Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Book of Thel has been variously interpreted. Some commentators believe it is a Neoplatonic allegory. According to this view, Thel is an unborn soul contemplating its descent from the eternal, spiritual world into the realm of matter. For the Neoplatonists the material world was only a shadow, a reflection, of the eternal world, and life on earth was a kind of death, or imprisonment, of the soul. Blake was familiar with Neoplatonic theory, which he would have found explained in Thomas Taylor’s translation of Porphyry’s Cave of the Nymphs, which was published in 1788. Much of the imagery of the poem is of water in its various forms, and water is a Neoplatonic symbol of the material world.

According to the Neoplatonic view, Thel would be showing some wisdom in rejecting her incarnation; however, the philosophies espoused by Lilly, Cloud, and Clod of Clay are very different. They are closer to the worldview Blake would have found in alchemy, with which he was also familiar through the writings of Paracelsus and Jakob Böhme. In the alchemical philosophy, the divine spirit interpenetrated the natural world, and every particle of creation served a spiritual purpose. Blake expressed this idea many times in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1790-1793), especially in the phrase, “Every thing that lives is holy.” Thel’s rejection of earthly life shows that she has failed to grasp this principle.

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