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 mood is echoed in the images surrounding each poem. With notably similar 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” (47). As the poem goes on, we are introduced to the metaphor of a growing tree, which “bears the fruit of deceit” (47) 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” (47).
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. This idea makes the text even more sinister. If the tree represents humanity, it can escape unnoticed, as the truth behind human nature is in the poem, hidden in shadow 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. With its leafless branches, the tree is bare and perhaps lifeless. This presents the idea that the human psyche has become an unnatural and ugly thing – the leaves and strong, sturdy branches we see in healthy trees are replaced by a twisting and unhealthy growth, directly from the human mind. The final stanza of the poem confirms this idea, as Blake tells us that this tree does not exist at all in nature, even when “the Gods of earth and sea/ Sought thro’ Nature to find [it].”
The image of this same 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,” (33) yet are surrounded by poverty. We can already see a relationship between this and the text from A Human Abstract, which presented the idea that the good in humans, the mercy felt for those in poverty and darkness, is only created as a result of the man-made poverty that exists. The “land of poverty” (33) is very much entangled within the world of prosperity. 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” (33).
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.
The old man in The Human Abstract could be interpreted in a different way, however. The interpretation offered by Sir Geoffrey Keynes states that this old man, who I saw as a representation of the tying of humanity to its unnatural materialism, is Urizen, the creator. This idea, while different from the interpretation I presented in the previous paragraph, is not altogether contradictory to my argument. In an in-depth study of Blake’s characterization of Urizen, Marianna Luck found that this character was often a part of Blake’s writing, as he is a part of Blake’s images in Songs of Experience. Urizen is often presented by Blake, Luck writes, as having “conflicting modes of consciousness within [himself]” (Luck, 1981). The Human Abstract contained many conflicting states of being – pity and poverty, mercy and depression, selfishness and love – showing how connected they are within the human mind. Perhaps Blake uses Urizen to represent humanity because the creator must represent what he has created and the contradictions borne from his creations. In Blake’s other writings, he uses symbols to show the “states or aspects of humanity which reflect a Urizenic mode of consciousness” (Luck). If this image is indeed Urizenic’s likeness, he can still be taken as a representation of humanity’s struggle with its consciousness.
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.
We can understand this idea even more clearly if we look at the images throughout Songs of Innocence. To take a specific example, The Shepherd presents imagery in stark contrast to the death and suffering represented in the Songs of Experience section. A young shepherd watches over his flock of lambs, flanked on his right by a large tree. While we could see that the trees in Songs of Experience were deadly and menacing, this tree is full of life. It stands tall and sturdy, and while its branches extend over the head of the shepherd, it is not in a way that demonstrates dominance or power, but in a protective way. The leaves of this tree are protecting the shepherd and his flock in their innocence. As he “hears the lambs innocent call/ and he hears the ewes tender reply” (Blake, 5) we are brought into a world with complete safety from the dangers of evil and experience, and “they are in peace” (5). In the poem that follows, Blake uses this imagery of safety and protection once more. The Echoing Green is surrounded by imagery of children playing. In the top image, we see a large tree, centered and surrounded by mothers and children. The tree appears to be strong and full of life. Its leaves extend over everyone, guarding them as the tree in The Shepard guarded the flock and protected their innocence. The corruption of the human mind that Blake reveals in Songs of Experience shatters this idea of safety and comfort, and we see the desolation in Holy Thursday, with the contrasting tree of the human mind to further the metaphor that the realization of this tree and the harm it can do comes with experience.
