Songs of Innocence: Holy Thursday || Summary and Analysis

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Holy Thursday

'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
Came children walking two and two, in read, 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.

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


Summary and Analysis

Introduction:

      The title of the poem Holy Thursday suggests the annual church services held of children from myriad charity schools in England. Holy Thursday or Ascension Day in the day that commemorates Christ's resurrection and ascension to heaven. On this day in many catholic churches it is still custom ary to hold services of children. The poem projects the children of charity schools marching to St. Paul's church where they sing songs in praise of God.


At first the innocence of the children is projected in the background of a sacred day such as 'Holy Thursday'; and this method brings the two quoted phrases innocence and 'Holy Thursday' to operate as the common factor before the whole of the following lines, especially those lines which have an undercurrent of irony.
Holy Thursday


Summary:

      As we see, from The Little Black Boy' onwards thin blasts of the wind of 'experience' have been frequently disturbing Blake's world of 'innocence' forewarning the transition from songs of innocence to songs of experience. 'Holy Thursday' stages the customary representatives of innocence under the reign of the beadles of the charity school. Blake begins the poem in a story-telling mode right from the exposition, purposely leaves the proper noun unmentioned when he says, "Their innocent faces clear." lt is only mentioned in the second line that the faces are of the children. At first the innocence of the children is projected in the background of a sacred day such as 'Holy Thursday'; and this method brings the two quoted phrases innocence and 'Holy Thursday' to operate as the common factor before the whole of the following lines, especially those lines which have an undercurrent of irony. The children are rather mechanically regular when they are pictured as walking in pairs. Their draperies in flying colours of red, blue and green are charming but it is a charm devoid of freedom:

"Gray headed beadles walked before with wands as white as snow."

      Superficially the white colour of the snow adds much to the pageantry of colours but behind the colours the grim rod is an oppressor, a nightmare to the meek children. The children flow, like the waters of Thames, towards the imposing St. Paul's church to offer their service. To Blake they are metaphorically the flowers of London town. (Mind you, flowers of 'town' and not of a hillside valley or meadow). With their bright faces appropriate to children they sit in batches for service. There arises a hum from this 'multitude' of lambs as they raise their innocent hands in prayer. Their humming rises up to heaven like a wind and reverberates like 'harmonious thunderings' among the seats of Heaven. Obviously the reference is to the echo produced by the hollow dome. Below the gallery sit aged men wise guardians of the poor, and the scene culminates at this point. Blake ends his poem with a request. He bids us show pity to these young buds, who are really angels of the charity school. If we do not show pity. he says, we will be neglecting an angel at our doors.

The Undercurrents of Irony:

      The purport of Blake's 'Holy Thursday' is not to be sought in the colourful pageantry of children or in the significant figures of speech; it is to be sought in the hidden undercurrent of irony. The first stanza contains this overtone, chiefly in the third line where the beadles are seen to be walking before the children. It is an eye-catching parade of colour such as red, blue and green, but it has not that atmosphere of freedom that belongs to either the greenery of the meadows or the colourful flowers of a countryside landscape. And here the putative, guardian angels are the so called beadles with 'wands as white as snow' in their hands. Actually the sceptre of a pope or the staff of an ecclesiastical priest has a religious connotation. As we see Christianity propagates the lesson of mutual love and charity as well as benevolence among mankind. But wands of the beadles are in fact employed to hit the children, and children, according to Blake, are the manifestations of God. Moreover, the wand is "as white as snow," that is to say, visibly very pure, but it symbolises suppression of innocence. Harold Bloom says: "The children are dressed in the colours of life, the beadles are grey headed and carry white as a death emblem ..... Though they flow like Thames's water, this is not a mark of their freedom."

The second instance where Blake tinges the lines with ironical implication can be traced in line 11.

"Beneath them sit the aged men: wise guardians of the poor."

      Charity schools were run to propagate Christianity with its various aspects of a religious significance, especially among children. But those who ran it, the 'wise' guardians, had no philanthropism nor any compassion towards children. As Harold Bloom puts it, "it is the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, forty days after Christ's accession into heaven, yet the children, his Lambs, still linger unwillingly in the wilderness off the exploiting society."

      The poem as an organised whole can be taken as a mainstream of irony, For example we can see the children marching 'uniformly' like prisoners (negation of freedom) and compulsorily brought to church for service. Thus, their divinity, that is innocence, is annihilated in pressing them to surrender to the sophisticated social decorum and conventions. But these children have their chance to assert their innocence when they sincerely pray to God raising their voices to sound like harmonious thunder among the seats of heaven. Furthermore the essence of their innocence is retained by the poet in associating them with 'multitude of lambs'.

Holy Thursday: A Song of Innocence:

      'Holy Thursday', if we avoid an attempt to analyse the work closely, can be pleasantly read as a lyric of transcending beauty. But if we get to the deeper meaning, we can appreciate the poem better. This poem belongs to the Song of Innocence though we do miss the conventional landscape and soaring birds and flowers: this poem has a higher degree of seriousness as a precursor or forerunner of the coming world of experience. Here the world of pure and unblemished innocence gets enveloped in the smoke of experience. It signifies a further step taken in the progress from innocence to experience or rather from the sunny fresh sunlight of the earlier songs into warmer heat. If the new world of experience is brought upon us all of a sudden it may look strange, patched up and artificial. So the poet has to fulfil a double duty, that of gradually bringing the reader to the side of harder stuff as well as keeping within the limits of innocence so as not to corrupt the effect. Hence the bitter experience of the children in the hands of the charity school patrons and the poet's ardent desire to assert and pinpoint their innocence in the lines:

"The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs,

Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands."

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