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William Blake (1757-1827)

The Book of Thel


THEL'S MOTTO

              1Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?
              2Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?
              3Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
              4Or Love in a golden bowl?

I
          1.1The daughters of the Seraphim led round their sunny flocks,
          1.2All but the youngest: she in paleness sought the secret air,
          1.3To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:
          1.4Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard,
          1.5And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew:

          1.6"O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water,
          1.7Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile and fall?
          1.8Ah! Thel is like a wat'ry bow, and like a parting cloud;
          1.9Like a reflection in a glass; like shadows in the water;
        1.10Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant's face;
        1.11Like the dove's voice; like transient day; like music in the air.
        1.12Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head,
        1.13And gentle sleep the sleep of death, and gentle hear the voice
        1.14Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time."

        1.15The Lily of the valley, breathing in the humble grass,
        1.16Answer'd the lovely maid and said: "I am a wat'ry weed,
        1.17And I am very small and love to dwell in lowly vales;
        1.18So weak, the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head.
        1.19Yet I am visited from heaven, and he that smiles on all
        1.20Walks in the valley and each morn over me spreads his hand,
        1.21Saying, 'Rejoice, thou humble grass, thou new-born lily-flower,
        1.22Thou gentle maid of silent valleys and of modest brooks;
        1.23For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna,
        1.24Till summer's heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs
        1.25To flourish in eternal vales.' Then why should Thel complain?
        1.26Why should the mistress of the vales of Har utter a sigh?"

        1.27She ceas'd and smil'd in tears, then sat down in her silver shrine.

        1.28Thel answer'd: "O thou little virgin of the peaceful valley,
        1.29Giving to those that cannot crave, the voiceless, the o'ertired;
        1.30Thy breath doth nourish the innocent lamb, he smells thy milky garments,
        1.31He crops thy flowers while thou sittest smiling in his face,
        1.32Wiping his mild and meekin mouth from all contagious taints.
        1.33Thy wine doth purify the golden honey; thy perfume,
        1.34Which thou dost scatter on every little blade of grass that springs,
        1.35Revives the milked cow, and tames the fire-breathing steed.
        1.36But Thel is like a faint cloud kindled at the rising sun:
        1.37I vanish from my pearly throne, and who shall find my place?"

        1.38"Queen of the vales," the Lily answer'd, "ask the tender cloud,
        1.39And it shall tell thee why it glitters in the morning sky,
        1.40And why it scatters its bright beauty thro' the humid air.
        1.41Descend, O little Cloud, and hover before the eyes of Thel."

        1.42      The Cloud descended, and the Lily bow'd her modest head
        1.43And went to mind her numerous charge among the verdant grass.

II
          2.1"O little Cloud," the virgin said, "I charge thee tell to me
          2.2Why thou complainest not when in one hour thou fade away:
          2.3Then we shall seek thee, but not find. Ah! Thel is like to thee:
          2.4I pass away: yet I complain, and no one hears my voice."

          2.5The Cloud then shew'd his golden head and his bright form emerg'd,
          2.6Hovering and glittering on the air before the face of Thel.

          2.7"O virgin, know'st thou not our steeds drink of the golden springs
          2.8Where Luvah doth renew his horses? Look'st thou on my youth,
          2.9And fearest thou, because I vanish and am seen no more,
        2.10Nothing remains? O maid, I tell thee, when I pass away
        2.11It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace and raptures holy:
        2.12Unseen descending, weigh my light wings upon balmy flowers,
        2.13And court the fair-eyed dew to take me to her shining tent:
        2.14The weeping virgin trembling kneels before the risen sun,
        2.15Till we arise link'd in a golden band and never part,
        2.16But walk united, bearing food to all our tender flowers."

        2.17"Dost thou, O little Cloud? I fear that I am not like thee,
        2.18For I walk thro' the vales of Har, and smell the sweetest flowers,
        2.19But I feed not the little flowers; I hear the warbling birds,
        2.20But I feed not the warbling birds; they fly and seek their food:
        2.21But Thel delights in these no more, because I fade away;
        2.22And all shall say, 'Without a use this shining woman liv'd,
        2.23Or did she only live to be at death the food of worms?' "

        2.24The Cloud reclin'd upon his airy throne and answer'd thus:

        2.25"Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies,
        2.26How great thy use, how great thy blessing! Every thing that lives
        2.27Lives not alone nor for itself. Fear not, and I will call
        2.28The weak worm from its lowly bed, and thou shalt hear its voice,
        2.29Come forth, worm of the silent valley, to thy pensive queen."

        2.30The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lily's leaf,
        2.31And the bright Cloud sail'd on, to find his partner in the vale.

III
          3.1Then Thel astonish'd view'd the Worm upon its dewy bed.

