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A Possible Source for “Thel’s Motto”

Several Biblical sources have been offered for the second half of Thel’s mysterious “motto:”

Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
Or Love in a golden bowl?
Northrop Frye (Fearful Symmetry, p. 446, n. 55) connects the golden bowl with the golden cup of Babylon mentioned in Jeremiah 51.7 and Revelation 17.4. He also cites Ecclesiastes 12.6 as a source of both lines: “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken . . . ” Though this verse is almost as cryptic as the “motto” itself, it is no doubt generally relevant to Thel, for in its context it seems to refer to the death of the body, which Thel shrinks from at the end of the poem. But the context has little about love or wisdom, and of course a cord is not a rod.

Robert Gleckner, in “Blake’s Thel and the Bible,” BNYPL, 64 (1960), 573-80, suggests Job 28. 12-15:

But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living.
begin page 44 | back to top The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me. It cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof.
The appropriateness of this passage to the themes of Thel hardly needs pointing out, but it is equally obvious that there is neither rod nor bowl here, and nothing about love.

I propose another candidate, somewhat better than these though far from perfect, Hebrews 9.3-4:

And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant.
The immediate context is a disparaging account of the “worldly sanctuary” of the old covenant. The Epistle as a whole stresses the great change that has come with Christ: as a new and greater high priest he has replaced the old material sanctuary with a new spiritual one, and whereas the old high priest entered the Holy of Holies alone and once a year, Christ has entered it once and for all and we enter it with Him.

The golden pot is described in Exodus 16.32-34, where Aaron the high priest at Moses’ command puts an omer full of manna into a pot and lays it up “before the Testimony” (covenant) in the ark. The manna had been sent by God daily as a sign of His grace and love for the Israelites. It would spoil after one day (except on the Sabbath) so there was no point in hoarding it. A Blakean might say it is an error to try to gather up God’s love and preserve it in a “holy” place. The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth like manna from heaven, and cannot be stored in pots.

The rod of Aaron is described in Numbers 17.1-11. Of the twelve rods representing the twelve tribes only Aaron’s blossomed, thereby proving to dissenters that God had indeed chosen Aaron to be high priest with sole privilege of entering the Holy of Holies. Aaron’s authority was thus based on supernatural power and privilege, and not, as one might argue such authority should be, on spiritual wisdom. And of course it was the Aaronic priesthood that Christ came to replace (see Hebrews 7.11-17).

Just as the ancient priests wrongly tried to consolidate and preserve spirit and selfishly restrict access to it, so Thel wrongly seeks to consolidate and preserve herself, as it were, and rejects love and generosity for their threat to her selfhood.

That the passage from Hebrews lies behind the “motto” gains support from the reference in Thel to the “morning manna” that the Lilly will receive in eternity. That in turn refers to the “hidden manna” of Revelation 2.17, the manna hidden in the ark that Christ, the new high priest, will pass out to all who are faithful to Him.

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