William Blake

The Book of Thel

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The Book of Thel Summary

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The Book of Thel is a 1789 narrative poem by English author and artist William Blake. Composed of fourteen-syllable lines, the short poem was first published as a series of eight plates with illuminated text. Following the content of an earlier, lesser-known poem, Tiriel, it provides cryptic answers to the timeless questions of how human beings might obtain wisdom and knowledge. Blake invented the very process through which The Book of Thel was physically published, and the poem became known as one of his “Prophetic Books” for its existential interrogations. The poem follows Thel, a young, unhappy girl who wanders through a fantastical pastoral world, yearning to understand her purpose. Primarily concerned with the fact that she, like all things, will die, various organic and inorganic entities in her environment answer her. The poem is significant for its naturalistic depiction of divinity and its unusually straightforward acknowledgment of despair.

The poem begins with a “motto,” an introductory line of inquiry that establishes its goal of understanding how one might acquire wisdom. Thel is introduced as she wanders through a mythological landscape called Har. Thel asks a series of questions about the meaning of life, expressing her anxiety that she must die. Then, a series of natural entities appears, each taking human form. A flower called the “Lilly of the valley” first appears, explaining that though it suffers, and has been given a life fragile and small, it is blessed by heaven to eternally be reborn after each brief lifespan. The Lilly assures Thel that she need not despair. Thel replies that though she understands the Lilly is useful in feeding the lamb and healing the tired dairy cows with its aroma, her own life has no observable purpose. The Lilly suggests that she asks the Cloud.

Thel approaches the Cloud as it descends from the sky, asking why it does not express discontentment in its brief life. The Cloud makes another religious appeal, alleging that when it disappears, it moves into a life more loving and whole, merging with other parts of nature, like the morning dew and the flowers that drink it. The Cloud’s satisfaction with its form of life after its individual death fails to comfort Thel, because she can see no such aesthetic place for herself in a grand natural order. Unlike the cloud, her body, upon dying, will resign itself to decay and to worms, revealing no greater purpose. The Cloud argues that she is wrong: no living thing lives entirely in solitude, or for itself. It calls the Worm, which manifests itself on the leaf of the Lilly. The Worm simply weeps like a baby.

Next, a Clod of Clay appears. It reasserts the Cloud’s claim that nothing lives only for itself. It finds this claim self-evident, since it is the most insignificant object in nature, yet blessed with being the bedrock of the world. The Clod does not know exactly why it is chosen for such an important role but chooses to live and be thankful for its position in the natural order without overly rationalizing itself. The Clod’s humility moves Thel, who relates that she had never before understood how deeply God loves the world. The Clod invites Thel to come into her world and see more fully her role in the natural world. Thel accepts with the understanding that she will be able to freely return to the vales of Har.

Thel enters the Clod’s domain, finding it a bitter and sorrowful place where not even the slightest expression of happiness can be seen. She walks around miserably, then stumbles upon her own grave. From the grave comes a voice that might be her own, yearning to understand why humans have been given the faculties to feel horror and despair. Terrified, Thel runs back to Har and its relative peace and beauty.

The Book of Thel’s ending is ambivalent: while its protagonist nearly takes solace in the comfort that the world is unified and sacred, she is unable to resolve why its unity must include negative emotions. Her decision to return to her everyday environment suggests that the remedy for despair is to live a life of ordinariness and somewhat willful ignorance.