The Human Abstract is part of Songs of Experience. Songs of Experience was first published in 1794 after the publication of Songs of Innocence in 1789. The Human Abstract is an example of William Blake’s metaphysical poetry. William Blake is known for his romantic poetry and his prophetic works. The Human Abstract portrays the tension between humanity and divinity by analyzing different virtues (e.g. Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love). William Blake wrote this poem to contrast with The Divine Image, a poem from Songs of Innocence. In fact, the original title of The Human Abstract was The Human Image. Notice how these two titles are clear opposites and they present the aforementioned contrast.
The Human Abstract William Blake 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 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 thro’ Nature to find this Tree But their search was all in vain; There grows one in the Human Brain.
The Human Abstract
The Human Abstract criticizes traditional Christian virtues and human reason. The poem analyses how virtues are tied necessarily to suffering.
Pity would not exist without poverty, Mercy presumes unhappiness and the origin of Peace is fear. Other virtues also come from sin like Cruelty, Humility, and Deceit. According to the lyrical voice, all these negative or false values grow and spread “in the Human Brain” in contrast with what happens in Nature (“The Gods of the earth and sea, /Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree”).
Form and Tone
The Human Abstract has six quatrains, stanzas of four lines, and a total of twenty-four lines. The rhyme follows an AABB pattern. This simple rhyme scheme recreates innocent sonority which emphasizes the meaning of the words. The fourth stanza breaks the rhyme pattern to gain the reader’s attention to “Mystery”. The last two quatrains also have an AABB rhyme scheme. Moreover, the tone of The Human Abstract is didactic throughout the six stanzas and it conveys its message in a universal manner. Mostly, the poem focuses on addressing the reader as if in a lesson, but through a critical perspective.
There are two main themes in The Human Abstract. These are related to the contrast between humanity, divinity, and nature. The first one is virtue and religion as a human construct. The first stanzas present a critical outlook toward virtues that are traditionally associated with Christianity. These are conceived ultimately as false because they are not entirely good (e.g. Pity exists thanks to poverty), as they are biased by human reasoning. Moreover, the final stanzas present the second theme which is the imprisonment of humanity. Notice how humanity can’t escape these negative aspects of their “virtues” and they end up surrounded by more “false” virtues, such as Humility and Deceit.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
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;
The first stanza of The Human Abstract talks about two virtues ‒Pity and Mercy. The lyrical voice starts by referencing Pity. Notice how in this case and in the case of Mercy, both nouns are capitalized as they are personified and become the center elements of the stanza. Both Pity and Mercy, which are first-hand considered virtuous, are analyzed by the lyrical voice to find that they presuppose negative things. Namely, Pity needs poverty (“Pity would be no more,/If we did not make somebody Poor”) and Mercy needs unhappiness (“And Mercy no more could be,/If all were as happy as we”). The two virtues, thus, have negative sides which are inseparable to their positive aspect.
And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
The second stanza furthers the criticism of the previous quatrain. The lyrical voice continues to talk about these false virtues, as peace can only occur if there is fear (“And mutual fear brings peace”). Moreover, the lyrical voice of The Human Abstract focuses on Cruelty, which is also capitalized as in the previous stanza. Cruelty increases thanks to “selfish loves” and finds a way to grow and extend: “Then Cruelty knits a snare,/And spreads his baits with care”. Notice the hunting imagery that the lyrical voice uses to talk about cruelty (“knits a snare” and “spreads his baits”). Thus, the personification of the capital letter (“Cruelty”) is maximized by the actions associated with the word (“knits a snare” and “spreads his baits”).
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
The third stanza of The Human Abstract continues working on the image of Cruelty and also mentions Humility. The quatrain starts by saying “He”, which is referring to Cruelty. Cruelty then “sits down with holy fears” and “waters the ground with tears”. In this manner, Cruelty is still personified as it carries out two actions which are also accompanied by sentiment. Then, another false virtue emerges, as Humility appears right at the feet of Cruelty. Humility arises from Cruelty ‒ “Then Humility takes its root/Underneath his foot”. Once again, Humility is another virtue that is personified.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Caterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.
The fourth stanza is similar to the third since it completes the image of the false virtue presented in the previous one and presents a new one. Note how from the second quatrain onwards the stanzas have a narrative that develops throughout the lines while using the same personification device and with a constant sonority due to its structure and rhyme. Humility spreads “the dismal shade/shade of Mystery” and two insects (“the Caterpillar and Fly”) feed on Mystery. Notice how the lyrical voice of The Human Abstract uses natural elements in the final lines to present another false virtue.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The fifth stanza of The Human Abstract develops more images related to nature. Mystery, which appears in the previous quatrain, “bears the fruit of Deceit” that is presented as “Ruddy and sweet to eat”. Thus, this fruit grows from the tree that has emerged from the other false virtues. This enumeration of false virtues is, then, a consequent addition that builds an imitation of nature with negative connotation which encounters a final image: “his nest has made/In its thickest shade”. Notice how “Raven”, as “Caterpillar and Fly” in the fourth stanza, is also capitalized, again, within a personification device.
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
The sixth stanza is a conclusion of the progression of the five quatrains. The lyrical voice explains that the “Gods of the earth and sea” looked for the tree that was described previously but that it can’t be found in nature (“Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree/But their search was all in vain”). Remember that the enumeration of false virtues, from the second to the fifth stanza, consisted of images that described a tree. Yet, this train only grows “in the Human Brain”. Hence, all these false virtues are human notions and perceptions, which don’t resemble those found in nature. That is why all the negative aspects of these false virtues are purely human.
The Human Abstract was written just a few years before the Romantic era (ca. 1800-1890). William Blake is considered to be a pre-romantic poet, as he portrays and conveys a lot of ideas and themes which are crucial to Romanticism. This artistic movement highlights emotion and glorifies nature and the past. The Human Abstract was originally published in Songs of Experience, but it is later and most commonly found in Songs of Innocence and Experience, a volume that contains both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and has illustrations.
Similar Poetry to William Blake
You can find the analyses of other poems of Songs of Innocence and Experience here:
Songs of Innocence
Songs of Experience