Holy Thursday (E) - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of Holy Thursday (E)

Holy Thursday (E)

The poem begins with a series of rhetorical questions. How can the sight of children living in misery in a prosperous country be called holy? They are dependent on unfeeling care from those who themselves exploit the poor (‘with cold and usurous hand'). Can the children's ‘cry,' as they sit assembled in St. Paul's Cathedral on Holy Thursday, really be a song? Even less could it be a song of joy?

The speaker is astounded to see so many poor children. This leads him/her to see the whole land as characterised by poverty. Further, it seems as though it isn't any recognisable human country at all. This is a different land, it has neither sun nor rain, so it cannot produce any crops (‘bleak and bare'). The children know only thorn-filled paths and it is perpetual winter. How different this is to what should be the norm of humane lands, where, just as there is sun and rain, there is also no poverty. No recognisably human country would let children go hungry.


Paired poems

This is a companion poem to the poem of the same title in the Songs of Innocence. Every year, on Holy Thursday (Ascension Day), the charity-school children of London took part in a special service of thanksgiving in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Charity Schools were funded by public donations to care for and educate orphaned and abandoned children in the city. The poem uses an actual historical circumstance to explore deeper human tendencies and attitudes.

In Holy Thursday (I), the speaker stressed the innocence of the children and the benevolence of those who cared for them. He failed to see any negative implications in the scene and in the treatment of the children. In the (E) version, however, the speaker can only see the negative aspects of the scene:

  • He offers a damning attack on the contemporary approach to ‘charity'
  • He has no pleasure in the sight of the children
  • He can see only a vision of the appalling contrast between the prosperity of the country and its toleration of such poverty among children.

Riches and poverty

The charity children are poor at every level. Their misery comes from the way in which they are treated, as well as from financial impoverishment:

  • They are left to the impersonal, unfeeling ‘care' of those who are responsible for their poverty in the first place
  • They are neither loved nor cherished and fed merely by a ‘cold hand' - not by a person
  • This ‘hand' is ‘usurous', one which exploits the poor.

Blake's synecdoche represents not just the guardians of the orphans, but the city of London as a whole. When the speaker wonders how the mass of poor children can be celebrated as holy, s/he seems to call into question the whole religious and social system which gave rise to the circumstance.

According to the speaker, the idea of Britain being a ‘rich and fruitful land' is a fallacy. The reality is that these charity children occupy a bleak, cold world that is thorny rather than fruitful. However, people are so blind to this that the children's ‘reality' seems to be separate from the ‘normal', natural world of sun and rain. Their harsh experience is perhaps an outworking of the hardheartedness of the pebble in The Clod and the Pebble.

Attaining the ideal

Critics see in the last stanza an evocation of the New Testament book of Revelation. There, the promised New Heaven and Earth at the end of time is described as one without need of sun and where there are no more tears (see Revelation 7:16-17, Revelation 21:1-4). If this is so, the speaker seems to be saying that society should not need to wait for a New Earth; a truly humane world, subject to sun and rain (or perhaps the ‘reign' of the ‘Son' of God), would not allow such dreadful poverty.

By implication, therefore, England has made itself an inhumane and unnatural land. People should not console the poor with promises of other-worldly relief so that they can continue to keep them in an earthly realm of bleak misery. They have the capacity to prevent poverty.

Investigating Holy Thursday (E)

  • Read again the counterpart Holy Thursday (I)
  • What aspects are echoed from that poem in the (E) version?
    • How does Blake re-work them?
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