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“What have I to do with thee?”

The rejected “thee” of the fourth line of “To Tirzah” is Mary in that she was the original recipient of Jesus’s snub at the marriage at Cana (John 2.4); she is also Tirzah because that is how the poem is addressed. Yet perhaps the preceding three lines may be read as directed (in rebuke? in consolation?) rather towards the two women who on the green hill below the text of the poem support the decaying corpse of a man: 1 Blake is quoted from Erdman’s edition, which is abbreviated as E with page numbers following in the parenthetical references. Other abbreviations include B (Butlin’s catalogue) and IB (Erdman’s Illuminated Blake).

Whate’er is Born of Mortal Birth,
Must be consumed with the Earth
To rise from Generation free.1

This group suggests Mary and Martha of Bethany with their brother Lazarus22 Both Mellor and Lincoln speak of Lazarus in this connection, but neither identifies Mary and Martha, or deals fully with the implications of the Lazarus story. Mellor says of this design “an old man pours a reviving. baptismal water upon a corpse held by two women. This iconographic fusion of the descent from the cross and the raising of Lazarus is summed up in the lines engraved upon the old man’s robe—‘It is raised a Spiritual Body.’ Mortal existence is totally evil; only through death can fallen man be freed from his corrupted human form and redeemed as[e] a spiritual, purified body” (p.189) Lincoln, who foregrounds the negative reading of the design allows that “seen as an image of redemption the design shows humanity “Raised a Spiritual Body, “brought back from the grave like Lazarus (whose two sisters had faith in his resurrection,” but qualifies this by saying that “the Saviour who presides over this vision of Liberty is not Jesus but his Father, the God who promotes the vision of human nature as sinful” (201-02). already decomposing, as Martha warns Jesus (John 11.39). Indeed the central figure resembles Lazarus in Blake’s painting of The Raising of Lazarus in Aberdeen (B 487), in that Lazarus is emerging from the ground (not the sepulchre mentioned in John 11.38-41) and seems to be half in and half out of the grave. Certainly the inscription on the robes of the old man bending over the corpse—“It is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15.44)—suggests Blake’s reading of the raising of Lazarus as a spiritual resurrection misinterpreted by a materialistic church begin page 90 | back to top which completed its creed with the assertion of belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”33 The Apostle’s Creed in the translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: my emphasis.

The comforting of Martha and Mary by the promise of resurrection for their brother is a repeated note in Vala, or The Four Zoas, where they appear as Daughters of Beulah:

The daughters of Beulah saw the Divine Vision they were comforted
And as a Double female form loveliness & perfection of beauty
They bowd the head & worshippd & with mild voice spoke these words

Lord. Saviour if thou hadst been here our brother had not died
And now we know that whatsoever thou wilt ask of God
He will give it thee ..............................
The Saviour mild & gentle bent over the corse of Death
Saying If ye will Believe your Brother shall rise again
(FZ 55.13-15; 56.1-18, E 337)

This dialogue follows closely the gospel version of the exchange between Martha and Jesus (John 11.21-27).44 Johnson and Wilkie note that Mary and Martha form the “Double female” (222). Again in Night the Seventh the daughters of Beulah find comfort in these same words in the face of death when they write on “all their tombs & pillars & on every Urn” the eternal promise “If ye will believe your B[r]other shall rise again” (FZ 87.4-6, E 367). The daughters of Beulah are still identified with the sisters of Bethany in Night the Eighth when in praising the Lamb of God “they anoint his feet with ointment they wipe them with the hair of their head” (FZ 113.37, E 377) just as Mary of Bethany tends Jesus in the brief interval in John’s gospel between the raising of Lazarus and the passion narrative (12.3). Flowing hair is a distinguishing mark of Mary of Bethany (as of Mary Magdalene), and in the “To Tirzah” design, as in The Raising of Lazarus, the two women are distinguished by their hair, one loose and flowing and the other bound or (in the painting) covered.

The old man offering a pitcher is more mysterious. He looks like the Ancient Bard in “The Voice of the Ancient Bard,” which follows soon after “To Tirzah” in seven copies of the Songs of Experience, but also resembles Blake’s portrayals of Joseph of Arimathea, with his long hair, long beard and robes: this is how Joseph is represented in three of the four versions of Joseph of Arimathea Preaching to the Inhabitants of Britain (B 262, 286, 780).55 In the other version he is shown naked, but bearded and old (B 76). He is long-haired, bearded and old in two other paintings, The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb (B 426) and The Entombment (B 427). Joseph is associated with the dead body of Jesus, as the follower who takes him away for burial. If the old man in the “To Tirzah” design is Joseph of Arimathea, Mellor’s suggestion of “an iconographic fusion of the raising of Lazarus and the descent from the cross” (189) is strengthened.

