To Tirzah - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Born .. consumed – This alludes to the biblical account of what God said to Adam after he had disobeyed the command not to eat from the Tree of knowledge of good and evil - see Genesis 3:19. After the Fall of humankind it was confronted with its own mortality.

What have I – The refrain for the opening and closing stanzas echoes a phrase in the New Testament. At a wedding at Cana in Galilee, Mary tells Jesus that the wedding guests have no wine and he replies: ‘Woman, what have you to do with me?' (John 2:3-4).

The Sexes - The second stanza refers to Blake's unconventional belief that, before the Fall of humankind, human beings were not divided into male and female. The Fall (resulting from ‘pride') led to ‘shame' as human beings became divided into the two sexes, which (according to Blake) represented an inner division within each person. This led to humans having a false understanding of themselves and the world.

Work and weep – Other consequences of the first humans' denial of God's authority was facing hardship in work and childbirth Genesis 3:16-19.

Senseless clay - The image of ‘clay' refers to the mortal body, since in Genesis 2:7 God made Adam from the dust of the earth. This is often identified with clay, especially as the Prophet Isaiah referred to people as clay moulded by God the potter (see Isaiah 29:15; Isaiah 45:9; Isaiah 64:8). In To Tirzah, the potter for the mortal body is Tirzah, not God. She is cruel because her work convinces people that they are only flesh and so imprisons them in their senses.

Mercy / Death of Jesus – Blake draws on the traditional Christian teaching that human beings can enter the freedom of eternal life once they have put their faith in Jesus, whose death and resurrection saves them from their sins. In Blake's mythology, the death of Jesus saves humanity from its limited, sense-driven perspective. The poet or person who knows that imagination and the life of the soul is ‘truth' no longer has anything to do with the life of the senses, symbolized by the mother–figure, Tirzah.

Blake's engraving for this poem includes the verse from Paul's New Testament letter about the meaning of resurrection for believers, ‘It is raised a spiritual body' (see 1 Corinthians 15:42- 44). Blake seems to be specifically drawing on this teaching (which is helpful to read) about the mortal and immortal aspects of humanity – 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 1 Corinthians 15:35-45, 1 Corinthians 15:50-55. To understand the concept better, see Big ideas from the Bible > Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, Second Adam.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Make notes comparing how the idea of sex / ‘generation' is portrayed in A Little Girl Lost and To Tirzah.


Parental care and authority

In many of the Songs, parents are perceived as inhibiting and repressing their children. According to Blake, parents misuse ‘care' to repress children and bind them to themselves, rather than setting the children free by rejoicing in, and safeguarding, their capacity for imagination. Here, parental authority crushes the capacity for imaginative vision and stifles creativity.

Attitudes to the body and the life of the senses

This connects with Blake's opposition to John Locke. (See Religious / philosophical background > Blake's religious world > Dissenting attitudes to Locke.) Blake believed that humans are essentially spiritual beings and that the body should be an expression of a person's spiritual nature. Yet we felt that people do not believe this. They believe that their bodies are purely physical and that reality consists solely in what can be understood via the senses. In this way, their senses trap them in a materialist approach to life and they are unable to experience themselves, including their bodies, as spiritual beings.

Snares, confinement

Images of confinement abound in the Songs. Here, reliance on the physical and quantifiable aspects of life is a form of imprisonment. It was because fallen humankind could no longer see truly that Blake the visionary needed to illustrate what he perceived as the truth about the creation and humanity's role within it.

Investigating themes

  • Look again at The Chimney Sweeper in the Songs of Experience and the reference to the ‘clothes of death'
    • How does the present poem add to your understanding of this image?
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