Class and the Pastoral in The Chimney Sweeper

“The Chimney Sweeper” (In Songs of Innocence, not Songs of Experience) is set during the period in England where the working poor could legally sell their sons to labor as chimney sweeps. The narrator was sold when, according to him, he was so little that he was barely capable of crying. However, the rest of the stanzas focus mainly on the very young Tom Dacre and what we as readers can learn from his dream. 

In the dream, an angel sets Tom and all his chimney-sweep friends free, and they frolic in meadows and live an idyllic, pastoral life. They are finally white, the black from the soot washed off. However, the dream is not meant to be an escape from reality, but the guidance of a shining star for Tom: he will not live in a chimney sweep’s hell forever, because one day he will die. If he is a “good boy,” then upon his death, “[h]e’d have God for his father & never want joy,” and all the pleasures of a Romantic, pastoral life will be his (19-20). When the next day begins, Tom is filled with peace, and sets to work, warmed by the knowledge that he will finally find comfort and glee in his afterlife.

When I read this, I couldn’t stop thinking about how escaping to nature was a privilege at this time (and how it still is now). The Romantic pastoral ideal was conceived of differently by the vastly different socio-economic classes. The idea of the pastoral is not class-based–but little Tom’s fantasies of it are wrapped up in his conceptions of heaven. The chimney sweep boys are living in such terrible conditions that they are incapable of fantasizing of how life could be different for them in that very moment: only in how much better off they will be once they’re dead. This is a stark contrast to other poems from the time that describe the very same elements (the green plain, the freedom of running over grass, the warmth of the sun, the presence of a river) but in the context of the lived experiences of the poets and narrators. Not all people conceiving of nature had to reframe it as heaven.