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Holy Thursday (Songs of Innocence)
William Blake’s poem “Holy Thursday” appears in his 1789 collection of poems Songs of Innocence. (Songs of Experience also contains a Holy Thursday poem that contrasts with this song.)
The poem describes a ceremony held on Ascension Day, which in England was then known as Holy Thursday, a name that is now generally applied to what is also known as Maundy Thursday: six thousand orphans from London’s charity schools are scrubbed clean and dressed in distinctive coloured coats and marched two by two to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, where they sing under the control of their beadles.
Children dressed in vibrant garments are compared to flowers, and their journey toward the church is compared to a river. Their singing on the day of Jesus’ Ascension is shown as elevating them over their elderly, lifeless guardians, who remain on a lower level.
The contrasting poem, Holy Thursday, depicts the orphans’ grim reality (Songs of Experience).
Holy Thursday ( Text)
Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walk‘d before with wands as white as snow Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow
O what a multitude they seem‘d these flowers of London town Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door
Summary of Holy Thursday
On Holy Thursday (Ascension Day), the students of London’s charity schools flow like a flood toward St. Paul’s Cathedral. They walk two-by-two, escorted by aged beadles and dressed in vivid colours. As they sit in the Cathedral, the children create a great, brilliant crowd. They resemble thousands of lambs, the speaker says, who are “raising their innocent hands” in prayer. They then begin to sing, their voices resembling “a mighty wind” or “harmonious thunderings,” as their guardians, “the aged men,” stand by. This vision of children in church moves the speaker. He reminds the reader that impoverished children such as these are essentially angels of God.
In comparison to The Divine Image’s abstract themes, Holy Thursday challenges readers to rethink their understanding of concepts such as mercy and pity in the context of a specific circumstance. Additionally, it connects these difficulties to a concern for the poverty that defined Blake’s England.
Charity Schools were established with public funds to care for and educate the city’s orphaned and abandoned youngsters. Each year on Ascension Day, the charity school children of London participated in a special gratitude service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Thus, the poem employs a real-world historical event to delve into deeper human inclinations and mindsets.
“Holy Thursday” is composed of three stanzas, each of which has two rhyming couplets. The singsong aspect of the AABB rhyme, which is typically associated with purity in these poems, conceals a thinly veiled subtext about the exploitation of the innocent by those who are, in the end, their moral and spiritual inferiors.
As is customary with Blake, he supports innocent youngsters while despising the society that enslaves or exploits them. The “wise guardians of the poor,” the patrons of the youngsters, are seated “beneath them” Even if the youngsters are coerced into appreciation, their innocence, which is expressed twice explicitly in the poem, outweighs the spectacle’s self-serving nature.
Blake concludes with the cautionary phrase “cherish pity; lest you drive and angel from your door,” an outlandish assertion on the appearance. When compared to the Biblical tale of the angels visiting Lot in the city of Sodom, the image of an angel being driven away at the door becomes more depressing. Lot, alone among the inhabitants of Sodom, extended hospitality to the angels dressed as pilgrims in a city rife with hazards for the unwary guest. His pity for his guests results in the rescue of his own family from the impending disaster in the evil city. Similarly, the reader is urged to ” cherish pity” even in the face of a sinful and cynical institution that would exhibit destitute children as a display of public virtue.
The poem is structured on a contrast between the children’s “innocent faces” and the power of the “grey headed beadles” and other “aged men” who serve as their guardians. Although the youngsters are required to enter the cathedral in a systematic fashion, their heavenly innocence transcends any authority limits – they even transform the red, blue, and green of their school uniforms into ‘flowers of London town’. As the boys and girls raise their hands and voices to heaven, the narrator envisions them ascending to heaven themselves, just as Christ did on Ascension Day. They leave their “wise Guardians” under them and become angels in the poet’s vision – which is why the final line instructs us to “cherish pity” and remember our obligation to the impoverished. Although the repeated repetition of “multitude(s)” reflects the fact that thousands of youngsters live in poverty in London, the poem’s emphasis is on the “radiance” they bring to the church – they are “multitudes of lambs” Blake’s social critique must wait for the contradictory Songs of Experience: “And there are so many impoverished children? It is a land of destitution “‘.
The poem is divided into three stanzas, each of which has two rhymed couplets. The lines are lengthier than is customary for Blake’s Songs, and their extension evokes the procession of children toward the cathedral or the flowing river to which they are expressly contrasted.
