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Holy Thursday and Easter — a Poetry Friday post

Today, with the Christian holy days upon us, I decided to share some seasonally-related poems, which although written from a moral standpoint, are not overtly Christ-related.

First up, two poems by William Blake (1757-1827), a poet and artist considered controversial and heretical in his time for his attacks on the Church of England and organized religion (he believed, as the Quakers do, that God resides within us all). He was an abolitionist, opposed to slavery (which was still widely practiced in British colonies at the time), and also a believer in racial and sexual equality, and counted Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine among his friends.

Blake is well-known for his companion collections, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which he not only wrote but also illustrated with engravings. Some of the poems in each collection bear the same name, and provide different takes on the same event. (E.g., "The Chimney Sweeper", which opposes the employment of children as sweeps in different ways: the first in the voice of an innocent child who has been sold into servitude, the second in the voice of a more experienced sweep who condemns his parents, his church and the king for allowing children to be sold into trade.) Other companion poems (and those most often anthologized in children's collections) include "The Lamb" (from Songs of Innocence) and "The Tyger" (from Songs of Experience).

Yesterday was Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday, depending on your upbringing), the night on which Jesus and his disciples partook of the Last Supper (a seder, as it was Pesach/Passover), after which Jesus was arrested and taken to Pontius Pilate. Blake wrote two poems entitled "Holy Thursday", one each for Songs of Innocence (written in 1789) and Songs of Experience (written in 1794). Both deal with the Church of England's celebration of Holy Thursday, on which charity children were paraded into St. Paul's Cathedral in London for a special service.

Holy Thursday from Songs of Innocence
by William Blake

'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two, in red and blue and green,
Grey-headed beadles walk'd before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's 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 and 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.



Holy Thursday from Songs of Experience
by William Blake

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc'd 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 and bare,
And their ways are fill'd with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e'er the sun does shine,
And where-e'er the rain does fall,
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.


The concluding line of the first poem is a reference to a verse from Hebrews 13:2, which reads "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." The second poem, looking at the children's condition with an "experienced" (some might say "cynical" or "jaundiced", others "realistic") eye, compares their living conditions to eternal winter, with attendant eternal gloom. The poem essentially challenges the reader (and possibly the Church) to take action to improve the conditions for these so-called "charity children", who lived in oppressive orphanages and workhouses.

The next poem moves on to Easter itself, and is by Oscar Wilde (1954-1900), a controversial poet from a later age than Blake. Wilde is known for his wit and panache as well as his plays, poems, stories and his single novel, the incredible The Picture of Dorian Gray. He is also known for his homosexuality and his imprisonment on charges of "gross indecency."


Easter Day
by Oscar Wilde

The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
  The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
  And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.

Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
  And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
  Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendor and in light the Pope passed home.

My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
  To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
  "Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,
  I, only I, must wander wearily,
  And bruise My feet, and drink wine salt with tears."


If you spotted this as a sonnet, then give yourself a pat on the back. It is indeed a sonnet using one of the Italiante forms, composed in iambic pentameter and with the following rhyme scheme: ABBA ACCA DEFFED. The poem was first published in 1879, and was written as part of a collection of poems Wilde wrote after a visit to Rome (hence the reference to the Pope). The "turn" in this poem occurs in the sixth line, when Wilde ceases his contemporary observation of the Pope and attendant pomp, and his thoughts drift to the words of Jesus in Luke 9:58: "And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head." (from the King James version, which is what Wilde was probably familiar with). He was comparing the difference in physical condition of the Pope and Jesus as well as the difference in the apparent mood or emotion of the various times. Another interpretation is Wilde's self-identification as one who "sought in vain for any place of rest," unsettled as he was in his personal life because of his sexual tendencies (which were not only homosexual, but included a proclivity for young boys engaged in "rough trade").

Wilde was an Irishman whose father was staunchly Protestant, but whose mother may have had him secretly baptised as Catholic when he was four. He later showed Catholic leanings (resulting in his disinheritance), after which he eventually drifted away from the Catholic church. For a time, Wilde tried to live a conventional life, and he married and fathered two children. This poem was written long before Wilde was sent to prison because of his sexual identity. After he was released from Reading Gaol, Wilde left England and settled in Paris. The following anecdote deals with a later visit to Rome and Wilde's experience with the Pope, and is excerpted from an article in The Independent:

A few months before his death Wilde had travelled to Rome. On Holy Saturday he went to tea at the Hotel de l'Europe and there a man he did not know suddenly came up to him and asked if he would like to see Pope Leo XIII the next day. Wilde, ever the joker, bowed his head and, borrowing a phrase from the Mass, said "Non sum dignus [I am not worthy]". But the man produced a ticket. On Easter Day, Wilde appeared in the front row among the pilgrims at the Vatican and received a blessing from the Pope.

For five months the Irishman had been suffering from a terrible rash - perhaps, biographers have speculated, the late effects of syphilis, eating bad mussels, an allergic reaction to his hair dye or vitamin deficiency dermatitis from overuse of alcohol (he was on a litre of brandy a day, plus copious amounts of absinthe). Whatever, the rash vanished.

Wilde later wrote: "When I saw the old white Pontiff, successor of the Apostles and Father of Christendom pass, carried high above the throng, and in passing turn and bless me where I knelt, I felt my sickness of body and soul fall from me like a worn garment, and I was made whole." But still he hesitated. "My position is curious," he epigrammatised, "I am not a Catholic: I am simply a violent Papist."


And because Easter is actually a season as well as a day, here's one for Easter Week, which begins on Easter Sunday and ends on the following Saturday. It was written by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), who straddled the time period between Blake and Wilde. He was both a clergyman, a poet, and a novelist, who at one time served as a chaplain to Queen Victoria. He believed that politics and religion are intertwined, and was a founder of the Christian Socialist movement. His novels addressed social injustices suffered by agricultural workers and members of the garment trade (Alton Locke), the link between poor working conditions and cholera (Two Years Ago), and the abominable lives of chimney sweeps (in The Water Babies).

Easter Week
by Charles Kingsley

See the land, her Easter keeping,
  Rises as her Maker rose.
Seeds, so long in darkness sleeping,
  Burst at last from winter snows.
Earth with heaven above rejoices;
  Fields and gardens hail the spring;
Shaughs and woodlands ring with voices,
  While the wild birds build and sing.

You, to whom your Maker granted
  Powers to those sweet birds unknown,
Use the craft by God implanted;
  Use the reason not your own.
Here, while heaven and earth rejoices,
  Each his Easter tribute bring —
Work of fingers, chant of voices,
  Like the birds who build and sing.</big>

This poem was set to music for a Parish Industrial Exhibition. It is written in alternating rhyme (ABABCDCD, EFEFGHGH) using trochaic feet (a trochee (pronounced trokey) consists of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable: TROchee or "TUM ta"; it is the mirror image of an iamb: "ta TUM") and in hymn metre (8-7-8-7). The poem is a commemoration of spring (and thereby hearkens back to the Anglo-Saxon Eastre/Eostre, a goddess whose coming was celebrated at the vernal equinox, whence come the fertility images of eggs and bunnies) as much as an exhortation to the hearers to use their God-given gifts to be productive (a decidedly Victorian notion, as they considered that "idle hands are the Devil's workshop"), and to also encourage them to undertake their work without complaint (hence the singing).

Enjoy your weekend.






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Tags: blake, iambic pentameter, kingsley, poetry, poetry friday, sonnets, trochee, wilde
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