Holy Thursday (Songs of Experience)
William Blake’s poem “Holy Thursday” was first published in Songs of Innocence and Experience in 1794. Unlike its companion poem in “Songs of Innocence” (1789), this poem focuses on society as a whole rather than on the London ceremony.
Holy Thursday (Text)
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.
For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
The narrator thinks it is scandalous that a country as “rich and fruitful” as England subjects so many of its children to poverty. The second verse, in fact, corrects the first: England cannot be considered “rich” when there are so many poor children living there. These children live in a state of “eternal winter” surrounded by sunless, desolate landscapes. Again, the final line goes on to say that there can be no other seasons as long as children go hungry. Sunshine and rain are causes for joy, but we have no right to enjoy joy when thousands of people are suffering all around us.
Blake gently criticises English society’s treatment of underprivileged children in the related verse from Songs of Innocence. He is more forthright here, criticising the sanctity of a day that essentially celebrates the presence of poverty. England is a “rich and fruitful land” yet her children have been “reduced to misery,/Fed with cold and usurious hand” Despite their outward acclaim at the Holy Thursday show, the poor children’s nation is “a land of poverty!” So long as poverty continues inside her borders, England will be “bleak & bare” in an “eternal winter”
Blake, on the other hand, points to places where “the sun does shine” because a kid “can never hunger…Nor poverty the mind appal”
The poem follows up where Songs of Innocence left off on Holy Thursday, with a reference to the yearly Holy Thursday (Ascension Day) service at St Paul’s Cathedral for the destitute children of London charity schools. Yet there is nothing “holy” about a ceremony that exposes how many thousands of youngsters in England are “reduced to misery” The poem calls into question the basic notion of Britain as a wealthy and civilised country. Britain was the world’s wealthiest superpower in the 1790s, so the claim that it was a “land of poverty” was revolutionary. The poem also criticises the entire system of providing care for disadvantaged children as “cold and usurous” (usury is the practice of lending money for profit, by charging interest on it and therefore getting back more than you lent). This may appear to be a harsh description, but keep in mind that the charity schools of the eighteenth century were designed to train children for the cruellest industries. This resulted in a profit for their employers but resulted in the deaths of thousands of children.
“Holy Thursday” is made up of four quatrains. The first is a heroic quatrain (ABAB), but the other three are not. The absence of rhyme in the second verse creates discord (ABCD, although there may be an intended slant rhyme for “joy” and “poverty” in their spelling). The latter two adhere to the ABCB pattern. Like the subject matter, the exploitation and mistreatment of children become obvious to the reader, this irregularity contributes to the poem’s tone of decay and confusion.
The “Holy Thursday” of Innocence could be read in two ways. This version is brutal and should only be taken as a sharp condemnation of the theological hypocrisy inherent in Blake’s day’s institutions.
The “eternal winter” in which the children dwell implies that poverty is a natural state of death and that the true order of things does not include children languishing in squalor and starvation. The youngsters are deprived of the sun and life-giving rains of summer and spring, and are thus condemned to this unnatural existence by the machinations of a system that remembers them only to prove its own righteousness.