“The Human Abstract” by William Blake

HumanAbstract

 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 Catterpillar 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

This is definitely one of the more mystical poems in the Songs of Experience. In Blake’s illustration for this poem, we see Urizen, the supreme god in Blake’s mythological pantheon, struggling to free himself from the bonds that hold him to the earth. I see this as symbolic for the personal struggle that we all face, trying to free ourselves from worldly trappings so we can elevate our consciousness and actualize the divine spirit within us all.

In the first two stanzas, Blake asserts that nothing can exist without its opposite. There can be no good without evil. There must always be a balance in order for things to exist in this universe.

In the third stanza, we see Urizen shedding tears which become the seeds from which grows the Tree of Mystery. Urizen, being the creator of all existence, understands that everything must have its opposite and mourns the lot of humanity, which will eternally grapple with fear, cruelty, and hatred. From Urizen’s tears the roots of the Tree of Mystery grow. The Tree of Mystery is Blake’s equivalent to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree bears fruits which are both good and evil, and as we see in the fifth stanza, the fruits of evil are certainly the most tempting.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, Blake mentions three creatures: catterpillar, fly, and raven. These are symbols for the church and its priests, who feed on the leaves of the Tree of Mystery, who nest and hide within its branches, but have no understanding of the roots, or the hidden aspects. Blake is asserting that following church dogma will ultimately prevent you from discovering the secret to the divinity within you and the mystery of all creation.

I personally find the final stanza in the poem to be the most fascinating. Just like the biblical Tree of Knowledge, Blake’s Tree of Mystery is also hidden. “The Gods of the earth and sea” which he mentions I interpret to be humans, who have dominion over the earth. We have a tendency to seek outside ourselves for the truth, believing that the answers to the ultimate mystery must exist somewhere else. But this is not the case. The Tree of Mystery grows and is hidden within the human subconscious. It is the one place where too many of us fail to look, and hence the search for truth is often in vain.

This poem is a great introduction to Blake’s more complex metaphysical poetry. I encourage you to read it a few times and contemplate it. I’ll definitely be covering Blake’s deeper metaphysical poems once I complete all of the Songs of Experience.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to ““The Human Abstract” by William Blake

  1. Amber Danette

    William Blake is one of my favourite poets.

  2. Love Blake and enjoyed reading your take on the poem Jeff.
    Thanks and blessings!

  3. Stunning poem and analysis dear Jeff!~
    The last stanza is perfect…
    As to the first two stanzas you say:
    ~”Blake asserts that nothing can exist without its opposite. There can be no good without evil. There must always be a balance in order for things to exist in this universe”….
    Your words here regarding Blake’s poem reminded me of Heraclitus’ theory of Opposites:
    ~“What opposes unites, and the finest attunement stems from things bearing in opposite directions, and all things come about by strife”. (Fragment DK22b8).
    ~“The path up and down is one and the same”. (Fragment DK22b60).
    All my best wishes to you and thanks for sharing, my friend!. Aquileana 😀

  4. John C. Weaver

    Thank you very much for your analysis and interpretation of this poem that I find very interesting yet difficult to understand. Your critique helped me comprehend “Human Abstract” a little better. And thanks for your website . . . I really enjoy reading some of the poems and trying to understand them in light of your comments and the input of others.

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