Holy Thursday (I) - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

flowers - This comparison emphasizes the children's beauty and fragility. They are London's fairest product

Children - at one level, the child is an image of innocence and gentleness. It continues with the suggestions of simplicity and lack of sophistication. In the Gospels, Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who become like little children in their innocence and humility. However, they are at the mercy of those who do not share their innocence.

lambs – The children are lamb-like in their innocence and meekness, as well as in the sound of their childish voices. The lamb metaphor links the children to Christ. See Big ideas from the Bible > Sheep, shepherd, lamb.

Multitudes – This evokes scenes of judgement in the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. The book's author has a vision of heaven where he sees multitudes who have been saved and cleansed by the ‘blood of the Lamb' (Jesus). These people had been persecuted and even killed for their Christian faith on earth, but now are gathered in triumph and praise (Revelation 7:9-17). Thus, an image of sacrifice is transmuted into one of victory. Revelation demonstrates that in the end the martyrs will triumph over their persecutors, who must face judgement and damnation. The speaker seems unaware that s/he is evoking a scene in which tables are turned and that this may give an altogether different significance to the description of the children.

Mighty wind / thunder – In the Bible this often signifies the presence of God, especially the Holy Spirit, whose presence was conveyed by a mighty wind at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) The image tends to emphasise the power of God and hence attributes something powerful (perhaps the Holy Spirit) in the presence of the assembled children. This is heightened by ‘thunderings' since in the Old Testament thunder was often seen as an expression of the wrath of God.

Abraham and the three angelsAn angel - A further biblical image is found in the last line of Holy Thursday. It refers to the story of mysterious strangers visiting the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, who turn out to be angels bearing God's blessing (see Genesis 18:1-8). Abraham is spontaneously generous and hospitable, without thought for himself; he simply welcomes the strangers. However, the maxim created from this story inverts the true message, since it reflects benefit for the self, destroying all spontaneity and generosity.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • How does the reference to the Book of Revelation add to your appreciation of the scene Blake describes?


The nature of innocence

Holy Thursday can be read as demonstrating the limitations of innocence allied to ignorance. The speaker's naivety allows hypocrisy and self–centredness to flourish. The innocence of the children is also open to abuse and exploitation.

The distortion of Christian belief that makes it a means of controlling people's behaviour

Blake opposed the way in which he felt the Church condoned the established social order without questioning it. Christian teaching about respecting authority led to the sense that being ‘good' meant accepting the status quo as though it had been designed by God to be that way. It is represented by a verse from a 19th century hymn,

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.
Mrs C.F.Alexander

Blake felt such a view was contradicted by the care for the poor and stance against injustice demonstrated by Jesus and the early church.


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