Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426
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.
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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 existence and can be manifested only in an imperfect society created by human beings; they are not intrinsic to the soul.
The other two virtues become even more sinister. Peace results only from fear, quite unlike the sense conveyed in “The Divine Image,” in which peace is “the human dress,” its natural state of being. The same applies to love, which, in the innocent poem is “the human form divine,” but in “The Human Abstract” is a state of mind that seeks its own advantage in everything and all love is self-love. The tragedy that Blake conveys with such force is that to those who are enmeshed in this web of limitation, self-deceit, and man-made cruelty it seems normal, inevitable, divinely ordained, and good, while the speaker who attacks these premises with such withering scorn is fully aware of the battery of interlocking rationalizations and phony arguments that are used to seduce the minds of the unwary.
Although Blake would later develop a complex mythological system to convey his ideas, this short poem contains the essence of his vision in stark simplicity: his opposition to any philosophy or creed that diminishes man’s capacity to enjoy the unbounded bliss that is his birthright.