Happy Birthday, William Blake! "The Human Abstract" vs. "The Divine Image"


William Blake was born, on this day, in 1757.

As I was searching for an appropriate work to highlight, I came across a wonderful post at Biblioodyssey, with scanned images of Blake's original relief etchings for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. I borrowed the images for today's discussion from that wonderful website, but you should go have a poke around yourself, especially if you love pretty things from all over the world.


I already knew I wanted to talk about "The Human Abstract," but it's interesting reading the poem in context. While they were originally published separately, Blake combined both Songs into one, in order to make explicit that they're really two sides of the same coin: original grace versus the fall from innocence.

"The Human Abstract" directly responds to "The Divine Image" from the earlier work.


It's a troubling conclusion: the qualities of mercy, pity, peace and love only become necessary because the opposite is so prevalent. Although these are held as divine virtues, they carry with them the seeds of darkness, at least as practiced by men of religion.

Oddly, though, Blake seems to be extolling the virtues of selfishness. To break the chain between these qualities and their opposites, these values must be conducted without regard for others, they have to be held as personal rules of conduct that eist at all times.

In case you found them hard to read, I've reprinted the two poems below:

The Divine Images

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love 
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.


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 holy fears,
And waters the grounds with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller 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 thro' Nature to find this Tree;
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain. 


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