Seeing Thel as Serpent
Thel’s motto remains one of the most enigmatic aspects of William Blake’s short Book of Thel. It is composed of a series of questions, the intent of which is unclear, and which only seem to provoke more questions:
Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?Most discussion focuses on the second pair of questions, and my argument begins with this set. Two major sources are widely suggested for these lines: Ecclesiastes and Milton’s Comus. The former refers to the issue of mortality which is of paramount concern to Thel, and the latter bears a relation to Thel’s virginal and frightened chastity. I suggest that, while contributing to our understanding of these lines, neither Ecclesiastes nor Comus comprehends the full or multiple meaning of Thel and its motto. Blake first composed these lines in Tiriel in a section which he subsequently deleted, and this original context suggests another metaphor which has implications for the whole of the later book.
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole:
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
O Love in a golden bowl?
(i.1-4, E 3)
When Tiriel first utters the questions about the rod and bowl, there is no clear reference to sexuality and certainly no allusion to Comus. Tiriel’s concern with his old age and mortality echoes Ecclesiastes: “before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken” (12:6). But there are significant differences. Cord is replaced by rod, and neither wisdom nor love is associated with these objects in Ecclesiastes. Originally a single line, “Can wisdom be put in a silver rod or love in a golden bowl” (deleted from Tiriel 8, E 815), these questions occur in Tiriel’s final venting of rage against his father. The anger expressed by Tiriel against power supported by a hypocritical religion is a familiar theme in Blake’s work. Here Tiriel questions the universalizing myth of “Thy God of love thy heaven of joy” (del., E 815) invoked by a natural religion which turns Tiriel into a serpent. As a child, Tiriel claims that he was not given nourishment and milk by his mother, and that his father scourged him into weak infant sorrow. This treatment bred hypocrisy—“the idiots wisdom & the wise mans folly” (del., E 815). Elizabeth Stieg identifies Tiriel as a false prophet, “one who speaks in God’s name to tyrannize over others” (296). Tiriel is brought to that hypocritical and limiting religion which Blake elsewhere identifies as feminine: “Compelld to pray repugnant & to humble the immortal spirit / Till I am subtil as a serpent in paradise” (8.23-24, E begin page 88 | 285). I suggest the transformation into a serpent that Tiriel undergoes is identical to Blake’s intention in the drawing of a serpent at the end of Thel.
When Tiriel asks “Can wisdom be put in a silver rod or love in a golden bowl,” he appears to allude to his father’s scourging “off all youthful fantasies” (8.18, E 285) and to the replacement of his mother’s milk and nourishment presumably by food served in a dish. As a metaphor extending Tiriel’s personal experience, the silver rod and golden cup have wider reference to abusive political and religious authorities which can be identified with the sceptre and the chalice. Blake’s condemnation and linking of King and Priest occur throughout his work. For instance, in “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Experience, Blake connects “God & his Priest & King / Who make up a heaven of our misery” (11-12, E 23). This identification is also seen clearly in the alliance between the Archbishop and the sceptre-wielding King in The French Revolution. Tiriel thus inquires whether wisdom can come from a silver sceptre and if love can be found in a golden chalice. The gold and silver symbolize the hypocrisy with which these symbols are overlaid. In particular, the image of the golden bowl is striking since it recalls the Eucharistic cup representing Christ’s sacrificial offering. But the golden chalice of a wealthy and selfish church in the face of poverty creates an image of contradiction. While wisdom and love are declared, their opposite is evinced. Gold and precious jewels are used in the same way in “I saw a chapel all of gold.” Just as Tiriel is transformed into a serpent, this chapel breeds a serpent who vomits “his poison out / On the bread & on the wine” (13-14, E 467).
I suggest that we read Thel as a type of the Female Will, and, as such, as a metaphor for the limiting natural religion enforced by priest and king. Thel’s name is itself a Greek pun on female (thel) and[e] will (thel).1↤ 1 E. B. Murray draws attention to the popular contemporary recognition of Thel as Greek for woman after the publication in 1780-81 of Martin Madan’s notorious polemic, Thelyphthora (see esp. 276 and n4). Susan Fox argues that in Thel Blake depicts a feminine failure which
foreshadows the genderless failure of active desire Blake will develop in later poems: in the context of his other works Thel suggests not just the frailty of women, but the “feminine” frailty of all human beings. In Europe (1794), engraved five years after the Innocence songs and Thel, female characters represent not only the darker propensities Blake feared in women, but the technically genderless tyrannies of nature and religion as well. (511)In later works, Blake consolidates his idea of Female Will and develops it in an explicit opposition to an active Will. While there is no male Will in this early poem, Blake depicts in Thel the attributes that he will later give to the separated female emanation.
Foster Damon draws our attention to two traditional ways of understanding
Thel. While Damon argues that Thel’s fear of maturation and
motherhood is an “obvious” interpretation of the poem, he also
suggests that Thel represents a soul fearful of entering the world and
hypothesizes that the Book of Thel is an elegy for a
possible stillborn child of the Blakes.2↤ 2
Damon finds support for this hypothesis in what he contends
is yet another allusion to a miscarriage in Los’s words to the
Albion women in Jerusalem:
To the golden Loom of
Love! to the moth-labourd Woof
A Garment and Cradle weaving for the infantine Terror:
For fear; at entering the gate into our World of cruel
Lamentation: it flee back & hide in Non-Entitys dark wild.
