Poetry

Can Virtue Exist Without Vice?: William Blake’s “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 ground 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

–William Blake

Intro

I wrote this analysis shown below of the William Blake poem “The Human Abstract” for my English Literature class. William Blake had his own brand of Christianity and likewise paved his own way of poetry. What I love are the illustrations that go along with his poems.

Analysis

In William Blake’s “The Human Abstract,” the poet reflects on the dependence of virtue on strife and vice, incorporating his perception of religion and politics as corrupt human constructs. Blake’s understanding of Christianity is unique, not fully complying with that of any established religion. The resulting complexity “ensured that his work could never be reduced to a single, static meaning, but would remain unstable, argumentative, and alive” (Lindop 35). Far from straightforward, “The Human Abstract” has many possible interpretations. Some scholars assert that the poem serves as political commentary, revealing the social injustices propagated by imperialism, slavery and poverty. Others, such as Gleckner, emphasize that the poem focuses on the perversion of virtue without love. Still others contend that it is about the power of the human mind to enslave the body, and that it demonstrates that humans are innately selfish and self-destructive, ultimately being the cause of their own downfall. Those who trace biblical images often note its parallels in Genesis. Despite the varied interpretations, there is agreement that the poem is highly critical of current systems of thought, religion, and government.

“The Human Abstract” is composed of six quatrains, each containing two rhyming couplets. Read aloud, it has the lulling quality of a lullaby or chant in the first two quatrains, but the patterns of punctuation are less consistent in the following quatrains, causing the tone to become didactic and at times jarring. The basic rhyme scheme is AABB for each quatrain. Thus, the meter is inconsistent throughout and turns the reader’s focus to Blake’s deliberate diction and the differences between quatrains. Gleckner, for example, notes that the voice in the poem changes from “man’s” voice to the voice of the poet (377).

Blake begins the poem by asserting that “Pity would be no more,/if we did not make somebody Poor” (1-2). Pity is included in the list of virtues in “The Divine Image,” the sister poem to “The Human Abstract. The parallelism between the two poems suggests that pity, paired with innocence, is free from the rationalization and religiousness of the experienced mind. The capitalization of “Pity” and “Poor” draws attention to the connection being made between them. Likewise, the next lines “And Mercy no more could be,/If all were as happy as we;” continue this theme (2-4). The quatrain as a whole suggests that virtue is only possible if a system of oppression is established and those in power are given the opportunity to be “charitable” without attacking the cause of the problem.

“And mutual fear brings peace,/Till the selfish loves increase;” includes two more virtues from the list of “The Divine Image” (5-6). Blake stresses that peace is usually kept because of a powerful ruler whose commands no one dares to resist; peace is suppression of the weak by authority. Love is depicted as love of self, which seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize discomfort; for example, by offering money to the poor to alleviate the guilt of benefitting from their subjugation. It is not so much love as an obsession with one’s self. Thus, all four virtues are shown to be human attempts to holiness that are crippled by greed.

Lines 7 and 8 state, “Then Cruelty knits a snare,/And spreads his baits with care.” Cruelty, the absence of love, is personified in this couplet. It sets a trap and baits it for others, but is actually caught in its own trap. Cruelty personified is represented by an old man in the illustration, restrained by ropes that bind him to the ground. “He sits down with holy fears,/And waters the ground with tears” (9-10). The ropes could be seen as guilt, or a sense of obligation to religious responsibilities. Lines 11 and 12 explain, “Then Humility takes its root/Underneath its foot.” Blake is asserting that humility is the root of cruelty; he believed that humility denied man’s divinity. Essentially, the old man is cultivating “the Blakean sin of doubt” (Gleckner 379). The elderly man is frequently identified with Urizen, an evil tyrant created by Blake as a “white-haired parody of God the Father” (Lindop 41).

Lines 15 to 20 are filled with biblical imagery, specifically from the book of Genesis. However, parallels with Norse mythology are also depicted. “Soon spreads the dismal shade/Of Mystery over his head” (15-16). This “Mystery” represents religion. The tree resembles Yggdrasil from Norse mythology, or the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from Genesis. Blake adds that “And the Caterpillar and Fly/Feed on the Mystery” (15-16). The caterpillar and fly are both parasitic. However, caterpillars have the potential to transform into what can be considered a higher form, while flies retain their gruesome shape. They may also represent Adam and Eve feeding from the forbidden tree and their subsequent Fall. An additional view holds that they represent the corrupt clergy. The lines “And it bears the fruit of Deceit,/Ruddy and sweet to eat” may refer to the forbidden fruit, or the fruit of Yggdrasil. “And the Raven his nest has made/In its thickest shade”—the Raven is a symbol of Odin as well as death. Religion is seen as misleading, with the potential to cause spiritual death.

Lines 21 to 24 conclude the poem, commenting on the “unnatural” constructs of religion and politics. That Blake believes these go against nature is apparent in the following lines, “The Gods of the earth and sea,/Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree,/But their search was all in vain” (21-24). The reason it cannot be found is that “There grows one in the Human Brain.” Ultimately Blake’s message is that humans create oppression through social systems meant to increase virtue, but by doing so are spreading vice.

Works Cited

  • Gleckner, Robert F. “William Blake and the Human Abstract.” Modern Language Association, vol. 76, no.4, Sep. 1961, pp. 373-379. JSOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/460620. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.
  • Lindop, Grevel. “William Blake.” British Writers, Retrospective Supplement 1, edited by JayParini, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002, pp. 33-47. Scribner Writers Series, doi:link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX1383000013/G-Scrib?u=grov34532&sid=G-Scrib&xid=0d70ea7f. Accessed 1 Mar. 2018.

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