          3.2"Art thou a Worm? Image of weakness, art thou but a Worm?
          3.3I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lily's leaf
          3.4Ah! weep not, little voice, thou canst not speak, but thou canst weep.
          3.5Is this a Worm? I see thee lay helpless and naked, weeping,
          3.6And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mother's smiles."
          3.7      The Clod of Clay heard the Worm's voice and rais'd her pitying head:
          3.8She bow'd over the weeping infant, and her life exhal'd
          3.9In milky fondness: then on Thel she fix'd her humble eyes.

        3.10"O beauty of the vales of Har! we live not for ourselves.
        3.11Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed.
        3.12My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark;
        3.13But he, that loves the lowly, pours his oil upon my head,
        3.14And kisses me, and binds his nuptial bands around my breast,
        3.15And says: 'Thou mother of my children, I have loved thee
        3.16And I have given thee a crown that none can take away.'
        3.17But how this is, sweet maid, I know not, and I cannot know;
        3.18I ponder, and I cannot ponder; yet I live and love."

        3.19The daughter of beauty wip'd her pitying tears with her white veil,
        3.20And said: "Alas! I knew not this, and therefore did I weep.
        3.21That God would love a Worm I knew, and punish the evil foot
        3.22That wilful bruis'd its helpless form; but that he cherish'd it
        3.23With milk and oil I never knew, and therefore did I weep;
        3.24And I complain'd in the mild air, because I fade away,
        3.25And lay me down in thy cold bed, and leave my shining lot."

        3.26"Queen of the vales," the matron Clay answer'd, "I heard thy sighs,
        3.27And all thy moans flew o'er my roof, but I have call'd them down.
        3.28Wilt thou, O Queen, enter my house? 'Tis given thee to enter
        3.29And to return: fear nothing, enter with thy virgin feet."

IV
          4.1The eternal gates' terrific porter lifted the northern bar:
          4.2Thel enter'd in and saw the secrets of the land unknown.
          4.3She saw the couches of the dead, and where the fibrous roots
          4.4Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:
          4.5A land of sorrows and of tears where never smile was seen.

          4.6She wander'd in the land of clouds thro' valleys dark, list'ning
          4.7Dolours and lamentations; waiting oft beside a dewy grave
          4.8She stood in silence, list'ning to the voices of the ground,
          4.9Till to her own grave plot she came, and there she sat down,
        4.10And heard this voice of sorrow breathed from the hollow pit.

        4.11"Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?
        4.12Or the glist'ning Eye to the poison of a smile?
        4.13Why are Eyelids stor'd with arrows ready drawn,
        4.14Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie?
        4.15Or an Eye of gifts and graces show'ring fruits and coined gold?
        4.16Why a Tongue impress'd with honey from every wind?
        4.17Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?
        4.18Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror, trembling, and affright?
        4.19Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?
        4.20Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?"

        4.21The Virgin started from her seat, and with a shriek
        4.22Fled back unhinder'd till she came into the vales of Har.

Notes

1.1] First engraved in 1789, in eight plates. In the engraved lyrical poems, the complete text of the poem and the accompanying design usually go on a single plate; the longer engraved poems take the form of a sequence of plates in which text and design may have any kind of proportion to one another. These longer poems are called "prophecies," the name Blake gave to America and Europe (see below), and they deal with conflicts and interactions of states of the human mind, to which Blake gave names of his own. Thel (perhaps from the Greek thelos, will) is an unborn spirit first seeking, then shrinking back from, birth in the physical world. The "silver rod" and "golden bowl" of the motto are symbols of the physical body divided into two sexes, and are partly derived from Ecclesiastes 12: 6. The motto means: "Is it possible to experience genuine love and wisdom (the world of the eagle) in a physical state (the world of the mole)?"
the Seraphim. Blake etched on the plate "Mne Seraphim," apparently meaning some form of disembodied angelic intelligences.

1.4] Adona: probably the river of Adonis (cf. Paradise Lost, I, 450); the unborn world of Thel is intended to recall both Eden and the Gardens of Adonis in The Faerie Queene.

1.14] Cf. Gen. 3: 8.

1.26] vales of Har: the world of imagination before it creates anything: Har is a character in another poem of about the same date, Tiriel, related to The Book of Thel.

2.8] Luvah: here the spirit of the sun, the Greek Apollo; later identified with Orc (see notes to America, below).

4.1] northern. The north is the nadir in Blake's symbolism, and the passage means that Thel is descending from the unborn into the physical world, The symbol is derived from the two entrances to the Cave of the Nymphs in Homer's Odyssey, Book XIII, by way of an allegorical commentary on this episode, Porphyry's De Antro Nympharum.

4.9] grave plot: her physical body.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: William Blake, Songs of Innocence (1789). Blake's Illuminated Books, ed. David Bindman (Princeton, NJ: William Blake Trust; London: Tate Gallery, 1991-). See Vol. 2. PR 4142 B46 1991 ROBA.
First publication date: 1789
RPO poem editor: Northrop Frye
RP edition: 3RP 2.285.
Recent editing: 4:2002/3/14

Form: unrhymed heptameter


Other poems by William Blake