Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land
Babes reduced 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 and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.
For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babes can never hunger there
Nor poverty the mind’s appall.
In the poem ‘Holy Thursday’, the poet William Blake hurls his defiance at the unjustifiable attitude of society towards the poor children of the charity schools. The poet is infuriated at the negligence they suffer at the hands of the philanthropists of society who are cold-blooded and insincere. The children are the manifestations of God, but they are treated as outcasts. According to the poet, charity is unnecessary because England is fairly prosperous and she can easily provide as much food as the children require. What infuriates the poet, even more, is the pretext under which the rich patrons of the charity schools run their institutions. They crave for God’s blessings and in His name, they ostentatiously show philanthropism and benevolence. But behind this show, the poet knows that they are hollow and pitiless. The poet also speaks out against the ecclesiastic conventions of St. Paul’s Cathedral where the starving children are compelled to kneel and pray. Christianity trumpets the gospel of love and kindness but the church where worshippers come to pray seems to be indifferent towards the empty-bellied children. The holy day of Holy Thursday’ echoes with the feeble, quivering voices of the famished children.
In ‘Holy Thursday’ the poet again employs the technique of satire. The poet stands beyond the periphery and represents himself as a stranger. He speaks as if his common sense is outraged. The poem invites comparison with the ‘Holy Thursday’ of the Songs of Innocence. Blake can be seen to have been influenced by Goodwin and Marry Wollstonecraft who were some of the revolutionary thinkers of the period. The poem opens the reader’s eyes to the bygone days when the innocent children of the charity schools suffered more than an average human being. He looks at the pompous and showy ‘wise guardians of the poor’ with contempt and derision. He asks why there should be a need for charity in a rich land like England. His revolutionary thoughts find their vent in this poem.
The tone of ‘Holy Thursday’ in Songs of Innocence undergoes a drastic change when it reaches the phase of ‘Experience’ and here in ‘Holy Thursday’ the poet lashes out at the debut of those wise guardians of the poor.’ His indignation is righteous. England is rich and prosperous. The poet says that there is no need for any charity towards children because England is self-sufficient enough to cater to them. On the holy day of Holy Thursday it is ‘unholy’ to see the children reduced to utter penury and impoverishment in a land which is rich and affluent. Despite its prosperity, the flowers of the town get a raw deal from the money-making, usurous hands. Even the hymns, the children sing in praise of the Lord, are no more pleasant and joyful, for their voices shiver from cold and exhaustion. The poet ridicules society and discounts England’s credit as a prosperous land. In the third stanza the poet turns to the austere and deteriorated condition of the children whose future as well as present is truncated and bleak. Figuratively and sympathetically he holds that their sun of happiness may never shine and their fields of sports are windswept, frozen and chilly forever. They are foredoomed to live in eternal winter of neglect and plight. Children shall never starve where the sun shines and the clouds shower rain. In such a land poverty cannot terrorise the mind of children.
Asking questions, especially when the poet is in severe disagreement with the customs and nonsensical conventions, is typically Blakean. Quite frankly the poet expresses his bitter contempt against the superficial and pompous charity of the society towards the children. The England that witnessed the industrial revolution in Blake’s period was materially progressing and many became rich, and the rich richer. But in this progress towards prosperity, many of the poor underwent inexplicable hazards. The poor children of the charity schools were no exception.