The Book of Thel: An Analysis of Death as a Progenitor of Fear
“The Book of Thel:” An Analysis of Death as a Progenitor of Fear
For so long as people have been alive, they have questioned the purpose of their existence. Common phrases, while seemingly cliché, conveniently summarize the truly fundamental concerns that have plagued not only philosophers and poets, but anyone who in the brevity of life has stopped to ask, why? Why are we here? What is our purpose in life? These are the questions that call to age after age of philosophers and pundits, waiting for a satisfactory answer. While this call will hearken after people until the end of their lives, and after mankind until the end of time, another question lies at the root of these, quietly fueling them and perpetuating their importance and immediacy: why must we have a purpose? Why must we know why we are here? In essence, what drives us to search for the “meaning” of life? The answer seems to lie in the paradoxical nature of life: it must die. The fact that life is finite, and more importantly, brief, forces the reflective person to confront the question of purpose. This is why these questions persist in the collective consciousness of humanity. This is why the theme of life and its relationship to death is central in William Blake’s “The Book of Thel.” Thel is confronted with the opportunity of mortal life, an opportunity which frightens her greatly because of impending death and the repercussions that its inevitability generates.
Throughout “The Book of Thel,” Blake offers the reader an answer to the questions which trouble humanity, as well as Thel, a pregenerative soul on the verge of mortality. He also presents the fear of death, of mortality itself, as the causative agent of the questions concerning purpose in life. He accomplishes this through an interaction between the pregenerative Thel and mortal beings on the earth. From these interactions, it becomes clear that Thel fears life because of death. She fears that she will die useless and forgotten, even by God.
Before these themes and questions can be explored, however, the question of another possible interpretation of “The Book of Thel” must be resolved. The poem could be considered a metaphor for a girl of the verge of sexuality, a state which causes her a great deal of trepidation. This, however, is an interpretation that can only be alluded to and examined by metaphor. The metaphor itself, assuming that it is indeed a metaphor, consists of images and textual content that depicts a pregenerative soul struggling with her fears of mortality. Thus, the explicit images presented, and not the possible allusions of a metaphor, will comprise the focus of this analysis.
Thel’s fears are apparent from the very first lines of the poem, in Thel’s Motto. Because the four lines of the Motto are all questions, it introduces the reader to the trepidation and uncertainty which Thel faces as a pregenerative soul, exploring the mortal world. The first two lines concern the nature of knowledge: “Does the Eagle know what is in the pit? / Or wilt thou go ask the Mole” (ll. 1-2)? The last two lines inquire about more abstract ideas: “Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod? / Or Love in a golden bowl” (l. 3-4)? Both parts of the Motto offer glimpses into what will become major issues for Thel later in the poem. The first two lines really ask for the “location” of knowledge. Does any one mortal being hold all knowledge? The answer that is implied by the question is no. Clearly, the Mole would be better able to tell of the pit than would the Eagle. By that same reasoning, the Mole knows nothing of what is in the skies, the domain of the Eagle, thus making the Eagle a more valuable consultant there. The second two lines echo similar ideas, but in a more abstract manner. In asking if Love and Wisdom can be “contained” in physical, concrete objects, the Motto really asks if comprehension of these notions can be packaged and distributed without first-hand experience. Again, the poem seems to respond in the negative. Now the seeds of Thel’s fear can be discerned: if Knowledge can not be found in one specific entity or place, and Love and Wisdom can not be contained in concrete and transferable vessels, then these things must be sought after experientially.
The fear that this notion germinates is one of solitude and adversity in the experience of Knowledge, Love and Wisdom. Since these abstract terms may be considered to be three of the most important aspects of mortal life, especially Love and Wisdom, it is reasonable to assume that the Motto alludes to Thel’s fear that life is not a painless and guided tour of neatly explained experiences and ideas. Rather, Thel fears that life will be a painful, lonely, haphazard ordeal. In the lines that follow, it becomes clear that this fear is more pronounced because of Thel’s notion that she can fail in life, and thus die useless and forgotten.
The third verse-paragraph of the poem begins to elucidate Thel’s “goal” in life, while it continues to describe the source of her trepidation. The majority of the lines in this verse-paragraph are devoted to Thel’s questions concerning the fleeting nature of life and the living. “‘Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall’” (l. 11). She then counts herself among those who are “‘Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water, / Like dreams of infants, like a smile on an infant’s face, / Like the dove’s voice, like transient day, like music in the air’” (ll. 13-15). Blake’s use of imagery here is impeccable. There is the more obvious use of words such as “transient,” “reflection” and “shadows,” which readily convey momentary and passing occurrences, but the true beauty of the poetry lies in the subtly of the subjects chosen to represent transience. A particularly effective example is the image of the infant. Clearly, dreams and smiles are brief in their passing, but what is it about an infant’s smiles and dreams that enhances and completes the image of transience? The answer lies in the connection between the infant and fleeting life. The conjunction of transient occurrences, such as dreams and smiles, with an infant, enhances the notion that death looms over all things in life, at least in Thel’s perception. Even this smiling, dreaming infant, who presumably has his entire life ahead of him, will eventually succumb to death, as all mortal things must.
