Last Friday I was able to see in person the Vienna Children’s choir, which previously I knew only from their recordings. As I listened to the high, pure voices in Sewanee’s cathedral-like All Saints Chapel, I thought of William Blake’s “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence.
The poem has some of Blake’s characteristic irony, which he directs against the “grey-headed beagles” who herd the children with their “white-as-snow” wands. To imagine the children’s lives, read Oliver Twist, where one learns about forced religious indoctrination under brutal conditions. As Blake makes clear in multiple poems, the State and the Church work in concert to teach unquestioning submission to oppressive masters.
This is not why I thought of the poem, however. Blake is amazed at how the children are able to transcend their conditions when they are singing, raising “a mighty wind” that reaches “the seats of heaven.” I had a glimpse of such transcendence as I listened to the choir:
’Twas on a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two, in red, and blue, and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames waters flow.
O what a multitude they seemed, 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 and 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:
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.
The achievement of Blake’s singers is remarkable given the conditions they are battling. This becomes clear in “Holy Thursday’s” companion poem in Songs of Experience, where Blake shows that the joyful singing conceals a harsh reality:
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
If you didn’t hear the scathing sarcasm behind Blake’s “wise guardians” before, I suspect you do now. Blake has no patience with people who practice pity without any follow-up action, which is the case with these aged men. They feel uplifted by the singing and then go back to church business as usual, which includes turning a blind eye to child labor and child abuse.
Of course, none of that was the case with the Vienna Boys Choir, which consists of four choirs that rotate their international tours. When not traveling, they go to school. One can applaud them without any sense of irony.