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Essay: William Blake’s ‘Holy Thursday’ poem – Marxist literary criticism

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: 15 September 2019*
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  • Words: 1,263 (approx)
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  • Tags: Marxism essays

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Marxism, a theory developed by German historian Karl Marx, describes the practice of socialism including the class struggle, and dictatorship of the wealthy bourgeoisie over the poorer proletariat in hopes of establishing a classless society. In ‘Holy Thursday’ Blake focuses on the effect of the class structure through the eyes of the impoverished. The title of his poem “Holy Thursday” has great religious significance. It refers to the ‘Holy’ Thursday (Ascension Day) before Easter Sunday during which Jesus and his disciples celebrate the last supper and washing of his disciple’s feet. William Blake’s ‘Holy Thursday’ poems have to be analyzed as Marxist literature because Marx and Blake share one main thing in common; both men saw the world through the same lens that. History, nature and social life were focused on the people, fighting for justice even when enslaved. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience speak of this in its entirety. Therefore in order to understand the concepts explored in Blake’s poetry you need to understand Marxist theories. Both poems show the transgression of social life from a classless society to one with the bourgeoisie trying to control the working class.
Marxist literary criticism could be used to explore how Blake’s rhyme scheme both reveals the neglect and exploitation of children in society and mirrors the tone of decay and confusion in 18th century England .The poem is made up of four quatrains with the initial stanza set with heroic quatrains and an ABAB rhyme. In stanzas two, three and four, Blake disrupts the initial rhyme he’d set up in the first stanza. This irregularity, a reflection of society at the time, creates a tone of disorder and confusion as the subject matter, the neglect and exploitation of children is made clear to the reader.  Marxist criticism views literary works as reflections of the social institutions from which they originate. The rich bourgeoisie built up a society of corruption. The hypocrisy of the entire day “Holy Thursday” is reflective of this irregular rhyme scheme because the rich sporadically build dreams for orphaned children on one day, only to destroy them the next day, reverting them back to their “eternal winter” where they continue to live in poverty. The rhymes of the two lines: “In a rich and fruitful land” and “Fed with cold and usurious hand”, is ironic in itself as Blake’s using opposing adjectives “usurious” , which refers to the lending or practice of lending money at an exorbitant interest and “fruitful” which means having an abundance of something to emphasise how corrupt 18th century England was. The idea of usury existing in such a wealthy country is Blake’s way of exploring the greedy nature of the wealthy. Using Marxist criticism, this could be further explored by relating context of literary works to the writer’s social status. Blake, although from a comfortable family background, was vehemently against the monarchy and the idea of aristocracy during his life as he could see the bourgeoisie controlling the proletariat which inspired many of the ideas in his poem.
Blake’s use of imagery in ‘Holy Thursday’ could be seen as an attempt to explore the corruption in society by a Marxist critic. The imagery described in Blake’s ‘Holy Thursday’ poems can only be explored through Marxism as the transgression of social class leads to lots of social issues with the Bourgeoisie taking total control of the country. The covers of both collections; experience and innocence are very different and reflective of society at the time. In ‘Holy Thursday Songs of Innocence’, Blake includes lots of bold, beautiful, primary colours and positive imagery of “snow”, “white”, “heaven” when describing the euphoria, hope and optimism that was in society at the start of the French revolution. In ‘Holy Thursday Experience’ however, Blake uses lots of earthy colours such as brown, grey, black and includes grim, woeful imagery of England through words like; “usury”, “poverty” and “misery”; all of which describes the state of England after the destruction that was caused by the French revolution. Blake’s poems proved to be highly radical in this sense as he was publicly displaying his hatred for his corrupt political government.  Blake challenges the hypocrisy in society saying: “Is this a Holy thing to see”, “in a rich and fruitful land”, “Babes reduced to misery?”  Blake’s use of “Holy” is carefully calculated to highlight the insincerity of religion and blasphemous the bourgeoisie are being by ignoring their responsibilities to society yet pretending not to on holy days. The juxtaposing ideas of “holy, “rich and fruitful” to “misery cold and usurious” highlights exactly how far society has changed blaming the bourgeoisie who “reduced” and “fed” orphaned children unfair rations during the year but on “holy Thursday” want to bestow pity upon , sacrificing them like “lambs” for their own gain in their strive to holiness. This hypocrisy symbolises how organised religion gives off the pretence of benevolent charity but in reality just masks the exploitation of the impoverished orphans choosing what information they should  “overt” and “covert” to the rest of society.
Blake’s poem, through the mistreatment of the orphaned children by society is exploring class structure in 18th century England. A Marxist view of this would say that this reflects the power that the bourgeoisie has over the proletariat. Although echoed throughout the poem, Marxist ideas are especially evident in the last two stanzas with the exploration of the orphaned child’s reality. Blake describes England as; “a land of poverty” with “eternal winter” and “so many children poor?” a clear suggestion that England cannot ever be considered a “rich and fruitful land” if there are still children going hungry. The use of the adjective “eternal” before winter suggests that poverty is a constant state in this society and that it’s existed for a long amount of time. Blake answers his own sarcastic question “Can it be a song of joy?” suggesting  that the existence of so many poverty stricken orphans in society presents England as indigent  even if the country’s prosperous in other ways.  He includes many rhetorical questions that might seem unimportant but are in fact very serious as he’s directly criticizing the bourgeoisie, questioning the holiness of a day that celebrates the existence of poverty instead of imbedding snide suggestions in the poems therefore politicising through his poetry. Blake’s ending stanza forced his shady society to confront their hypocrisy and corruption saying: “for where the sun does shine” “babe can never hunger there”. Here Blake’s suggesting that orphaned children are forced to live in this stagnated state by a society that remembers them only to justify its own righteousness.
In conclusion, I believe that Marxist literary criticism is very helpful in understanding Blake’s ‘Holy Thursday’ poems of innocence and experience. Blake, although not a Marxist writer, could be a analysed from a Marxist point of view. The social situation of every Marxist author determines the political ideas developed economic situations and determine the type of characters in their work and having grown up during a time of political unrest, it’s unsurprising that his work inspires Marxist ideas. Moreover, writing about the French revolution, a time in history during which; economic determinism, dialectical materialism and class struggle was dominant will definitely influence a writer’s views on socialist theories so his work is there to give readers an insight into how society really was during and after the French revolution and examining who were more affected by England’s corrupt society. Children.

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