William Blake

Holy Thursday (Songs of Experience) by William Blake

‘Holy Thursday’ by William Blake depicts the poor children of London attending church on Holy Thursday. Specifically, Blake describes their songs, appearance, and how their existence challenges the message the church is trying to convey.

This poem was first published and 1794 and is not the most commonly read poem from Blake’s Songs of Experience. It matches a contrasting poem in Songs of Innocence, also named as ‘holy Thursday.’ Blake uses irony and a critical tone to criticize the Christian church and any reader who feels they or the city is doing enough for the poor children attending St. Paul’s Cathedral on Holy Thursday. 

Holy Thursday (Songs of Experience)
William Blake 

Is this a holy thing to see, 
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd 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 & bare. 
And their ways are fill'd with thorns. 
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e'er the sun does shine, 
And where-e'er the rain does fall: 
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
Holy Thursday (Songs of Experience) by William Blake


Summary 

‘Holy Thursday’ by William Blake asks readers to reconsider who “good” the world truly is if children can suffer in it. 

In the lines of this poem, William Blake alludes to Ascension Day, also known as Holy Thursday. On this day, the city’s poor charity children attend St. Paul’s Cathedral. There, they sing the church hymns, which Blake’s speaker hears as cries of anguish rather than songs of joy. He challenges readers to reconsider how much the church and other supposedly charitable institutions are doing to support the city’s poor.

Themes 

The main themes of this poem are poverty and Christianity. The poet asks readers to reconsider their perception of how much or how little the Christian church is doing to support the city’s poor. Blake believes that no city or country can be content and joyful when children such as those seen on ascension day are suffering.

Structure and Form 

‘Holy Thursday’ by William Blake is a poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. The poem follows a simple rhyme scheme ABAB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. They are written in a variation of what is known as a ballad or hymn stanza

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Hyperbole: an intentionally exaggerated description of something. For example, Blake says that “ their ways are fill’d with thorns. / It is eternal winter there.” 
  • Metaphor: a comparison between two things that do not use “like” or “as.” The above example also acts as a metaphor for the path the young, poor children have to walk through life. 
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “bleak and bare.” 
  • Allusion: a reference thing outside the image is defined within the text of a poem. In this case, the “holy Thursday” included in the text refers to Ascension Thursday, which celebrates the Christian depiction of Jesus ascending into heaven. Likely, Blake was also inspired by the fact that on a specific holiday, a service was held for the poor children of London in St. Paul’s Cathedral.


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

Is this a holy thing to see, 

In a rich and fruitful land,

Babes reducd to misery,

Fed with cold and usurous hand?

In the first stanza of the poem, the poet introduces Holy Thursday with the appearance of the poor, charity children from surrounding schools at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The day, also known as Ascension Day, celebrates the Christian beliefs regarding Jesus’ rise into heaven. 

It is clear from the first lines of the stanza that the poet will be critiquing the care, or lack thereof, that institutions provide to these poor children.

Blake uses a rhetorical question in these first lines, asking readers to consider what the poor children, “reduced to misery,” say about the “holy” nature of the day and supposedly “good” Christians’ beliefs. 

He uses a synecdoche when he describes the “cold usurous hand” in the last line of the stanza. It represents all the people who could help but don’t assist the poor children. The term “usurous” refers to lending money and implies greed. 

Stanza Two 

Is that trembling cry a song?

Can it be a song of joy?

And so many children poor?

It is a land of poverty!

The speaker uses three more rhetorical questions in the second stanza. He asked readers to consider the “trembling cry” of the children. This connects the sound of the children’s voices to the holy songs sung in church on this holiday. 

While many hear these songs as ones of joy and celebration, Blake hears the children singing and wonders how everyone does not hear the song as a “trembling cry.” He uses irony in these lines, specifically when he says, “Can it be a song of joy?”

In the next lines, Blake implies that the Christian land and belief system that the churchgoers are celebrating cannot be “rich and fruitful,” as the first stanza implied, if there are so many poor children in it. It should be described instead as a “land of poverty.” 

Stanza Three 

And their sun does never shine. 

And their fields are bleak and bare. 

And their ways are fill’d with thorns. 

It is eternal winter there.

For the children in the poem, no sun shines. Their “fields” represent their present and future and are always “bleak and bare.” It’s “eternal winter” in the world the children inhabit, and no brief church ceremony can change that. What could change that, Blake implies, are all the people inside the church doing more to help the poor children they only notice occasionally.

Stanza Four 

For where-e’er the sun does shine, 

And where-e’er the rain does fall: 

Babe can never hunger there,

Nor poverty the mind appall.

In the last stanza of this short poem, the poet says that anywhere that metaphorical rain falls and where a child goes hungry could not be a land of joy. In a truly good, Christian world, no one experiences the horrors of poverty like these children do. Blake does not see the same reason for celebration as the other churchgoers do.

FAQs 

What is the purpose of ‘Holy Thursday?’ 

The purpose is to critique the Christian church and contemporary society for its lack of interest in the world’s poor children. Specifically, he focuses on the impoverished, charity children who attend Ascension Day service at St Paul’s Cathedral.

What is the message of ‘Holy Thursday?’

The message is that no world can truly be joyful and holy when anyone within it suffers from the anguish of poverty or hunger. Blake sees no reason to celebrate when so many of the city’s children are going hungry.

What kind of poem is ‘Holy Thursday?’

‘Holy Thursday’ is a variation on a hymn. Rather than alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter and a rhyme scheme of ABCB, the poet uses a rhyme scheme of ABAB and lines that are closer to the same lengths (usually no more than eight syllables). 

What is the theme of ‘Holy Thursday’ by William Blake?

The themes are poverty, selfishness, and Christianity. The poet implies that no one is truly Christian who is willing to sit by and watch poor children suffer and go hungry. There is no reason to suggest that the world is joyful when the city’s children are in such a terrible state. 

What is the tone of ‘Holy Thursday?’

The tone is ironic and critical. The speaker spends the four quatrains challenging beliefs about the magnanimity of the Christian Church and its willingness, or lack thereof, to care for the most at-risk members of society.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other William Blake poems. For example: 

  • A Poison Tree’ – published in the year 1794, is one of the most wonderful and appreciated works of poetry by William Blake.
  • Ah! Sun-flower’ – takes a creative and memorable approach to depict a weary sunflower.
  • Never Seek to Tell thy Love’ – describes one man’s choice to reveal his true feelings to his “love” and the failure of that effort.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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