|Posted on January 17, 2013 at 8:20 AM|
The Book of Thel (Blake, 1789) suggests that you cannot know life until you experience it for yourself. The maiden Thel is fascinated by what the future holds for her. She asks four different individuals, at different stages of maturity, for answers. However, none of their advice prepares her for the reality of life, with all of its torment and heartbreak. The sublime experience of the “hollow pit” cannot be understood at an intellectual or academic level. It had to be experienced first-hand, and when it is, Thel rejects it, and retreats back to the innocence of Har.
Her retreat from the “pit” is a rejection of adult life and the sublime. She clings to her innocence, symbolised by the serene and peaceful Valley of Har. That said, once she has experienced adulthood, and sexual maturity, much of that innocence will be lost. The poem can also be read as an unborn child, learning about the world she will soon enter. Our earthly world, full of mortality and encompassing misery, in contrast to Thel’s flowery, pleasant existence in Har. Her retreat can be seen as a child refusing to enter a world as wretched and corrupted as ours, and a refusal to surrender her innocence to birth.
The opening lines of the poem illustrate two divergent creatures – the eagle and the mole. One flies above the world, the other burrows beneath it. Yet neither can offer Thel a taste of the sublime experience of the pit. She must go there herself. The individuals Thel meets are also examples of duality. The flower is an innocent maiden, associated with feminine grace, while the cloud (which waters her) is a lover, associated with masculine power (i.e. surging storms, thunder, the symbolic seat of God). The worm is infancy, completely dependent, and incapable of caring for itself, while the clay is motherhood (mother earth?), who nurtures the worm, and is strengthened by its dependence on the soil. God can be seen as a patriarchal figure throughout the poem, but he enforces very little moral authority over Thel. Rather, she investigates her sexuality freely, and is not bound by marriage or custom to surrender her virginity.
If the Vale of Har is beauty, then the Hollow Pits beyond the Northen Bar are the sublime. The first three segments of the poem flow with a serene, flowery, syrupy language. Thel’s world is a world of glistening dew and milky garments, humble grass and golden honey. It is safe and neat, and non-threatening. But the world beyond the Northen Bar is chaos and carnage, and perpetual sorrow. It overwhelms Thel, and instead of embracing it, she recoils from the sublime, and flees back to the safety of Har, the purity of the womb.