Holy Thursday 2

E. Holy Thursday Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,–
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns,
It is eternal winter there.

For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appal.

Summary

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 can it be a song of joy?

The speaker is astounded to see so many poor children. This leads him to see the whole land as characterised by poverty

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 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.

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.

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.

Speaker

The poet as critic and prophet

Language and Tone

The language of this poem is emotive, evoking strong feelings by using rhetorical devices such as irony, exaggeration, metonymy and rhetorical questions.

Irony
There is an 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?

Exaggeration
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.

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.

Oppositions

There is a contrast between the expectation elicited by the title and the content of the poem.

Structure and Texture

The first quatrain of this poem rhymes ABAB, with four stresses per line. In stanza two, however, the rhyme breaks down entirely. 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.

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.

Imagery and Symbolism

trembling cry – By describing the children’s singing as their ‘trembling cry’, the poem 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.

usurous hand – Blake’s synecdoche (form of metonymy) represents not just the guardians of the orphans, but the city of London as a whole. 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. Although the guardians are not technically ‘usurous’, calling them this suggests that they derive personal gain from their work. Their involvement creates the poverty it claims to ease.

Blake uses imagery from the vision of the New Heaven and New Earth found in the New Testament book of Revelation. (See Revelation 7:16–17; Revelation 21:1–4.) They will be unveiled at the end of time, when Jesus returns. The new creation is described as a world without need of sun and where there are no more tears or sorrow. This idea might be a consolation to those currently experiencing poverty and sorrow. However, it can also be used as an excuse to be complacent about contemporary suffering since it will be addressed comprehensively by God at the end of time. It is appropriate for the speaker to be thinking of Heaven because of the nature of the celebration he is observing. Holy Thursday refers to Ascension Day, when Christians remember the day that the risen Jesus ascended to Heaven, forty days after his resurrection. The Ascension is linked with the promise that Jesus will return at some point. It is logical, therefore, that an observer accustomed to the Christian story and tradition would connect Ascension Day with this vision of the New Heaven and New Earth and link this vision with his thoughts about human misery.

Themes

The distortion of Christian belief about the future life

Blake attacks the approach of some forms of contemporary Christianity. This approach taught people to accept present suffering and injustice because of the promise of bliss and the absence of all suffering in the next world. Although this was a consistent teaching of the New Testament, Blake condemned it as the perspective of the ‘fallen’ person.

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.