In William Blake's poem "The Book of Thel," does the Worm actually speak?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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"The Book of Thel" is a poem written by William Blake. Some characters are "Thel," "The Clod of Clay," and "The Worm."

Blake is thought to have written the poem with regard to the Church of England, of which he was not a supporter. (His connection with religion was unusual: at the age of four he believed he saw God peering through his window, and later, he said he saw visions of angels in a field.)

In Part Two, Blake introduces the character of the Worm, powerless, sitting on a leaf.

The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lily's* leaf... (2.30) [*Lily of the valley]

In Part Three, the answer seems to come from Thel who says the weak Worm is able to cry, but cannot to speak.

"Art thou a Worm? Image of weakness, art thou but a Worm?

I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lily's leaf

Ah! weep not, little voice, thou canst not speak, but thou canst weep.

Is this a Worm? I see thee lay helpless and naked, weeping,

And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mother's smiles." (3.2-6)

Reading on we learn that the Clod of Clay hears the Worm's voice.

The Clod of Clay heard the Worm's voice and 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. (3.7-9)

This would seem paradoxical in that Thel says the Worm cannot speak, but it does not say the Worm is unable to speak. The inference I draw is that Thel is telling the Worm that she thinks it may not speak—Thel calls the Worm "little voice," thus acknowledging a voice. Perhaps, then, Thel is stating that the Worm is too small, too inconsequential to be heard. It is a lowly creature that lives in the dirt. Thel's heart may be too blinded by the Worm's home and connect size to its importance—assuming, then, that the Worm really doesn't matter to the world.

The Clod of Clay says Thel sees the clod as the lowest ("meanest") thing on the earth—admitting it may be true, but God has given it value, anointed it with oil and blessed it.

(Anointing is a religious ritual, using:

perfumed oil, milk, water, melted butter, etc.

Anointing shows an "introduction of a...divine influence...or god.") And even the Clod of Clay does not understand why it has been blessed.

"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." (3.10 -18)

Thel admits that she knew the Worm was loved by God who would punish one who stepped on it, but did not realize it was treasured so much that God would anoint it with "milk and oil:"

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… (3.21-23)

In this is poem Thel wonders about her life passing, and looks to nature in order to understand living and dying; nature sees it as the cycle of life. Thel cannot hear its truths and...

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

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