The Book of Thel


Commentary
The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks,
All but the youngest. She in paleness sought the secret air,
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day.
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard,
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like the morning dew;

'O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?
Ah! Thel is like a wat'ry bow, and like a parting cloud,

Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water,
Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant's face,
Like the dove's voice, like transient day, like music in the air.
Ah! gentle may I lay me down and gentle rest my head,
And gentle sleep the sleep of death, and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden of the evening time.'

The Lilly of the Valley, breathing in the humble grass,
Answer'd the lovely maid and said: 'I am a wat'ry weed,

And I am very small and love to dwell in lowly vales;
So weak the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head;
Yet I am visited from heaven, and he that smiles on all
Walks in the valley, and each morn over me spreads his hand
Saying, "Rejoice, thou humble grass, thou new-born lilly flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys and of modest brooks;
For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna,
Till summer's heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs

To flourish in eternal vales". Then why should Thel complain?
Why should the mistress of the vales of Har utter a sigh?
She ceas'd & smil'd in tears, then sat down in her silver shrine.

Thel answer'd: 'O thou little virgin of the peaceful valley,
Giving to those that cannot crave, the voiceless, the o'erfired;
Thy breath doth nourish the innocent lamb, he smells thy milky garments,
He crops thy flowers while thou sittest smiling in his face,
Wiping his mild and meekin mouth from all contagious taints.

Thy wine doth purify the golden honey; thy perfume,
Which thou dost scatter on every little blade of grass that springs,
revives the milked cow, & tames the fire-breathing steed.
But Thel is like a faint cloud kindled at the rising sun:
I vanish from my pearly throne, and who shall find my place?'

'Queen of the vales,' the Lilly answer'd, 'ask the tender cloud,
And it shall tell thee why it glitters in the morning sky,
And why it scatters its bright beauty thro' the humid air.

Descend, O little cloud, & hover before the eyes of Thel.'

the Cloud descended, and the Lilly bow'd her modest head,
And went to mind her numerous charge among the verdant grass.


II

'O little cloud,' the virgin said, 'I charge thee to tell to me
Why thou complainest not when in one hour thou fade away;
Then we shall seek thee, but not find. Ah! Thel is like to thee:
I pass away; yet I complain, and no one hears my voice.'

The Cloud then shew'd his golden head, & his bright form emerg'd,

Hovering and glittering on the air before the face of Thel:

'O virgin, know'st thou not? Our steeds drink of the golden springs
Where Luvah doth renew his horses. Look'st thou onmy youth,
And fearest thou, because I vanish and am seen no more,
Nothing remains? O maid, I tell thee, when I pass away,
It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace and raptures holy.
Unseen descending, weigh my light wings upon balmy flowers,
And court the fair eyed dew to take me to her shining tent.

The weeping virgin trembling kneels before the riding sun,
Till we arise link'd in a golden band, and never part,
But walk united, bearing food to our tender flowers.'

'Dost thou, O little Cloud? I fear that I am not like thee;
For I walk thro' the vales of Har, and smell the sweetest flowers,
But I feed not the little flowers. I hear the warbling birds,
but i feed not the warbling birds; they fly and seek their food.
But Thel delights in these no more, because I fade away;

And all shall say, "Without a use this shining woman liv'd,
Or did she only live to be at death the food of worms?" '

The Cloud reclin'd upon his airy throne and answer'd thus:

'Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies,
How great thy use, how great thy blessing! Everything that lives
Lives not alone, nor for itself. Fear not, and I will call
The weak worm from its lowly bed, and thou shalt hear its voice.
Come forth, worm of the silent valley, to thy pensive queen.'

The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lilly's leaf,
And the bright Cloud sail'd on, to find his partner in the vale.


III
Then Thel astonish'd view'd the Worm upon its dewy bed:
'Art thou a Worm? image of weakness, art thou but a Worm?
I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lilly's leaf.
Ah weep not, little voice, thou canst not speak, but thou can weep.
Is this a worm? I see thee lay helpless & naked, weeping,
And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mother's smiles.'

