William Blake, the English poet and engraver, wrote two poems entitled “Holy Thursday” — one a “song of innocence” and one a “song of experience.”
Each of them decry the wretched realities of children in poverty but tell different stories, in different tones. The Song of Experience begins, in outrage:
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc’d to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
The Song of Innocence presents a picture of orderly and gentile charity to which the British class system condemned the poor. The poem ends with a sarcastic exhortation to “cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”
Both poems recall yet another Song of Experience, “The Human Abstract,” which begins:
Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.
Blake himself, of course, lived in abject poverty for most of his life and was actually buried on borrowed money in a graveyard reserved for dissenters and nonconformists.
Image courtesy of ©2003 Fitzwilliam Museum