Index Bibliography

The Book of Thel

Currently Available:

The Book of Thel, copy B, c. 1789 (Yale Center for British Art): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy D, c. 1789 (British Museum): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy G, c. 1789 (Fitzwilliam Museum): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy H, c. 1789 (Library of Congress): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy I, c. 1789 (Bodleian Library, Oxford University): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy J, c. 1789 (Houghton Library): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy L, c. 1789 (Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy R, c. 1789 (Yale Center for British Art): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy F, 1795 (Library of Congress): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy N, c. 1818 (Cincinnati Art Museum): electronic edition
The Book of Thel, copy O, c. 1818 (Library of Congress): electronic edition

Dates are the probable dates of printing.

The Book of Thel is Blake's first illuminated book written in lines of fourteen syllables, a measure used in most of his subsequent books. Thel, a virgin shepherdess burdened by her sense of mortality, seeks meaning for her life by talking with several creatures—a lily, cloud, worm, and clod of clay. These speaking symbols of life's transience are satisfied with their lot because all believe themselves to be part of natural cycles related through self-sacrifice to a higher purpose. On the final plate, Thel comes to her grave and hears her own unanswered questions redolent with fears of both death and sexuality. This voice, and Thel's flight from it, indicate either her failure to accept the harsh facts of life or the failure of her interlocutors' philosophy to satisfy the human desire for transcendental truths.

Blake etched The Book of Thel in relief, with a few touches of white-line work, on eight plates in 1789, the date on the title page, and 1790. Plate 1, "Thel's Motto," and plate 8, the final plate, which may be a substitute for an earlier version of the poem (although there is no evidence that any such early version was etched), appear to have been etched later than plates 2-7. Their lettering style is present in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell but not in Thel's other plates. Both plates are missing from the first copy of Thel printed, proof copy a (black ink, plates 2-5, 7 only, with plate 6 and a duplicate plate 2 in the San Francisco Public Library). This first printing of the finished work can be divided into five issues according to ink color: copies H-L (green), B, E, M (raw sienna), A, D, R (orange-yellow ochre), C (raw umber), and G (blue). Untraced copies P and Q may also be from this printing; but, given gaps in the relevant provenances, they might also be the same as copies G and H. Large-paper copy F, with rudimentary color printing, was produced in 1795; copies N and O can be dated to c. 1818. A pencil drawing in the British Museum shows alternative versions of plates 6 and 7.

Related Works

Related works currently available in the William Blake Archive appear as links below. Works not currently available appear as plain text.

All Known Copies

This list includes untraced copies known only from sales catalogues.
  • Copy a (proofs), c. 1789
    Morgan Library and Museum
    New York City
  • Copy A, c. 1789
    Private Collection
  • Copy B, c. 1789
    Yale Center for British Art
    Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
  • Copy C, c. 1789
    Morgan Library and Museum
    New York City
  • Copy E, c. 1789
    Beinecke Library
    Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
  • Copy H, c. 1789
    Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress
    Washington D.C.
  • Copy J, c. 1789
    Houghton Library
    Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Copy K, c. 1789
    Beinecke Library
    Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
  • Copy L, c. 1789
    Huntington Library and Art Gallery
    San Marino, California
  • Copy M, c. 1789
    New York Public Library
    New York City
  • Copy P, c. 1789
    Untraced (possibly the same as copy G)
  • Copy Q, c. 1789
    Untraced (possibly the same as copy H)
  • Copy R, c. 1789
    Yale Center for British Art
    Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
  • Copy S, possibly 1794 or later
    Untraced
  • Copy F, 1795
    Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress
    Washington D.C.
  • Copy N, c. 1818
    Cincinnati Art Museum
    Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Copy O, c. 1818
    Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress
    Washington D.C.

All Known Related Drawings
  • Sketches for "The Book of Thel": Thel and the Clod of Clay, and Thel Fleeing from the House of Clay
    Pencil sketches, c. 1789. Butlin 218.
    British Museum
    London
  • A Standing and a Recumbent Figure, Both with Attendant Genii, Possibly for "The Book of Thel"
    Pencil sketch, c. 1789. Butlin 219.
    British Museum
    London