Holy Thursday (I) - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

Blake establishes the social reality of this scene. He sets it in a recognisable place and time:

  • ‘Holy Thursday' is Ascension Day, a traditional day of celebration in the Christian calendar
  • London is identified by two representative landmarks, St Paul's cathedral and the River Thames.

‘Holy' can be seen as an ironic term as the poem unfolds. The day is holy but is the treatment of the children holy, or no more than an example of hypocrisy? The setting of the poem at the heart of London implicates the whole of the city in the offence to the children and Mr Bumble, charicature of a Beadlehence in the implied judgement.

Further examples of the speaker's lack of awareness, or evasion, of what s/he experiences can be found. Beadles are officials appointed by parishes to keep order and punish minor offenders. Here they are presented as benevolent old men. Their ‘wands as white as snow' are actually rods, a sign of authority, intended to punish miscreants and keep control. According to the speaker, they sound not merely harmless but positively beneficent, like the magic wand of a fairy godmother.

Investigating language and tone

  • Try replacing ‘wand' with ‘rod' and ‘Grey-headed' with a term reflecting their authority, such as ‘grim-faced'
    • How does this affect the mood and tone of the poem?

Structure and versification

The poem has three stanzas, each containing two rhyming couplets. The first stanza is one sentence, suggesting the long train of children processing toward the cathedral, or the flowing river to which they are explicitly compared. The use of the present continuous verb ‘walking' adds to the sense of movement. This contrasts with the closed couplets in the remaining stanzas. The freedom of the children's movement is contrasted with the closed nature of the speaker's thoughts; s/he does not make connections in the language s/he uses and this is reflected in the verse-form.

Most of the poem is regularly stressed heptameter, with four beats in the first half of each line followed by three in the second half, which creates the effect of neatly tying up the phrase. The last line of the first stanza disrupts the regularity, almost as if the smooth flow of bodies comes to a dead end. Spondees at the start of the first and last lines of the third stanza create emphasis – enhancing the magnitude of the scene and the injunction to care for such children.

Investigating structure and versification

  • How far do you feel that the poem's structure adequately reflects its subject matter?
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