The two poems: Holy Thursday I, II reflect Blake’s theory of contrariness. The tile of the poems refers to the Thursday before Easter Sunday, observed by Christians in commemoration of Christ’s Last Supper in which the ceremony of the washing of the feet is performed: the celebrant washes the feet of 12 people to commemorate Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet. In England a custom survives of giving alms to the poor.
So the title has religious significance. Both the poems deal with the same theme; but their approach to the theme is different; the first being light and ironic and the second being more savage and direct. I first analyse Holy Thursday (I) and then Holy Thursday (II) and finally, I will compare and contrast both the poems.
“Till into the high dome of Paul’s they
like Thames‘ waters flow.”
The poem’s (Holy Thursday I) dramatic setting refers to a traditional Charity School service at St. Paul‘s Cathedral. The first stanza captures the movement of the children from the schools to the church, likening the lines of children to the Thames River, which flows through the heart of London: the children are carried along by the current of their innocent faith. In the second stanza, the metaphor for the children changes. First they become “flowers of London town.” This comparison emphasizes their beauty and fragility; it undercuts the assumption that these destitute children are the city’s refuse and burden, rendering them instead as London‘s fairest and finest. Thus Blake emphasizes their innocence and beauty in Holy Thursday I. Next the children are described as resembling lambs in their innocence and meekness, as well as in the sound of their little voices. The image transforms the character of humming “multitudes,” into something heavenly and sublime. The lamb metaphor links the children to Christ and reminds the reader of Jesus’s special tenderness and care for children. As the children begin to sing in the third stanza, they are no longer just weak and mild; the strength of their combined voices raised toward God evokes something more powerful and puts them in direct contact with heaven. The simile for their song is first given as “a mighty wind” and then as “harmonious thunderings.” The beadles, under whose authority the children live, are eclipsed in their aged pallor by the internal radiance of the children. Thus the ‘guardians’ are beneath the children. The final line advises compassion for the poor. Blake’s basic aim in this poem is to emphasize the heavenliness and innocent or the children. The beginning of Holy Thursday (I) is transformed into Holy Thursday II as:
“Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
Holy Thursday II in contrast begins with a series of questions: how holy is the sight of children living in misery in a prosperous country? Might the children’s “cry,” as they sit assembled in St. Paul‘s Cathedral on Holy Thursday, really be a song? “Can it be a song of joy?” In the first stanza, we learn that whatever care these children receive is minimal and grudgingly bestowed. The “cold and usurous hand” that feeds them is motivated more by self-interest than by love and pity. Moreover, this “hand” metonymically represents not just the daily guardians of the orphans, but the city of London as a whole: the entire city has a civic responsibility to these most helpless members of their society, yet it delegates or denies this obligation. Here the children must participate in a public display of joy that poorly reflects their actual circumstances, but serves rather to reinforce the self-righteous complacency of those who are supposed to care for them. The song that had sounded so majestic in the Songs of Innocence shrivels, here, to a “trembling cry.” In the first poem, the parade of children found natural symbolization in London‘s mighty river. Here, however, the children and the natural world conceptually connect via a strikingly different set of images: the failing crops and sunless fields symbolize the wasting of a nation’s resources and the public’s neglect of the future. The thorns, which line their paths, link their suffering to that of Christ. They live in an ‘eternal winter’, where they experience neither physical comfort nor the warmth of love.
Holy Thursday I is meek and lenient in tone; but the poem calls upon the reader to be more critical than the speaker is: we are asked to contemplate the true meaning of Christian pity, and to contrast the institutionalized charity of the schools with the love of which God–and innocent children–are capable. Moreover, the visual picture given in the first two stanzas contains a number of unsettling aspects: the mention of the children’s clean faces suggests that they have been tidied up for this public occasion; that their usual state is quite different. The public display of love and charity conceals the cruelty to which impoverished children were often subjected. Moreover, the orderliness of the children’s march and the ominous “wands” (or rods) of the beadles suggest rigidity, regimentation, and violent authority rather than charity and love. Lastly, the tempestuousness of the children’s song, as the poem transitions from visual to aural imagery, carries a suggestion of divine vengeance as in these lines:
“Then cherish pity, lest you drive
an angel from your door.”
In the Innocence version, Blake described the public appearance of charity school children in St. Paul‘s Cathedral In “experienced” version, however, he critiques rather than praises the charity of the institutions responsible for hapless children. The speaker entertains questions about the children as victims of cruelty and injustice, some of which the earlier poem implied. The rhetorical technique of the poem is to pose a number of suspicious questions that receive indirect, yet quite censoriously toned answers as in:
“Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land”
The question may be asked which of the two “Holy Thursday” poems states the right attitude. According to John Beer, a famous critic the innocent poem displays greater insight, in spite of the greater worldly wisdom, and in spite of the superior moral interest, shown in the experienced poem. The innocent speaker, says this critic, sees more of the scene than the experienced one. The speaker in the experienced poem is so anxious to assert his moral ideas that the scene in St. Paul‘s becomes an excuse for a moral sermon rather than a situation he can give attention to. And John Beer concludes: “The innocent song ends on a positive note without preaching a sermon, while the experienced speaker preaches a sermon that is negative in tone, being full of moral anxiety but destructive of moral obligation.” With his “Holy Thursday” of Experience”, Blake clarifies his view of the hypocrisy of formalized religion and its claimed acts of charity. He exposes the established church’s self-congratulatory hymns as a sham that the sound of the children is only a trembling cry.