Summary and Analysis of
Holy Thursday by William Blake
In this article, you will read about introduction to the poet and poem, summary of Holy Thursday, analysis and critical appreciation of the poem, major themes in Holy Thursday, and Symbolism used by William Blake in the poem, Holy Thursday.
Introduction of the poem:
Holy Thursday is the famous poem that Blake wrote in his book called Songs of Innocence in 1789. It represents a ceremony known as Ascension Day in England, in remembrance of when Jesus Christ enemies crucified him and also the betrayal of his close friend. This day is celebrated among Christians to remember Christ.
The poet is describing the events taking place on this particular day, how orphans sing in front of the audience to get donations for them.
Holy Thursday not only describes the celebrations and orphan’s activities on the Ascension Day but also criticizes the pathetic attitude of charity organizations and public towards the orphans
Structure of the Poem:
The Holy Thursday comprises of three stanzas. The rhyme scheme of the poem is AABB. Each line has two beats. The poem is in simple ballad form but the lines are longer than usual.
Summary of Holy Thursday:
The poem, Holy Thursday, is comprised on three stanzas. Here is stanza wise summary of Holy Thursday for better understanding.
Summary of Stanza 1:
In the first stanza of the Holy Thursday, the poet is describing the setting of the poem, but from an outsider’s point of view. The events of the poem took place on the Holy Thursday. It is the Thursday before Easter, hence the name. The poet says that on the Holy Thursday, the children of the orphanage were dressed up to march towards the church, to attract attention and gather charity. The innocent faces of children were clean and they were wearing bright colors as they marched in perfect order. Red, blue and green are also the main colors, which merge to form whole spectrum of other colors, so it can also mean that the children were dressed in all kinds of colors.
Now the first two lines of this poem might seem all happy and bright, but there is an undertone to it, an element of mock. As the poet is pointing out the attire of orphans, he is also directing reader’s mind towards the fact that these children are not always like this. He is trying to make us realize that they are tidied up, especially for this march, to gain attention and charity. On normal days, beadles do not care for them much.
In last two lines of stanza, poet tells us how the old beadles walk in front of the orphans, with wands as white as snow in their hands. It means that they are directing children along the road with sticks and as snow is cold; their authority is strict and cold. The children are moving as swiftly and in order towards the church as the river Thomas flows. The last line can also be directed towards the beadles, that they were stiff towards orphans outside, but as soon as they entered the church, became swift like a river.
The poet is trying to point out the deceiving appearances of people. Just as other people act a certain way to gain their interests, the beadles are pretending to be nice to children to get charity.
Summary of stanza 2:
In the second stanza, the poet narrates that now when the children are inside the church, and seated, they look like beautiful flowers, gathered from all around London. The poet is comparing the children with flowers as both are beautiful but fragile and short lived. The condition in which the children are right now is temporary. As soon as the ceremony ends, they will return to their orphanage, and live the same miserable life that an orphan can. The poet has again created a beautiful picture but with a bitter undertone. In the second line of stanza, poet says that now that children are sitting by themselves, and not guided by wands, they are glowing in each other’s company. This glow is not due to any outside influences, but because of the purity of these innocent souls.
In the third line of this stanza, poet compares the children with lambs, which are also innocent and need supervision. The poet describes the scene that as children are gathered, there is a multitude of buzz, chatter, but that is as harmless and soft as a herd of lambs. The children are raising their small hands in prayer as they are sitting in the church, in front of the divine. The poet is trying to express the idea that, as lambs are innocent and harmless, these children are also pure, and so are loved by the divine.
Summary of stanza 3:
In the third stanza, poet says that these little innocent children, when they start to sing, their voices rise up high and reach the heavens. The small little lambs, which seem meek, hold the power to shake the heavens when they call upon the divine. Singing, these children have turned into a mighty wind that is bringing with it thunder and is shaking everyone’s hearts. All this has made everyone else seem so small and worthless as compared to these pure souls. Their guardians and other old and wise people are moved by this act and will now offer charity and compassion for these children. Poet here uses wise ironically, because if these people were actually wise, they would not wait for a whole year to hear children sing and then help them in return. A wise person would have given poor orphans charity and love regardless.
In the last line of the Holy Thursday, the poet is giving the message to practice pity. He says that you are giving charity to these kids right now, but what would be your response if one of them showed up at your door begging? Why can you not be kind and have pity in your heart for these angels all year round? Why only on this day? Why only after being touched by their singing?
The poet indirectly in this poem to provoke thought and to make people realize their wrong behavior towards orphans and poor raises all these questions. Blake is teaching us that if a child has come to us in need, the least we can do is to show them pity and treat them with love. Children are angels on this earth full of demons, and we must conserve their pureness instead of showing them the cruelness of this world.
Analysis and critical appreciation of Holy Thursday:
The poem is simple and in a ballad form and has a singsong quality, which is usually a sign of innocence in poems. However, there is a completely different message behind it.
Blake is known to be advocate of innocent children while he criticizes the system that abuses and turn those children into slaves. In this poem too, he is directing our attention towards the orphans of the society. He expresses that these angels need our pity and love the most, but we ignore them and do not think of their misery. He mocks the elders that take care of these poor children that even they use children’s innocence to gather charity. Children are inexperienced and these old wise men treat them and direct them like a herd of lambs.
This poem reinforces the idea that in this world where there is cruelty and corruption all over, and arrogant people seem to be powerful, these children are actually mighty ones. The pure innocent souls hold the power to move Heavens; the Almighty Lord hears their voices. Therefore, if we are cruel to these poor orphans, God will not love us, as God loves those who love His creation. This poem encourages that in all the cruel and sin-stricken system that uses children as a show of public virtue, one should always cherish pity.
Themes in the Holy Thursday:
Holy Thursday encompasses numbers of themes. Some of the major themes in the poem are as follows:
Orphans and poor:
Blake is directing our attention towards the general behavior of people with orphan and poor children. He is expressing the fact that children are innocent and have a pure heart and we should try our best to take care of it. We should not break their hearts by being mean instead should have pity and love for them, as they are as pure as angels are.
Innocence and Experience:
Another main theme in this poem is the contrast between innocence and experience. The children are meek, they do not know about the world and are oblivious to many things; hence have pure heart and intentions. On the other hand, the wise guardians of these angels are old aged; they have seen the corrupt ways of the world and are stiff. They are using even the Holy Thursday and children’s innocence for their gain.
Symbolism in the poem:
Symbolism is a literary device where something is used to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings different from literal meaning. William Blake’s poem Holy Thursday is full of symbolism. Below is the detail of symbolism from the poem.
Flowers: Flowers are representing the beauty and fragility of children. They are also representing the short-lived clean attire of these children.
Children: The child personifies innocence and gentleness. It also hints towards the simplicity and a lack of sophistication.
Lambs: The metaphor of lambs is linking the children directly to Christ’ lambs. Lambs are a symbol of innocence and meekness. The children’s voices are also childish just like a lamb’s voice.
Mighty wind / thunder: It refers to the power of God, meaning it is something powerful (most probably the Holy Spirit) that resides in the souls of those assembled children. The scene is more emphasized by ‘thundering’ since it is always taken as the wrath of God. It can also symbolize that if we are not kind to these tiny angles, the wrath of God will fall upon us.