Thel’s awareness of this impending death causes her to utter the lines that close the third verse-paragraph: “‘Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head, / And gentle sleep the sleep of death and gentle hear the voice / Of him that walketh in the garden at evening time’” (ll. 16-18). Here, Thel’s goal, or hope for her life begins to emerge. She wishes to be with God after Death takes her and ends her brief existence. It does not, however, seem that she wants a union with God that occurs after a toilsome and difficult life of faith and service, which the poem later describes as the keys to a meaningful life. Rather, it seems as though Thel would rather forego mortal life entirely, or find some way to walk with Him without having to endure the hardships of existence. By beginning line sixteen with “‘Ah! gentle may I…,’” Blake subtly and concisely conveys the sense that these are Thel’s hopes and wishes, a “best-case scenario” if she were given an opportunity to chose. Unfortunately for Thel, she seems to understand that this transition can not occur without the adversities of mortal life, and because of her understanding, she questions the merit of entering into mortal existence at all.
At this point, an integration of Thel’s notions can be made, in order to determine the source of her fears. Because of her knowledge of Death’s inevitability, and her consequent understanding of the brevity of life, Thel’s seeks to construct a purpose for mortal existence. When this search is coupled with her desire to “gentle hear the voice” of God after death, Thel’s fear of failure begins to emerge. This fear will become more evident as the poem progresses, and as Thel speaks with the mortal creatures, but it seems as though she fears discovering her purpose and then dying without fulfilling it. In her mind, this would not lead to a life with God; God would forget her and let her fade into oblivion. At first glance, Thel’s conversation with the Lilly bolsters these beliefs.
The Lilly, who hears Thel’s questions, answers by explaining that even though she is meek and lowly, God has promised her a place in “‘“eternal vales”’” (l. 29). The Lilly then responds with her own question: if God has promised her a place, “‘Then why should Thel complain’” (l. 29)? In her response to this, it becomes clear that Thel believes that the Lilly has a place with God because she serves a purpose: she nourishes and shelters others, some who are even meeker than she. Thel’s response focuses on depicting the Lilly’s many uses:
“O thou little virgin of the peaceful valley,
Giving to those that cannot crave, the voiceless, the o’ertired;
Thy breath doth nourish the innocent lamb, he smells thy milky garments,
He crops thy flowers, while thou sittest smiling in his face,….” (ll. 32-35)
Thel’s response goes on to describe how the Lilly’s wine and perfume are given in service, but she quickly returns to her lament that she has no purpose, and may die without meaning: “‘But Thel is like a faint cloud kindled at the rising sun: / I vanish from my pearly throne, and who shall find my place’” (ll. 40-41)? While she begins to understand that service and sacrifice are of great importance in life, Thel fails to grasp another, possibly more important aspect of life—faith. The Lilly only understands that it lives as it should, as it must, and God will remember her and she will “‘“flourish in eternal vales”’” (l. 29). For a more definitive answer, the Lilly refers Thel to the Cloud, whose life is probably the briefest of all.
In the very first line of the second section of the poem, Thel identifies herself with the Cloud because of her perception that they both disappear forever after only the briefest of time:
“ah, Thel is like to Thee.
I pass away, yet I complain, and no one hears my voice.” (ll. 50-51)
Despite this perceived kinship, the Cloud corrects Thel and begins to change her understanding of mortality. He begins by describing his usefulness, even in “passing,” much in the same way that Thel describes the Lilly: “O maid, I tell thee, when I pass away, / It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace, and raptures holy:…” (ll. 57-58). The Cloud descends to the earth, and along with the dew, it feeds the plants and flowers like the “‘“morning manna”’” (l. 27) that the Lilly describes. He describes his rise into the sky with the dew as a wedding, facilitated by the sun’s heat. He then mentions that he falls to the earth again as rain to nourish life. Upon hearing this, Thel no longer feels that she and the Cloud are alike. Since she does not see any purpose in her own mortal existence, she does not feel any kinship with something as useful as the metamorphosing Cloud:
“I fear that I am not like thee;
…I hear the warbling birds,
But I feed not the warbling birds; they fly and seek their food;
But Thel delights in these no more, because I fade away,
And all shall say, ‘Without a use this shining woman liv’d,
Or did she only live to be at death the food of worms?’” (ll. 64-70)
With the utterance of the final two lines of this verse-paragraph, the Cloud rebukes Thel for not comprehending the significance of that service: “How great thy use, how great thy blessing” (l. 73)! The Cloud continues by more clearly articulating the purpose of mortal life: “Everything that lives / Lives not alone, nor for self;…” (ll. 73-74). These statements alter Thel’s thinking. For the first time, she begins to see that even the meekest, most fleeting life has meaning and serves a purpose. These truths were subtly evident in her previous conversation with the Lilly, but Thel did not grasp the notion that if something as frail and forgettable as the Lilly is given purpose, then she should not doubt her own. She does not have faith in the fact that service in itself is purpose enough, and that every being is given the opportunity to serve and sacrifice for others. This message is most lucidly conveyed by the Worm and the Clod of Clay, in their interactions with Thel.
