Monday, September 22, 2014

The Human Abstract- An Internal Struggle (Prompt 1)

                A man, trapped underneath restrictive ropes, seems to be struggling to free himself; in “The Human Abstract,” a piece in the “Songs of Experience” collection from William Blake, we see a situation concerning the importance of religion and the threads that figuratively tie the world together. The poem, clear as it may seem in its message that there cannot be one thing without its inverse, is brought to life by the sense of stress in the image.
                The man who resides on the bottom of the page is perplexed, or maybe angry, that he cannot free himself from the ropes holding him in place. When looked at within the context of the poem, this might be a reference to the stranglehold that mortality has over him. “Pity would be no more, If we did not make somebody Poor,” (SIC) it reads, “And Mercy no more could be, If all were as happy as we.” The words show that, to feel one thing, we have to be able to feel the opposite. To know that we are “fortunate”, for example, we must be able to see what “unfortunate” is. The image at the bottom of the page is a testament to how this knowledge traps us.
                At first glance, the image appears to be predominantly negative. Some further association with the text of the poem reveals, however, that this may not be the case. The man is on his knees, which might be a reference to the line that reads “He sits down with holy fears, And waters the ground with tears: Then Humility takes its root, Underneath his foot.” (SIC). He is afraid of what it means to be human, he is trapped by it, and yet he is on his knees because he respects the idea that he has no control over this fact.

                There are rules that must be followed to be a functioning member of society. And as this man gets older, he struggles to see the purpose, yet he understands and abides. He tries to escape, but the ropes- possibly representing social order- keep him in what we can assume is his proper place in society.  The last section of the poem reads, “The Gods of the earth and sea Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree, But their search was all in vain: There grows one in the Human brain”. (SIC) This tree could be a physical manifestation of “order”, and if it is, then these words serve to prove that this old man is struggling over the idea that social order is created within his head, and not by the outside world, hence his inner feelings of being conflicted.


  1. It definitely appears that the old man is restricted by the ropes holding him down and they represent the constrictions of society and what is expected of him. Another way to look at it could be that the old man is the object of that first stanza, meaning that he is the poor and deserving of mercy. The poem could also be saying, in a more cynical way, that in order to have Mercy the poor must be tied down in their place so that the fortunate can have pity for them. Either way, I agree that the point of opposites coexisting is prevalent in it. You also mentioned how religion factors into the poem, do you think that religion itself is just one more constrain on society, or that the constrain exists because of religion?

  2. The notes at the back of the book claim the man at the bottom is a representation of the Creator (not necessarily exactly the same as God in Blake's worldview - see my discussion of gnosticism). That doesn't mean you need to take that point of view, but I wonder how things would change if you paused to ask who is represented at the bottom of the page. If this *isn't* an ordinary human, does it strengthen or weaken your argument (I don't actually think it hurts you, but there's work to be done there, either way).

    Your second paragraph is pretty good. The third paragraph is underdeveloped - you are dealing with a strange, even obscure, moment in the text, and it's not totally clear to me what you're doing with the humiliation and humility that we see.

    I guess my main question with your final paragraph is what you think "this Tree" is. The hint, I think (especially from capitalizing it) is one of the trees of Eden - so either the tree of Knowledge or the tree of Life, or both, are actually to be found in the human brain. The problem isn't that you don't have this exact reading, but that it's not clear why you see the tree as a "manifestation of order." If you see the tree as the tree of humility created by the man's (or god's) tears, that's totally reasonable - but how do you get from there to order? You might even be correct, but you aren't connecting the dots.

    Overall: Your line of thinking is interesting. I like what you're trying to do, but you aren't explaining yourself well - your evidence is underdeveloped. Why do you read the way you do? Why do you think the tree represents order? Etc. To move from workable to excellent, you need to clarify the reasoning behind your ideas.

    Patrick points out similar issues - since he's showing you solid alternative readings, you need to think about why someone should take your reading rather than another.