William Blake’s the Book of Thel, as an allegorical poem represents various subjects and themes. It deals with love, desire, innocence, religion, experience (Bloom 49) and a whole lot more. A standout subject though that keeps surfacing resurfacing in the text is the feminist underpinnings upon which the poem rests. Despite repeated accusations of antifeminism, William Blake’s writings, the Book of Thel included, serve as significant and relevant materials on the discourse of feminism and thus should not be overlooked (Ankarsjö 5). The Book of Thel on close reading reflects the values, aims, and aspirations of eighteenth century Feminism and the Free Love Movement. It also reveals the positions of William Blake on the issues of gender and sexuality.
The Book of Thel, Eighteenth Century Feminism at a Glance
The Book of Thel is an allegory taken into writing by William Blake in 1789 (Bloom 49). The narrative dwells on Thel, a young, virginal female living in the Vales of Har who refuses to leave the innocence of the paradise for the maturity and experience of the material world. Although a short prophecy poem by William Blake, the text is a compelling and complex representation of various abstract ideas that are dominant and significant during the eighteenth century.
Eighteenth Century Feminism
Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft were two of the noteworthy feminists during this period (Walters 26-30). The prominent principles and stands of feminism were just taking roots in England such as women empowerment and gender equality, which Astell espoused in her book, “A Serious Proposal to the Ladies” (Walters 27). Education of women was also emphasized and advocated (27) along with assertiveness and independence (28).
A radical perspective on feminism was taken or assumed by Wollstonecraft and Macaulay when the latter argued in her book, “Letters on Education” that “women’s apparent weaknesses were not natural, but simply the product of mis-education” (Walters 30). Macaulay also criticized the double standard on sex and the expected subjugation of women to men- sentiments and practices strongly apparent in the eighteenth century (30).
Overall, eighteenth century Feminism was a period of reawakening characterized by a systematic body or set of challenges, assertions, and questions on gender perception, gender roles and gender identity posed by women writers such as Astell, Wollstonecraft, and Macaulay.
The Book of Thel as a Reflection of Eighteenth Century Feminism
Although William Blake characterizes Thel as a prototypical female-chaste, immature, innocent and weak in resolve-he does not intend to imprison Thel in this female representation. In his later works (such as the Visions of the Daughters of Albion), Blake ‘reboxes’ his female characters allowing them to evolve into mature, strong, and independent individuals (Ankarsjö 5). According to Ankarsjö, this gradual reshaping of female persona is part of Blake’s progressive feminism (5). The conventional Thel in the poem is therefore not the ultimate and permanent perception of Blake on the role and status of women. Whatever chastity and innocence, William Blake bestows on Thel is merely a contextual appropriation. Thel is a young woman in the poem thus her tendency to be a little immature and indecisive.
When Blake chooses a female for his protagonist, he purposely wants to focus on women (Rajan 81) and consequently engage the text in a discussion about gender-an intention and a decision that is entirely feminist in nature. Blake echoes the growing interest on female representation, which the period was active at as evidenced by the literary works of Wollstonecraft and other female novelists of the eighteenth century. For Blake, the importance of Thel, in terms of female representation is how Thel manages to stand for the “aborted transition from innocence to experience” (Rajan 82). According to Rajan, the attempt of Blake to use Thel (being a woman) to show a certain aspect of the relationship between innocence and experience (82), “raises the questions of how we figure women, and thus allows us to question the legitimacy of the way the relationship is being constructed and evaluated” (82). In other words, Blake wants to encourage discussion and debate over the deconstruction of female identity (82).
Although Thel fails to crossover into the land of experience and wisdom thus also failing to achieve a new identity, she manages to mull over the possibility of changing and attaining rebirth. Despite losing the battle of selfhood in the end, Thel’s consolation lies in her participation in the rethinking of gender identity. Throughout her journey in the poem and her interactions with the lily, the cloud and the clod, she contemplates leaving her normal, pure life for the mature experiences of the mortal world. She even consents to the Matron Clay’s invitation to enter the pit, evidence that there is within her a desire to evolve. Why Blake pulls Thel, back when she is almost on the verge of submitting is a revelation or a clue to Blake’s feminist aspiration for the text. William Blake does not want to portray a clear and definite stand on the issue of gender identity, as he wants the readers, particularly the eighteenth century audience, to discuss it among themselves. Rajan notes this when he asserts, “The result is that the text becomes a site for the reader to produce a genealogy of its morals” (83).
Sexual repression is another feminist concern that Blake belatedly tackles in the text. Towards the end of the poem, Blake questions and criticizes the sexual reservations prominent in eighteenth century society through the voice of sorrow as it laments, “Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?/ Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire” (4.19-20).