The Hypocrisy of Good Intentions: The Innocent "Holy Thursday



Guy A. Duperreault

English 325 Romantic Poetry

(Distance Education, Spring 1999)

Due January 21

"Holy Thursday" in Songs of Innocence is a difficult poem, far more so than the later "Thursday". Second and third readings do nothing to lesson the ambivalent feelings it generated upon first reading. While Blake included it in Songs of Innocence, and it seems to start with innocence, I had a feeling that it, like several other of the "innocent" poems and especially "The Chimney Sweeper", was not innocent. Fortunately Stanley Gardner clarified my ambivalence when he averred that because of the individualistic character of Blake "[i]t has always been thought necessary, by one argument or another, to dissociate the radical Blake from any approbation of organized charity..."(30). Gardner writes that when Blake wrote the innocent "Holy Thursday" it was with the hope or expectation that organized charity had ameliorated the conditions of London's much abused children. He cites the charity schools as an example of that (imperfect) improvement, especially as they existed in Blake's own parish (30-1). From this and by inference from the changes Blake made to the text and illustration of "Holy Thursday", Gardner argues that Blake wrote it without irony, as partaking of "as much a part of Innocence as the nurses and children of Wimbledon, the shepherds and the lambs" (30). But as I read Gardner's argument I knew he was wrong. The closing four lines do not end with bright innocence, and are in fact darkly shadowed. The darkness of those lines, especially the last two, dolour the entire poem despite its opening gaiety, and are a key to the ambivalence I felt so keenly. With Gardner I was able to contextualize my (non-verbal) feelings, to understand, rather than feel, that "Holy Thursday" is not describing a world of innocent sunshine and sweet laughter, but one befouled by threatening shadows and adult hypocrisy. "Holy Thursday" quietly, but powerfully, highlights that the road to hell is paved by the wise and their good intentioned organizations. The irony is so quiet that it was able to remain hidden from the likes of Gardner. But once it's seen, "Holy Thursday"'s irony easily compares in power with that of "The Chimney Sweeper". "Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door" (12) is a threat. It was this aspect of the poem which first foisted upon me an antithetical reaction to the gay beginning and its

appearance of pleasure, wonder and song. The weapon of the threat is the song of the children, whose voice has raised them into the "thunderous seats of heaven"(10) above the "the aged men wise guardians of the poor" (11). The consequence of failing to respond to the threat is the driving away of angels. Blake is being ironic here because, as Erdman cites Blake as having posited, "if there were not 'so many poor children' there would be no need for institutions and moral code...." (274). Extending Blake's thought, it stands that if the guardians of the poor were truly wise then the poor would not exist, nor would the need for their guardianship. Blake craftily drives this point home within the poem by putting both the children and their voice, in a complex transition/amalgam of subject, amongst the seats of heaven and above the old wise men. This is a blunt reversal of the both the social and Biblical order which had children quietly and timorously looking up to their elders. Blake is clearing using irony to ask "Are the children, in their innocence, wiser than their guardians, or are the guardians more foolish than the innocent children?" A further, wonderful, irony of this image is that the angels being driven away, from cleanliness and church (Gardner 34 and Nurmi 18) are the destitute children. By the book's title, Songs of Innocence, I initially expected poems very much like "Nurse's Song" or "Laughing Song". But Blake obviously did feel the need to keep his songs free from ambivalence or irony, even in those which began innocently. Blake often turned his innocent songs around in the final stanza where the ambiguity is presented, such as the one which John Whatley pointed out (19) in "Introduction" with the ambivalence of "And I stained the water clear" (18). "The Blossom" concludes darkly after a bright opening with the robin "...sobbing sobbing/Pretty Pretty Robin" (10-1). So too "The Ecchoing Green": And sport no more seen, On the darkening Green (29-30). Is this suggesting the death of Old John in line eleven, and by inference the brevity of life, as can be inferred by "the darkening Green"? With these, and as I have described with "Holy Thursday", the ironic movement or twist usually comes at the end of the shadowed innocent songs, which forces second readings and evaluations of the poems to appreciate that Blake had used the mask of

