Charles Lamb: Essays

Charles Lamb: Essays Summary and Analysis of "The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers"


Elia remarks that he likes to meet young chimney sweepers, boys who have just recently started out in the profession. He speaks of the drama of one of those young boys disappearing down a chimney as if lost forever, only to rise out of it like the ghost in a stage direction in Shakespeare's Macbeth. He then begins talking of a sassafras tea called Saloop served a shop in London which he himself hasn't tried, but which is treasured as a delicacy by the young chimneysweeps.

Mr. Read, who owns the Salopian house, boasts that his is the only one in town despite the countless imitators. Other vendors serve it on the street to the chimney sweeps at dawn, as the young chimney sweeps take a moment before they embark on their work to enjoy the tea with a slice of bread. On the subject of the street, Elia says that the only street encounters he enjoys are with the young chimney sweeps. He recalls a time he fell on his back on ice, leading a grinning chimney sweep to laugh at him in a way that was so infectious that Elia couldn't keep from grinning himself.

While Elia is not very interested in a fine set of teeth—indifferent to the nice teeth of a well-off man or woman—he is captivated by the teeth of a chimney sweep, as they smile through their soot-covered faces. In this smile, he sees a dying nobility. On the subject of nobility, Elia recounts a story at Arundel Castle, when a young chimney sweep fell through a chimney he was cleaning into a decadent bedroom, and couldn't help but take a nap in the luxurious bed. Elia suggests that the boy was a young nobleman lured back to his original state, transformed for a moment by the castle's trappings.

James White, Elia's friend, has similar feelings about the boys, and hosts an annual feast for young chimney sweepers, where the elder ones are excluded. A woman walks around serving the boys sausages and James pours ales for them, acting as if the drink was fine wine, even enunciating the name of the brewer. He boisterously entertained the boys. Elia mourns the death of James White, who took half the fun of the world when he died.


Lamb's ode to chimney sweepers most closely resembles his praise of old china, as in both essays he expands on a pet obsession which few others in the world see the merit in. Lamb clearly saw himself as something of an advocate for the under-appreciated things in life. To a large extent, this is a Romantic impulse, as he takes something mundane and works to show its profundity. Tied up in this are class relationships—a common theme in Lamb's work.

Take the discussion of teeth. He dismisses the fine teeth of rich people out of hand, but declares that he is fascinated with the teeth of chimney sweeps, which show true nobility. The idea that nobility is something inherent to one's character and not simply a trapping of class echoes Lamb's class critique in "Grace Before Meat." There, too, he explored how the poor have more class and dignity than the rich, who can afford any old pleasure or vanity.

There are some uncomfortable aspects of this essay which speak to the very different time that was Lamb's era. Modern readers may bristle at Lamb's invocation of "nigritude" and "Africans" to describe little white British boys covered in soot. The language betrays an uncomfortable construction of race, which would have been a relatively new concept at the time of Lamb's writing, developed as a means for the European imperial project to subjugate non-European peoples. Perhaps it's best to think of "The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers" as a peculiar time-capsule which shows us early 19th-century Britain, warts and all, with chimneys swept by little orphan boys and a white monoculture that saw blackness as something that could be playfully assigned to dirty chimney sweepers.