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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

by William Blake
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How does Blake complicate binary moral thinking in "The Human Abstract"?

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William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, the latter of which contains "The Human Abstract," are intended to present different interpretations of human life. The first presents an idyllic, childlike view of the world, in which both people and God are fundamentally good. The second presents a view tainted by the experience of suffering and injustice; many of the poems contained within it directly refute the ideas expressed in the poems of the first. "The Human Abstract" is no exception to this pattern. It is intended to refute the claims of the Songs of Innocence poem "The Divine Image," which describes a set of purely good "virtues of delight" (3). Mercy, pity, peace, and love are described in "The Divine Image" as the manifestation of all that is good, with the implication that their opposite vices are purely evil. It is this specific type of binary morality that Blake complicates in "The Human Abstract."

"The Human Abstract" points out that none of the virtues in "The Divine Image" are purely good. Pity and mercy would not need to exist if there was not suffering in the world. Therefore, as long as they remain virtues, suffering cannot be eliminated; all that the virtues do is make people feel good about themselves without actually solving the root problems. Peace, Blake writes, is brought about by "mutual fear" (5), as people are only prevented from hurting others for their own gain out of fear of what may happen to them in return. Love, too, is described as "selfish" (6), implying that people only express love in order to receive some personal benefit. These selfish virtues give rise to cruelty, the cause of the suffering that makes the virtues desirable in the first place. Enduring cruelty humbles people, creating the virtue of humility. Humility, since it hides people's true natures, creates an air of mystery which allows them to be deceitful. All of this increases the threat of death, the usual symbolic meaning of the raven in the poem. Thus, human virtues and vices create and bleed into one another, complicating the binary morality presented in "The Divine Image."

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In the Songs, the larger issues—institutional oppression, chronological movement, and human states of consciousness—are all human concerns which are not simply confined to a single era. This is most established by “The Human Abstract,” in which the good/evil binary is complicated: “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). Blake suggests that the virtues we code as “good” are often predicated on the fact that they rely on the existence of human suffering. Pity is not necessary in a world without poor people; mercy is not necessary in a world in which all happiness is vast and equal.

“The Human Abstract” uses these paradoxes to reject concrete moral thinking. The poem indicates innocence and experience through allusions to the biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the ultimate symbolic transition from innocence to experience: “The gods of the earth and sea/Sought through nature to find this tree,/But their search was all in vain:/There grows one in the human Brain” (21-24). Yet, Blake further complicates binary moral thinking by at once implicating both human nature and human choice in the corruption of the world. With the paradoxes he first presents, he evokes a lack of human agency—we are stuck in moral muddiness through forces beyond our control. The personification of “Cruelty” also presents cruelty as something that exists outside of human nature (7). However, at the same time, Blake implies that human will is a powerful component of this cycle. After all, it is “we” who “make somebody poor” (2). The tree is ambiguously found in the human brain—it “grows” there, which signifies that it is a development of the brain that did not “naturally” exist, but also that it is cultivated by the human carrier (24). According to Blake, human nature (a state of innocence) is not mutually exclusive with human choice (a state of experience). “The Human Abstract” is clearly a poem that speaks to universal human concerns.

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