An analysis of William Blake’s “Holy Thursday”

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In these two poems, Blake critiques Christian charity and the way the Church cares for children in unfortunate circumstances. Whereas the first poem is a subtler criticism of the church that ends with the speaker gently warning readers of the consequences of their treatment, and provides a path of redemption, the second is a strongly worded attack that highlights the shocking severity of the problem – the “eternal winter” cannot be easily rectified.

In the Songs of Innocence version, the children are shown “walking two & two in red & blue & green” through London to the grand and lofty “high dome of Pauls”. The repetition mirrors the orderliness of the children in their flowing lines, which is likened to the “Thames”. The rhyme scheme of the poem, AABB, is jaunty and mimics the quickening current of the river, and its pleasant sounding melody reinforces the idyllic image of “innocent” and “clean” children on their way to church. The structure of the poem, which consists of long lines, similarly parallels the long flowing river – this is even more visible in the illustration, where the long stretched out lines resemble the procession of children depicted above.

The children are compared to nature, first the lively Thames river, then the “flowers of London”. This choice of imagery highlights the beauty and fragility of the children that the rest of London sees as destitute and burdensome, and they are elevated to the status of something that adorns the city, rather than besmirches it. The children are meek and good-natured like “lambs”, but this also parallels the biblical symbol of Christ as the Lamb of God. They are described to possess a “radiance all their own”, and this suggests that the purity and angelic qualities of the children wholly stem from their innate innocence.

The speaker does not merely stop at portraying the children positively – he goes so far as to suggest the superiority of the children. They may be “little boys & girls” who are young in age, but they possess strength in numbers, and the speaker stresses this by repeating “multitudes” throughout the second stanza. Furthermore, they are like a “mighty wind” with their “harmonious thunderings”, and this switch from visual to aural imagery heightens their strength and influence palpably. However, the speaker’s use of “wind” and “thunder” can be interpreted as an ominous suggestion of divine judgment on the Church’s ill-treatment of the children. In this poem, the speaker leaves subtle hints of their predicament, beginning with the “wands” of the “grey beadles”, which despite their innocuous description, are really rods for punishment. The opening line, which remarks on the children’s “clean” faces, also suggests that the children’s usual state is otherwise. Although these “guardians” are “wise”, or think themselves wise, the speaker indicates that the children’s innocence and untainted purity surpasses them, for it is genuine. In contrast, the snow-like whiteness of the beadles’ “wands”, which are symbolic of sinlessness, are merely external. Furthermore, the children do not need a intermediary to commune with the divine, and they can “raise to heaven” the “voice of song” on their own, and the guardians ultimately sit “beneath them”, both physically and figuratively in the eyes of the Lord. This subservience of adults to children in spiritual terms is illustrated in Blake’s work, with the children being drawn above the adult congregation at the bottom.

The last line in the poem, “then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door”, is the speaker’s plea to readers to treat unfortunate children with compassion. It points to the failure of their current Christian charity, and warns of the consequences of institutionalizing the harsh treatment of God’s “angels”, for instead of bringing these children closer to the faith, it can result in driving them away. It is notable that the beadles are described as “guardians of the poor” – although their positions as “guardians” sound positive, it points to the bleaker picture of how the children are perceived. Instead of recognizing their worth, they are characterized by their socio-economic status as impoverished, and society cannot look past it to see that they are angels.

In Blake’s other version in Songs of Experience, the speaker does not merely warn readers, he attacks society with vehemence. He begins by asking if it is “a holy thing to see”, thus explicitly highlighting the hypocrisy of the Church in their “charity”. There is a juxtaposition between the “rich and fruitful land” of abundance that society enjoys, as stated in the first stanza, with the horrifyingly destitute land for these children, as portrayed in the last stanza. “Babes are reduced to misery”, and “reduced” suggests that the children, who can thrive and deserve to thrive by nature, have been brought low. Society’s malnourishment of the children has forced them into degeneracy. Although they are “fed”, this act of sustenance is hollow and devoid of warmth or true goodness, it is “cold” and “usurous”. The latter refers to the act of moneylending at an exorbitant interest – it can be interpreted to mean that the children are kept alive by society, but not unconditionally, and society expects them to repay their debts, either through hard labor in the workhouse or other means. Thus, in the first stanza, the speaker clearly shows how the current charity of the Church and society is a complete departure from the doctrinal tenets of the bible.

Secondly, it is evident that the “harmonious thunderings” and “mighty wind” of the children’s worship in Songs of Innocence is but a sham. In fact, they are “trembling cries” of fear, and this suggests that the children are forced to engage in a public display of gratitude, which society expects despite treating them so poorly. It perhaps also suggests that society wishes to perceive the children in “joy”, refusing to believe that they are in “misery”. The speaker undermines all these perceptions of “song” and “joy” as a delusion with the line “and so many children poor?”, and the condemnation that it is ultimately “a land of poverty”. “Poverty” refers not only to the impoverished state of the children, but also to the deficit of compassion in society. 

The structure of the poem is noted for its use of rhetorical questions. The speaker uses this to convey the outrageousness of the situation, for the many questions suggest the disbelief on the part of the speaker at the logically untrue perceptions of society, as well as the fact that society can actually be callous enough to treat the children thus.

The last stanza, which comprises sentences that end with the finality of a period, is a marked transition from the rhetorical questioning earlier. By now, the speaker has observed enough to establish that the children live in a land “where the sun does never shine”, the “land is bleak and bare” and “the ways filled with thorns”. The repetition of “their” is important because it portrays the “us versus them” mentality of society, and how the children are excluded from their share of the “rich and fruitful land”. Ostracized, they inhabit a section of the city that no longer sees hope or God’s goodness (which the sun is symbolic of), and cannot grow nor thrive (which is contingent on the sun). The alliteration of “bleak and bare” affirms the emptiness of the land that they live on, and the description of the life journeys of the children as filled with “thorns” is an allusion to Christ’s “crown of thorns”. It is a mantle of suffering that they have to bear, and in this way, the misery of the children is elevated to a Christ-like plight. However, it also suggests that, like Christ, the children are innocent and share no blame in their unjust treatment. The speaker’s final line is a damning summation of their condition, that of “eternal winter”, where their misery is permanent. There is no room for change, unlike the other version of the poem, which suggests that it is not yet too late to “cherish pity”. Here, the damage of society is complete. The juxtaposition between the two versions, one where the children are “flowers” of “London town”, that is, thriving lives that belong to the city, is stark. Here, they are outcasts that do not belong to the land of the others, and can never blossom.

The illustration that accompanies this poem is heartbreaking, for it portrays the children’s barren state. The withered tree at the top signifies this lack of nutrition, both physically and emotionally, and the colors are gloomy and ominous. In contrast to Songs of Innocence, where the children are clothed and sprightly in their demeanor, the children are naked, drastically increasing their vulnerability as well as the state of their destitution. Furthermore, they are portrayed to be lifeless and possibly dead while their mothers stand unresponsive and distant. This is especially so in the mother-child pair portrayed in the middle, where the child seems to be clinging onto his mother desperately as she does nothing. The illustration, then, drives home the poem’s message of an “eternal winter” where the children must fend for themselves in the face of an unloving society.


Categories: Literature

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