In two stanzas, Blake explores humans as “divine images” or imitations of God, with god-like powers. However, this does not mean that they are full of goodness. Instead, powerful human emotions become forces for evil and self-deception.
A Divine Image William BlakeCruelty has a Human HeartAnd Jealousy a Human Face Terror the Human Form Divine And Secrecy, the Human DressThe Human Dress, is forged Iron The Human Form, a fiery Forge. The Human Face, a Furnace seal'd The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.
Explore A Divine Image
The poem begins with little introduction, “cruelty has a human face.” Blake names negative aspects of human behavior and links them inextricably with the idea that they are built into every human on earth and prevent us from being truly honest with ourselves.
In the second stanza, industrial images like “forge” emphasize the power of humanity to create and reshape their world. However, humans ruled by the emotions in the first stanza end up creating their own prisons and barriers to self-knowledge and a better world.
Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress
Blake uses parts of the human body to structure his ideas about humanity. The first stanza begins in the heart, moves to the face, then the whole “form” of the body itself, and finally, the outward appearance we all see, “the Human Dress.” It is this idea that begins the next stanza and the poem’s damning portrayal of the human condition.
The poem immediately begins with the declaration that “Cruelty has a human heart,” meaning that cruelty is not just a human trait, but part of humanity itself. This idea continues with the next line, “Jealousy a human face.” Next, “Terror” is introduced as “the human form divine” and conveys the atrocities human beings are capable of physically inflicting on each other.
What we “dress” in is a choice and part of our identity. According to the speaker, “Secrecy is the Human Dress.” We have proven adept at concealing the darkness of our true natures.
The Human Dress, is forged Iron
The Human Form, a fiery Forge.
The Human Face, a Furnace seal’d
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.
The ideas in the first stanza are reassessed and built upon in the second stanza, but in reverse order, establishing a cyclical and inevitable idea of human sin.
Firstly, the concept of concealment and deception continues in the second stanza and we learn that the “Human Dress is forged Iron.” It is rigid and impenetrable, seemingly immune to reason. The industrial imagery is developed in the next line, “The Human Form, a Fiery Forge.” Here, the human body is described as being a force for creation and creativity, but also a fearful place of punishment and destruction. However, we could see in the “forge” a possibility of renewal. This hope is short-lived when we come to the third line in the stanza, “The Human Face, a Furnace Seal’d.” This image implies that humanity’s fire and power, for better or worse, is impossible to avoid. Finally, the place of love, the “Human Heart” is a greedy monster inside us that needs constant feeding as it is a “Hungry Gorge.”
Theme: Human nature
Blake paints a bleak picture of human nature in this poem, made bleaker still by the fact that these traits are so ingrained that they cannot be escaped. The speaker is in awe of the power and strength of humanity, but ultimately sees it as frightening and ultimately destructive, despite its huge creative potential.
Structure and Form
The most interesting part of the poem’s structure is the order of the imagery of the human body. The first stanza examines human beings from the inside out, whereas the second stanza works in reverse. Blake places humanity’s capacity for lies and deception at the center of the poem and bookends it with the darkness of the human heart.
Blake uses several literary devices in this speech. These include but are not limited to:
- Anadiplosis: Blake uses one phrase, “The Human Dress” to end one line and immediately begin another to emphasize the importance of the idea that humans conceal their true nature, even from themselves.
- Personification: The cruelest aspects of humanity are all personified to reflect their positions as intrinsic to human identity, and to indicate the control they have over us and our behavior.
- Fricatives: The repeated “f” sounds form an airy, breathless sound, much like the air required to keep the “Furnace” of humanity alive and burning.
William Blake Background
William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 in London, England. He received little formal education but was passionate about art and although was able to study it for a time, his father was unable to afford a studio for him. Blake ultimately made his living as an engraver and refined his own coloring, painting, and printing techniques.
Blake was never political but was passionate about liberty and approved strongly of the French and American Revolutions. He was also scathing in his poetry and art about the injustices he saw around him arising from poverty, the divide between rich and poor, and the Industrial Revolution. He also had a strong Christian faith in the Dissenter tradition. He published the poems and art of Songs of Innocence and Experience independently.
He is best known for Songs of Innocence and Experience, his artwork of the Book of Job, and illustrations of Dante’s Inferno.
Based on its title, it appears that this was meant to be the counterpart to ‘The Divine Image’ in Innocence. However, its replacement, ‘The Human Abstract,’ is much more similar in terms of structure and theme to ‘The Divine Image’ and explores “Pity” and “Mercy” in an opposing way to ‘A Divine Image.’
The savagery of ‘A Divine Image’ may have been too strong for Songs of Innocence and Experience and this might be why it was abandoned.
Blake celebrated the positive aspects of humanity in the Songs of Innocence and Experience poems, praising nature, children, and human goodness. However, the England he lived in was shaped by turbulence caused by the Industrial Revolution, political unrest in France and America, and growing chasms between rich and poor in his own country. He saw freedom being eroded wherever he looked (in ‘London’ he criticizes the “charter’d streets” that restrict movement and personal liberty) and was enraged by the failure of politicians and institutions like the church to do anything about it.
The poem is metaphorical but Blake’s anger at his own society is clear throughout this poem and Songs of Innocence and Experience. Throughout the work, there is a range of speakers and there is no reason to believe that Blake himself is the speaker here, even though we can have little doubt that he shares the speaker’s sentiments that humanity is the cause of evil and continues to perpetrate destruction wherever it goes.