William Blake’s Holy Thursday (Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean): Atmosphere of Innocence, Purity and Sacredness

In William Blake’s Holy Thursday an atmosphere of innocence, purity and sacredness pervades it. The children of the charity schools are innocent in nature. Their clean faces sustain the idea. Further, the radiance that comes out of them intensifies it once, again. The church, comparison of children to flowers and lambs, rising of hands towards heaven and singing of hymns, snow-white wands, and wise guardians also contributes to the maintenance of this atmosphere:

“Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean 
The children walking two and; two in red and; blue and green 
Grey-headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow”

Holy Thursday itself is associated with the religion of the Christians. There are, again, beadles who, though lay men, act as church officials. The ‘high dome’ of St Paul’s Cathedral refers to the most venerated building where the children and their guardians present themselves for a special religious service. The raising of the little hands of the children towards heaven and their singing of songs in praise of God are obviously linked up with the Christian religion. Again, Holy Thursday is a sacred day for the Christians. It was on this day that Jesus Christ ascended to heaven. On Thursday of Holy Week four events are commemorated: the washing of the disciples' feet, the institution of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal of Christ by Judas.  A special service is held in the church to commemorate this occasion. On this day the children of charity schools are given food and gifts. These they receive from the hands of their old and rich patrons. They are called ‘wise’ because of their taking care of these children. Beadles also act as their spiritual guides. Their snow-white wands agree with the innocent and bright faces of the children. Both the beadles and the patrons are concerned for their welfare. Hence they are brought to St Paul’s Cathedral for their spiritual uplift. Here they raise their hands and sing songs in praise of God. The whole scene thus passes amidst a religious atmosphere. This happens particularly because the day is Holy Thursday. Such, a day also produces a pure thought in the poet’s mind. He asks us to cultivate sympathy as otherwise we may drive out an angel-like child from our doors unknowingly.

Blake has drawn an impressive picture of the children of the charity schools wearing colorful uniforms are seen marching towards St Paul’s, and rod - carrying Beadles carrying wands act as their guides, are seen walking in batches towards St Paul’s.. The poet is so much moved by their innocent nature that he goes to describe even their little limbs as ‘innocent hands’. The children also possess a radiance which is peculiarly their own. Their clean faces further create a favourable oppression about them. The greatness of their number too produces a profound effect on our mind. They walk in batches wearing such uniforms as are ‘red and blue and green’. While the one here produces a sense of discipline, the other develops a sense of variety before which flies away all idea of ‘drabness or dullness’. They raise their little hands and sing in a deep powerful voice in praise of God. Beneath them sit their old and wise patrons. All theses produce a sacred feeling. In tune with this the poet asks us to cultivate sympathy lest we send away an angel like child unknowingly from our doors. Their old and wise patrons sit below them. It is good to nurture sympathy lest one such angel-like child may be pushed away unawares. The children’s entering into St Paul’s like the waters of the Thames, again, produces an idea of stateliness and abundance. Their freshness compels the poet to take the children up as flowers and their meekness as ‘lambs’:

“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 ”

Although in another poem having the same title (included in Songs of Experience) we have a different picture of the children, here, however, we get no direct sign which can be taken or interpreted as neglect of them. Had they been really neglected we would seldom have seen their faces ‘clean’. but, the chance of their looking like ‘flowers’ or the coming out of ‘radiance’ from them would have receded farther and farther in such a state of neglect. Again, there is the presence of the beadles who act both as their spiritual and earthly guides, and that of the patrons who for their tenderly care of them and proper management of things have been rightly described as ‘wise’.

The poem is concerned with the holding of a religious service which has a beneficial influence both upon the children and upon their guardians. It asks the former to be more aware of God’s blessings even for those who have to depend on charity and to praise him for these and urges the latter to treat tenderly the needy and the helpless and to engage themselves in greater acts of benevolence.

Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter: Liturgical Texts with Commentary (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), pp. 101-104.

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