The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 475 words.)