Zoapod 9: Blake’s Poems – Holy Thursday (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 9, which follows from the last one in taking two more of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in this case the two “Holy Thursday” poems. The parallel, contrary visions that Blake offered on many themes and motifs in each of these two books, Innocence and Experience is, of course, well known, and this podcast will explore that contrast in two of his best known lyrics.

2. In the early eighteenth century, a tradition began in which charity school children would attend a special service, this event being held at St Paul’s Cathedral between 1782 and 1871. As [Stanley] Gardner points out, these children were not destitute, nor rescued from “the lowest order of poverty”, but rather came from families of the “deserving poor”, and during the century as many of six thousand of them would attend a thanksgiving service which although it did take place on a Thursday, was never on Holy Thursday during Easter week or Ascension Thursday as is often asserted. The services provided an opportunity to educate these children under the auspices of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but the event was, according to Gardner, more of a festival than a strictly disciplined procession.

3. Having witnessed one of these earliest festivals at St Paul’s, Blake was inspired to write one of his most famous lyrics:

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

4. While the couplets of this poem are familiar from a great deal of eighteenth century verse, Blake’s long, fourteener lines are unusual for the period, being more typical of Elizabethan poetry. They add to a stately rhythm, slowing and making the pace of the poem gentler and, as Gardner observes, Blake avoids any satirical intent in this poem. Although David Fairer has written, in relation to this particular poem, that “Blake’s texts lose their innocence more easily than most”, and [Andrew] Lincoln feels that “the exuberant tone of the poem is to some extent modified by a sense of anticlimax”, it is a mistake to assume that Blake is here being sarcastic about the “wise guardians” watching over the “flowers of London town”. That the final moral appears somewhat self-evident, even sentimental, to modern, experienced eyes does not mean that it was not heartfelt on the part of Blake who appears to have responded to this event with great devotion and humility, lavishing considerable care and attention on the more than usually elaborate border to the poem.

5. In the poem “Holy Thursday” included in Songs of Experience, Blake moves from a particular occasion in a specific setting to a general accusation against his contemporary society:

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 & 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 appall.

6. The condemnation of the extremes of wealth and poverty is powerfully made, and it is clear that Blake’s remonstrance against the hypocrisy of his day is as deeply felt as his joy at seeing the children’s service at St Paul’s. Yet in some ways the moral of the final stanza is as bland as that in the final line of the poem from Innocence, and in some ways may even be false and superficial – sunshine and rainfall are, by themselves, no guarantee of protection for poverty. Lincoln, it seems to me, is correct in drawing attention to the suspicion with which we should view the narrator of the poem: while the insistent rhythm of the song may emphasise its moral outrage, the speaker is unwilling to recognise any vitality or joy in his subjects, instead retreating “into generalization, and an emotional hardening, that offers little prospect of escape from the human coldness it condemns.”

Bible illustrations published on Blake Archive

Blasphemer - Blake ArchiveTwenty of Blake’s water colour illustrations to the Bible have been published on theBlake Archive. Produced by Blake between approximately 1800 and 1806, the selected images depict scenes from the Old Testament and indicate the profound and lasting influence that the Bible had on his work.

Blake painted a series of some eighty biblical scenes for Thomas Butts in the early nineteenth century, and some of the images in the series, such as The Blasphemer, Ezekiel’s Wheels and David Delivered Out of Many Waters are among the most famous of Blake’s images.

The Blake Archive will continue to add Blake’s biblical paintings, with plans to include scenes from the New Testament before moving on to images from early in Blake’s career, such as Abraham and Isaac (c. 1780), as well as his final biblical paintings from the 1820s.

For more information visit http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/public/update.html or http://blakearchive.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/publication-announcement-blakes-water-color-illustrations-to-the-bible/.

Newsletter – March Update

Zoamorphosis.com – updates for March 2010

For regular updates and news, go to http://twitter.com/blake2_0.

To subscribe to the newsletter, enter your email at http://zoamorphosis.com/newsletter/. This will be sent to you once a month, and your address will not be passed to any third parties.

Top articles of the month:

New features on Blake and popular music in http://zoamorphosis.com/2010/03/blakean-music/ and http://zoamorphosis.com/2010/03/blakes-jerusalem-the-hit-parade/.

Article on Pete Doherty to celebrate his birthday: http://zoamorphosis.com/2010/03/pete-dohertys-albion/.

For the anniversary of the birth of William Morris, see http://zoamorphosis.com/2010/03/william-morris-and-the-art-of-the-book/.

New releases on Zoamorphosis

Zoamorphosis has been in development since its launch in January, and new features on the site include the William Blake Jukebox, at http://zoamorphosis.com/blake-jukebox/, your link to videos and music related to Blake on the web, and a new series of publications, Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions. The first of these, William Blake’s Life & Works, can be downloaded at http://zoamorphosis.com/publications/.

Podcasts of the month

New in March 2010:

Blake’s Poems – The Divine Image: http://zoamorphosis.com/2010/03/zoapod-5-blakes-poems-the-divine-image/

Mark Stewart & The Mafia and Blake’s Jerusalem: http://zoamorphosis.com/2010/03/zoapod-6-mark-stewart-and-the-mafia-blakes-jerusalem-2/

Dreams Unlimited: J. G. Ballard and Blake: http://zoamorphosis.com/2010/03/zoapod-7-dreams-unlimited-j-g-ballard-and-blake/

Blake’s Poems – London: http://zoamorphosis.com/2010/03/zoapod-8-blakes-poems-london-2/

You can subscribe to podcasts on the William Blake Channel on iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/podcast/william-blake-channel/id355543235.