Holy Thursday (E) - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

The language of this poem is often emotive. It also evokes strong feelings by using rhetorical devices such as irony, exaggeration, metonymy, the rule of three and the rhetorical question.


There is a controlling irony in the title of this poem. The speaker's opening line makes this clear. What connection has this scene with any adequate idea of holiness? The holiness of the day cannot be honoured when this scene represents such an unholy situation. By implication, what we see is not holiness but hypocrisy. The speaker wants to rouse the reader's antipathy to the proceedings.


The speaker's indignation and desire to share it is conveyed by the use of exaggeration:

  • The children are twice termed ‘babes', emphasising their vulnerability and helplessness. A baby evokes even more sympathy in its need of protection than a child does
  • The children's ‘trembling cry' - and denying it the description ‘song' - stresses their vulnerability and tenderness. ‘Trembling' suggests the sound is weak and quavering but it also suggests that the children are fearful or close to tears. The speaker then establishes the duality of two extreme, opposite lands, leaving no room for other possibilities
  • The children's guardians are depicted as ‘usurous'. To be a usurer means to take a high rate of interest on a loan. Today, such people might be called ‘loan-sharks'. They take advantage of the poor, lending money then squeezing them dry in interest payment. As today, Blake's society abhorred such exploitation of the most vulnerable. Although the guardians are not technically ‘usurous', calling them this suggests that they derive personal gain from their work, rather than being focussed on delivering benefit. It hints, too, at their involvement in a social system which, like usury, actually creates the poverty it claims to ease.

Three rhetorical questions and assertions

The accumulation of three such questions in the first two stanzas is intended to evoke the indignant response, ‘No!' We are not asked to consider these as real questions. This is followed by the three assertions with the same grammatical pattern in stanza three ‘And there sun…thorns'. This device builds up an emotional response, so that the conclusion will be accepted without much deliberation.

Investigating language and tone

  • Do you find this use of rhetorical devices effective?
  • Does the poem move you to indignation or do you feel that the speaker is playing on your sympathy?
    • If you feel manipulated, do you think this is what Blake intends, so that you can evaluate the situation and the speaker?

Structure and versification

The first quatrain of this poem rhymes ABAB, with four stresses per line. In stanza two, however, the rhyme breaks down entirely. It then gives way to a rhyme scheme working through the last two stanza – CDED CFDF. Just as the speaker sees a settled, established pattern of behaviour (the service for the children) and questions it, so the rhyme scheme establishes an order and then disrupts it. The speaker's re-organisation of his response to the scene is then echoed by the re-organisation of the rhyme into another order.

In the first two lines of the final stanza, the use of ‘does shine' … ‘does fall' invites explicit contrast with the absence of sun and rain in stanza three. It heightens the contrast between the unnatural world of the children and the normal world of human experience.

Investigating structure and versification

  • How would you respond to the claim that the breakdown of the rhyme in stanza two is a failure of craftsmanship on Blake's part?
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