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'THEL' AND `TIRIEL': SOLITUDE AND STYLE
Much of the origin and the meaning of many otherwise inexplicable passages in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which has been called “the high-water mark of Blake's intellect" by Mr. Swinburne, will now be sufficiently clear to enable our minds to enter into Blake's with some companionship as we read it. “High-water mark” is perhaps an exaggeration. The book is but prose, after all, and the compliment was paid to it partly because the critic found himself less humiliated than when reading the Jerusalem by an excess of unexplained symbolism. Yet the seeming ease with which we understand the Marriage in its outbursts of choleric irony is not a sign of any real, intimate, brotherly nearness of our minds to the author's mind unless we have trodden with him at least as much of the same mental road that led him to this point as—without being ourselves such a man—we can tread. Even this much is worth doing. Desdemona, without being Othello, came near enough to him to love him as he told “ the dangers he had passed.”
While Blake was preparing the plates of the Marriage and printing them with his wife's assistance, and she was even learning to colour copies of th: Songs of Innocence, on which he began to rely for a valuable help to the very dry bread that was all he could earn by engraving, he wrote a good deal of prophetic poetry. He was stimulated to do so partly by the recoil on his own mind from the heavy stones with which he had stoned Swedenborg for not having done the same in his time.
So, when Blake had done deriding him, and making Ezekiel say that the voice of the Lord was the voice of mental enthusiasm, which cares not for consequences, he, still adopting the perverted language which he had borrowed from the over-mild angels of Swedenborg, promised the Bible of Hell to the world. He had already written the sweetest, most musical, and most religious of the books of this terrible Bible-Thelin whose pages the fourteensyllabled line was first made his own.
That line, in its highest perfection, is one which the ear of our educated classes, perverted by Latin verses in youth, had not yet opened itself to fully accept. A man, as Blake soon discovered, may be grown up in the taste that can detect the savour of Horace, Virgil, and Lucretius, and yet be a conceited and destructive baby, breaking a toy that he has not wit enough to play with, when the metre of Thel is offered to his cramped mind, and its music to his prejudiced ear. The bad influence of Latin classics on the ear that would use English is now well known. From Ben Jonson to Landor men were made stiff by it all through the intermediate period remembered as Dr. Johnson's time. Milton alone escaped alive. We shall have to wait until the accumulated prides of the men of a rising generation educated in contempt of Latin create a living taste strong enough to eat up the heavy body of tradition left us by those whose ears were stunted through the language of poets that never knew the music of our tongue. Then Blake's fourteen-syllabled line will be known as an enjoyment classed among the accepted advantages of educition. Then, also, it is to be feared, will come a flood of such tepid imitations of it that the true lovers will regret that a Blake Church was never founded in time, so that its worshippers might revere his verse too much to repeat it, while his opponents should think it too wicked and blasphemous to be endured.
In the absence of that church a general suspicion of Blake's sanity, caused by the general miscomprehension of his work, has done literature very good service in keeping him out of the hands of the educator. He is still fresh. The reputation of madness has come down on him like the cinders of Vesuvius on Pompeii. It killed many a happy hour and many a lovely verse in Blake's life, as the cinders killed the Pompeians; but now that the accumulation is being dug away from the buried town, we at least find fruit paintings and portraits of fair dames upon the walls, as fresh as they were on the day when the master's brush left them. In the same way, misunderstanding is being dug away from Blake, and his prophetic books shine out dear and sweet for us now.
How thick is the accumulation of the ashes of superciliousness that had fallen both on his symbolism and his music may be seen in a pamphlet published by Dr. Garnett, of the British Museum, after the Quaritch edition of Blake's works was already in his hands. Thel Dr. Garnett patronises : “ Could Blake have schooled himself to have written (sic) such blank verse as he had already produced in Edward the Third and Samson, Thel would have been a very fine poem. As it is, its lax, rambling semi-prose is full of delicate modulations."
Thel really is, of course, far more correct than Samson in metre. Dr. Garnett adds: “In every succeeding production, however, there is less of metrical beauty, and thought and expression grow continually more and more amorphous."
Amorphous (would not formless have done ?) is the last word which will be applied to Blake's thought by those who know what its form was, and what the form of its two parents -Swedenborg's visions and his own. But it is true that, as Blake grew older, and was more and more worried by the perpetual misunderstanding of every one-every one, think what that meant to a man hungry for friendship !-he began more and more to struggle to be explanatory, and it is this that ruined his poetic mood, made his song fall into assertion, and his assertion into interpretation, more and more. He tried in vain to shake this off, and claimed that when he told a truth it was not to convince those who did not know it, but to protect those who did. This was not always enough for his heart. He wanted those whom he was so protecting to know that he had put on his intellectual armour for them, but if he did not explain his symbols they would never know this unless expressly inspired. So he fell into a patchwork style of composition, at one moment giving the best verse, but at another spoiling it with an intrusion of statement and comment. In the books written when Blake still thought to be understood, and had not been pestered by the Dr. Garnetts of his time, most is still unexplained and beautiful.
