The Human Abstract

by William Blake

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The Poem

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“The Human Abstract” is a short poem of twenty-four lines divided into six quatrains. The title refers to the human capacity to create false structures of belief through excessive use of the rational part of the mind.

In the first quatrain, the speaker offers his opinions on moral and social issues in a way that justifies the existing order. He says that without poverty, there would be no way for people to exercise pity or compassion, and that if everyone were happy, there would be no opportunity to relieve the suffering of others.

The same speaker, who obviously includes himself among the compassionate and merciful, continues in the first two lines of the second quatrain. He gives his explanation of how order is preserved in a society. When there is “mutual fear” among people, the result is peace; fear keeps everyone from breaking the rules of society. Although self-love (what the speaker here calls “selfish loves”) always predominates, it is in everyone’s interest to accept the social order and the restrictions it imposes. If every individual were allowed to gratify every personal desire, everyone would feel threatened and insecure.

In line 7, another speaker takes over, and the poem is given over to his attack on the views of the first speaker. This is clearly William Blake’s own voice. He states that when people accept the views of the first speaker, the result is a cruel society. A false philosophy spreads its tentacles everywhere and traps the innocent. In the name of religion and compassion, the seeds of Christian “humility” are planted. The word has a bitter edge to it, because humility to Blake meant only subservience to a pernicious and illusory view of God and human nature. The seed grows into a tree, an imposing edifice that overspreads everything and cuts out the light of the sun to produce a “dismal shade/ Of Mystery.” Mystery was another pejorative term for Blake. Taking his cue from the Book of Revelation (17:5), in which the Whore of Babylon is said to be named Mystery, Blake often used the term to refer to false religion. Here the speaker adds that caterpillars and flies (the representatives of organized religion) feed on this Tree of Mystery.

In the fifth quatrain, the speaker explains what this tree of false religion and false morality produces: deceit, but it is a deceit that seems sweet and healthful to those who are under its spell and appears to provide them with all the sustenance they need. The speaker, however, points to what he sees as the truth of the matter: In the tree, where its branches are thickest, lives the raven, a symbol of death.

The final quatrain brings the speaker’s point home with considerable force. The tree that contains such poison is not to be found in nature or in anything that exists outside the mind of man; it grows in the human brain itself.

Forms and Devices

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Blake’s poems often grow in meaning when the illustrations that accompany them are taken into account. The design for “The Human Abstract” shows a bearded old man sitting under a tree, tangled up in its fallen branches. The branches resemble ropes or chains and seem to sprout directly from his brain. They also seem to be arranged to resemble part of a human skeleton, which brings out the idea implied in the text of the poem that conventional religion sucks the life out of people. The old man is an early depiction by Blake of his mythological figure Urizen, who represents the rational faculty of man when it no longer works...

(This entire section contains 475 words.)

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in harmony with man’s other faculties. Setting himself up as the sole God, Urizen becomes a tyrant, but, as the design shows, the enslaver is himself trapped by his own creation. This illustrates the images of snares and baits in the poem. Even the lines of Urizen’s beard seem to suggest the branches of the Tree of Mystery.

“The Human Abstract” is the first poem in which Blake used the symbol of the Tree of Mystery. He was to use it many times afterwards, notably in The Book of Ahania (1795), in which Urizen, having broken away from the other faculties, finds the Tree springing up from under his own heel. The symbol is derived from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, of which Adam and Eve ate the fruit, as recorded in Genesis 2:9. Blake interpreted this tale as indicative of a fall into the strictures of conventional morality, under which human desires and actions were classified into good and evil. To Blake this was a piece of judgmental nonsense that perverted the innocence and purity of human desire and led to corruption and self-deceit. The Tree of Mystery, for example, also appears in another of the Songs of Experience, “The Poison Tree,” in which the devastating effects of the self-restraint known as “Christian forbearance” (the original title of the poem) are laid bare.

The other symbols in this heavily didactic poem are related to the tree symbol and form a straightforward part of the poem’s allegory. The seed of the tree is Cruelty, and the seed forms a root, Humility, which develops into branches. The identification of the caterpillar as a symbol of the priesthood is clear when the following passage in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793) is noted: “As the catterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest of joys.” Continuing the allegory, the fruits of the Tree are Deceit, and the true nature of the tree is revealed by the presence in its branches of the raven, ready to prey on those who have fallen victim to the great illusion.