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Blake’s Apocalypse and the Limitations of Innocence

I chanced upon a copy of Harold Bloom’s 1963 book, “Blake’s Apocalypse” while wandering through the stacks at the Mechanics’ Institute Library. The light blue hardcover book, without a dust jacket, had the sturdy appearance of a book published in the early 60s. There’s a sort of utilitarian optimism about its construction and feel. One senses in it an object with the confidence that it was built for the long haul.

The confluence of Bloom’s analysis and Blake’s poetry is intoxicating. But it was Bloom’s comment on the attitude of Innocence in Blake’s “Book of Thel” that caused me to pause and mark down this passage:

Unlike Adam and Eve, fearful and disgraced, and hiding from the judgement of death, Thel is sadly resigned. Gentle she will hear the voice that marks the evening of her beauty. Innocence can be maintained, and this unbodied child can die a child, to be absorbed into the natural cycle of her paradise.

Yet she could choose a better way, at the price of a birth into suffering and fallen reality. What “The Book of Thel,” by its very form, makes clear is the human limitations of the state of Innocence. Here is born what the engraved tracts had foretold: Blake’s dialectics of Nature, or his argument about the relative values of Innocence and Experience. Innocence is a higher state than Experience, but you cannot progress in it, for where there are no oppositions of spirit, the spirit stagnates. There are no truths in Innocence because there are no falsehoods, and no vision but stasis, because the only contrary to desire is mere cycle. The destiny of man in Eden is repetition., the circle of natural organicism. Thel’s Innocence is natural ignorance; she abides in a Mystery, and her very form is a reflection in a glass, a shadow in the water, an infant’s dream.

From William Blake’s Book of Thel

Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water,
Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant’s face,
Like the dove’s voice, like transient day, like music in the air.
Ah! gentle may I lay me down and gentle rest my head,
And gentle sleep the sleep of death, and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden of the evening time.

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