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Vol. 53 no. 3: Winter 2019–20

Blake’s “Holy Thursday” and “The Martyrdom of St. Paul’s”

  • Clare A. Simmons
23 January 2020
23 Jan. 2020


The Comic Almanack of 1838 might seem an unusual place to find a writer thinking like William Blake, but a poem for the month of June gives two views of the charity children who attended an annual service in St. Paul’s Cathedral that have some interesting similarities to those represented by Blake’s two “Holy Thursday” poems. “The Martyrdom of St. Paul’s” and its background fill out the context for Blake’s poems of innocence and experience, suggesting that he was not entirely alone in wondering whether the children involved were being exploited rather than assisted. The 1838 poem read in context helps us to see Blake’s use of the title “Holy Thursday” as a calculated choice, and thus those who suggest that at the time of writing the first poem Blake himself identified closely with his narrator’s aesthetic response to the sight may be reading overinnocently. I will first outline what is known of the background to the “Holy Thursday” poems in Blake’s time, then use the poem from the Comic Almanack to understand what would have been expected of the children.