The Romantic Period, which dates from 1785 – 1832 produced many influential British writers, yet one was nearly forgotten. If it weren’t for the autobiographer Alexander Gilchrist, who published his biography of William Blake some 30 years after his death, we might not have realized the talented Blake. Blake was born in London to working parents. He was interested in art and entered an art school at the age of ten. For a time he studied at the Royal Academy of Arts and by the age of 14 he entered into an apprenticeship as an engraver to James Basire where he enjoyed reading and trying his hand at poetry in his free time. At the age of 24 he married Catherine Boucher, the couple remained childless throughout their marriage.
An altercation with a man named John Schofield left a mark on Blake. He asked the soldier to leave his property, and upon throwing curses and threats to Blake and his wife, he was pushed all the way to an inn where he was staying. Because of the war with France, Blake was charged with criminal utterances of King and Country, which was punishable by hanging. He was acquitted but thoughts of Schofield hunted his thoughts and Blake was said to have used him as a menacing character in his work of Jerusalem.
William Blake’s life influenced his work in poetry and artistry and often depicted religion, poverty and other aspects of life. Some of his works were accompanied by his own art. Later in his life he gave up much of his concentration on writing to focus on his artistry. Though he was not well known for his work at the time of his death, he is famous today for many of his poems and illustrations which include; The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Tyger and Songs of Innocence and of Experience and Jerusalem. His illustrations other than his own works include the Book of Job, John Milton’s, Paradise Lost and works for Dante’ Inferno, which he didn’t complete because of his death.
In William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience he wrote two poems titled Holy Thursday. Both poems tell the story of children walking to mass in a procession during the Easter season. The two poems have a very different feel and interpretation when you are reading them. The Songs of Innocence poem has the sentiment that you are observing something or watching from the sidelines that is beautiful. The Songs of Experience, Holy Thursday pulls at the heart strings and sends a message. During this time in England’s history the two classes, wealthy and poor, were stretched very far from one another. The wealthy being able to afford to travel, eat healthy foods and enjoy other fine luxuries. While some of the poor where starving to death because they could not afford to eat three meals a day and often had meat only once a week in their diets. This march happened every year in London and at times there were as many as 6000 children, some very poor from the charity schools and others were orphans.
Some writers from the Romantic Period focused on the everyday man and this is what William Blake immersed himself in with these two poems. He chose to concentrate on the poor children of England. From Songs of Innocence, Holy Thursday, “Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean/The children walking two & two, in red & blue & green;/Grey headed beadles walked before with wands as white as snow/Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow.” (Blake 122). These four lines shows the children walking to the cathedral with their young faces in their best dressed clothing. The adults who keep them in line are carrying wands as “white as snow.” The sticks they are carrying to keep the children in line are considered white and pure, almost angle like, instead of sticks used to keep them in line. Like “Thames’ waters flow” refers to the Thames river and the line makes it sound as if it is beautiful to watch the long stream of children walking to mass. All four of these lines makes it sound like you are watching a beautiful parade of children walking to church.
When we compare this to Songs of Experience, Holy Thursday, you get a very different experience. “Is this a holy thing to see,/In a rich and fruitful land,/Babes reduced to misery,/Fed with cold and usurious hand? (127). These lines are much harder and it’s almost as if Blake is taking aim at the reader and wants to stir your heart. He is asking “if” this line of poor children heading to church is really a holy sight to behold when they live in a “fruitful land.” Fruitful meaning England was becoming very prosperous at this point and was reaching out and colonizing other countries. How could they, as a wealthy country let their own children suffer in this manner. “Babes reduced to misery, Fed with cold and usurious hand?” Blake is asking the reader why isn’t anyone interested in these children, why are we being so cold and unfeeling when they could use a helping hand. How could a country so rich and powerful let their babes be reduced to misery.
These two poems share the same titled yet they each evoke very different feelings. Blake himself was a man with limited means and yet he saw other writers making a living at what he was trying to do. I think he felt very conflicted about a country so rich and prosperous letting innocent children starve and become homeless.
If we take a look at another stanza in Songs of Innocence, Holy Thursday, “O what a multitude they seemed,/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” (123). Blake is using a simile comparing the “multitude of children” with a “variety of flowers.” When you think of flowers, you think of the many colors of flowers and he seems to be comparing the mass of children with a garden of beautiful flowers. If you like flowers you would think of the beauty of them and that is exactly what Blake wants the reader to think in this poem. Thousands of boys and girls and innocent hands makes one think about the innocence of childhood and how happy it must be for each child.
When we revert back to Songs of Experience, Holy Thursday; “And their sun does never shine,/And their fields are bleak & bare./And their ways are fill’d with thorns;/It is eternal winter there” (127). Sun does never shine speaks to how harsh the children’s lives are, there is no sun, no glorious moments of sunny days to speak of. Ways are filled with thorns and eternal winter, is showing the reader just how tough these children’s lives are. When we think about thorns and winter they are prickly and arduous. This version compared to the happier Holy Thursday is much darker and much more bleak.
Thanks to Gilchrist we get to enrich our lives with the poetry of William Blake. He gives us a window with which to look into how the poor and abandoned children were forced to live in England during the Romantic Period.
“BBC – History – William Blake.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/blake_william.shtml>.
The Greatness of William Blake. Digital image. NYbooks. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/12/03/greatness-william-blake/>.
Holmes, Richard. “The Greatness of William Blake.” The New York Review of Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/12/03/greatness-william-blake/>.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 122+. Print.