The Human Abstract: by William Blake - Summary and Analysis

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The Human Abstract

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with his holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head,
And the caterpillar and fly
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat,
And the raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The gods of the earth and sea
Sought through nature to find this tree,
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the human Brain.

Summary and Analysis


      'The Human Abstract' and 'A Divine Image' in Songs of Experience are two poems in contrast to 'The Divine Image' in Songs of Innocence. In The Human Abstract Blake takes the virtues mentioned in 'The Divine Image', mercy, pity, peace and love, and shows us what can happen when experience dominates them. Throughout the poem the poet points out man's wrong attitude to certain basic values and virtues. The poem is characteristic of eighteenth century thought when it suggests that morality or ethics is a human product and not descended from God or any divine source. But for Blake morality means natural impulse. Pity, mercy and love cannot exist without poverty, impoverishment and miseries or unhappiness and fear. Peace leads to selfishness and cruelty, and cruelty demands humility; and then it develops into the tree of mystery or code of ethics or morality.

The title "The Human Abstract" refers to the abstract god which man has created.
The Human Abstract


      The poet brings out some hidden truths of the basic or fundamental virtues upon which religion is built up. These virtues are the ones that all people want to follow. The poet points out that mercy and pity draw their sustenance from poverty and misery. Poverty and misery are prolonged and made endless by 'mercy' and 'pity'. This can be easily justified. We cannot practise or express mercy and pity if there is nobody who deserves it. Now those who deserve it must be poor and miserable as well as unfortunate. The poet argues that 'mercy' and 'pity' are thus not genuine virtues. If we really feel pity and mercy for the wretched condition of our fellow men, we will try our best to uplift them. Therefore if all the wretched are uplifted, there is no need of pity or mercy and eventually these virtues will fade away. But poverty and atrocity are never removed and it shows that our pity and mercy are hypocritical. The poet puts farth the unchangeable view that men who inculcate the false, ostentatious virtues are, a whole, responsible for the everlasting evils of society. As for the other virtue, called peace, it is also proved to be unfelt, 'Peace' is only a state of uneasy truce brought about by fear of one's opponent or foe. For his own security one man pretends that he loves the other. But in his innermost mind 'selfish love' takes its origin and develops gradually. The outward show of peace and love is deceptive as within him he carries bitter spite which waits alertly to attack its unwary prey. He embrodiers his words with sweet words and allures his prey. Thus, instead of the real and healthy human virtues of natural love, peace and mercy, men give birth to a god of cruelty to propitiate and support their own wild emotions. It is this god of cruelty, who, in Blake's perception, is identified with the God of traditional religion.

      The god of cruelty is also known as 'Starry Jealousy, or Urizen' and so on. The crucial point is that this man-made god does not exist outside the mind of man since it is he (man) who has invented him for his own selfish purposes. Hence we call this god 'Urizen' - characteristically pictured (in paintings or illustrations) with a net or web flung about him. It is this symbolic web that man spreads around him. Man pretends to be humble, meek, philanthropic, generous, broad-hearted in order to trap his prey. He sheds tears of pity and waters the land around him which bears the seeds of misery and grief. This only means that the fulfilment of cruelty lies in the sigh of its prey's miseries. Thus the seeds sprout, buds bloom and the branches stem out as the roots penetrate down through the soil. A tree of 'Mystery' (which is mysterious for being unnatural) develops to its full size. It is the symbol of the organised religion (patched up, man-made, artificial) and also stands for the false philosophers who support it. Priests, archbishops and popes are appointed to promote the new school of thought. Thus the false religion ripens, leaves its deep impact (which are actually injuries) on the minds of the people. It is made attractive with a seemingly grand paraphernalia of priesthood. The priests stick by it and get the profit from it. Now the natural power - as opposed to the artificial one - symbolizing true prophets and saints launch an enquiry to find out the real source of this atrocious religion. But it is in because the religion has no material or concrete existence, this 'God or Or Mystery' is an outcome of man's own selfish motives. The new selfish religion of man evolves its own mysteries and myths. But these mysteries are transient, hollow and shaky since they originate from man's artificial perceptions. He wants them to support him.

The Title of the Poem:

      The title "The Human Abstract" refers to the abstract god which man has created. Blake's attack upon human reason always focuses upon its tendency towards abstractions and the resultant mistake it makes of regarding God as distinct from man. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he explains how this has happened:

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive.

And particularly they studied the genius of cach city and country, placing it under its mental deity till a system was formed. which some took advantage of, and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realise or abstract the mental deities from their objects : thus began Priesthood.

Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

The Divine Image and The Human Abstract:

      'The Human Abstract' is the counterpart of 'The Divine Image' of the Songs of Innocence. The element of contrast between these two poems furnish us with an explicit idea of the two differing points of view on the fundamental human virtues. 'The Divine Image' and 'The Human Abstract' each deals in its own way with the divine virtues. The speaker in 'Songs of Innocence' leaves their origin unmentioned. He only explicates their coexistence in a divine body. There he mentions 'God' whose position is not something beyond man's grasp. Man can achieve godliness if he imbibes and cultivates the four essential qualities, namely Love, Peace, Mercy and Pity. In The Human Abstract, there is no mention of 'God' and, what is more, the speaker even traces the source of these virtues to man's self-love. He asserts that it is man's egoism that formulates the psychic as well as the social codes of ethics and thoughts. This rationalistic analysis of the speaker goes on to prove that the virtues are used by man to attain his selfish ends. The divine virtues, which are also spiritual, are quoted as 'godly' in the Songs of Innocence but in 'The Human Abstract' they are said to impoverish mankind. These virtues function as a mask for the ecclesiastical dignitaries who nurture the religion of Reason, 'Urizen' or 'traditional religion.' C.M. Bowra points out: The fear and denial of life which come with experience breed hypocrisy and this earns some of Blake's hardest and harshest words. For him hypocrisy is as grave a sin as cruelty because it rises from the same causes-from the refusal to obey the creative spirit of the imagination and from submission to fear and envy. He marks its character by providing an antithesis to 'The Divine Image' in 'The Human Abstract.' In bitter irony he shows how love, pity and mercy can be distorted and used as a cover for base or cowardly motives. Speaking through the hypocrite's lips, he goes straight to the heart of the matter by showing how glibly hypocrisy claims to observe these car dinal virtues:

"Pity would be no more,

If we did not make somebody poor;

And Mercy no more could be,

If all were as happy as we..."

      In under his corrupt frame of mind, selfishness and cruelty flourish and are dignified under false names. This process wrecks the world. Harsh rules are imposed on fo through what Blake calls 'Mystery', with its ceremonies and hierarchies and it promise of an allegorical abode where existence hath never come.' It supports those outward forms of religion which Blake regards as the death of the soul. So Blake recreates the myth of the Tree of Knowledge or of Life. This tree, which is fashioned by man's reason gives falsehood instead of truth, and death instead of life.

A Mythical Vision of the Growth of Error:

      On the profundity of "The Human Abstract" Swinburne feels that the poem is "a little mythical vision of the growth of error, through soft sophistries of pity and faith, subtle humility of abstinence and fear, under which the pure simple nature lies corrupted and strangled through selfish loves which prepare a way for cruelty, and cruelty that works by spiritual abasement and awe:

"Soon spreads the dismal shade...."

      Under the shadow of this tree of mystery, rooted in artificial belief, all the meaner kind of devouring things take shelter and eat of the fruit of its branches; the sweet poison of faith, painted on its outer husk with the likeness of all things noble and desirable, and in the deepest implication of barren branch and deadly leaf, the bird of death, with priests for worshippers ('the priests of the raven of dawn', loud of lip and hoarse of throat until the light of day has risen) finds house and resting-place. Only in the 'instructive brain' of fallen man can such a thing strike its tortuous root and bring forth its fatal flowers; nowhere else in all nature and moral law, 'Gods of the earth and sea' find soil that will bear such fruit.

The Tree of Mystery and the Fruit of Deceit:

      The 'Tree of Mystery' has been defined in an old book of mythology called Ahania, as one that is "rooted in the rock of separation, watered with the tears of a jealous God, shot up from Sparks and fallen germs of material (not spiritual) good; being after all a growth of mere error, and vegetable (again non-spiritual) life; the topmost stem if it made into a cross whereon to nail the dead redeemer and friend of men." Kathleen Raine, in her analysis of Blake's poems says: Two poems in Songs of Experience, 'The Human Abstract' and 'A Poison Tree' identify the Tree of Good and Evil as mystery or Nature Mystery bears:

".....And it bears the fruit of Deceit

Ruddy and sweet to eat:"

      The Poison Tree 'an apple bright' that slays the man who eats it. The Poison Tree grows from 'wrath' and the 'apple bright' from anger; and we are led, again Boehme. For Bochme also this Tree is Nature: it grew Out of the earth and as wholly the Nature of the Earth in it and as the Earth is corruptible, and shall pass away in the end, when all goes into Ether. He might be paraphrasing Paracelsus. Of the two trees in the old legend - the Tree of Life and the Tree of Good and Evil-Boehme writes that they are the same tree but manifested in two different principles: In the light of Heaven, the principle of the Son; and in the fires of Hell, the Wrath of the anger of God; the father." The words 'wrath', poison', and 'anger' that recur in these two poems point unmistakably to Boehme, who writes that the Tree, currupted by the Fall, brought forth fruits, hard, evil wrathful, poisonous, venomous, half-dead; and he asks that human question: "Why did God suffer this Tree to grow, seeing Man should eat it? Did he not bring it forth for the fall of Man? And must it not be the cause of Man's destruction?" In Blake's 'Poison Tree.'

"my wrath did grow...

And it grew both day and night

Till it bore an apple bright."

      The figured man who lies outstretched in death beneath the tree is, by implication, the victim of God's anger. This myth is expanded in The Four Zoas; not only do poisonous fruits grow from the tree, but the serpent itself issues from its writhing buds. From this 'deadly root' of poison and wrath the Mystery branches and extends endlessly.

In intricate labyrinths o'erspreading many a grizly deep.

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