And yet, after all, he did not explain enough for doctors of literature to even discover that he was trying to do so. On the contrary, Dr. Garnett says that "no man ever wilfully put more obstacles into the way of his success than Blake, whether as artist, thinker, or poet.” When will the closed eye and the preoccupied ear of clever men cease to believe that original men put obstacles into the way of their own success? The closed eye and the preoccupied ear are the obstacles, and not the originality.
“This incarnate enigma among men could manifestly be as transparent as crystal,” Dr. Garnett also says, “when he knew exactly what he wished to say—a remark that may not be useless to the student of his mystical and prophetical writings."
Dr. Garnett admitted once to the present writer that he was never a student of these writings. This admission was made after his unfortunate pamphlet was written. In fact, he read Blake as people read novels, not as he himself would have read a work that he approached in the spirit of a student. He therefore never knew what was the position of Blake's mind with regard to his own meaning, or in what his difficulty in expressing it consisted.
How much of thrust-in explanation may have occurred in poetic works now lost to us, written by Blake in 1792, we do not yet know. He probably kept it at arm's length at first, though if it be true, as we suspect, that the Book of Tiriel was shown to Johnson, then the passage about parents and education towards the end may have been added at this time.
What more there may be of the same kind in the French Revolution (a poem in seven Books), written immediately after Tiriel, we cannot tell, since a copy of even the first Book, published now by Johnson as a sort of experiment, cannot be found. Gilchrist says that Blake's name was not on the title-page. We must suppose that when the September massacres in 1792 came with a shock of horror to all Europe, either Johnson or Blake, who then took off the red cap of Liberty with which he had alarmed his friends, burned the whole issue. If there had been any copies sold, they were burned by the buyers in the same mood of horror. The six unpublished books of the poem were perhaps never written out for the press. We may conjecture Lafayette to be a trace of the contents of one of them, though it must be of later date in the form we find it in Blake's MS. book. There are many rewritings of it there, verses changed, the order changed, and a reference to “Paul, Constantine, Charlemagne, Luther,” as divisions of truth. We can now see that they correspond to Urizen, Luvah, Tharmas, and Urthona, à quaternary which also belongs to a time later than 1792 in Blake's progress, so far as record enables us to conjecture.
So the fragment that survived his lost French Revolution was probably only a few lines that belonged to a chance memory developed later, when the main subject had been long forgotten.
That Tiriel must have been written at the same time or earlier is, of course, an assertion based only on inference. The evidence that would date the Tiriel earlier or later than 1789 is the following. Thel's Motto is the name given to a quatrain at the beginning of the Book of Thel :
Does the eagle know what is in the pit,
Or wilt thou go ask the mole?
Or love in a golden bowl ?
The last two lines of this seem to have been written before the first two, and we find them in Tiriel, crossed out, as though Blake had decided not to leave them there after the lilt of line (for they are only one long line in Tiriel's metre) had shown him that the proper treatment was to take it out, cut it into two natural divisions, and put two lines of similar metre above it.
Then, it is probable, he asked his imagination to refer him to some contrast, some pair of suggestive contraries that would balance those that he had now on the paper before him.
Silver is, in his system, the metal of heart's love; Gold, of mind's enthusiasm. Brass is the “spiritual hate, origin of earthly love," and Iron is generative magnetic attraction, and the hardness and solidity that this seems to give to Nature.
Without going further into the symbolism we see that the last two lines meant
“Can wisdom be stored in that which is packed full of heart's love, or love in the part of our minds that is all abstract enthusiasm ?”
The mocking reminder of the first two lines, that we cannot expect expert opinion on any subject from the expert to whom another subject belongs, enforces this, and the whole together brings out a mistake which was first made by the maiden called Thel, and afterwards by the old man Tiriel, each a wanderer. Thel is the tender shyness that wishes the luins to be altogether spiritual, and shrinks from seeing herself—her evanescent and pearly beauty-turned into the exciter of fleshly passion, as actual virgins do actually at times shrink from seeing their beauty arouse passion. “Food of worms” must be read with “Man is a worm renewed with joy,” and with “Vala is a worm," and with “ Hyle" (also called once a worm) as“ arched over the moon” in Jerusalem. The moon with its silver light is the region of love. Tiriel, with his senile sterility, at the same time a contrast to and a bitter imitation of virginity, with the jealous