Before the Cloud leaves Thel, he calls the lowly Worm for her, and it rises and settles upon the Lilly’s dewy leaf. When Thel sees the Worm, which is the weakest and most helpless image in the poem, she immediately pities it and wonders who is responsible for its welfare. Again, Blake uses the image of an infant to denote the helplessness of the Worm as well as to serve as an echo to the third verse-paragraph where Thel describes her own perceived position: “‘I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lilly’s leaf’” (l. 81). The Worm is also depicted as sitting on the Lilly, wrapped in its protecting leaf, which is covered in nourishing dew. Blake incorporates images of service from Thel’s previous conversations into the protective scheme surrounding the Worm. The passage also echoes Thel’s depiction of the Lilly in the sense that the Lilly gives to the “‘voiceless’” (l. 33), and the Worm can not speak. It can only weep, and its weeping attracts the attention of the Clod of Clay.
The Clod of Clay successfully transforms Thel’s perceptions of mortal life, in the ideas it expresses and, more importantly, in the ideas it can not express. Like the Cloud, the Clod of Clay emphasizes that “‘we live not for ourselves’” (l. 88), and that everything has its purpose. The Clod of Clay most effectively conveys the latter notion by example: when the Clod hears the weeping Worm, she comes to its aid and comfort, nourishing it with “milky fondness” (l. 87). If a Clod of Clay is given a purpose, a meaning in life, should not Thel have faith that her life will have the same?
This question of faith is eloquently addressed by the Clod of Clay when she conveys to Thel that she does not understand why God sees fit to give the life of a Clod of Clay not only purpose, but also a dignity in that purpose: “‘But how this is, sweet maid, I know not, and I cannot know, / I ponder and I cannot ponder; yet I live and love’” (ll. 95-96). These last two lines cause a pivotal change in Thel’s perception of the mortal world, and in her relationship with its purpose and with God. She finally seems to understand that with a faith in God, everything has its purpose, and that purpose is service and sacrifice for others. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant the creature, God will not forget him.
Thel now has the means by which she can overcome her fear of death because she now understands that its inevitability does not rob one of purpose, nor does it render life useless. She has learned that faith in God’s care and love will ensure that she will not be forgotten, and that her life should be full of active service, not idle trepidation. This is something that is finally impressed upon her by the Clod of Clay, but it is something that has been present throughout her conversations. Clearly, all of the creatures served others, as is discussed in the text. Despite the fact that the Worm’s purpose is not explicit, it does exist, even if it is merely to provide a purpose for the Clod of Clay.
The evidence of faith in the Lilly and in the Cloud is subtle. It is found not in what they do, but in what they do not do. Despite the fundamentally disturbing and challenging questions that Thel asks them both, neither of them are perturbed. They try to answer her as best they can, but when she does not comprehend as they do, they return to their lives and duties, with their faith and security intact and unaffected. In fact, when Thel asks the Cloud about the possibility of her dying useless, the Cloud does not fret, but rather reclines and then proceeds to answer. He is not vexed because his faith is strong, as hers must be if she is to live as a mortal being under God’s care, without fear.
Unfortunately, Thel’s understanding of service and the need for faith does not mean that she is secure in these beliefs. When she is confronted with the unanswerable uncertainties of life, while in the pit, instead of holding fast to her newfound faith, she runs. She runs back to her vales of Har. The voice she hears overwhelms her sapling faith, and she is overcome by the same feelings which frightened her before. Death forces her to look for meaning and purpose in life, and she fears that she will not find and fulfill that purpose, and thus die useless and forgotten.
Through masterful construction and imagery, Blake creates a poem that conveys many emotions and ideas concerning meaning in life and, more importantly, why the search for meaning is necessary. He also offers action in service and faith as means by which the torment of searching for further purpose in life can be avoided. Faith in service is all one needs to know. Concrete proof and comprehension in life is not possible, nor is it necessary. One only needs faith, and faith in God will lead one to serve. In the imagery of Thel’s conversations, Blake subtly, but effectively develops and conveys his ideas in such a manner that the reader takes part in Thel’s indecision, fear, and eventual understanding. Unfortunately for Thel, however, it seems that the fear of death, and the resulting need to find meaning in a brief life is more than she can bare.