Joseph of Arimathea is associated not only with British Christianity but also with the figure of the artist, for Blake sees him as “One of the Gothic Artists who Built the Cathedrals in what we call the Dark Ages” (E 671).66 Presumably this is why Bindman speaks of him as a figure of the artist (124). The dead man (Lazarus) is thus possibly flanked by, on the one hand Mary and Martha, and on the other hand by Joseph of Arimathea; that is on the one hand by two women identified by Blake as daughters of Beulah, and thus as Muses, and on the other hand by the image of the Gothic artist. If both Joseph of Arimathea and the sisters of Lazarus are too concerned with physical death in the biblical narratives that concern them, all three believe in the power of Jesus and are associated with what can transform their vision, the work of the arts. Thus indeed in this design the sexes rise “to work and weep” (8). Work after all is essentially redemptive in the poems that are roughly contemporary with “To Tirzah” and with the Joseph of Arimathea inscription.77 Erdman implies that the date of “To Tirzah” is approximately 1803-06 (800). The Joseph of Arimathea inscription is from 1809-10 (889). Jerusalem and Milton, texts in which work is central, date from approximately 1804-15 (809) and 1804-10 (806) respectively.

The first three lines of “To Tirzah” may thus be read as words of comfort in that they speak not only of the certainty of death and corruption but also of the certainty of rising again spiritually: and the design addresses this element in the poem.88 Erdman seems to prefer such a “hopeful vision” suggesting that we could “see the two women and the pitcher-offering old man . . . as spiritual comforters . . . . As the “Mortal part” is consumed, the “Spiritual Body” is welcomed into the garden, and love does give support” (IB94). These lines are an affirmation followed by a strong rejection: the words of the fourth line are as abrupt begin page 91 | back to top and disconcerting in the poem as they are in their original biblical context. The various verbal elements of the poem—the harshness of these repeated words, their added impact as Jesus’ own words, their allusion to the mother of Jesus, the later address to “thou Mother of my Mortal part” (9), the knowledge that Tirzah is elsewhere (Milton 19:49-60, E 113; Jerusalem 67:44-51, E 221) the cruel imprisoner of the senses, the apparent clumsiness of the repetition in the first line (born, birth)—all work together to foreground birth as death. Read as a visual text, however, the poem with its greater complexity of biblical allusion—referring not only to the Jesus who denies his mother and dies as an act of liberation, but also to the Jesus who loves his friends and whose death leads to the life of a “spiritual body”—addresses death as birth. This sense is strengthened by the allusion to the story of Lazarus in the second stanza: “Mercy changed Death into Sleep” (7). Jesus the merciful, the forgiver of sins, associates the death of Lazarus with sleep when speaking to his disciples: “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth, but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep” (John 11.11). The rising from such a sleep ends Jerusalem and is besought by the bard who introduces the Songs of Experience.

The fourth and the last eight lines of the poem are so absolute in their rejection of the maternal and the natural99 Such a connection and rejection of the maternal and the natural is an aspect of various religious traditions: E. P. Thompson, discussing contemporary views of the humanum maternum, says of “To Tirzah” that “if we set aside the enigmatic second verse, might be an expression of orthodox Swedenborgian doctrine” (148). He also describes the poem as employing “the imagery of the feminine principle (the womb) clothing, enclosing, and binding the spirit in a way which Muggletonians as well as neo-Platonists would have understood” (81). that they have often obscured the other implications of both song and design. Thus the female figures have been seen as necessarily negative—as useless Sex-Love and Mother-Love (Keynes 52), as “Tirzah-like” figures (Lincoln 201), or as Rahab and Tirzah (Lindsay 83). Yet while “the extreme hostility and contempt for the female and the maternal” as Mary Lynn Johnson says (61) cannot be easily dismissed, the presence of the sisters of Bethany in the design suggests not the overpowering anger of the third and fourth stanzas, but the power of belief and the power of human art.

Rajan speaks of this song’s “deeply pessimistic antinaturalism” (222); Leader sees it as “the Bard’s nadir” (202); Lincoln’s long and judicious discussion of the poem suggests that it can be seen in two ways, either as showing “a clarification of vision” or as emphasizing the death of Jesus, which emphasis “may confirm the power of Tirzah by reinforcing a self-denying attitude” (201). I would add this qualification: the figures of Mary and Martha of Bethany (and perhaps of Joseph of Arimathea) in the design, together with the obligation “to work” (“and weep”) in the text suggest that the song is not a pure rejection of human life. Art remains, work remains (as the last plate of Jerusalem shows Los and Enitharmon still laboring at the forge and the loom). If as Lincoln suggests “as the fruits [on the tree in the design] indicate, the myth of Eden predominates here” then Adam’s biblical curse—work—is seen here as his blessing. The preceding reading is intended not so much to elucidate as to complicate: after all, the song itself, like “The Tyger” (but with no final modification), ends with a repetition of its initial question.


Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

—. The Illuminated Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Anchor, 1974.

—. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Andrew Lincoln. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

—. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes.

Butlin, Martin. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

Johnson, Mary Lynn. “Feminist Approaches to Teaching Songs.Approaches to Teaching Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” Ed. Robert F. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg. New York: MLA, 1989: 57-66.

Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake’s Songs. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Lindsay, David. Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” London, 1989

Mellor, Anne K. Blake’s Human Form Divine. Berkeley: U of California P, 1974.

Rajan, Tilottama. The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Thompson, E.P. Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. New York: The New Press, 1994.

Wilkie, Brian, and Mary Lynn Johnson. Blake’s “Four Zoas”: The Design of a Dream. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1978.

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