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Literary Analysis Essay on "Life in the Iron Mills" by Rebecca Harding Davis and "Holy Thursday" by William Blake

Updated on June 1, 2014

For the workers who lived through the Industrial Revolution, life closely resembled hell. Hunger, poverty, and misunderstanding plagued their short, desperate lives. Writers of this period responded to the hellish furnaces of iron-mills and the confused masses of burgeoning cities with works about the heavenly countryside and the righteous introspection of individuals. Romantic authors such as William Blake and Rebecca Harding Davis confronted the Industrial Revolution with a distinct taste for reality but also a hopeful faith in personal salvation.

Situated on the chronological poles of the Romantic period, Blake at its inception and Davis at its end, these two writers confront surprisingly similar problems. Perhaps the movement of industrialization accounts for these similarities. In 1794, when Blake published “Holy Thursday, ” the first Industrial Revolution was still developing in England. When Davis wrote “Life in the Iron-Mills, ” America had just begun its adaptation to the second Industrial Revolution as technology trickled over from Europe. Both writers lived in transitional periods that strained working conditions and trampled individuals in the scramble to modernize factories. In the factories of Wheeling, Virginia and the streets of London, Davis and Blake found the same hungry faces that inspired their socially critical works. Although Blake and Davis wrote seventy years apart, common Romantic themes link their works when they attempt to mitigate the plight of the poor with the possibility of salvation.

As many Romantic authors do, Blake and Davis use nature to distinguish good from evil and heaven from hell. The two authors equate light with comfort and purity and darkness with sin. Davis sets an ominous tone over the iron-mills of Wheeling by describing the thick smoke that obscures direct sunlight and tarnishes all that it touches. As it points towards heaven, even the “broken figure of an angel ” falls victim to the “foul vapor ”(1214). From its cage, the “dirty canary ” dreams of “green fields and sunshine ” (1214). These two images verify the evil of smoke’s industrial producer and the purity of nature’s divine source. Similarly, Blake uses darkness to describe the poor in their earthly hell: “And their sun does never shine ” (51). Just as smoke clouds out prosperity and happiness for the workers of the iron-mills, darkness leaves the fields of the poor “ bleak & bare ” (51). The two authors use images of unnatural darkness to offer the hope that natural light will pierce through the lingering smoke and pollution of an earthly hell.

Davis cautiously uses the image of light. Like Blake, she insists that only natural light symbolizes good. The hot fires of the furnaces paint its damned workers in rich chiaroscuros. All of the scenes that take place near the furnaces look “Summat deilish ” (1218). The light of hell fires casts evil shadows and offers no comfort, continuing the image of an earthly hell. Even Joe, the noble lamp lighter, runs away from Hugh Wolfe in the twilight of Hugh’s life, leaving insufficient light for the hopeless man. Hugh’s salvation comes from natural light as it creeps in his narrow window. Davis repeats the phrase “pure light ” when describing the “white splendor ” that illuminates Hugh’s deathbed (1237). This enveloping form of nature delivers Hugh from this earthly hell to his final resting place on the warm, sunlit hill. Not coincidentally, in “Holy Thursday, ” Blake uses the sunshine to symbolize salvation. He delivers his hungry Babes to a place that has no hunger and no poverty: “Where-e’er the sun does shine,/ And where-e’er the rain does fall ” (51). This ultimate victory of light over darkness represents the class struggle of the Industrial Revolution with an eternal scope.

Blake and Davis discuss the two classes, the poor and the wealthy, by forcing their relationship beyond the bounds of this life. Blake questions his country with bitter poetry and, while condemning his nation, offers hope to the starving children. His poetry separates the two classes as clearly as he separates heaven and hell. The almsgivers do not care for the children with love and care but with “cold and usurous ” hands that chill the poem’s tone (51). His exclamation, “It is a land of poverty! ” expresses the children’s plight as much as the public’s moral poverty (51). Blake retains this double meaning in the last two stanzas. He describes a land without sunshine, a land of barren fields and “eternal winter ” as a representation of both material and moral deficiency. Both the children and the wealthy have lives “fill ’d with thorns, ” a biblical allusion to the fall of man in Genesis (51). As Adam is condemned in Genesis to toil outside of Eden, the people of London live severed from perfect nature. This discussion of salvation and sinfulness contains all people with a variety of destinies but leaves those destinies ambiguous and open.

Davis approaches salvation from an individual ’s perspective. She uses a first person observer that slips into editorial omniscient to give her story of salvation a more personal feel. The reader feels as if the narrator is offering a nugget of righteous wisdom rather than openly condemning as Blake does. By focusing especially on the salvation of just two characters, Davis emphasizes the role of personal introspection in salvation. When she writes, “Man cannot live by work alone, ” she reminds her readers of Luke 4:4. In Luke Christ tells Satan, “One does not live by bread alone.” She uses this biblical language to deepen her investigation of personal salvation. As Christ distinguishes mortal life from eternal life, Davis distinguishes between life as it exists in the iron-mills and life beyond the iron-mills, giving new significance to her title. Separated from the masses, the salvation of Hugh and Deb lies entirely in their own hands. Hugh controls his destiny with his suicide, but Davis’s narrator does not speculate on God ’s judgment of his soul. Like Blake, Davis offers salvation as a hope against the trials of this life but does not specifically articulate who is saved. She only states that salvation exists.

Living in an earthly hell of work, poverty, and despair, the characters in “Holy Thursday ” and “Life in the Iron-Mills ” have little hope for social improvement or material contentment. Blake and Davis offer hope through their Romantic descriptions of salvation. Although they use different genres and different styles, they both wrap their characters in divine nature and deliver them from an earthly hell. They do not specify how salvation should be achieved or how it is lost; that decision is purposely left to the individual ’s interpretation. Their works rise above the hungry crowds and noisy machinery of the Industrial Revolution to examine the eternal, the divine, and the righteous nature of the human soul.

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