August 25, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy AA, 1826 (The Fitzwilliam Museum) The Human Abstract.jpg
The Human Abstract[1]
By: William Blake (1794)

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,[2] 5
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 ground with tears; 10
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.[3]

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Caterpillar and Fly 15
Feed on the Mystery.[4]

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade. 20

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.

Notes & Commentary

  1. From Songs of Experience, 1794. Compare this poem to its contrary, the “The Divine Image” from Songs of Innocence which espouses the virtues of “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love”; here, they have a negative side and could become means of “exploitation, cruelty, conflict, and hypocritical humility” (Greenblatt 2018, p. 60). Indeed, Blake saw an abstract as a negation, not a contrary, so this poem suggests that the values expressed as divine in SI are negated by experience (Tomlinson 1987, pp. 41–42).
  2. In a bureaucratic system of rules and laws, fear of the consequences for doing something right may trump the desire to good. Compare this idea to the beginning of “The Divine Image”: “To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, / All pray in their distress.” Here, empathy and even sympathy are lacking in a system where Urizen “separates human beings from real spiritual life and enslaves them to a cold, abstract system” (Tomlinson 1987, p. 40). Here, it’s the system that matters, not the people it’s supposed to serve.
  3. Again, Humility comes from submission and obedience to the system—the Mystery below.
  4. Those who feed are likely the priests (Tomlinson 1987, p. 40).

Bibliography

  • Ackroyd, Peter (1995). Blake: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Battenhouse, Henry M. (1958). English Romantic Writers. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
  • Bloom, Harold (2003). William Blake. Bloom’s Major Poets. New York: Chelsea House.
  • Frye, Northrup (1947). Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Gardner, Stanley (1969). Blake. Literary Critiques. New York: Arco.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Makdisi, Saree (2003). "The Political Aesthetic of Blake's Images". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 110–132.
  • — (2015). Reading William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Paulin, Tom (March 3, 2007). "The Invisible Worm". Guardian. Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  • Thompson, E. P. (1993). Witness Against the Beast. New York: The New Press.
  • Tomlinson, Alan (1987). Song of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake. MacMillan Master Guides. London: MacMillan Education.
  • Wolfson, Susan J. (2003). "Blake's Language in Poetic Form". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 63–83.

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