The Book of Thel

by William Blake

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Thel is the protagonist in this narrative poem by William Blake. Her virgin state is repeatedly emphasized throughout the poem, underscoring as it does her purity and innocence. She is the youngest daughter of Mne Seraphim and spends her time wandering alone, trying to understand why beautiful things pass away and why spring's children are "born but to smile & fall." Thel's lamentations bring out various characters from the valleys, all of whom try to comfort her in their own way.

The first of these is the Lily of the Valley. The Lily describes herself as "a watry weed," weak and small, but explains that she is visited from heaven by God, and that every morning that dawns is pleasing to her. She asks why Thel should be said, knowing as she must that she will eventually "flourish in eternal vales."

When Thel is not comforted, the Lily asks the Cloud to come down and explain to Thel why he glitters in the sky, knowing that his life is fleeting. The Cloud has a "golden head" and "bright form," and he explains that when he does fade away, "it is to tenfold life . . . to raptures holy." He does not mind appearing only for a brief time because he is satisfied that he has given joy to others while he existed and that he will be moving on to "raptures." He tells Thel that even if she is, as she fears, eventually "food for worms," this does not mean she is of no value, and he summons The Worm to explain this.

The Worm appears to Thel as "an infant," accompanied by the Clod of Clay, who expresses "milky fondness" for the infant as if it were her child. The "matron" Clay explains to Thel that God loves even worms and punishes those who hurt them. Clay invites Thel to see for herself that there is nothing to fear in her "house"—by implication, the underworld or afterlife.

At the end of the story, when she has entered the underworld, Thel hears a mysterious disembodied voice "of sorrow" from the pit. This voice asks questions more intense and frightening than those Thel had asked herself about the nature of existence, and, afraid, she turns and flees back to her own world.

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