To Tirzah: Poem by William Blake - Summary and Analysis

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To Tirzah

Whate’er is born of mortal birth
Must be consumed with the earth,
To rise from generation free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

The sexes sprang from shame and pride,
Blown in the morn, in evening died;
But mercy changed death into sleep;
The sexes rose to work and weep.

Thou, mother of my mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my heart,
And with false self-deceiving tears
Didst bind my nostrils, eyes, and ears,

Didst close my tongue in senseless clay,
And me to mortal life betray.
The death of Jesus set me free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

Summary and Analysis


      This poem, written between 1801 and 1803, is later than the other Songs' and is thus not included in the earlier editions. It gives us Blake's thought at a somewhat later stage. He is here much nearer to traditional Christianity in looking for salvation in immortality rather than in this world. Blake was to use 'Tirzah', at one time capital of Israel, as a contrasting symbol to Jerusalem, capital of Judah - as the kingdom of the flesh and that of the spirit respectively. Thus in this poem To Tirzah, in the person of a human mother, represents the physical universe of Nature, mother of all, and thus the source of the physical body of man in contrast to his 'true self' or spiritual body. Blake uses the image of St. Paul to say that man is really a 'spiritual body' but has been compelled to dress, while on this carth, in a body of flesh. To do so he has to be born on carth to become either male or female (in heaven, sex does not exist) and to mate so that more physical bodies may be produced.


      Blake's poems, especially those which have an exuberant and rich vein of mysticism, are commonly termed as a 'flight from alone to alone'. But however mystic the poet remains, his unbound poetic talent disentangles the complicated mysticism. His plain and simple creed of traditional Christianity is not projected in intellectually complex terms. Instead, it is specified lucidly and unobtrusively. Generally, even a single thought of philosophy occasions a good deal of jargon and 'intellectual rubbish' from an untalented poet. But in the hands of Blake the Christian idea of immortality gathers grace and seriousness and takes the reader to the point the poet intends to convey.

      Tirzah is mother carth and the speaker addresses her and speaks to her. The speaker says that all that is born shall die. But this death is the precursor of a still more vigorous and meaningful life because it releases the human soul from the cycle of generations or the cycle of birth and death, and sets it free to unite paramatma. So the speaker asks his mother what he has to do with his earthly relationship with his mother. Blood bonds and filial bonds are all prevailing on earth only. After the soul's liberation from the body the son, mother and father are all the same. In the second stanza we have the Christian mythology of Adam and Eve. The speaker says that instincts: of sex originated from the shame and pride of Adam and Eve. They felt shame when they ate the forbidden fruit and developed an awareness of the their nudity. It was their 'pride' or audacity to thwart the command of God that tempted them to eat the fruit. Thus in the morning when they ate thei fruit they acquired knowledge of their sex and in the evening when God detected the sinful act, He evicted them from heaven and bound them to earth or mortality. On earth they were to suffer more and were doomed to be mortal. But this eternal suffering was put to an end by virtue of God's mercy when he changed it into a sheer sleep from which man could attain his lost and of heaven ultimately if he so chooses.

      The speaker again turns to lash out at his mother and accuses her of giving him mortality. He says that her tears of pain at the moment of giving him birth are sell-deceptive. Actually a mother is happy to give birth to a child and she pleasantly undergoes all the pains involved, But the speaker resents the fact that his mother was mortalising him when she thought it the fulfilment of her life. She bound him with a decaying body, senses and heart and tongue and betrayed him to mortal life. But the speaker is optimistic that if he follows the path of Jesus Christ he can liberate himself from the mortal path and win his goal which is communion with God. So he has nothing to do with his mother who made him mortal and substantive and materialistic.

      "I hail the super human" : W.B. Yeats can be seen to have acknowledged and substantiated Blake's idea when in his Byzantium he says:

"I hail the super human

I call it lile in death or death in life."

      This very idea is further expanded in Blake's poem 'To Tirzah'. The speaker is grievously disconcerted by the fact that he is mortal, bound to earth and imprisoned to live the bodily life. He finds his filial bond all the more trivial because it prevails only on earth. Whatever is born dies and hence the silliness of the material achievement. He ridicules the human 'mire and blood' with which his is bound on earth which is "moon embitterd" and not "starlit". He wants to free himself from the "dying generation", the cycle of birth and death and yearns to be reborn into a world where he becomes immortal (the word 'generation' is to be noted. It is a generation, that is, it is generated in a mechanical sense and hence its short-term span as that of a salmon). In that world he is out of time--time, which we figure out on earth by the yardstick of birth and death. On his way to this 'City of Delight' or 'The Golden City', he will be reshaped in the Smythies of the Emperor. But on earth his senses reimain as obstacles on his way and he rules out the life on earth as silly and worthless. He can however follow in the footsteps of Christ who has set him free from the slough of sin and shown the way to the ultimate destination of life.

