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Holy Thursday is celebrated in the memory of Jesus Christ among the Christians. Christ was crucified on this particular day by his enemies after being betrayed by one of his twelve close friends.
The poem Holy Thursday (from The Songs of Innocence) describes the ceremonies happening on this day. The orphans are exhibited before the public for extracting money from them.
Holy Thursday is not a simple poem describing the procession, arrival, singing, and sermon happening of the orphans on that particular day, but it exposes the miseries of the orphans and criticises the attitude of charity organizations and also of the society towards the orphans.
The poem is divided into three stanzas. The first stanza explains the procession and arrival of the children from their charity house to St. Paul Church. The second stanza explains the singing of children and the third stanza explains the sermons at the St. Paul Church.
In the first stanza, poet says ‘Twas on a Holy Thursday’ which means it was Holy Thursday and only that particular day when the orphans with their ‘innocent faces clean’ were walking ‘two and two’ (i.e. in an order) in ‘in red and blue and green’ attire which depicts that they were provided with bright and colourful clothes.
But the poet is not cherishing the scene. Ironically phrases like ‘innocent faces clean, ‘walking two and two’ and in ‘red and blue and green’ depict something that is hidden from our eyes.
Their faces are clean and they are given bright coloured attire in order to serve these things as a visual aid to appeal for the money from people who have come to the occasion. Hence these decorations are not for the benefit of the orphans but for the profit of the charity officials.
In the third line, the poet says that ‘Grey-headed beadles’ was walking before the orphans having wands as white as snow’. Their head is grey meaning that they are old guardians and they are holding the sticks to command the orphans. Their command makes the children walk ‘In two and two’.
The poet compares their walking with the flow of the Thames River. It should be noted that in the third line, the motion of ‘Grey-headed beadles’ is in past (walkd before) but in the fourth line, as they reach the Church, their motion becomes present. Thus their motion is dynamic that changes from snow to flow.
In the second stanza, the poet explains the singing of the orphans in St. Paul’s Church. The poet compares the gathering of orphans to the flowers of London. But this comparison is again ironic.
In one sense the gathering seems to be as beautiful as flowers, but in the other sense this charm and beauty of clean faces and bright attire are short-lived similarly as the life of a flower is short.
After the ceremony, they will be taken into their actual condition, which is, most probably, miserable. This makes the poet cry ‘O’. They are sitting in groups. Their faces are glowing.
But the poet adds the phrase ‘all their own’ which signifies that this glow on their face is not by because of the efforts of the guardians, but is a divine glow that brightens their faces. Thus they are angels who are glowing with divine light.
They are singing together and are as innocent as lamb. The phrase ‘multitudes of lambs’ symbolizes Christ with his lambs who was quite fond of children. Hence orphans are the lambs who are sitting before Christ. They are quite large in number and are raising their innocent hands to prayer.
In the third stanza, the poet transforms the ‘radiant angelic companies’ into Holy ghosts that are swirling ‘like a mighty wind’. Thus we find the concept of Transcendentalism here. Their songs fill with holy and dedicated prayers that are thundering and reaching to ‘the seats of Heavens’.
And along with them, the old and wise experienced men are sitting who is showing off the sense of commitment by getting moved after seeing their miserable condition of these orphans and thus giving charity in large amounts.
But the poet, being unsatisfied with them raises several rhetoric questions like- Why such behaviour remains confined to this particular day? Why doesn’t society pay charity to orphans on other days?
Don’t we have any responsibility regarding these suffering children? Will people treat a child beggar who comes to their door, in the same way as they are behaving today? Hence ‘Holy Thursday’ is a highly satirical poem that criticises the behaviour of the society towards orphans.