The Praise of Chimney Sweepers, by Charles Lamb

Summary :

Charles Lamb likes to meet a chimneysweeper but he is more interested in the young professionals than the grownup ones. These young sweeps are of such tender age that Lamb compares their professional calls at dawn - when their services are called upon-- to the 'peep,peep' notes of young sparrows at the break of day or to matin larks as they sing while ascending the sky as' sunrise approaches.

The blackened sweepers present a pathetic picture of their society. Lamb is sympathetic towards them and refers to them as dim specks, poor blots, innocent blackness or tender novices blooming through their first negritude while affirming that they were the products of their society. Though white, by birth, they looked like young Africans or clergy imps because of the soot from the chimneys, which engulfed their identity. They seemed to serve as a lesson of patience to humankind as they emerged from the top of a chimney with their cleaning cloth in the stinging cold of a December morning.

The Praise of Chimney Sweepers

Chimney cleaning, as a child, afforded mysterious pleasure, as the entire operation was comparable to a daring act of entering the jaws of hell. Just when imagination began to overpower reality with the assumption that the child no older than himself would never see daylight again, the feeble shout of the sweeper as he emerged from the top of the chimney, holding his cleaning apparatus like a victorious flag over a citadel never ceased to thrill him. He remembers hearing a tale that once, a naughty sweeper was abandoned in the chimney with his cloth to indicate which way the wind blew. It was as horrible as the spectacle of a child holding a branch of a tree in some of the dramas of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

A morning walker may chance upon such a sweeper as he steps out for his work; Lamb believes that generosity towards him will only prove the humanity of the donor for the occupation of the sweeper is a hard one, making him suffer from blistered heels over and above being ill paid too.

Tea-the Chinese luxury is a beverage respected over the world. However, a certain Mr. Read claims that the drink prepared by boiling the sweet wood of the sassafras tree, tempered with milk and sugar is as delicious and as wholesome if not better than tea. His shop at Fleet Street is the only one in London that serves this drink and though Lamb has never tasted it, he believes that it would not agree to his palate. However, he has noticed that there are many who consume it with evident relish.

By whatever coincidence or for whatever reason Lamb observes that it is a particularly favorite beverage of the chimney sweepers. The drink, which is slightly oily, may help to clean the roof of the mouth to which soot clings or perhaps nature had gifted them the sassafras tree as it had dealt them a raw deal in life. Being penniless, they are unable to afford this too but it does not stop them from hanging their blackened heads over the steam rising from the boiling pot to inhale the aroma and gratify at least one sense organ. It evoked a rare pleasure in them comparable to the purring of cats when they find a sprig of valerian. No Philosophy can perhaps explain the phenomenon behind these sympathies.

Though Mr. Read believes that his house is the only one to serve this beverage, unknown to him several establishments run by industrious imitators provide the same savoury drink for much humbler customers. At the dead of dawn, when the rake and the artisan jostle for space on the pavements, when the kitchen-fires are dead, the aroma of this concoction wafts from the meaner dwellings of the metropolis. The rake who reels home after indulging in too many alcoholic drinks until midnight finds it revolting as he passes by but the artisan stops w taste and blesses the fragrant breakfast.

This is saloop, the much favoured drink of the working class of people like the herb-woman or the gardener, but the chimney sweeper is unable to afford it. If anyone catches such a sweep standing over a brewing pot of saloop, Lamb advices that it would be best to spend some small amount of money to feed the penniless sweep a basin of the beverage and a slice of bread and butter. It would be a precaution against the soot billowing down from an unclean chimney onto the food below or even a fired chimney in his house.

Lamb is particularly susceptible to taunts and jeers from the common people and he is disgusted by their habit of finding pleasure in a gentleman tripping as he walked or when his stocking is splashed. Yet he can forgive a chimneysweeper's jocularity. A year ago, during winter, he had slipped and fallen down on his back as he had been walking along Cheapside; trying not to look ashamed, he had picked himself up in spite of the pain when he had noticed a young sweep laughing at his ignominy. His eyes were inflamed; the soot from the chimneys he cleaned irritated them but the fall had brought tears of mirth to his eyes as he pointed at Lamb with a blackish finger to his mother and the mob. The twinkle in his eyes and his joy in his otherwise joyless existence reminded Lamb of Hogart's painting - 'March to Finchley' where the artist immortalizes a chimney sweep grinning at a pie-man as if the joy was to last forever. The honour of a gentleman like Lamb could withstand the ridicule of such a sweep for it was neither malicious nor mischievous; rather it was one of utmost glee.

