William Blake’s poem “The Divine Image” is a lyric from the first part of his collection of poems titled Songs of Innocence and Experience. Like many of the other “songs of innocence,” this one celebrates the potential goodness of human beings by linking their goodness with God’s.
The poem opens by arguing that when people are suffering, either emotionally, physically, or both (that is, when they are in “distress”), they pray to (or for) forgiveness, sympathy, concord, and affection (“To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love”). These traits are then called “virtues of delight,” a phrase that associates them both with ethical goodness and with pleasure. People pray to these virtues and, when their prayers are answered, they give gratitude in response (they “Return their thankfulness”).
In the second stanza, the speaker asserts that all the qualities he has just enumerated are to be identified with “God, our father dear.” The qualities the poem celebrates derive from God, cannot exist without God, and are identical with God. Similarly, since humans were created in the image of God, they were created to display “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love.” Anyone who does display or practice those traits, therefore, is behaving not only as God intended but in ways that make the person actually resemble God.
In the third stanza, the speaker goes even further in identifying these traits with human beings. Ideally,
. . . Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
This stanza can seem a bit puzzling, because the speaker does not merely proclaim the possibility that human beings can embody these virtues. Instead, he suggests that they do embody these virtues. Perhaps he means that humans, as originally created in the image of God, embody these characteristics. Or perhaps he is alluding to Jesus Christ, who was both God and man and thus can reasonably be described as “the human form divine.” Jesus, according to standard Christian doctrine, did indeed embody all the positive traits the poet has been celebrating.
This interpretation helps make sense of the next stanza, in which the speaker suggests that anyone prays for (and to) love, mercy, pity, and peace actually prays to Christ, who is the epitome of all those virtues.
In the poem’s final stanza, the speaker asserts that people must or should love in all human beings any evidence of the virtues he has been celebrating, whether those virtues appear in another Christian or even “In heathen, Turk, or Jew.” Many Christians of Blake’s period were disdainful of people who were not Christians. Blake’s speaker, however, suggests that God can be seen reflected in the goodness of any person who is good:
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.