The Significance of Soul:

      According to the speaker in 'To Tirzah', soul's life is in the other world and on earth we live the life of sense. Life on earth is, as Browning says, half of the full circle of human life. The other half is completed in the other world. But for the speaker, who is actively engaged im contending his point of argument through the whole poem, it is infuriating that he is destined to live a life on earth. So he resentfully asks his mother what he has to do with her. The mother, Tirzah can be taken as mother earth and the speaker as speaking to her. In the light of the great union of souls in the other world he deplores the human bonds on earth which, according to him, last only as long as earth lasts.

A Facsimile Replica of Another Poem:

      The same ideas expounded in "To Tirzah" can be traced with vivid elaborations in Blake's "ln a Myrtle Shade" (Poems from MSS) There he writes:

"Why should I be bound to thee

O my lovely mirtle tree..."

      But the most suggestive lines can be quoted from his The Everlasting Gospel where he explains the anxiety of Mary and Joseph when they know that Christ as run off. After three days when they find him Christ says:

"When they had wondered three days long

These were the words upon his Tongue

No earthly parents I confess

I am doing my father's business."

The Self-certain Speaker:

      It is often censured that the Fall of Man is incorrectly yoked with a sexual awakening for the advantage of the speaker. He says: "The sexes sprung from shame and pride..." Evidently enough this view is in debted to the biblical narration of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the heavenly Garden of Eden when they eat the forbidden fruit defying the restriction of God and suffer the feeling of sexual difference. Naturally Adam and Eve became man and woman because of the awareness of their sexual heterogeneity. But in the poem the view is highlighted mainly due to the abysmal disfavour of all things of the flesh. The speaker puts forth his ratiocinations to justify his contempt towards the flesh and for this purpose St. Paul's Gospel and Genesis are misused. And what is worse, the sanctity of Crucifixion is robbed of its proper significance merely for the convenience of the speaker. The self-congratulatory tone of the line. "The death of Jesus set me free" - is inexplicably embarrassing. The speaker utters it as if he were guaranteed immortality with no effort on his part at all. He negates and deplores the agonizing travails his mother had undergone at the time of his birth and her ordeals are dismissed as the cause of false self-deceiving tears." The speaker, stands apart from any kind of suffering and harps on the wrong done to him when he was "bound and 'closed" in the body. 

The Last Stanza:

      The last stanza of the poem 'To Tirzah' is remarkable and to be particularly noted. In case we approach it positively we can look at the speaker's feelings from a different angle of perception. True, he wrathfully rebukes his mother for giving him the birth of a mortal being. If we take earth as callously binding man to her or as tempting him to pursue material ends, then the speaker's wrath is justifiable. He wants to escape the worldly prison, the confinement of the senses and the retarding, deterring earthly body. The words (we have quoted above) of Jesus Christ to his parents were the same. If it is the speaker's awareness or enlightenment of the spiritual life that leads him to speak so, then his words can be justified as reasonable. For then he knows that the material world or the earthly illusions that detain him are of course deplorable. When he says.The death of Jesus Christ let me free", he seems to know that Christ's suffering produced a vicarious suffering in all the human beings and thus, when he shed his human blood for them, the whole of humanity also underwent a vicarious suffering which led them to a sinless state. The speaker has confidence in the fact that he will be redeemed of mortality if he follows in Christ footsteps. It is at this point that he views all the earthly bonds as meaningless and evasive. We may also not reprehend the 'Body' in the last line of the poem" - lt is raised a Spiritual Body - because then the whole sentence of St. Paul - running "It is sown a natural body: it is raised a spiritual body" - is equally reprehensible.

      Now the other angle of perception, as is spotlighted by those who censure the speaker's attitude, comes out of a rather negative approach. From the beginning of the poem itself the speaker resentfully accentuates the lines.

"Then what have I to do with thee...."

      True, his redemption depends on his breaking off from worldly things. But to break off from worldly things does not mean to keep oneself away from the sympathetic approach towards his fellow beings. The life of the senses as Browning says in Rabbi Ben Ezra is not to be chided because it supplements our life at a later stage with a mature insight and prudence and discretion. To be unsympathetic towards the mother is also in a way deplorable; and if we find fault with the speaker in this respect we shall also find fault with Christ who chose the same world (as we have quoted earlier) to express his feelings in front of his parents.

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