innocence to highlight hypocrisy and heartless cruelty, or the very real passage of life to death. Thus "Holy Thursday"'s inclusion as an innocent song does not preclude it being ironical, despite the difficulty some may have in accepting that (Gardner 30). It is very interesting to contrast "Holy Thursday" with "Nurse's Song" which precedes it because it was written closer to the same time as "Holy Thursday" than any of the other songs. The contrast highlights Blake's ability to write a "purely innocent" poem, and suggests that if he wanted "Holy Thursday" to be purely innocent then it would not end as it does. In "Nurse's Song" the voices of the children which begin and end the poem are in play and laughter. And there is a sense of joy throughout, which is not adumbrated by its closure: Well well go & play till the light fades away And then go home to bed The little ones leaped & shouted and laugh'd And all the hills ecchoed (13-6). It clearly and unambiguously begins and ends with the exuberance and joy grounded in the diurnal motion of rural life, in stark contrast to "Holy Thursday" and its ambiguous ending. Comparing these two to the other poems reveals that most, albeit not all, of the most innocent of the songs in The Songs of Innocence take place in pastoral or pastoral-like settings, especially "Spring", "Laughing Song", "The Lamb" and "The Shepherd". On the other hand, the setting of "Holy Thursday" is matched only by "The Chimney Sweeper" in being definitely urban. And "The Chimney Sweeper" is Blake's heaviest and most blunt ironical condemnation of London's pious church goers. With this association, and because of Blake's general condemnation of the industrial, chartered, city, it seems to me that "Holy Thursday" must be at least in some part ironic, which a close reading amply reveals. Besides the somewhat obvious irony I mentioned above, another is the contrast between the poverty and filth within which most of the children lived versus the rare cleanliness which preceded their being shown the church's wealth and its promise of a better life which, like Tantalus's water, is forever out of their reach. Blake extends this irony between dirt and cleanliness

and wealth and poverty in his imagery "...they like Thames waters flow" (4). Blake's use of this image is without doubt ironical because, for example, in an early draft of "London" Blake wrote "'dirty Thames' as a plain statement of fact, reversing the sarcastic 'golden London' and 'silver Thames'..." (Erdman 276). Furthermore, in "London"'s final form Blake wound up using "charter'd Thames" as a more subtle but even greater debasement of the river and its human abusers. It cannot be argued away that the image of the Thames in "Holy Thursday" by Blake is not at least ambivalent, for Blake saw the children, like the river, being defiled by those who owned their charters. Blake is suggesting that it is exploitive of adults to absolve themselves their exploitation of children by watching the charity school children cleaned and paraded once a year to a church. The ironies continue. Gardner argued that the illustration for "Holy Thursday" is clearly one of innocence. But I disagree. The other songs which are unambiguously innocent are usually rurally set with an obvious freedom of space and movement which often includes laughter, dance and domesticated animals. But the children who illustrate "Holy Thursday" are jammed together in an orderly two-by-two fashion suggestive of a military parade, despite the foliage. The children are in bright clothes, true, but are likely uncomfortable and have been forbidden to play under threat of punishment because of play's concomitant threat to the clothes' cleanliness and integrity. And why is it that Blake highlights the "wands as white as snow" carried by the "Grey headed beadles" who lead the children (3)? Surely Blake is alluding to them as the Biblical rods that smite children. Furthermore, Blake means for the "Grey headed beadles" who hold the rods to be members of the aged so-called wise men by reference to age and because each of the two references to age appear, symmetrically, on line three of the first and last stanzas. "Holy Thursday" is a subtle poem, but one which amply rewards close scrutiny. It is at least as ironic and powerful as "The Chimney Sweeper". Stanley Gardner failed to see this, perhaps because the condemnation which occurs in it is not the easy mark of heartless parents who have piously sold their children into tortured slavery. Instead "Holy Thursday" condemns the pious and ostensibly "good" charitable organizations who seem to be there for the destitute

children, but by their shallow structure and good intentions, perpetuate poverty and fail to see the hypocrisy of taking pleasure in parading the destitute once a year in clean clothes into a wealthy church who's parishioners would be happier locking them out.


Bindman, David, ed., with Deirdre Toomey. The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.

Erdman, David V. "Infinite London," from Blake: Prophet against Empire: A Poet's Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, 270-9. Cited in Romantic Poetry: Romantic Manifestos, ed. John Whatley. Burnaby: Centre for Distance Education (S.F.U), 1998.

Gardner, Stanley. Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Nurmi, Martin K. "Fact and Symbol in 'The Chimney Sweeper' of Blake's Songs of Innocence" from Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays ed. Northrop Frye. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1966, 15-22. Cited in Romantic Poetry: Romantic Manifestos, ed. John Whatley. Burnaby: Centre for Distance Education (S.F.U), 1998.

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