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'Soot' by Ciaran Carson
Relevant background
  • Ciaran Carson grew up in a Belfast family that spoke Irish and valued Traditional Irish Music.
  • Although he wrote poems about the violence and politics of life in Belfast, this poem focuses on a domestic topic, on two quiet personalities and nature.
  • The poem tells a story, though the reader or listener has to figure out who the two people are from the descriptions.
  • ‘Soot’ reveals a tension between the homeowner and a visiting chimney sweep, an aging female and a male. This tension may be due to class difference. But it shows clearly the different approaches of the male and female.
  • The poem also focuses on autumn, old age, isolation and nature’s renewal of life.
In the first stanza, Carson informs us of the time of year in which the poem is set: autumn. This contrasts to the final stanza which ends with an image of pansies growing in springtime. In the first stanza, an unnamed woman prepares her living room for an unnamed visitor. But it is obvious that she has an appointment with the chimneysweep. Her dainty room is contrasted with his rough hands. The culture of Irish Dancing or Ceili is hinted at in a comical way. As the poem develops, it seems this woman is not jolly enough to have such a lively event in her house. The woman seems a bit of a snob and looks down on the chimneysweep. She underestimates how professional he is. Her room is ‘staid’ or dull and unimaginative.

In the second stanza, the unspeaking chimneysweep arrives. He seems sure of himself, unlike the nervous woman. He immediately sets about his task. He ignores her weak small talk about the weather. It is as if he already knows her reaction to him.

In the third stanza, he pushes the extended brush handle of cane sections up the chimney and abruptly asks the woman to check the chimney-top outside. The poet compares the round brush-head to a torn sunflower. This flower image connects with the end of the poem. Indirectly, it links the sweeper to nature.

In the fourth stanza, the woman pays him in an unfriendly way, disliking contact with his sooty hand. The house is unusually quiet for a few days, before the woman lights her first autumn fire, successfully. It seems she is old and lives alone. No soot trace can be found in the house.

In the final stanza, the woman follows someone’s advice and gets rid of the soot by using it as manure in her garden. During the winter the rain will carry the soot into the soil and it will fertilise the flowerbeds. Carson imagines that the soot will blacken the inner part of the pansies [the carpel, for you biology students]. This suggests the soot from the woman’s house is contaminated with death.

The woman who has booked the chimneysweep is alone, old and fearful. She can barely speak to him. She has surrounded herself with lifeless, fragile ornaments that are more important to her than real conversation or dance. These ornaments contrast with the flower imagery. He realises her inability to relate to him and remains silent. She spends winter watching soot dissolve in her garden.

Autumn suggests the year is dying. The word ‘shrouded’ is a reminder of the burial suit of the dead. The description of how she disposed of the soot reminds us of burial in the soil.

Autumn implies plants dying. A sunflower is associated with the chimneysweep’s brush. This suggests he has plenty of life still in him. The word ‘triumphantly’ suggests that he defeated the deathlike spirit of the tidy but lifeless house. The pansies show nature’s revival in spring. Most of the nature references show that beauty can survive in gloomy conditions.

The woman’s inability to relate to the soot covered man with dirty hands shows she feels superior to him. She showed disgust on her face as she hands him his fee.

A traditional skill
The chimneysweep is an expert. He is a professional, completely focused on his work. He controls the soot, leaving the house spotless. He carefully constructs the extended chimney brush. The fire burns well afterwards. He is a man devoted to his work.



Carson compares two very different people, linking the woman to death and the man to vitality and nature.

Contrast [difference]

The woman’s lifeless ornaments contrast to the flower images associated with the sweeper’s brush and the soot he extracts.


The poet compares the cloth covering the furniture to a funeral suit, ‘shrouded’. The brush’s head is compared to a sunflower blooming. The black streak in the pansy is compared to a bruise, to show that anything that comes out of that woman’s house is touched by death. The word bruise also suggests the woman’s heart is bruised by her excessive caution.

Everyday diction

Most of the words are simple. The poem sounds like a story told in everyday speech. Some of the longer words like ‘mournful’ and ‘dissolving’ sound dreary or mournful. This effect helps us to feel the woman’s sad personality.


Carson mocks the over-cautious woman by imagining that she rolls the carpet back to dance. He imagines the chimneysweep kneeling for prayers. He suggests the soot from the house bruises the pansy’s heart.


There is a gloomy [morbid] tone in the first two lines. Then the tone lightens with the humour of moving the ornaments and preparing for dance. But a sense of fear and staleness dominates the poem. Later the tone becomes matter of fact. There is a sense of sadness at the woman’s lifestyle.


Feelings of decay, mischief, embarrassment and loneliness can be detected throughout the poem. The brief relationship of the two people is very tense.


The fact that there is no rhyme helps to emphasise the lack of unity between the man and woman in the poem.


There is a good example with the ‘c’ of ‘cane creaked’. This emphasises the way the separate cane parts of the brush are connected.

Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sound]

Note how the ‘s’ sounds in the fourth stanza convey the quietness of the house. The word ‘hush’ adds to the effect. ‘Hush’ is an example of onomatopoeia [sound imitating meaning].