|Title||The book of Thel|
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?
William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, engraver, and painter. He illustrated, engraved, printed and hand-coloured his own poems. Blake is best known for his earlier shorter poems, especially the collections Songs of innocence and Songs of experience. Later, he created longer narrative poems, often visionary, prophetic, mystical works in which he devised his own mythology. He had little success during his lifetime, but both his poetry and his painting are now considered seminal in British art.
Thel is the youngest daughter of Mne Seraphim. She and her sisters live in the vales of Har, by the river Adona. While her sisters “led round their sunny flocks“, Thel sits at the river lamenting the transience of her life – she’s “born but to smile and fall”.
A lilly overhears her monologue and answers her. The lilly is more fragile and transient than Thel, but “clothed in light, and fed with morning manna“, and when she withers in the summer heat she will “flourish in eternal vales”.
This does not comfort Thel. The lilly is food for lambs, her fragrance purifies the air, her pollen are used to make honey. But Thel is like the “faint cloud kindled at the rising sun“, she will just fade away and disappear. The lilly then calls down a little cloud to tell Thel why it fades and disappears.
Thel asks the cloud why he does not lament his mortality: “Why thou complainest not when in one hour thou fade away“? The cloud explains that just because he vanishes does not mean nothing remains. By passing away, he gives life to flowers. Thel complains that she, unlike the cloud, has no use, and wonders if she only lives “to be at death the food of worms“. The cloud claims that if you are to be the food of worms you do have a purpose, and calls a worm to meet Thel:
Then if thou art the food of worms, o virgin of the skies, how great thy use, how great thy blessing! Every thing that lives, lives not alone, not 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 worm cannot speak, only weep, and Thel pities it. A clod of clay feeds and comforts the worm, and then explains to Thel that God even loves a clod of clay, and pours oil on her head, so that she can nourish and nurse the worm. Thel weeps and realizes she has nothing to complain about.
The last section is different in tone than the rest of the poem, and may well have been added several years later. The clod of clay invites Thel to enter her house. She enters through the eternal gates and “saw the secrets of the land unknown, [..]a land of sorrows and of tears where never smile was seen“. She wanders around, visits “the couches of the dead“, listens to “dolours and lamentations“, and finally sits down at her own grave plot. There, she hears a “voice of sorrow” (probably her own) saying:
Why cannot the ear be closed to its own destruction, or the glistening eye to the poison of a smile?
The voice continues, and when it comes to these lines:
Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy, why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?
Thel flees back shrieking to the vales of Har.
Blake’s mythology is not a complete, consistent, well-rounded body of work (like e.g. Tolkien’s mythology), but fragmentary, as if mere fragments of an ancient mythology have survived. The book of Thel does not introduce Mne Seraphim, Adona, Luvah1), or Har to us, but assumes we know them, as if Thel is part of a larger body of work, now sadly lost.
The book of Thel, probably printed between 1789 and 1792, is the second of Blake’s longer, mythological poems. The first, Tiriel was written around 1787, never engraved, and not published during Blake’s life. Tiriel was the son of Har and Heva. Whether the vales of Har (Thel’s home) are named after Tiriel’s father is an intriguing question that I cannot currently answer. (I have not read Tiriel yet. The vales of Har are mentioned in both poems.)
Maybe we should not ponder to long over Har, Luvah or Mne Seraphim, but just enjoy the story of this young girl, searching for her destiny, but fleeing from it when she finds it.
The book of Thel was read as part of the 2007 Once upon a time challenge.
This is the first part of a two-part essay. Read the second part here.
1)Luvah, merely mentioned in Thel (the cloud claims that his “steeds drink of the golden springs where Luvah doth renew his horses“), returns decades later to play an important role in Blake’s later work.