Innocence and Hypocrisy: Just Another Day at Church

Though William Blake was a religious man who believed he experienced visions throughout his life, he was not averse to critiquing the “social evils” he perceived within the church (Damrosch 171).  In two poems, both entitled Holy Thursday, Blake begins by celebrating the innocence and beauty found within religious holidays, while also bringing to light the hypocrisy slithering below.

The London charity-school children in St. Paul’s Cathedral on teh day of National Thanksgiving, 23 April, 1789.

The first Holy Thursday, found in the poetry volume entitled Songs of Innocence, presents the purity of the children participating in St. Paul’s Cathedral’s yearly Ascension service, which “began in 1704 and [was] held at St Paul’s from 1782 until 1871” (Spink 273). David Fairer states there would have been six thousand children making their way through the streets of London that day (536).  The children, garbed in “red & blue & green,” the colors of the coats donated to each child for this day, would have appeared to observers as a veritable array of color, like a display of “flowers” (Damrosch 184).  The guiltless “lambs” sat in the magnificent cathedral and sang their hearts out; the services were described as an “emotional occasion” as “the effect of massed singing by thousands of children was powerful, as was the aura of innocence that overwhelmed those present” (Spink 273). The famous composer, Joseph Haydn, described their voices as “sound[ing] like angel voices” (277).  Blake’s poem draws attention to the inherent virtue of these children who, for a few moments, were able to forget they are underprivileged. The adults surrounding the children, designated “wise guardians of the poor,” share their wealth with those less fortunate, although Blake hints they may be seeking to appease their God through their actions (Damrosch 184).

When Blake returns to the subject of “Holy Thursday” in his second volume of poetry, entitled Songs of Experience, he describes a very different scenario.  Instead of joyful children “rais[ing] to heaven the voice of song,” he hears their “trembling cr[ies]” of hunger (184,190).  The guardians are now portrayed as “cold,” holding out “usurous [sic] hands,” taking credit for so much while offering, perhaps, little more than coats to these starving “babes” (190). The children’s songs, which compelled tears from Haydn’s eyes, were simply “their side of the bargain, a reassuring return for their local benefactors” that their money was being used well. The organized parade of innocence was regarded positively, which, according to Fairer, was “just as the authorities intended [it] should” be (Fairer 538). The children became tools, mere “symbols of innocence … exploited by the preacher in his appeal for money,” which may or may not be used to fill empty stomachs (553). Blake sees shame for a Britain hypocritically representing herself as “rich and fruitful land” and yet allowing children to be “reduced to misery,” expecting thorns in place of food, and cold rather than warmth (Damrosch 190).

Blake’s poems express clearly the dual nature of religion, allowing his readers to delight in innocent beauty, while reminding them they should feel responsible more than one day of the year when everyone is watching.

Works Cited

Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, eds. The Damrosch Anthology of British Literature. Fifth ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Fairer, David. “Experience Reading Innocence: Contextualizing Blake’s “Holy Thursday”” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 35.4 (2002): 535-562. Print

 Spink, Ian. “Haydn at St Paul’s: 1791   or 1792?” Early Music , 33.2 (2005): 273-280