precious critical reading journal, this imagery helps create a better depth to the story, especially with the clashing colors of black and white.  Also in making two opposing criticisms of the speaker’s occupation throughout this poem, like the example above, the author makes a stronger contradiction to the speaker’s initial thoughts on his own situation.  With this circle of contradictions, mostly revolving around the speaker’s innocence and the author‘s critical descriptions, a strong sense of dramatic irony is created.

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Bryan Adam Tomimbang's picture

Great critical analysis.