"The daughters of Mne Seraphim are all shepherdesses in the Vales of Har, apart from the youngest, Thel. She spends her time wandering on her own, trying to find the answer to the question that torments her: why does the springtime of life inevitably fade so that all things must end? She meets the Lily of the Valley who tries to comfort her. When Thel remains uncomforted, the Lily sends her on to ask the Cloud. The Cloud explains that he is part of a natural process and, although he sometimes disappears, he is never gone forever. Thel replies that she is not like the Cloud and when she disappears she will not return. So the Cloud suggests asking the same question of the Worm. The Worm is still a child and cannot answer. Instead it is the Worm’s mother, the Clod of Clay, who answers. The Clod explains that we do not live for ourselves, but for others. She invites Thel to enter into her underground realm and see the dark prison of the dead where Thel herself will one day reside. However, Thel is assailed by mysterious voices asking a whole series of yet more terrible questions about existence. Uttering a shriek, she flees back to her home in the Vales of Har. The pit represents sex and mortality of life, while the Vales of Har represent virginity and eternity. The first part of the poem shows the good part of life as in Songs of Innocence whereas the concluding part shows that life is full of sorrows where smiles are never seen, as in Songs of Experience.
The question is 'Why the physical senses darken the soul by excluding it from the wisdom and joy of eternity?'.Thel is the allegory of the unborn spirit who has gathered experience from her own discoveries and has decided to remain forever innocent."From Damon:
"The Book of Thel is best understood as a rewriting of Milton's Comus..
Blake tells the same story, but in biological terms, not moral ones."
THE BOOK of THEL
The Author & Printer Willm Blake, 1789. PLATE i 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?
PLATE 1 THEL I 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 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 watry 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 infants face, Like the doves 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 in the evening time. The Lilly of the valley breathing in the humble grass Answer'd the lovely maid and said; I am a watry 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 summers heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs To flourish in eternal vales: then why should Thel complain,
Five human figures soar around the title-word "Thel" (line 1): a nude man reaching toward a large eagle, a nude man holding a sword and shield, and a gowned woman holding a small child in her outstretched arms. Below, a nude man rests on the branch of a tree (or perhaps a tassel of grain) and looks up toward the child. Spiraling vines and stylized flowers, perhaps lilies, spring from several of the title letters. The design does not represent any specific incident in the text, but the man with shield and spear may be one of the "thousand fighting men" referred to near the end of the poem (plate 8, line 16).
(From Blake Archive)
|Thel Plate 2|
PLATE 2 Why should the mistress of the vales of Har, utter a sigh. She ceasd & smild in tears, then sat down in her silver shrine. Thel answerd. O thou little virgin of the peaceful valley. Giving to those that cannot crave, the voiceless, the o'ertired. 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 answerd, 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 bowd her modest head: And went to mind her numerous charge among the verdant grass.
We meet Har in a previously written Blake poem called Tiriel, where he is said to correspond to old Adam before the apple was eaten. In Thel Har may be thought to be the Heaven of the nymphs awaiting mortal birth. The Lilly of the Valley, who has lived corporeally as well as eternally, addresses the question To Thel which begins Plate 2. Thel answers describing the Lilly's activities on the Earth. And she describes her fears of vanishing (with mortal death of course). This early work of Blake's is a discussion of life and death. Thel fears to live mortally because she fears death and after hearing of the four facets of mortal life she chose not to live mortally, but continue in the vale of Har, which has been variously interpreted as selfcenteredness or simply fear to take a chance about life. It is only the daring souls who choose Experience. The birch tree is said to be the queen of the forest; this one has a single branch and under it Thel stands in a regal way. In front are a small group of lilies, the main (largest one bowing deeply as to a queen). Smaller stems are waiting for their turn.
|Thel Plate 3|
PLATE 3 II. O little Cloud the virgin said, I charge thee 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 bead & 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 on my 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 risen sun, Till we arise link'd in a golden band, and never part; But walk united, bearing food to all our tender flowers Dost thou O little Cloud? I fear that I am not like thee; For I walk through 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 reclind 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; every thing 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 Lillys leaf, And the bright Cloud saild on, to find his partner in the vale.DISCUSSION: There is little or nothing pictorial in this plate. Erdman, in The Illuminated Blake tells us that it is "a curving branch of the seven flowered lilly stem" of the previous plate. The cloud is a very common symbol in Blake's poetry. Look for example at the Introduction to Songs of Innocence. From this we might surmise that the Cloud is a general symbol for dreams and visions. The virgin speaking is of course Thel. 'Virgin' in this context suggests that she has never beeen exposed to Experience or Mortal Life; she doesn't understand why anything else would. The cloud understands and tells Thel that though she pass away she will be renewed tenfold. Thel says it's not like that for her; she will fade away; she will eventually be food for worms. The (masculine) cloud returns: "How great thy use". That's reminiscent of Walt Whitmans statement to the dying soldier: "I do not commiserate—I congratulate you."