However seductive a fine set of teeth may be within the rosy lips of a lady or of a gentleman, they fail to influence Lamb in any way. But the white and shiny teeth of the sooty chimney sweep fascinates him. It is like the proverbial positive aspect of a sable cloud: or like the remnants of the gentry, which is not extinct yet; it is like a reminder of happier days; or even a hint of nobility. It even raises suspicions of good parentage, lineage and gentle conditions or of a lapsed pedigree. The custom of introducing tenderly aged boys as chimney sweeps makes the fear of clandestine and almost infantile abduction to be alarmingly true. The courtesy and civility noticed in such children is so startling that forced adoptions seem probable. A notable incident of this nature is the abduction of Montague and his recovery. However, this is a solitary instance and many of such abductions have remained traceless.

The incident of a chimney sweep sleeping in the ducal bed of Arundel castle, the seat of the Howards, seems to indicate that Lamb's assumption was correct. After a cleaning operation, the poor sweep had lost himself in the labyrinth of rooms in the castle,and wearied by his attempts to extricate himself from it, had decided to rest upon the snowy sheets of the duke's bed. The grand bed and the decorated curtains, which are the cynosure of many visitors' eyes, famed to be even more comfortable than the lap where Venus lulled Ascanius did not intimidate the young boy. Instead, he had laid his black head upon the pillow and slept like a young Howard.

This story circulated among the visitors to the castle, vindicated Lamb's theory of the chimneysweeper's origin as abducted children of noble descent. For no poor child would dream of sleeping on the Duke's bed for fear of punishment. He would prefer to lie on a rug, a carpet, or a couch but some force of nature, manifest in him had guided him to the bed. It might have been an unconscious remembrance of his condition in infancy, when his mother or nurse had laid him to sleep within similar sheets. By no other theory could the poor sweep's action be explained except that he had perhaps felt as if he had been returning to his rightful place of rest, a preexisting sentiment to which he had instinctively given in.

Impressed by such stories of mutation, Lamb's friend, Jem White instituted an annual feast in an attempt to reverse the wrongs of fortune in these poor chimneysweepers. It was a solemn supper at Smithfield, during the fair of St. Bartholomew where the master chimney sweeps sent their young protégés to congregate at White's invitation. He took upon himself the role of a model host and waiter. A convenient spot, at the north of the field, beside the pens, was selected which was neither too near to attract unsolicited attention of other people neither was it too far away from the general activities and crowds of people attending the fair. The guests arrived by seven The temporary parlours, with three tables, substantial napery and three hostesses presided over her respective pan of hissing sausages at her respective table. James or Jem White took charge of the first table as the headwaiter while Lamb and their friend Bigod served at the other two tables. However, at times, older sweeps along with the younger ones also attended the feast. At least on one occasion, a young child had entered on the strength of his dark coloured clothes but he was expelled with great indignation because he was a pretender. However, largely the gathering was peaceful, harmonious and enjoyable because of the enthusiasm with which White conducted the supper. The inaugural ceremony consisted of a general expression of thanks to the invited guests, then he clasped the greasy waist of old dame Ursula, the fattest of the three hostesses and kissed her which was greeted by a huge shout from the universal host and happy grins startled the night with their brightness as the young sweeps enjoyed the show. The children would then eat to their hearts content encouraged by their host to savour some more meat, bread or drink. Though the food and the drink were ordinary it filled the bellies of the penniless sweeps which was the motive behind the feast . Later the host toasted to 'the King' and 'the cloth'. The last toast was the most outrageous of all 'May the brush supersede the Laurel' which was appreciated by everyone, though it was not certain whether he or she really understood what the toasts meant. All these and fifty other fancies, which were felt rather than understood by the sweepers, were delivered standing on top of tables. The orphans loved and enjoyed the entertainment provided to them where the food was the biggest comfort.

This celebration in honour of the chimneysweepers ended with the death of James White. Lamb's happiness also ended along with his friend's death. The chimneysweepers too miss him and upon finding that no such feast in their honour at St Bartholomew's fair, they reproach it. Along with its disappearance, the glory of Smithfield too departed forever.
Next Post »