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.”