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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.4 (2002) 535-562

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Experience Reading Innocence:
Contextualizing Blake's Holy Thursday

David Fairer


Blake's texts lose their innocence more easily than most, and like Adam and Eve they do so by knowing Good and Evil, by finding a wider oppositional context in which a truth is split into its dynamic contraries. The Fall of Man in Paradise Losthas its equivalent in the critical act: to cross the boundary into illegitimate knowledge, moving out from what is present, fitting and needful, to "things remote / From use, obscure and subtle" (book 8, ll. 191-2) is to risk entering the "wrong" context. By these terms, an innocent text can easily fall, unless the knowledge brought to bear on it is licensed and regulated. A concept like Songs of Innocence, therefore, raises in an acute form the critical problem of howtext and context interrelate: how far can a text legitimise a context for itself, withinwhich a "valid" reading is produced? Must Songs of Innocencebe read innocently?

These thoughts occur in response to the late Stanley Gardner's valuable work in researching the contemporary local context of Blake's Songs. 1 In Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced (1986) and the development of his findings in The Tyger, The Lamb, and the Terrible Desart (1998), Gardner fascinatingly maps out Blake's immediate locality during the 1780s, the people and places, the sights, sounds and smells that the poet would encounter as he walked the streets of his parish of St James's. Gardner reconstructs a specific context for Songs of Innocence in the "optimism" of the years 1782-7 when Blake, newly married and living near his brother and soul-mate, Robert, was able to witness at close quarters the "unprecedented undertakings in child care" (The Tyger 47) being established by the Governors of the Poor in his own parish. Their concern with nursing [End Page 535] provision for destitute infants, and their founding in 1782 of the King Street charity school (supplied by the Blake haberdashery business) in place of the workhouse, constituted a humane and well-run experiment in educational charity. It was to last only a short time, but "[f]or some five or six between-war years of peace after Blake was married, his neighbours directed this enlightened undertaking in community care, with an impetus that was genuinely charitable and sustained" (52). For Gardner, Songs of Innocence, with its cameos of nurturing, playing and educating, is "a timeless record" (52) of this benign activity. In face of modern cynicism about eighteenth-century charity, argues Gardner, we should remember that the provision in Blake's parish during the writing of Songs of Innocence was exceptionally enlightened. The crucial text, virtually the test case, for Gardner's positive interpretation of Blakean innocence is "Holy Thursday." 2

The illuminated plate of "Holy Thursday" from Songs of Innocence (1789), as all readers know, takes for its subject the service in St Paul's Cathedral, London, which annually brought together the six thousand children of the capital's charity schools (Fig. 1). From each parish they processed through the streets in pairs, dressed in their charity coats of a distinctive colour, and wearing their charity badges. Inside the cathedral their massed ranks on specially erected scaffolds made an impressive statement about the organization of national charity, the grandeur of its benevolence. The children were there both to be seen and to give voice:

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow
O what a multitude they seemd 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 & 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


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