A Song of Experience: ‘HOLY THURSDAY’
Traditionally on ‘Holy Thursday’ the charity-school children of London took part in a special service of ‘thanksgiving’ in St. Paul’s Cathedral: six thousand orphans, scrubbed clean and dressed in the coats of distinctive colours, were marched two by two under the control of their beadles, and sang in the cathedral. Charity Schools were funded by public donations to care for and educate orphaned and abandoned children in the city. Blake’s poem about this annual event begins with a series of rhetorical questions:
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
How can the sight of children living in misery in a prosperous country be called ‘holy’? They are dependent on unfeeling care from those who themselves exploit the poor (‘with cold and usurous hand’). Can the children’s ‘cry’, as they sit assembled in St. Paul’s Cathedral on Holy Thursday, really be a song? Even less could it be a song of joy?
The speaker is astounded to see so many poor children. This leads him to see the whole land as characterised by poverty. Further, it seems as though it isn’t any recognisable human country at all. This is a different land, it has neither sun nor rain, so it cannot produce any crops (‘bleak and bare’). The children know only thorn-filled paths and it is perpetual winter. How different this is to what should be the norm of humane lands, where, just as there is sun and rain, there is also no poverty. No recognisably human country would let children go hungry.
The clear implication is that a country which has wealth chooses to ignore the real needs of its children and, even when charity is provided, it is grudging and given without love or care. The word ‘usurous’ comes from ‘usury’, which is the practice of lending money at unreasonable rates of interest.
The indication is that those who give this charity expect excessive returns from the children, probably in terms of gratitude and obedience. The use of metonymy with ‘hand’ representing not merely the guardians, but the whole city (maybe nation) shows a general social responsibility. That this is not ‘holy’ is not merely that it goes against Christ’s command to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ and his dictum that ‘whatever you do to these, the least of my brothers, you do it to me’, but also because usury was strictly forbidden by the church – which is also why the recent Church of England’s revelations of financial links with the controversial payday lender Wonga, were so damning.
The stark conclusion is ‘It is a land of poverty’. While this would seem to contradict Blake’s assertion in stanza 1 that it is ‘a rich and fruitful land’, the poverty he refers to here is a spiritual poverty, brought about by the lack of imagination. While many people in England enjoyed an increasingly wealthy lifestyle, for those who were poor it was a desperate situation, and the children suffered most. Blake describes this in terms of their mental landscape:
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.
This figuratively describes the situation to which the helpless children have been reduced by those whose duty it should have been to care for them and ensure them a childhood of carefree innocence.
The relentlessness of their misery is suggested by the drumming repetition at the start of each line, while the thorns suggest that they are sacrificial victims, like Jesus at the crucifixion. It also suggests the short-sightedness of those who fail to provide properly for the nation’s future citizens, who represent its wealth. This is made clear in the final stanza, where imagination shows the opposite:
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 appall.
‘Holy Thursday’ shows Blake as a social reformer, demanding justice for those who cannot fight for themselves. He exposes the self righteous attitude of those who demand gratitude and conformity as the price for giving charity, which in practice is merely their duty to the next generation. By implication he is also showing the enormous gulf between the poor and the rich in his society.
His poem also exposes the hypocrisy, guilt and social conservatism of “charidee”. It was generally accepted throughout the nineteenth century, and is still accepted by societies and governments today, that charity is a ‘good thing’: giving to charity is approved, and is regarded as a duty of the haves to the have-notes. For Blake, charity was an evil. Why, he asks, does charity exist? Only because there is systematic inequality and injustice.
“Pity would be no more, If we did not make somebody Poor” (Blake)