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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 264

The Book of Thel introduces us to a virginal shepherdess girl named Thel, who resides in the Vales of Har along with her mother and sisters. Thel is a loner who is experiencing something of an existential crisis in that she doesn't understand why all beings must eventually grow old and die.

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Thel wanders the countryside and meets the Lily of the Valley and the Cloud, both of whom try to comfort her, but Thel remains inconsolable. The Cloud, in particular, seeks to assuage some of Thel's fears by saying that although he is sometimes not visible, he is always present. Thel counters that it is not the same for her, because when she dies, she will only be "food for worms." The cloud encourages her to think differently about her time on earth, because humans should not live only for themselves.

Thel continues her journey and meets a Clod of Clay, who encourages her to visit her realm beneath the ground where Thel—and all the dead—will eventually reside. The Clod of Clay can be seen as a symbol for Jesus' becoming human (transforming into a man of clay, like Adam). Thel cautiously enters the Clod of Clay's dominion, a "land of sorrows and of tears," but then becomes aware of plaintive, impossibly sad voices that cause her great distress. Thel cannot bear to stay any longer and flees home, unable or unwilling to believe that we have so little control over our own destiny. Thel remains an eternal, innocent virgin, because she cannot contemplate a future devoid of her own existence.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

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 that when it vanishes, it is to a far richer life, “to love, to peace, and raptures holy.” It gives up its separate existence and merges into the morning dew which then provides food for all the flowers. Thel is still not comforted. She fears that she is not like a cloud. She does not provide food for the flowers, even though she can enjoy the sweetness of their smell. She will die and become the food of worms, and there will have been no purpose to her life.

The Cloud replies that this is not so, because “every thing that lives,/ Lives not alone, nor for itself,” and calls to a worm to confirm this. Thel sees a worm on the Lilly leaf, and thinks it is weeping like a newborn baby. A Clod of Clay emerges and repeats that nothing lives merely for itself. The Clod may appear to be the least significant thing, but God pours blessings on her as mother of all the children of the earth. The Clod does not understand how this can happen, but she lives and loves without questioning. Thel, still weeping, replies that although she knew that God might cherish a worm, she did not not realize the full extent of the divine love. The Clod of Clay invites Thel to enter her domain and play her full part in earthly existence. Thel has nothing to fear and will be able to return to her vales.

Thel enters the domain of earth, but she discovers it to be “A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.” She wanders around in a distressed condition until she sees her own grave. She hears a voice coming from the grave, asking a series of questions about why the five senses are permitted to register such intense and horrifying experiences in life. Thel is terrified and rushes back to the peaceful vales of Har.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

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 Har, create a mythological atmosphere. Thel herself is described as a daughter of Mne Seraphim, a name Blake may have found in the work of the Renaissance magician and alchemist Cornelius Agrippa. The mythological elements provide an appropriate background for the poem’s major device, the pathetic fallacy, which allows the elements of nature, both animate and inanimate, to find a voice.

All Blake’s illuminated books involve both text and designs. The illustrations do not merely illustrate the text; sometimes they provide a counterpoint, a new angle on the matter of the poem, or put the text in a wider context. The Book of Thel has six illustrations, the most interesting of which is the final one. It shows a young girl, possibly but not necessarily Thel, and two smaller children, riding on a serpent. Thel holds the reins in her hands and appears to be in control of the beast, and the children look as if they are enjoying themselves.

The serpent is an ancient symbol with many meanings. In alchemy, the serpent is often shown with its tail in its mouth and symbolizes nature in its unregenerate or untamed form. Seeing the young figure riding the serpent of nature with such ease gives the reader another perspective on the ending of the poem. Perhaps Thel is needlessly afraid of the powers of nature, which may be more benevolent than she realizes.

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