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The poem depicts a ceremony held on Ascension Day, which in England was then called Holy Thursday, a name now generally applied to what is also called Maundy Thursday: Six thousand orphans of London's charity schools, scrubbed clean and dressed in the coats of distinctive colours, are marched two by two to Saint Paul's Cathedral, under the control of their beadles, and sing in the cathedral.
The children in their colourful dresses are compared to flowers and their procession toward the church as a river. Their singing on the day that commemorated the Ascension of Jesus is depicted as raising them above their old, lifeless guardians, who remain at a lower level.
The bleak reality of the orphans' lives is depicted in the contrasting poem, "Holy Thursday" (Songs of Experience).
Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walkd before, with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow
O what a multitude they seemd 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
- Morris Eaves; Robert N. Essick; Joseph Viscomi (eds.). "Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy AA, object 19 (Bentley 19, Erdman 19, Keynes 19) "HOLY THURSDAY"". William Blake Archive. Retrieved January 31, 2013.
- TATE: "Songs of Innocence: Holy Thursday"
- Oxford Dictionaries
- The Book of Common Prayer 1816
- Collins English Dictionary
- Naser Emdad, "Transformation of Blake in 'Holy Thursday': From a Spiritual Prophet to a Social Reformer" in ASA University Review, Vol. 6 No. 2, July – December, 2012
- David Fairer, "Experience Reading Innocence: Contextualizing Blake's Holy Thursday" in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Volume 35, Number 4, Summer 2002, pp. 535-562
- Songs of Innocence "Holy Thursday (I)" Synopsis and commentary
- GradeSaver: "Songs of Innocence and of Experience Summary and Analysis"
- Blake, William (1988). Erdman, David V. (ed.). The Complete Poetry and Prose (Newly revised ed.). Anchor Books. p. 13. ISBN 0385152132.