‘Holy Thursday’ was first published in 1789. It was included in a poetry collection called Songs of Innocence. However, there is also a poem called ‘Holy Thursday’ in William Blake’s Songs of Experience, which differs from the one in Songs of Innocence. Songs of Innocence consists of 19 poems that portray happy pastoral images and the vulnerability in this innocent perception.
‘Holy Thursday’ depicts a particular ceremony, which takes place in England. In William Blake’s time, ‘Holy Thursday’ was the name given to the ceremony that took place on Ascension Day. On Ascension Day, children from charity schools went to St. Paul’s Cathedral and they took part in a special service in the church. William Blake uses a concrete historical event in order to reflect on human attitudes and poverty in England.
The poem consists of three stanzas with two rhymed couplets each (an AABB rhyme scheme). The lines in the poem tend to be longer than those in the rest of the collection, as the extension suggests the children’s procession into the cathedral. This particular form has a song-like rhythm, a representation of the children’s innocence, which contrasts with the narration of their exploitation.
Holy Thursday William Blake ‘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.
Holy Thursday Analysis
Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey-headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow
The first stanza depicts a ceremony. The lyrical voice describes the movement of the children from the charity schools to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on ‘Holy Thursday.’ However, the lyrical voice appears to be an outside observer, as he/she describes how the children walk towards the church. The children are described as a colorful mass (“The children walking two & two in red & blue & green”) which flows through the streets of London like the river Thames (“Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow”). The lyrical voice suggests that the children are being carried out by their current of innocence. Notice how, despite the celebratory scenery, the lyrical voice criticizes certain aspects of the social ritual. For instance, the faces of the children are “clean”, which suggests that they are normally dirty. Or, for example, notice how the beadles walk alongside the children “with wands”. This suggests the violent authority that these beadles had over the children.
O what a multitude they seemd 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 & girls raising their innocent hands
In the second stanza, the lyrical voice describes the children in a different way. The children are described in several ways throughout these lines. First, they are presented as “flowers of London town”, emphasizing their beauty and their fragility. The lyrical voice talks about the children while he/she sees them seated in the church (“Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own”). Then, the children are described as “lambs”, accentuating their innocence and their relationship with God and religion. Thus, children are linked to Christ, who has a special tenderness with children. This description contrasts with the “hum of multitudes” and furthers with the emphasis on the children “raising their innocent hands”. Moreover, notice the number of these children (“Thousands of little boys & girls) and how they are all described as uncorrupted and delicate.
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
In the third stanza of ‘Holy Thursday,’ the children begin to sing. The lyrical voice describes how they “like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song”. As they sing, the children are no longer fragile, and they acquire a force that enables them to communicate with God ( “Or like harmonious thundering the seats of Heaven among”). Notice how the song of the children is described, first as “a mighty wind” and then as “harmonious thundering”. Moreover, the beadles that walked with them in the streets are now “Beneath them”, overshadowed by the children and their song. The figure of the children changes throughout the stanzas and, in the last one, they appear to be surrounded by aural imagery. The final line tells the reader to have compassion for the poor (“Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door”). This suggests further critics of Christianity and English society, a possibility of divine wrath and vengeance in the children’s song.
About William Blake
William Blake was born in 1757 and died in 1827. He was an English poet and painter. William Blake is known to be one of the first figures of the Romantic Movement, both in poetry and painting (He is also commonly referred to as a ‘Pre-Romantic’). His most important works are his “prophetic works”: The Book of Los, The Song of Los, Vala, or The Four Zoas, and Milton a Poem, among many others. Other notable works include Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem. William Blake’s poetry and work have a strong philosophical and mystical view, portrayed in a very creative and expressive form. He was mainly influenced by the ideas behind the American and the French revolution.