The Human Abstract: Morality, Religion, and Love
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 that is expressed in the image. The following paragraphs will serve as a means of understanding what it means to be moral, what it means to be human, and what the poem, as a whole, is trying to convey.
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 it means to be “unfortunate”. The image at the bottom of the page is a testament to how this knowledge traps us.
Morality, as defined by the Oxford dictionary , is “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior”. This definition allows us to explore the opposites that William Blake speaks of in “Songs of Experience”. “And mutual fear brings peace: Till the selfish loves increase.” Blake is stating that peace is maintained through a fear of chaos.
Peace, according to Blake and explained by scholar Robert F. Gleckner, “…depends not on human love but on human fear and secrecy.” According to Gleckner’s interpretation, this is because human love is the inverse of what we should expect it to be; it only shines through because there are things like poverty, hunger, and human suffering to show us that it is a problem.
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.
Further research reveals that the imagery of the tree plays an important role in the understanding of the poem and what the man appears to be doing. The man is actually a god, the creator of the material world; “Urizen”, as Blake has named him in past works. In the image, this god is under the “Tree of Mystery”, and as Gleckner says, this symbolically “represents the resulting growth of religion and the priesthood (the Caterpillar and the Fly), feeding on its leaves”. This changes the context of the poem; not only is it a struggle of good versus evil, it is a contemplation of whether the growth of religion as a whole has been beneficial to society.
Love is a concept that, although touched on thematically in the whole of the book, is not expressly mentioned in “The Human Abstract”. Instead, in this poem, Blake talks about the virtues that he used to describe the idea of “love” in “Songs of Innocence”- this includes the virtues of mercy, pity, peace, and love (Gleckner 373). He describes love as “The human form divine”, which could mean that love is what Urizen, the god in the image below the poem, is representing. Love, then, is trying to escape from the reality that is the world and the negative aspects that hold it down.
The third stanza goes as follows;
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
The first line might figuratively be the god, Urizen, thinking about the world and the harm that he has seen through his experiences. He is saddened by everything happening around him, and as such, the second line could literally be him crying. In the beginning of Blake’s anthology, his poems are more whimsical and light-hearted; “Songs of Innocence” flourishes because of its sense of wonder. The darker tone of “Songs of Experience”, however, is exemplified here. Urizen knows now of the harm that the virtues expressed earlier – mercy, pity, peace, and love- can cause, and he is saddened by them.
The humility that Blake speaks of might refer to the “Tree of Mystery”. Gleckner believes that the tree is represented differently in this poem than it usually is, and I tend to agree; in almost all poems before and after “The Human Abstract”, the tree is very subtle. It is almost never referred to directly in the context of the image, except for here; the tree itself might be the thing holding Urizen down. The ropes (or what might possibly be roots with this new information) are holding him down, enslaving him. The poem expressly states “…Then Humility takes its root Underneath his foot.” This might literally mean that the struggles related to understanding, even with experience, are directly caused by the world’s sense of mystery that the tree represents. (Gleckner 377)
There are rules that must be followed to be a functioning member of society. The experiences of the man represented in the image have bogged him down; the world seems to have hurt him. If the character is Urizen, the god from works done by Blake in the past, then he has seen more than any human being ever has; his experiences are his crutch.
The entirety of “Songs of Experience” can be expressed by the final stanza:
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
The tree, the overarching (an understated) theme of the entire collection, is what the strongest beings on the planet have attempted to understand for eternity. This is the mystery that defines the planet, and it is a part of being human. This “Tree of Mystery” is the search for knowledge, and it ties even the mightiest of us down. As Gleckner eluded to, “The Catterpiller and Fly”- the idea of religion and those who convey it- use this mystery to engross their audience. The sense of panic and mystery expressed by this poem is made more subtle throughout the entire collection, but it does an exemplary job at explaining why bad things happen, even when the answer is known.
Although the man, Urizen, struggles, there is hope; the Tree, and its knowledge, resides in the human brain. The title of the poem, “The Human Abstract”, is the final piece of this puzzle. To be human is to have ideas, to be unique, and to always exist in a state of discovery. There will never be a true answer, hence the word “Abstract” being in the title, but we are always working toward self-improvement. “And Mercy no more could be, If all were as happy as we…” We know what the problem is, and we can strive to fix it.
"Definition of Morality in English:." Morality: Definition of Morality in Oxford Dictionary (American English) (US). N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2014.
Gleckner, Robert F. "William Blake and the Human Abstract" PMLA, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Sep., 1961), pp. 373-379