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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

Blake packs various themes into this narrative poem, many of which were longstanding preoccupations of his. Certainly, innocence and experience is key here. Thel, the protagonist, is defined by her "virgin" state and her "paleness," both elements which represent her purity and innocence. The youngest of several daughters, her feminine chastity is a symbol of innocence. She wants to understand why things on earth are so transient and how people (and other natural elements) can stand to exist in a way that seems to have no meaning. She wants to know if there is more to existence than this world, and she accepts the Clod of Clay's invitation to enter her house with her "virgin feet."

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When she does so, however, and sees the "couches of the dead" in a land that is entirely sorrow and no smiles, Thel changes her mind. This experience and understanding she had sought is horrifying to her, particularly when she hears a disembodied voice ask questions which are similar to, but a darker progression of, the ones she had asked herself. Why are we so corruptible? Why is it that we respond to "honey" poured like poison into our ears? Unable to stand it, Thel turns and flees. Symbolically, she is returning from the valley of experience back to the vales of her innocence, but as the story ends here, we have no way of knowing whether such a journey back will really be possible. Once we have gained knowledge, can we ever recapture innocence again?

Other themes in this poem include transience—something with which Thel is preoccupied, as she wonders why fleeting things like clouds and lilies can stand to exist so briefly—and the natural cycle of life. The cloud explains to Thel that, while he may appear only briefly in the sky, he goes on to greater "raptures" as he becomes rain and then becomes part of the flowers. The Clod explains to Thel that even worms are loved by God and that we should not live for ourselves but for others. As such, every life is valuable because it has played a role in the grander scheme of things. Thel thinks this is inadequate and wants to understand more. Of course, however, having gone on to death and found it as full of sorrow and questions as her own world, Thel rejects what she has learned and turns away from it.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

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.

A more naturalistic interpretation of the poem views Thel as a young girl in a state of innocence, who is reluctant to enter the state of experience. In his Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), Blake called these the “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”; the unreflective joy and naïveté of innocence had to give way to the more somber realities of maturity before innocence could be recaptured at a higher level. Thel’s intellectual questioning and her unhappiness show that she has already outgrown innocence, but her refusal to move on to the next stage in life shows her lack of maturity. She is refusing to grow up; her egotism and selfishness block her progress. The name Thel was probably taken from a Greek word meaning “will,” and this may imply that Thel is also showing a deficiency of will.

Thel would cease her lamentation if she could learn to go beyond seeing life solely in terms of the individual ego and absorb the philosophy taught by the Lilly, Cloud, and Clod of Clay. They all take delight in what Blake was later to call “self-annihilation”; they willingly give up their individual identities so as to serve the larger purposes of creation. In doing so, they feel constantly blessed and fulfilled. This is the central paradox of all religious faith: He who loses his life shall save it. Blake’s achievement in The Book of Thel is to have expressed this view with such charm and delicacy, giving a voice to the humblest and apparently most insignificant aspects of creation.

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