The Clod of Clay heard the Worm's voice, & rais'd her pitying head;
She bow'd over the weeping infant, and her life exhal'd
In milky fondness; then on Thel she fix'd her humble eyes;

'O beauty of the vales of Har, we live not for ourselves.
Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed:
My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark,
But he that loves the lowly pours his oil upon my head,
And kisses me, and binds his nuptial bands around my breast,
And says: "Thou mother of my children, I have loved thee,

And I have given thee a crown that none can take away."
But how this is, sweet maid, I know not, and I cannot know;
I ponder, and I cannot ponder, yet I live and love.'

The daughter of beauty wip'd her pitying tears with her white veil,
And said: Alas! I knew not this, and therefore did I weep.
That God would love a Worm I knew, and therefore did I weep;
And I complain'd in the mild air, because i fade away,
And lay me down in thy cold bed, and leave my shining lot.'

'Queen of the vales,' the matron Clay answer'd, 'I heard thy sighs,
And all thy moans flew o'er my roof, but I have call'd them down.
Wilt thou, O Queen, enter my house? 'Tis given thee to enter
And to return; fear nothing; enter with thy virgin feet.'


lV
The eternal gates' terrific porter lifted the northern bar.
Thel enter'd in & saw the secrets of the land unknown.
She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous roots
Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:

A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.

She wander'd in the land of clouds thro' valleys dark, list'ning
Dolours and lamentations; waiting oft beside a dewy grave
She stood in silence, list'ning to the voices of the ground,
Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down,
And heard this voice of sorrow breathed from the hollow pit:

'Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?
Or the glist'ning Eye to the poison of a smile?
Why are Eyelids stor'd with arrows ready drawn,

Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie?
Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show'ring fruits and coined gold?
Why a Tongue impress'd with honey from every wind?
Why an Ear a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?
Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror, trembling & affright?
Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?
Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?'

The Virgin started from her seat, & with a shriek
Fled back unhinder'd till she came into the vales of Har.




Thel's Motto
Does the Eagle know what is in the pit,
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod,
Or Love in a golden bowl?










Commentary



Dated 1789, but probably engraved between 1788 and 1791, The Book of Thel is an intriguing allegorical counterpart to the Songs of Innocence. Here Thel, a mytholgoical figure associated with the daugher of Venus (Desire), is a young virginal figure, intrigued by the world of sex and experience, but she is frightened by the prospect. In the course of the 'Book' she confronts various forms of created life - the Lilly, the Cloud, the Worm, the Clod of Clay - and asks them about the mysteries of mortal life: what is it like to be mortal, to live and to experience, but also to have to face the prospect of disillusionment, depair and death. At the end of the 'Book' Thel almost summons the courage to enter the world of the Real, but at the last minute her nerve gives way, and she runs shrieking back to the sanctuary of immortality. In allegorical terms The Book of Thel presents the State of Innocence, confronted by the world of Experience. Thel is, in one sense, a virginal goddess, pure and untouched by material reality, about to embark on the passage from childhood to adult maturity. Yet she is also, in metaphorical and archetypal form, a symbol of a state of mind or, better still, "State of Soul", a platonic essence intrigued by, but apprehensive of the realities of experience. Through mythological personification Blake is able to express, in symbolic terms, aspects of innocence and experience which are difficult to express in other terms. Thel's final failure of nerve is, the poem suggests, to be pitied rather than applauded: 'Innocence' may well be an idyllic state but, "Without Contraries there is no Progression". The Book of Thel can, therefore, be read on a number of levels, from being a literal exploration of various forms of innocence and hesitance (the child's reluctance to grow up), to more abstract and metaphorical levels, an allegorical exploration of the relationship between Thought and Action, or between the Immortality of the Idea or Image, and the mortality of lived experience.
Richard Dover.
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This page last modified 03/10/95