The Poem

The Book of Thel is one of William Blake’s early “Prophetic Books,” illustrated and printed by Blake himself on eight plates, in a process he invented. The poem itself consists of a motto followed by four sections of blank-verse paragraphs of varying lengths.

After the motto has posed some cryptic questions about how knowledge and wisdom might be acquired, the reader is introduced to Thel, a young girl wandering in a mythological pastoral setting, the vales of Har. The unhappy Thel is asking many questions about the purpose of her life. She is particularly distressed about the transience of existence. Why must everything in creation, including Thel herself, fade and die?

Various nonhuman aspects of nature, appearing to her in human form, try to answer her questions. First, a “Lilly of the valley” explains that although it is small and weak, it receives continual blessings from heaven during its brief span of life. When it fades away it flourishes again in “eternal vales.” The Lilly tells Thel that she has no reason to complain. Thel replies that although she can see how the Lilly plays a useful part in nature—providing nourishment for the lamb and, with its perfume, reviving the cows after milking—she cannot see that her own life has any useful function. The Lilly tells her to ask the Cloud.

Thel asks the descending Cloud why it does not complain, even though it fades away so quickly. The Cloud replies...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Forms and Devices

The Book of Thel is the gentlest of Blake’s illuminated books, a complete contrast to the harshness of Tiriel, which was written at about the same time. The poem is written in iambic heptameters, usually with a caesura after the third or fourth foot of each line. Blake adapted the ballad form, in which lines of three feet and four feet alternate, consolidating this pattern into one line. The meter is fairly regular, although there is enough variation to avoid monotony. The repetition of soft consonants, such as l and f, in the opening sections create the dominant tone of the poem’s language. The overall effect is one of sweetness and femininity; the word “gentle,” for example, is repeated four times in lines 12-13.

The only major change in the musical, flowing language and meter comes in the last few verse paragraphs, when Thel contemplates the harshness of earthly existence. The line length becomes irregular, varying between five feet and eight feet. There is an increased use of trochees rather than iambs. In addition, the insistent and cumulative repetitions in the questions Thel hears about the roles of the senses (a technique Blake used frequently in his later prophetic books) impart a feeling of intensity and urgency that has not been felt in the languid and passive atmosphere of the poem up to that point.

Unusual names and settings, such as the river of Adona, Luvah’s horses, and the vales of...

(The entire section is 478 words.)