William Blake’s collection of Songs of Innocence and of Experience stands first as a simple representation of a fallen world as seen through an innocent soul, and then an ill-favored representation of the same world through the experienced soul. Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love are Christian values personified through a pair of poems in this collection. Blake’s “The Divine Image” from Songs of Innocence is more straightforward in his depiction of these values as the divine form of man. “The Human Abstract” from Songs of Experience, on the other hand, acts more as commentary on the institution of religion and its role in the corruption of human nature through these values. Although it is quite obvious in the comparison of “The Human Abstract” to its companion poem, that Blake is illustrating the cruel selfishness of human nature in deeper reflection of the divine values, his use of the growth of a tree as an extended metaphor exposes humility as the root of cruelty and a guise of human nature, and further provides commentary on the vicious cycle of a Christian institution of values built on corruption.
“The Human Abstract” uses these divine values of Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love to illustrate a cruelty and selfishness in human nature hidden behind a yearning to be virtuous in the eyes of God. The first six lines of this poem communicate a severe flaw in the notion that these values constitute a divine image of Man. In the first stanza specifically, Blake writes:
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. (1-4)
This is to say that if there was no suffering in the world then there would be no need for pity or mercy. Humanity’s need to possess these virtuous qualities supports the concept of a “selfish love” (6) because there is no sense of responsibility to help lessen the suffering of those less fortunate. Man’s love comes first if it benefits himself while his love for the poor and suffering is ultimately conditional; any attempts to possess these values stem from Man’s fear of not reaching the divine image.
After laying the groundwork of his argument, the poem continues to serve as an extended metaphor that uses the growth of a tree to expose humility as the root of the cruelty of Man. Humility is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the quality or state of being humble” (“Humility”). In the book of Philippians, Apostle Paul speaks of imitating Christ’s humility by “do[ing] nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Phil. 2:3) This is particularly important to consider when, in the second stanza of “The Human Abstract,” Blake writes that once the “selfish loves increase” (6) then Cruelty begins to knit a snare and spread his bait. Humility takes root as the foundation of Cruelty’s trap after being cultivated by tears of “holy fears.” (9) These holy fears represent the hypocrisy hidden behind Man’s humility. The only reason people are attempting to be humble and accept humility, and possess the values of mercy and pity specifically, is because they want to be accepted into God’s good graces. This is the “Mystery” that “spreads the dismal shade” (13) in the fourth stanza, because the intentions of Man are arguably questionable. This further illustrates how these divine values are merely a guise of human nature because the growth of this tree looks natural in its environment from the outside, but it grows nowhere in nature and is rooted in the “Human Brain” (24) by skewed reasoning fueled by a corrupt institution of religion.
Blake extends this description of the tree even further to include what is feeding on its foliage, growing from its branches, and hiding in its shade. In terms of Christian values being based on corruption within the religious institution, the caterpillar and the fly that “Feed on the Mystery” (16) could represent any group of individuals within the church. However, I would argue that in reflection of what this extended metaphor is illustrating, these insects are most likely to be any devout Christian who is more focused on their own ascent to heaven than the well-being of others. Caterpillars and flies cause damage and transfer sickness within nature, and similarly, the questionability of the motives of those who call themselves Christians is creating a vicious cycle within the institution of their religion. Blake goes on to describe how this tree “…bears the fruit of Deceit, / Ruddy and sweet to eat,” (17-18) which offers much to interpret in comparison to the story of Adam and Eve. The simplest connection being that of temptation. This fruit that is red, tantalizing, and sweet, represents the divine image. Man is sucked in by the appearance of this system of values and gets caught in a cycle of corruption and deceit. Now, in the midst of all this, there hides a raven, a common symbol in literature and religion for death and damnation, in the tree’s “thickest shade.” (20) He sits waiting for the collapse of this corrupt system to damn all who took part in the corruption of the divine image of Man.
While Blake does illustrate the cruelty and selfishness of human nature as a result of the concept of divine image, his use of extended metaphor gives even more depth to the true political message of the poem. The tree, with its roots of Humility, foliage of Mystery, and fruit of Deceit, turns out to only be disguised as a natural progression of humanity. The true flaw in these Christian values is how they are rooted in a hypocritical concept of humility, which leads to a devastating cycle of corruption within the institution of Christianity where Man finds himself caught in the ultimate snare of holy fear.