A comparison of William Blake’s poems “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence (1789) and from Songs of Experience (1794) perfectly illustrates the dialectic between what Blake calls the “contrary states of the human soul” as they respectively depict completely opposite perspectives of a single event. The poems describe an Easter procession of London’s poor and orphaned children from charity schools to a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The speaker of “Holy Thursday” in the Songs of Innocence fondly describes the children, portraying them as happy, choral cherubs that brighten the city rather than as desperate urchins being shuttled from one disciplinary chamber to another, and ultimately valorizes the systems of power that underpin poverty and oppression. Conversely, the speaker of “Holy Thursday” in Songs of Experience cynically laments the despicable systems of power that allow for children to live in hunger and scarcity, while indirectly undermining the ecclesiastical veneer of joy and harmony that characterizes the Easter procession. The type of social perception depicted in Songs of Innocence is gullible, credulous and malleable, whereas the type of social perception depicted in Songs of Experience is shrewd, unforgiving and realistic. These opposite modes of perceiving social reality embody Blake’s notion of the “contrary states of the human soul.”
In the “Holy Thursday” of the Songs of Innocence, the speaker validates the notion of a hierarchical social order as resonating with divine justice. Blake wants to demonstrate that this ideal is a false depiction of reality and is the heart of social oppression, but the speaker in Songs of Innocence is beguiled by bombastic patriarchal ideology. This speaker depicts everyone as fulfilling the proper, preordained station in life and as doing so joyfully. Ahead of the procession of needy children, “Grey headed beadles walked before with wands as white as snow, ‘Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow” (3-4). Beadles are figures of church authority who were responsible for maintaining social order (rather like police officers of today), and the speaker describes their ascent into the upper echelons of the church as being as natural as the courses of a river’s flow. Overall, the speaker of this innocent version validates social oppression.
On the other hand, the speaker of “Holy Thursday” in the Songs of Experience directly undercuts the mythos of divine order informing the inequality of social hierarchy. He fervently demands, “Is this a holy thing to see, / In a rich and fruitful land, / Babes reduced to misery, / Fed with a cold and usurious hand?” (1-4). The speaker indirectly appeals to the injustice and abuse of power that is engrained in the order of church and state. The comparison between these two disparate interpretations of the Easter procession culminates with the extremely different perceptions of the children’s singing. The innocent speaker had grandly referred to their singing with a romantic and sudden declaration: “Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song, / Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among” (10-11).This description allows the children’s voices to be perceived as a wonderful and divine celebration. But, the experienced speaker entirely disrupts this notion when he calls into question the rapturous quality of the children’s song: “Is that trembling cry a song? / Can it be a song of joy?” (5-6). In the innocent speaker’s version, the children merely serve as a rosy feature in the foundation of the architecture of a glorious vision of divine social hierarchy; but, the experienced speaker brings the reality of the children’s desolate circumstances to the forefront of his depiction.
Blake’s ambiguous representation of this event in a comparison of both poems would have challenged his contemporary reader’s trust in the purportedly righteous powers of 18th century British society.
- Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: Norton & Company, 2006. 81-97.