Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
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.
The poem begins with a series of questions: how holy is the sight of children living in misery in a prosperous country? Might the children’s “cry,” as they sit assembled in St. Paul’s Cathedral on Holy Thursday, really be a song? “Can it be a song of joy?” The speaker’s own answer is that the destitute existence of so many children impoverishes the country no matter how prosperous it may be in other ways: for these children the sun does not shine, the fields do not bear, all paths are thorny, and it is always winter.
The four quatrains of this poem, which have four beats each and rhyme ABAB, are a variation on the ballad stanza.
In the poem “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence, Blake described the public appearance of charity school children in St. Paul’s Cathedral on Ascension Day. In this “experienced” version, however, he critiques rather than praises the charity of the institutions responsible for hapless children. The speaker entertains questions about the children as victims of cruelty and injustice, some of which the earlier poem implied. The rhetorical technique of the poem is to pose a number of suspicious questions that receive indirect, yet quite censoriously toned answers. This is one of the poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience that best show Blake’s incisiveness as a social critic.
In the first stanza, we learn that whatever care these children receive is minimal and grudgingly bestowed. The “cold and usurous hand” that feeds them is motivated more by self-interest than by love and pity. Moreover, this “hand” metonymically represents not just the daily guardians of the orphans, but the city of London as a whole: the entire city has a civic responsibility to these most helpless members of their society, yet it delegates or denies this obligation. Here the children must participate in a public display of joy that poorly reflects their actual circumstances, but serves rather to reinforce the self-righteous complacency of those who are supposed to care for them.
The song that had sounded so majestic in the Songs of Innocence shrivels, here, to a “trembling cry.” In the first poem, the parade of children found natural symbolization in London’s mighty river. Here, however, the children and the natural world conceptually connect via a strikingly different set of images: the failing crops and sunless fields symbolize the wasting of a nation’s resources and the public’s neglect of the future. The thorns, which line their paths, link their suffering to that of Christ. They live in an eternal winter, where they experience neither physical comfort nor the warmth of love. In the last stanza, prosperity is defined in its most rudimentary form: sun and rain and food are enough to sustain life, and social intervention into natural processes, which ought to improve on these basic necessities, in fact reduce people to poverty while others enjoy plenitude.