In our discussion on “Holy Thursday” in Songs of Experience last Monday, we talked about trying to stop the natural order of things in the world, and how changing the cycles of the Earth affected people’s welfare.  Specifically, the welfare of the laboring class, and in “Holy Thursday,” there is the idea that the welfare of the “Babes” (a reference to children of London, as mentioned in the parallel version in S. of Innocence), are being fed with a “cold and usurous hand.”  There is the notion that the fruitful land they are supposed to be enjoying is taken away from them.  The entire time I was reading this poem, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant sprung to mind, specifically the S. Saelig Gallagher illustrations that I grew up with.

Here’s a recap, for those of you who don’t know the story: Children play in a beautiful garden belonging to a Giant who has been absent for 7 years.  When the Giant returns, he kicks them out of his garden, and builds a high wall around the garden so the children cannot enter.  However, since the children no longer play in his garden, there is eternal winter.  The garden remains covered in snow, until one day, he sees a small child taunted by the North Wind, but the child is too small to climb the tree.  The Giant realizes he has been selfish, lifts the little boy into the tree, knocks down the wall, and allows the children to play in the garden once more.  However, he is not satisfied, for he is always looking for that first little boy.  Many years pass until he is old and feeble, and one morning he sees the little boy standing under a blossoming tree.  The little boy has the signs of the stigmata, (turns out he is the Christ Child), and the Giant threatens to slay the one who injured the child.  In the end, the little boy (Jesus) says to the Giant: “You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.”  The other children come to play and find the Giant dead, lying under the tree and covered in white blossoms.

The story was written with children in mind, but I think that a child would find the religious symbolism at the end hard to understand (without an adult explicitly telling them).

But in the context of Blake…the imagery matches up perfectly with “Holy Thursday.”  The Giant represents the rich ruling class who have the upper hand, and the story is, in essence, about the inequality between rich and poor.

Here is a description of the garden from The Selfish Giant:

“It was a large lovely garden, with soft green grass. Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars, and there were twelve peach-trees that in the spring-time broke out into delicate blossoms of pink and pearl, and in the autumn bore rich fruit.”

Clearly this matches up with the “rich and fruitful land,” and the “cold and usurous hand” is that of the Giant, taking away their innocence by throwing them out into the street, keeping his “riches” (the garden) all to himself.

The third stanza of “Holy Thursday” particularly resonates with the description of the garden after the children have left:

“And their sun does never shine. / And their fields are bleak & bare. / And their ways are fill’d with thorns/ It is eternal winter there.”

(Wilde): “Then the Spring came, and all over the country there were little blossoms and little birds. Only in the garden of the Selfish Giant it was still Winter. The birds did not care to sing in it as there were no children, and the trees forgot to blossom. Once a beautiful flower put its head out from the grass, but when it saw the notice-board it was so sorry for the children that it slipped back into the ground again, and went off to sleep.”

The flower reverses its natural pattern and goes back into the ground–by enclosing the garden with a wall, the Giant has changed the natural order of the seasons by his selfishness, the idea of wanting to keep what is good all for oneself, yet it turns on him and he is left in winter.  It is evident that the children, the flowers of London, restore the natural order.  Giving to the poor allows the garden to flourish.  Corresponding to this idea of children relating to The Giant says ‘I have many beautiful flowers…but the children are the most beautiful flowers of all.”

Self-Love destroys the garden and happiness of children, and it is this gift of giving that keeps the world moving–the children are the flowers, and “where-e’er the sun does shine,” will they flourish, and it is up to those who hold power to bestow the sun/son.  At the end, the Christ Child tells the Giant not to worry, that “these are the wounds of Love,” and the Giant is no longer impoverished of his capability to love.

This could be the Giant lifting the child into the tree…

(All quotes are found from an online version of the book: