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“Life exhal’d in milky fondness”—Becoming a Mother in William Blake’s The Book of Thel


Małgorzata Łuczyńska-Hołdys

Blake critics most often see The Book of Thel as a thwarted attempt to pass from the state of Innocence to Experience. Blake’s heroine is usually perceived as a somewhat naive, indecisive young female afraid to “be born” into the world of adulthood and maturity, or as a soul that refuses to enter the material world. Hence, there has been a tendency to pass judgment on Thel’s decision, to attribute it to weakness, immaturity, or fear, and to see it in pejorative terms. My claim is that Thel’s refusal to enter the world of Generation has nothing to do with relapsing into childhood, or with weakness and indecisiveness. Instead, I see it as proof of her maturity and independent spirit. My article is concerned with two problems. Firstly, I want to demonstrate how text and design in The Book of Thel enter a mutual semantic relationship of contradiction and/or redundancy rather than complementarity. Naturally, this claim is not new; W. J. T. Mitchell recognized this quality as early as 1978, writing that “the ‘unity’ of an illuminated book is a dynamic one, built upon the interaction of text and design as independent or contrary elements” (xviii). What I would like to examine, however, is how this dynamic interaction reinforces a feminist reading of Blake’s text. Secondly, although there are critical texts that deal with Blake’s attitude to women, the majority of Blake scholarship on The Book of Thel does not seem sufficiently feminist. While he did not manifest an unwaveringly feminist stance throughout his poetry, in texts such as Thel or Visions of the Daughters of Albion he dealt with women’s issues in a way that may be deemed progressive. Consequently, I intend to focus on the problems of motherhood and childcare as rendered by Blake in his poem, since I perceive these notions to be essential for our understanding of Thel’s decision. Also, part of my argument is that, contrary to a number of critical readings, the message delivered by Thel’s three interlocutors (the Lilly, the Cloud, and the Clod of Clay) should not be seen as a positive statement that Blake wanted Thel to accept. Finally, if we comprehend Thel’s dilemma—whether to become a mother—this can shed light on some actions taken by other female characters in Blake’s later texts, Oothoon and Enitharmon in particular.


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