Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

When Blake published Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience together, in 1794, he subtitled the collection, “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” The state of experience is shown as a cramped, fearful, and introspective attitude to life, completely opposed to the free-flowing, open, joyful impulses enjoyed by the speakers in the Songs of Innocence.

Many of the poems in the two books are deliberately paired. In a draft version of “The Human Abstract,” Blake called it “A Human Image,” which shows that it was intended as a contrast to “The Divine Image” in Songs of Innocence. Blake altered the title to convey, more directly, the true nature of the human image portrayed in the poem.

“The Divine Image” celebrates the virtues of mercy, pity, peace, and love as divine qualities dwelling within man. “The Human Abstract” satirizes each of these virtues, showing what happens to them when calculation replaces spontaneity and self-righteous morality usurps innocent joy and self-understanding. In “The Divine Image,” mercy and pity are innocent expressions of the essence of humanity—the natural tenderness that flows from one human being to another and makes the human divine. The qualities do not depend for their existence on the presence of unhappiness or suffering. In “The Human Abstract,” all this is changed. Mercy and pity somehow must be manipulated into...

(The entire section is 426 words.)