’Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walk’d before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow
O what a multitude they seem’d 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
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door
On Holy Thursday (Ascension Day), the clean-scrubbed charity-school children of London flow like a river toward St. Paul’s Cathedral. Dressed in bright colors they march double-file, supervised by “gray headed beadles.” Seated in the cathedral, the children form a vast and radiant multitude. They remind the speaker of a company of lambs sitting by the thousands and “raising their innocent hands” in prayer. Then they begin to sing, sounding like “a mighty wind” or “harmonious thunderings,” while their guardians, “the aged men,” stand by. The speaker, moved by the pathos of the vision of the children in church, urges the reader to remember that such urchins as these are actually angels of God.
The poem has three stanzas, each containing two rhymed couplets. The lines are longer than is typical for Blake’s Songs, and their extension suggests the train of children processing toward the cathedral, or the flowing river to which they are explicitly compared.
The poem’s dramatic setting refers to a traditional Charity School service at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Ascension Day, celebrating the fortieth day after the resurrection of Christ. These Charity Schools were publicly funded institutions established to care for and educate the thousands of orphaned and abandoned children in London. The first stanza captures the movement of the children from the schools to the church, likening the lines of children to the Thames River, which flows through the heart of London: the children are carried along by the current of their innocent faith. In the second stanza, the metaphor for the children changes. First they become “flowers of London town.” This comparison emphasizes their beauty and fragility; it undercuts the assumption that these destitute children are the city’s refuse and burden, rendering them instead as London’s fairest and finest. Next the children are described as resembling lambs in their innocence and meekness, as well as in the sound of their little voices. The image transforms the character of humming “multitudes,” which might first have suggested a swarm or hoard of unsavory creatures, into something heavenly and sublime. The lamb metaphor links the children to Christ (whose symbol is the lamb) and reminds the reader of Jesus’s special tenderness and care for children. As the children begin to sing in the third stanza, they are no longer just weak and mild; the strength of their combined voices raised toward God evokes something more powerful and puts them in direct contact with heaven. The simile for their song is first given as “a mighty wind” and then as “harmonious thunderings.” The beadles, under whose authority the children live, are eclipsed in their aged pallor by the internal radiance of the children. In this heavenly moment the guardians, who are authority figures only in an earthly sense, sit “beneath” the children.
The final line advises compassion for the poor. The voice of the poem is neither Blake’s nor a child’s, but rather that of a sentimental observer whose sympathy enhances an already emotionally affecting scene. But the poem calls upon the reader to be more critical than the speaker is: we are asked to contemplate the true meaning of Christian pity, and to contrast the institutionalized charity of the schools with the love of which God—and innocent children—are capable. Moreover, the visual picture given in the first two stanzas contains a number of unsettling aspects: the mention of the children’s clean faces suggests that they have been tidied up for this public occasion; that their usual state is quite different. The public display of love and charity conceals the cruelty to which impoverished children were often subjected. Moreover, the orderliness of the children’s march and the ominous “wands” (or rods) of the beadles suggest rigidity, regimentation, and violent authority rather than charity and love. Lastly, the tempestuousness of the children’s song, as the poem transitions from visual to aural imagery, carries a suggestion of divine wrath and vengeance.