It is Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday. The former happens to also be the title of two poems by William Blake in his Songs of Innocence and Experience collection.
Both the poems draw from the tradition of holding a religious service in London to give attention to the orphan children of the city. What more could a orphan child of the eighteenth and nineteenth century want but a religious service?
Blake’s poetry spends a good deals of time struggling with issues to do with the treatment of children. He presents children as the epitome of innocence, but also acknowledged that they were often poorly treated.
In the first Holy Thursday poem, the children are compared to forces of natural power. If children are the epitome of innocence in Blake’s poetry, nature is the epitome of the force of good. The combined voices of the children provide “harmonious thunderings” and Blake uses the motif of sound to provide a sense of the power and importance of children. In the final lines of the poem, Blake issues a warning and suggests that children should be cherished or religious enlightenment, in the form of the angel, will be lost.
Holy Thursday (Innocence)
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
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
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
Blake’s Holy Thursday Experience poem, focuses on similar issues of religious and children. However, the focus is less on the power of children and more on the suffering of children.
The use of questions in the first two stanzas provide a persuasive sense of the mistreatment of children. The first stanza is one rhetorical questioning leaving the audience on alternative but to bemoan the suffering inflicted on children.
In contrast to the use of colour in the Innocence poem, Experience provides a metaphor present of “a land of poverty” inhabited by the suffering children. The use of repetition in the final two stanzas provide a sense of the monotonous suffering of children.
Once again, nature is being used to provide the audience with as specific effect. In this case, Blake wants the audience to feel the unrelentingly bleak life of the children.
Holy Thursday (Experience)
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 appal.