A dark and leafless tree snakes its way up the rightmost edge of a large number of Blake’s poems in Songs of Experience. Beneath the tree, repeated again and again, a human body – suffering or dead. We are introduced to a much darker side of Blake’s poetry, and this dark mood is echoed in the images surrounding each poem. With almost identical imagery, The Human Abstract and Holy Thursday use the tree to show the darker side of the human mind, and the condition in which it leaves the human body.
To analyze this repeated image – a tree hanging over a human body – we can look at it first in its two parts. The tree can really be understood when looked at in conjunction with The Human Abstract. The poem puts human behavior and intention under a microscope. Blake looks at the good that humanity has done while showing us that pity and mercy only come from inequality of wealth and happiness, and that “mutual fear brings peace.” As the poem goes on, we are introduced to the metaphor of a growing tree, which “bears the fruit of deceit” and is home to Ravens, a bird often representative of death. This tree, however, is not natural, as Blake points out in his final stanza. This tree instead “grows… in the Human Brain.” The image surrounding this poem features most prominently an old man, perhaps growing from the ground to represent this human tree of immorality and deceit. I think we should instead look to the ‘natural’ tree on the right side of the painting. This tree looms over the old man ominously. It seems to be hidden off to the side, and could be overlooked, but this is the tree that Blake speaks of. With its leafless branches, the hidden evils of human nature are represented in this tree. This idea makes the text seem even more sinister. If the tree represents humanity, it can escape unnoticed, as the truth behind human nature is in the poem, hidden behind peace and mercy. It also shows that this evil is perhaps more powerful than man: it grows above men’s heads, extending its reach further and further.
The tree is repeated in Holy Thursday, and after looking back at that poem in the context of The Human Abstract, we can better understand why this tree is present, looming over a mother and her lifeless child. This poem is focused on the injustice Blake observes in the world around him. People prosper and grow “in a rich and fruitful land,” yet are surrounded by poverty. The dichotomy of these two worlds coexisting can be brought back to the tree that stands again on the right side of Blake’s painting. This tree, representing the innate evil of human existence, gives new meaning to the poem: it tells us that the tragedy the poem describes is borne from man. This physical representation of the human mind looms over the sadness we see in the painting, and so we are given the idea that it is the human mind that has created and maintained this world of inequality and “eternal winter.”
The tree, however, is never painted alone. In both The Human Abstract and Holy Thursday, it is over a human body that this tree stands. The Human Abstract, as mentioned earlier, features a man tied to the ground. While I argued that he does not represent the nature of humanity, the subject of the poem, he is representative of humanity itself. This old man is trapped, his body a slave to the ideals represented in the tree. His ropes are tied beneath the ground, to the roots of the tree, the basis of humanity’s wrathful nature. The tying of the human mind to the human body shows the consequences of evil within the mind: the evil can be transferred to the body – the mechanism of human action – where it can create a world that represents the human mind. Holy Thursday depicts not the body of an old man suffering, but that of a small child, dead beneath the tree of human creation. The world created by the human mind has claimed a victim in the form of this young boy. This serves as a metaphor in another way as well: humanity’s flaws, often put into action by those with experience of the world (represented by the old man tied to the tree) rain death upon the innocent. A small, naked boy is pained under the tree – the epitome of innocence and childhood. His world, full of the poverty and hunger created by humanity, has taken his innocence and his life. Not only does the tree of human error slay men, it slays their innocence by bringing them into the ways of deceit and evil.