Among the things that Blake was doing in 1789 and 1790 was engraving plates for Erasmus Darwin's Botanic Garden, producing Songs of Innocence, creating the Book of Thel and studying Neoplatonism with Thomas Taylor. Each of these projects, from its own perspective, focused his attention on man's journey through the world of mortality.
Darwin, like Blake, was a multi-talented individual. He was a physician, a philosopher, a scientist and a poet. His Botanic Garden is a compendium of scientific thinking of his day, descriptions of plant life in sexual terms, and imaginative poems about flowering plants. His book sold well in the late eighteenth century.
Blake gained from Darwin exposure to the symbolic use of members of the plant kingdom, the opportunity to work closely with the mythology portrayed on the Portland Vase, and information from a wide range of the science being developed by the enlightenment.
The first fruit of Blake's work with Darwin's book and with his studies with Thomas Taylor, who began publishing translation of Greek literature in 1787, was his writing his illuminated Book of Thel.
Songs of Innocence posited a world unblemished by considerations of mortality, a world incompatible with our world of time, space and materiality. But innocence was a starting point, not a conclusion. In Thel there is commentary on Innocence. Thel contemplates the innocent Lily, Clod and Cloud in a visual world of flowers symbolizing sexual interactions. She draws back from descending into the sexual world where death is the corollary of life.
Like the central woman on the first compartment of the Portland Vase, Thel sits beside a crack which is opening up in the bedrock which supports her level of existence. She has been invited to explore the Mystery of mortality but has declined. Blake himself would not hold back but plunged in. He was also exploring the Swedenborgian Society at this time. Wherever he looked he found ideas which evoked images, some of which live on in the organic body of his work which grew more like a verdant landscape than an enclosed garden.
|British Museum Small Book of Designs|
from Book of Thel, Page 6
Book of Thel, Plate 6, (E 6) "The eternal gates terrific porter lifted the northern bar: Thel enter'd in & saw the secrets of the land unknown; She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous roots Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists: A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen. She wanderd in the land of clouds thro' valleys dark, listning Dolours & lamentations: waiting oft beside a dewy grave She stood in silence. listning to the voices of the ground, Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down. And heard this voice of sorrow breathed from the hollow pit. Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction? Or the glistning Eye to the poison of a smile! Why are Eyelids stord with arrows ready drawn, Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie? Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show'ring fruits & coined gold! Why a Tongue impress'd with honey from every wind? Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in? Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror trembling & affright. Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy! Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire? The Virgin started from her seat, & with a shriek. Fled back unhinderd till she came into the vales of Har The End" .