Holy Thursday (I) - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of Holy Thursday (I)

Holy Thursday (I)

On Holy Thursday (Ascension Day), the clean-scrubbed charity school children of London flow like a river toward St. Paul's Cathedral. Supervised by aged beadles and dressed in bright colours they walk two-by-two. Seated, the children form a vast, radiant multitude as they sit in the Cathedral. To the speaker, they are like thousands of lambs, who are ‘raising their innocent hands' in prayer. Then they begin to sing, sounding like ‘a mighty wind' or ‘harmonious thunderings,' while their guardians, ‘the aged men,' stand by. The speaker is moved by this vision of the children in church. He urges the reader to remember that poor children like these are actually [3angels of God.

Compared to the abstract concepts of The Divine Image, Holy Thursday asks readers to consider their understanding of ideas like mercy and pity as they are found in a concrete situation. It also links these issues with a concern for the poverty that characterised Blake's England.

Charity Schools were funded by public donations to care for and educate orphaned and abandoned children in the city. Every year, on Ascension Day, the charity school children of London took part in a special service of thanksgiving in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Thus, the poem uses an actual historical circumstance to explore deeper human tendencies and attitudes.


Stanza one

The voice of the poem is neither Blake's nor a child's, but rather an observer's who sees an emotionally affecting scene. The first stanza captures the movement of the children from the schools to the church, comparing the lines of children to the River Thames, which also flows through the heart of London.

However, there are potentially negative aspects to this vision:

  • That the children's faces are clean suggests to us, but not to the speaker, that they have been scrubbed for this public occasion. What might be their usual state?
  • The orderliness of the children's march (reminiscent of primary school crocodiles) could be interpreted as suggesting rigidity and regimentation rather than charity and love
  • Beadles are figures of authority who can inflict punishment, yet here are seen simply as benevolent old men. Their rods are depicted more as magic wands than as signs of authority and punishment.

Stanza two

In the second stanza, the children become ‘flowers of London town.' Instead of seeing them as destitute children dependent on charity, they are presented as the city's fairest product, as though they shine like angels. Next the children are described as lamb-like in their innocence and meekness, as well as in the sound of their little voices. The lamb metaphor links the children to Christ and reminds the reader of Jesus' special tenderness and care for children.

However, the reader may also be alive to less positive connotations:

  • Unlike the speaker, the reader may ask whether these children receive the tender care Jesus intends for his lambs
  • They would be alive to references to lambs in the Bible as sacrificial animals. Lambs are reared to be slaughtered and devoured, so what does this say about the fate of the children?
  • The ‘hum of multitudes' in association with angels and lambs might remind Blake's readers of Revelation 5:11-14. However, the hum of multitudes (in an era of social unrest and the French Revolution) could suggest something threatening which the speaker has to hurriedly disclaim.

Thus, the reader is left to see tension and an under-current of threat of which the speaker is ignorant.

Stanza three

In the third stanza, the children are no longer depicted as frail and mild. Their combined voices raised toward God are now powerful and put them in direct Pentecostcontact with heaven. The ‘mighty wind' and the ‘harmonious thunderings' are perceived by the speaker as glorious, perhaps mindful of the ‘mighty wind' of the Holy Spirit that came at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4. However:

  • This mighty wind is also potentially destructive, as are ‘thunderings'
  • Are these sounds voices clamouring to heaven for justice?
  • The beadles, under whose authority the children live, sit ‘beneath' the children. Is this their moral as well as physical position? If so, the idea that they are ‘wise guardians of the poor' is an unintentional irony from the speaker.

We are left to ask how much this outward display of love and charity conceals the cruelty to which such children were often subjected.

True pity

The final line of Holy Thursday advises pity for the poor. But:

  • The poem might suggest that the end result of ‘pity' is institutionalized charity, which conceals a regime of neglect and abusive authority
  • The ulterior motive behind not rejecting an ‘angel' seems to be the benefit of the householder.

True pity, which recognised the children for what they were, would not subject them to such a regime. It would not allow children to be abandoned and destitute in the first place. True pity, too, would not be self-regarding.

Investigating Holy Thursday (I)

  • How far do you think the closing line is a good summary of the message of this poem?
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