Indeed, the second verse corrects the first: England cannot be called ‘rich’ when there are such huge numbers of poor children living there. These children live sunless, barren lives in a state of ‘eternal winter’. Again, the final verse takes it further: there cannot be other seasons as long as children go hungry. Sunshine and rain are cause for happiness, and we have no right to such happiness when thousands are suffering all around us.
The poem picks up where its contrary ‘Holy Thursday’ in Songs of Innocence left off, with reference to the annual Holy Thursday (Ascension Day) service in St Paul’s Cathedral for the poor children of the London charity schools. Yet there can be nothing ‘holy’ about a service which shows us how many thousands of children are ‘reduced to misery’ in England. The poem challenges the very image of Great Britain as a rich and civilised nation. In the 1790s Britain was the world’s wealthiest superpower, so the statement that it was ‘a land of poverty’ was radical. The poem also attacks the whole system of caring for poor children as ‘cold and usurous’ (usury is the practice of lending money for profit, by charging interest on it and therefore getting back more than you lent). This may sound a harsh description, but we need to remember that the charity schools of the eighteenth century were aimed at turning out child workers for the most brutal industries. This brought profit to their employers but drove thousands of children into an early grave.