Holy Thursday

This is William Blake’s “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence:

’Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walk’d before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seem’d 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

The poem refers to the annual London ritual of bringing the children of the charity schools to St. Paul on Holy Thursday. The charity schools housed and trained – educated not being exactly the right word here – orphans and children whose parents were too poor or entrapped in debt, which at the time involved lengthy prison stays, to care for them. The ritual was to display on the behalf of the London citizenry their civic virtue of Christian charity, and as well I’d imagine the ritual would serve as a living metaphor for each citizen’s fragile metaphysical state and dependence upon the grace and charity of the Church and Savior.

Blake’s ironic take is to show the powerless children from the lowest economic and social status in full possession of a strong spiritual import and power, though he tempers those “harmonious thunderings” at the end when he turns from bends the “mighty wind” of the children’s song into a tepid sentimentality about children as angels and beggars at one’s door.

The consideration of those efforts to turn innocent spiritual power into cheap profit produces the companion poem, same title, in Songs of Experience:

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 and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.

For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

The children, the poem insists, are victims of a usurious scheme to cheaply cloth and house them while they’re trained to feed industrial London’s insatiable appetite for child labor. Blake wants us to see the ill treatment of the children as an affront to the holiness of the ritual’s occasion. Charity schools were parish concerns, though maintained largely not for spiritual reasons so much as for the benefit of a public sentiment that would prefer to see the children used to generate some profit, and not, as Blake would have it, simply bask and grow while sheltered in the relative security of England’s wealth. Or at the least not be traumatized by poverty and enslavement, because children occupy a special place of holiness in Christianity: they are powerless and becoming. In Blake that lack of power and the blessing on it becomes a particular kind of power — a harmony and a wind or a river — when viewed as a representative ideal.

Just that. I was moved to look back at Blake’s poems because of the day and because of the horrifying response of defenders of the Catholic Church, and now the Vatican itself, to the growing scandal surrounding Pope Benedict. I’m not going to get into it, except to say that I find efforts to blame the systemic and widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests on gays or hippies to be the most craven, low, and amoral kind of response. But if want to read about the depth to which the Church has sunk and its defenders are willing to, you can go here and keep reading. I think if we keep the day at all, we should think about the moral obligation of those whose dependency places them in our trust and the particular power they have to sanctify or condemn. And now look, it’s Good Friday.

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Filed under poetry, secularism/religion, Uncategorized

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