Does the eagle know what is in the pit,
or wilt thou go ask the mole?
Can wisdom be put in a silver rod,
or love in a golden bowl?
A clod of clay: Thel, the clod, and the pebble
The story of Thel
Thel is the youngest daughter of Mne Seraphim. She and her sisters live in the vales of Har, by the river Adona. While her sisters "led round their sunny flocks", Thel sits at the river lamenting the transience of her life - she's "born but to smile and fall".
A lilly overhears her monologue and answers her. The lilly is more fragile and transient than Thel, but "clothed in light, and fed with morning manna", and when she withers in the summer heat she will "flourish in eternal vales".
This does not comfort Thel. The lilly is food for lambs, her fragrance purifies the air, her pollen are used to make honey. But Thel is like the "faint cloud kindled at the rising sun", she will just fade away and disappear. The lilly then calls down a little cloud to tell Thel why it fades and disappears.
Thel asks the cloud why he does not lament his mortality: "Why thou complainest not when in one hour thou fade away"? The cloud explains that just because he vanishes does not mean nothing remains. By passing away, he gives life to flowers. Thel complains that she, unlike the cloud, has no use, and wonders if she only lives "to be at death the food of worms". The cloud claims that if you are to be the food of worms you do have a purpose, and calls a worm to meet Thel:
Then if thou art the food of worms, o virgin of the skies, how great thy use, how great thy blessing! Every thing that lives, lives not alone, not for itself. Fear not and I will call the weak worm from its lowly bed, and thou shalt hear its voice. Come forth, worm of the silent valley, to thy pensive queen!
The worm cannot speak, only weep, and Thel pities it. A clod of clay feeds and comforts the worm, and then explains to Thel that God even loves a clod of clay, and pours oil on her head, so that she can nourish and nurse the worm. Thel weeps and realizes she has nothing to complain about.
The eternal gates
The last section is different in tone than the rest of the poem, and may well have been added several years later. The clod of clay invites Thel to enter her house. She enters through the eternal gates and "saw the secrets of the land unknown, [..]a land of sorrows and of tears where never smile was seen". She wanders around, visits "the couches of the dead", listens to "dolours and lamentations", and finally sits down at her own grave plot. There, she hears a "voice of sorrow" (probably her own) saying:
Why cannot the ear be closed to its own destruction, or the glistening eye to the poison of a smile?
The voice continues, and when it comes to these lines:
Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy, why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?
Thel flees back shrieking to the vales of Har.
Thel in Blake's mythology
Blake's mythology is not a complete, consistent, well-rounded body of work (like e.g. Tolkien's mythology), but fragmentary, as if mere fragments of an ancient mythology have survived. The book of Thel does not introduce Mne Seraphim, Adona, Luvah1), or Har to us, but assumes we know them, as if Thel is part of a larger body of work, now sadly lost.
The book of Thel, probably printed between 1789 and 1792, is the second of Blake's longer, mythological poems. The first, Tiriel was written around 1787, never engraved, and not published during Blake's life. Tiriel was the son of Har and Heva. Whether the vales of Har (Thel's home) are named after Tiriel's father is an intriguing question that I cannot currently answer. (I have not read Tiriel yet. The vales of Har are mentioned in both poems.)
Maybe we should not ponder to long over Har, Luvah or Mne Seraphim, but just enjoy the story of this young girl, searching for her destiny, but fleeing from it when she finds it.
Songs of experience
The year 1789 is engraved on the second plate of The book of Thel. This is also the year that the Songs of innocence were published. The motto and the conclusion of The book of Thel seem to be from a later date. Apparently Blake changed the ending (and added a motto) while he was working on the Songs of experience (published in 1794).
The unselfish, self-sacrificing love of the clod of clay, who offers herself up to be "the food of worms", is a key element of Thel. We find the same clod of clay, with the same unselfish love, in the Songs of experience. And, just as in Thel, the clod of clay does not have the last word:
The clod and the pebble
Love seeketh not itself to please, Nor for itself hath any care, But for another gives its ease, And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair. So sung a little Clod of Clay, Trodden with the cattle's feet. But a Pebble of the brook, Warbled out these metres meet: Love seeketh only self to please, To bind another to its delight, Joys in another's loss of ease, And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite.
Many poems in the Songs of experience are a reply to or sequel of poems in the earlier Songs of innocence. The clod and the pebble contains both elements (innocence and experience) in one poem. Innocence is represented by the clod of clay, who describes unselfish, Christian love. The consequence of this noble love, however, is to be trodden by cattle's feet.
The pebble's love, on the other hand, is selfish and abusive. Yet the pebble, who represents experience, has the last word in this poem, and he is probably not trodden by anyone. Conclusion?
In Thel, we do learn that there is more to the clod's world than meets the eye (and possibly Blake wrote the conclusion of Thel while working on The clod and the pebble). Her world is "a land of sorrows and of tears where never smile was seen". To be trodden by cattle's feet is the least of her miseries. And yet she nurses and nourishes the little worm, and tries to build "a Heaven in Hells despair".
1)Luvah, merely mentioned in Thel (the cloud claims that his "steeds drink of the golden springs where Luvah doth renew his horses"), returns decades later to play an important role in Blake's later work.