There comes from this a clear division between the human mind in innocence and the human mind in experience. The corruption that the deadly tree represents is not present in an innocent mind, who sees the world in a completely different way than an experienced mind. Within Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme, Martin Jay describes Walter Benjamin’s perspective on innocence. Color is used to show the separation between these different states of mind: “whereas adults reflectively abstract colors from the objects… children have the ability to see them as prior to forms” (318). Adults live in an experienced mindset, overthinking, corrupting the creativity that came with their innocence, while the children “do not reflect but only see” (qtd. in Jay, 318). This helps us understand the dichotomy of innocence and experience in Blake’s poems, where those with experience see the world as destructive and even sinister; those with innocence live free from this thought, simply taking what they see as the truth. The innocent mindset, Jay says “comes as close as humanly possible to the Platonic ideal of anamnesis of a lost utopia,” (318) meaning a re-creation the human consciousness that existed in a utopia like Eden, before the eating from the Tree of Knowledge that expels Adam and Eve from innocence forever.
The Tree of Knowledge connects us back to the trees we see surrounding Blake’s poems; Blake chose this symbol with biblical ties in mind. Blake’s tree represents the corruption to the human mind that comes with experience – a corruption that “bears the fruit of deceit” (Blake, 47) and creates a world where the innocent suffer at the hands of those with experience. Experience clearly comes with a knowledge, a knowledge that parallels very closely the knowledge gained by Adam and Eve at their expulsion from Eden. They ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus gaining experience and understanding that Blake implies are corruptive. We can see trees as common motifs throughout literature and stories: in Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature: A Handbook, trees are described as “connecting the three primary realms: the underworld, the earth, and heaven” (Garry, El-Shamy, 464). In Blake’s writing and the images that represent it, the repeated tree can be interpreted using this motif as well as the biblical motif. The Tree of Knowledge in the Bible clearly connects the Earthly beings (Adam and Eve) to God in heaven, but is tied in with the underworld when the satanic serpent uses it to tempt the humans out of God’s favor by gaining the tree’s experience. Blake’s tree is a representation of the corrupted knowledge within humanity, and this corruption is connected to the underworld – through it, the underworld is incarnate on earth. Holy Thursday’s description of the terror on earth gives visualization of this idea as it depicts the death of innocence when faced with experience.
A lot of the themes that appear in Blake’s poems are influenced by his time. Blake was an enlightenment thinker, and he published Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience at the height of enlightenment thinking, in 1789 and 1794, respectively (Enlightenment). Blake “lived in poverty” (Enlightenment) most of his life, which clearly had an impact on his poetry. Holy Thursday takes a close look at the plague of poverty where Blake lived, and the effect this poverty and hunger had on those who experienced it, especially including innocent children. He clearly believed that humanity was to blame for these problems, as we saw in The Human Abstract when Blake describes the tree of corruption that grows from the human mind. In his life we can see where that he lived a life in a position clearly opposed to the politics of his time: Blake was “charged with sedition, and although he was acquitted, his political views were firmly at odds with those of the government” (Enlightenment). His political views were not the only influence on his writing; Blake also used religion as a common theme. Blake, however, believed “God was a vengeful figure” (Enlightenment). Blake’s own innocence was likely ruined by experience when he saw the corruption within the institutions of government and the evil that religion could bring. With this in mind, we can better understand that Blake saw organization and religion as influences on the human mind that created the horrific conditions he experienced when he saw poverty side-by-side with wealth, innocence destroyed by experience.
The visual repetitions in Blake’s poems bring together many different themes to show the twisted and dying tree that represents the vengeful human mind is creating a world that enslaves our bodies to carry out the evil our minds create, bringing the hidden suffering and sin that expel us from innocence forever, just as the Tree of Knowledge expelled humanity from the idealistic world of Eden. Drawing from his own experience in a time when corrupt institutions clashed with new ideals and revolution, Blake painted a picture of the human form that said a lot about the mind’s hold on our physical action and gave us a mirror in which we could view the truth – the flaws that humanity as a whole were ignoring in their innocence.
Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1794. Print.
Enlightenment. Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1996. Print.
Garry, Jane, Hasan M. El-Shamy, and Inc ebrary. Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature: A Handbook. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 2005. Print.
Jay, Martin. Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme. Berkeley: University of California Press Berkeley, 2004. Print.
Luck, Marianna Mendillo. Blake’s Urizen. The University of Connecticut, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 1981. 8116725.