Commentary and Explanation
The dramatic setting of the poem alludes to a customary Charity School ceremony held at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Ascension Day, the fortieth day after Christ’s resurrection. These Charity Schools were built using public funds to care for and educate London’s thousands of orphaned and abandoned youngsters. The opening stanza depicts the children’s journey from school to church, comparing their lines to the Thames River that runs through the heart of London: the children are carried forward by the tide of their pure faith. The metaphor for the children alters in the second stanza. They begin as “flowers of London town” This comparison highlights their beauty and fragility; it refutes the notion that these homeless youngsters are the city’s refuse and burden, recasting them as London’s loveliest and finest. Following that, the children are compared to lambs for their innocence and meekness, as well as for the sound of their small voices. The visual elevates the humming “multitudes'” from a swarm or hoard of nasty critters to something celestial and sublime. The lamb metaphor connects children to Christ (whose emblem is the lamb) and serves as a reminder to the reader of Jesus’ unique affection and concern for children. When the children begin to sing in the third stanza, they are no longer feeble and meek; the strength of their joined voices raised to God recalls something more powerful, bringing them into direct contact with heaven. Their music is described first as “a mighty wind” and subsequently as “harmonious thunderings” The beadles, who rule over the youngsters, are overshadowed in their elderly pallor by the children’s intrinsic brilliance. In this heavenly moment, the guardians, who are simply earthly authority figures, sit “beneath” the youngsters.
The final line exhorts us to have compassion for the needy. The poem is not written in Blake’s or a child’s voice, but rather in the perspective of a sentimental observer whose sympathy heightens an already emotionally charged event. However, the poem invites the reader to be more critical than the speaker is: we are invited to consider the genuine meaning of Christian pity and to contrast the organised generosity of schools with the love capable of God—and innocent children. Additionally, the visual image presented in the first two stanzas contains a lot of troubling elements: the mention of the children’s clean faces implies that they have been groomed for this public appearance; their normal state is considerably different. The public display of affection and kindness obscures the abuse frequently meted out to destitute youngsters. Furthermore, the orderliness of the children’s march and the foreboding “wands” (or rods) of the beadles imply rigidity, regimentation, and brutal power, not charity and love. Finally, the tempestuousness of the children’s singing carries a suggestion of heavenly anger and vengeance as the poem moves from visual to aural imagery.
Critical Appreciation of Holy Thursday
The poem is not written in the voice of Blake or a kid, but rather in the voice of an observer seeing an emotionally charged scenario. The first stanza describes the children’s journey from school to church, drawing parallels between the children’s lines and the River Thames, which likewise runs through the centre of London.
This vision, however, may have several disadvantages:
• The pristine appearance of the children’s faces indicates to us, but not to the speaker, that they have been cleaned for this public appearance. What condition would they be in on a typical day?
• The orderliness of the children’s march (resembling primary school marching) may be seen as implying rigidity and regimentation rather than charity and love.
• While beadles are authoritative officials capable of inflicting punishment, they are viewed here as benign elderly men. Their rods are more often than not shown as magical wands rather than symbols of authority and punishment.
The children morph into “flowers of London town” in the second stanza. Rather than being viewed as destitute children in need of charity, they are portrayed as the city’s most beautiful product, as if they are angels. Following that, the youngsters are compared to lambs because of their innocence and meekness, as well as the sound of their small voices. The lamb metaphor connects children to Christ and serves as a reminder to the reader of Jesus’ unique affection and concern for children.
The reader, on the other hand, may be cognizant of less favourable connotations:
• In contrast to the speaker, the reader may wonder whether these children receive the gentle care that Jesus intended for his lambs.
• They would recognise lambs as sacrificial animals in the Bible. Lambs are raised for slaughter and consumption; what does this say about the fate of children?
• The “hum of multitudes” in conjunction with angels and lambs may bring to mind Revelation 5:1114 for Blake’s readers. However, the buzz of multitudes (during a time of social upheaval and the French Revolution) may imply something dangerous, which the speaker must quickly disavow.
Thus, the reader is left with a sense of tension and an underlying threat that the speaker is unaware of.
Children are no longer portrayed as fragile and meek in the third stanza. Their combined voices raised to God are now powerful, bringing them into direct contact with the heavenly realm. The speaker views the “mighty wind” and “harmonious thunderings” as glorious, possibly about the “mighty wind” of the Holy Spirit that descended on Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4. • However, this mighty wind, like “thunderings,” has the potential to be destructive.
• The youngsters live “beneath” the beadles, who exercise authority over them. Is this both morally and ethically correct?
position in the physical world? If that is the case, the speaker’s inadvertent irony is that they are “wise guardians of the poor”
We are forced to speculate on the extent to which this outward display of affection and compassion covers the frequent abuse meted out to such children.
Holy Thursday’s final sentence exhorts us to have compassion for the needy. But:
• The poem may imply that “pity” results in organised compassion, which covers a system of neglect and abusive control.
• The underlying motivation for refusing to reject an “angel” appears to be for the householder’s advantage.
True pity, which saw the children for who they were, would never subject them to such a discipline. It would prohibit the abandonment and destituteness of children in the first place. True pity, on the other hand, would be selfless.