(56.13-16, E 206) Damon makes this argument in A Blake Dictionary (401) and “Blake and Milton” (94). In either case, Damon contends that Thel never reappears in any of Blake’s later poetry, either because she is “far too nice a girl” (Dictionary 401) or because the poem lacks a universal application since “most souls do not refuse to be born” (“Blake and Milton” 94). In contrast to Damon, I argue that we do see a reincarnation of Thel in Blake’s development of a fearful Female Will. The “Thel” who reappears is the one who corresponds to the first interpretation of Thel acknowledged by Damon to be obvious, but I place a more sinister interpretation on this girl who is “too nice.” In Jerusalem, Los’s thunderous query, “O Albion why didst thou a Female Will Create?” (56.43, E 206), is uttered in response to the Albion women’s declaration of timidity: “We Women tremble at the light therefore: hiding fearful/The Divine Vision with Curtain & Veil & fleshly Tabernacle” (56.39-40, E 206). The women’s statement of prohibitive fear recalls the near final lines of Thel: “Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy! / Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?” (6.19-20, E 6). Limited by her mortality, Thel separates herself from her fellow creatures and, by refusing to give, she becomes symbolic of self-oriented religion.
Rather than seeing an infinite world, Thel is bound by death, wanting to “hear the voice / Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time” (1.14, E 3). In Genesis, when God is heard walking in the garden in the evening time, Adam and Eve hide themselves because they have disobeyed, and then God curses them with their own mortality: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). The voice which speaks in the garden is punitive and utters death; Thel desires to be bound by this voice which insists on mortality.
Some recent critics read Thel in a positive light and see in her a rebellious female—a type of proto-feminist, years beyond Mary Wollstonecraft.3↤ 3 For example, Gerda Norvig argues, For despite the evidence that Blake later on adopted a revisionary form of these same Christian ideals, my contention is that in this text he represented and endorsed a liminal view of the desiring self for the purpose of critiquing a philosophy detrimental to the energies of real women even as it served the so-called feminine values of an empirical, deistical patriarchal order. (271) Applauding Thel’s refusal to begin page 89 | submit to masculine demands, sexual or otherwise, they suggest that Blake approved of Thel. It is important, however, to distinguish a feminist sympathy with Thel from Blake’s attitude, and I would avoid the danger of falsely attributing a feminist agenda to Blake. Blake’s work is not written in support of the 1990s hard won recognition of a woman’s right to say no, but rather identifies the nay-saying virgin with natural religion. Alicia Ostriker’s comment that “Thel is selfish, and a coward” (151), while not representative of most current feminist readings of Thel’s actions, is probably closer to Blake’s own reading of his creation.
Throughout the book, images identify Thel as a parody or false Christ. In the frontispiece, Thel is depicted as a shepherdess without sheep. Originally she is not without a caring role, but like the leaders of the church or false prophets, she is a false shepherd and abandons her sheep. In each of the illustrations, Thel does not act, but merely presents a formal imitation of her interlocutors’ activities. In the second plate, the lily bows deeply because she is weighed down by her fruit—representing her generative powers and her gifts. Thel, in contrast, engages in a shallow ritual bow. While the cloud in plate 4 spreads his arms to drop his moisture, Thel spreads her arms over the baby worm at a safe distance from which she can give nothing to him. David Erdman comments that in plate 5 Thel “almost makes a cradle of her arms” (39). This empty cradle parodies the clod of clay lying on the ground and perhaps playing with the baby. Thel is like a golden bowl, for like it, she is a hypocritical imitation of loving kindness. While Thel does eventually enter the earth, she does not engage experience; she only observes, listens and then flees.
In Thel, the verses concerning the silver rod and golden bowl are preceded by two other questions: “Does the Eagle know what is in the pit? / Or wilt thou go ask the Mole” (i.1-2, E 3). The reference to the Mole, in connection with gold and silver symbols of religion and authority, recalls the only mole who appears in the Bible. Because of Blake’s immersion in the Bible’s prophetic books, this passage in Isaiah should be viewed as an important, though previously neglected, intertext:
And they shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth. In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats. (Isaiah 2:19-20; my emphasis)This passage speaks of powerful leaders taking refuge in the ground when “the day of the Lord” comes and of their realization that their limiting natural religion is not large enough. In particular, “The Lord will enter into judgement with the ancients of his people, and the princes thereof: for ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses” (Isaiah 3:14). Thel’s visit to the caves of the earth is prompted by a personal fear of death or her own “day of the Lord” rather than a universal and apocalyptic one, but in these caves she also encounters terror in the face of insistent and unrelenting questioning. The silver and gold idols—the silver sceptre which pretends to wisdom, but really is a sign of self serving power, and the gold chalice which symbolizes not love, but self-love—are undermined by the questions which are asked.
