Holy Thursday

holy_thursday‘Twas on a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two, in red, and blue, and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames waters flow.

O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among:
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Summary

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.

choirOn 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, 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 angels of God.

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.

Speaker

thamesThe voice of the poem is neither the poet’s nor a child’s, but rather an observer who sees an emotionally affecting scene. Unlike the speaker, the reader may ask whether these children actually receive the tender care Christianity demands.

Language and tone

The speakers tone is one of wonder and awe. There are two possibilities. The speaker may be genuinely unaware of the day to day grimness of the children’s lives in the charity schools and of the conditions that produced so many orphans in the first place. The speaker expresses the official view that the society is Christian and charitable. |The wellbeing of the children is evident in this great procession. On the other hand, the speaker may be describibng the genuine power of the children and contrasting this with the loss of human potential that their status in this society represents.

Oppositions

beadleThere is a discrepancy between the scene the speaker presents and the reality of the children’s lives. ‘Holy’ can be seen as an ironic term as the poem unfolds. The day is holy but is the general treatment of the children in this society holy?

The speaker’s apparent lack of awareness can be seen in the way in many details in the poem. (Remember, though, that the reader may be aware of the social conditions but be presenting a visionay picture of how these might be transformed, as they are during the procession.)

Beadles were officials appointed by parishes to keep order and punish minor offenders but 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.

Stanza one

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.

While the description is overwhelmingly positive, 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 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 as magic wands rather 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. Next the children are described as lamb-like in their innocence and meekness. 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. What does this say about the fate of the children?

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 contact 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.

The last line might not be ironic, though. It is depend how the speaker is seen. He might be demanding genuine pity and this follows from his realisation of the chiodren’s power and potential.

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 moving in procession 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.

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 long lines suggest the flow of the children’s movement and the power of their singing. 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.

Imagery and symbolism

flowers – This comparison emphasizes the children’s beauty and fragility.

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.

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 evokes a scene in which the 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 so finds 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.

An angel – The angel in the last line of the poem refers to the story of mysterious strangers visiting the Old Testament patriarch Abraham; they turn out to be angels bearing God’s blessing (see Genesis18:1–8). A

Themes

The nature of innocence

  • Holy Thursday can be read as demonstrating the limitations of innocence. The speaker’s naivety allows hypocrisy and self–centredness to flourish. The innocence of the children is also open to abuse and exploitation. The speaker, in one reading, is not so naïve, though, but contrasts the power and beauty of the children on this one day with their everyday condition.

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.