Thel Plate 4
PLATE 4 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 Lillys leaf: Ah weep not little voice, thou can'st not speak. but thou can'st weep; Is this a Worm? I see thee lay helpless & naked: weeping, And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mothers smiles. The Clod of Clay heard the Worms voice, & raisd her pitying head; She bowd 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,
There are three figures here: in the top is the cloud like a naked male flying and waving goodbye to Thel, the larger figure taking up most of of the picture. The cloud has just introduced the worm, the small figure at the bottom of the picture; it's in the middle of the lily cluster. Thel sees the worm like a weeping infant. The Clod of Clay also sees the (infant) worm and hears it weeping. She provides a motherly 'milky fondness' (worms generally live in clay). Then she looked at Thel and told her "we live not for ourselves". We might suppose that the life of a clod of clay must be pretty attenuated, and we might well conclude that generosity and love must be the foundation of the world. Thel explains again, this time to the Clod of Clay why she had complained, and the Clod invites her to come on and live (mortally): "Wilt thou O Queen enter my house," By 'house' Blake meant of course the earth, the mortal world.
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 punish the evil foot That wilful, bruis'd its helpless form: but that he cherish'd it With milk and oil, I never knew; and therefore did I weep, And I complaind 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 answerd; 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.
The words of the Clod of Clay or the matron Clay fill the first paragraph.
She describes the blessed role that she has in God's plan; she understands that she is the mother of all those who come into mortal life.
Thel sits in a group of flowers, her arms folded over her breasts and watches the matron clay and the infant worm.
On the left above Thel's head is a large bud and on the right a large flower.
Finally the Cloud of Clay (the world) invites the Queen to come in and to return; that is an invitation we all have heard and responded to.
PLATE 6 IV. 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 wanderd in the land of clouds thro' valleys dark, listning Dolours & lamentations: waiting oft beside a dewy grave She stood in silence. listning 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 glistning Eye to the poison of a smile! Why are Eyelids stord with arrows ready drawn, Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie? Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show'ring fruits & 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 unhinderd till she came into the vales of Har The End (Erdman 3-6)
The northern bar: From the beginning of time Eternity and
Time are the primary divisions of kinds of reality. Materalists
have considered Reality to be in Time, while spiritually minded
people consider that the primary Reality resides in Eternity.
Thel has been living in 'Paradise' (called the 'vales of Har'),
but she wants to have a look at the other side. The 'Northern
Bar' opened the 'eternal gates' allowing Thel to 'have a look'
Blake likely had several sources for the 'northern bar', but
none better than one of his favorite English poets. The Faerie
Queene by Edmund Spenser includes these lines:
"It cited was in fruitful soul of old
And girt in with two walls on either side
The one of iron, the other of bright gold
That none might thorough breake, nor over-stride;
And double gates it had which opened wide,
By which both in and out men might pass.
The one faire and fresh, the other old and dride:"
This has been described as the northern and southern bar.
Plate 6 of Thel describes what she saw there and how she reacted.
She saw the 'the land unknown', the 'land of sorrows & of tears'(commonly known as 'this vale of tears'), 'the land of clouds'.Well she didn't think much of it.
Blake gave another instance of that (nymphatic) reaction in the
Sea of Time and Space; there you see the northern stairway with
one nymph vigorously climbing the stairs against the stream of
those headed for the 'sea'.
Thel came many years before the Arlington Tempera, but the idea,
the concept had not changed. In Blake's myth those in Eternity
may choose to come down into material life. In fact the story
(like the story of the Bible) concerns the Fall and the Return.
You might say that Thel chose not to fall. The rest of us are
here because we fell.
This poem came very early in Blake's career while the Arlington Tempera came much later.
But if you have access to a larger image you may discern among the naiads descending into mortal life one who is going against the stream. Like Thel she has tasted the sorrow of The Sea of Time and Space and chose not to partake.
Here is a full explanation.