The series of questions emphasizes Thel’s dependence on her eyes and ears—her mortal senses. They query the bounds placed on love. In contrast to the motto’s silver rod, Isaiah introduces a rod which is not limited and bound, and which will contain wisdom: “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse . . . And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Isaiah 11:1-2). In contrast to Thel whose “Ear cannot be closed to its own destruction/ Or the glistning Eye to the poison of a smile” (6.11-12, E 6), he “shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears” (Isaiah 11:3). Thel, however, is concerned with self, and she will not face the challenge posed by the questions which she encounters under the earth. Rather than entering into an active love which will confront natural religion, she flees. Thel attempts to escape her own mortality by entering the holes of the earth, but eventually she opts to return to her own enclosing, safe and dissembling world.
Donald Pearce argues that Thel’s mistake was to have inquired of moles rather than eagles. He comments that the lily, the cloud, and the clod only encourage Thel towards a limiting natural religion since they do not have prophetic and spiritual vision. Similarly, Gerda Norvig asserts that Thel’s “represented desire for a real female subjectivity is meant to undermine the powerful calls from her interlocutors to embrace a philosophy of repetitive and uncreative self sacrifice” (271). But the poem actually suggests that none of the characters of whom Thel inquires feels limited by their activities. All see their work within a wider and infinite spiritual framework: the lily looks towards eternal vales; the cloud lives on though vanishing to mortal sight; and the clod has an eternal crown. While these creatures are not bound by their physicality, Thel, in contrast, by engaging in imitative gestures, places herself under mortal bounds and within the “same dull round” (There is No Natural Religion, b, IV, E 2) so loathed by Blake.begin page 90 |
Each of the creatures encountered by Thel—the lily, the cloud and the clod—is initiated into love. As Michael Ferber points out, the lily and the clod become brides of Christ while the cloud is united with the dew. The lily is visited from heaven, and the clod is bound with “his nuptial bands” (5, 2, E 5). Ferber argues that the cloud’s marriage, although more oblique, also suggests a transcendent marriage to God (45-48). Thel, however, remains a virgin and refuses to enter into this bridal role. The Bride of Christ is a title which the church claims for itself,4↤ 4 See Ephesians 5:31-32. but Blake’s assessment of official religion suggests that the church has not actually fulfilled this role. Likewise, Thel imitates love, but does not love. This false pretense reminds us of Tiriel’s self-description: “subtil as a serpent” (8.37, E 285). In order to achieve his ends he must dissimulate. Is this also the meaning of the enigmatic serpent at the end of Thel? As commentators have noted, Thel is not the child riding the serpent. Her disappearance from the illustration suggests the possibility that she, like Tiriel, has been transformed into a serpent. Eugenie Freed argues that the children riding the serpent may represent the lady and her two brothers from Comus. If Thel is understood to represent the moral law, then this identification is apt. Thel, as the moral law, carries the three children on her serpent-back.
By employing in Thel the pair of enigmatic questions from the deleted section in Tiriel, Blake is able to take advantage of their wide allusive potential in the new setting. Rod and cup are clearly sexual images, and the magician of Comus is recalled. The silver cord and golden bowl, symbols of mortality from Ecclesiastes, become important in the context of Thel’s preoccupation with death. But Blake also uses the image of rod and bowl, as sceptre and chalice, in order to introduce Thel as a metaphor for a hypocritical and limiting religion. Thel’s refusal to engage in an active giving role becomes clear as the depictions of her imitative and inactive stance progress throughout the poem. Her transformation into the serpent finally confirms her identity as Thel—Female Will.
Damon, Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Ed. Morris Eaves. Rev. ed. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1988.
—. “Blake and Milton.” The Divine Vision: Studies in the Poetry and Art of William Blake born November 28th, 1757. Ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto. London: Victor Gollancz, 1957. 89-96.
Erdman, David V., ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Newly rev. ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982.
—. The Illuminated Blake: William Blake’s Complete Works with a Plate-by-Plate Commentary. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974.
Ferber, Michael. “Blake’s Thel and the Bride of Christ.” Blake Studies 9 (1980): 45-56.
Fox, Susan. “The Female as Metaphor in William Blake’s Poetry.” Critical Inquiry 3 (1977): 507-19.
Freed, Eugenie. “‘Sun-Clad Chastity’ and Blake’s ‘Maiden Queens’” Comus, Thel, and ‘The Angel.’” Blake 25 (1991-92): 104-16
Murray, E.B. “Thel, Thelyphthora, and the Daughters of Albion.” Studies in Romanticism 20 (1981): 275-97.
Norvig, Gerda. “Female Subjectivity and the Desire of Reading In(to) Blake’s Book of Thel.” Studies in Romanticism 34 (1995): 255-71.
Ostriker, Alicia. Vision and Verse in William Blake. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.
Pearce, Donald. “Natural Religion and the Plight of Thel.” Blake Studies 8 (1978): 23-35.
Stieg, Elizabeth. “Reinterpreting the Old Testament: Blake’s Tiriel as Prophet.” Studies in Romanticism 29 (1990): 273-96.