The Human abstract - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of The Human Abstract

The Human Abstract

The speaker argues that pity could not exist unless there was poverty and inequality to excite it. Mercy would not be necessary if everyone was enabled to be happy. Peace is simply the result of fear, which prevents open dispute, until the development of selfishness overcomes it. Selfish love leads to cruelty, the desire to hurt, control and trap others. It does so by colluding with ‘holy fears' – such as fear of offending God – and tears of repentance or sorrow for offending God.

These tears water the ground, allowing the tree of humility to develop. This grows into a tree whose foliage is that of mystery. This foliage provides food for both caterpillar and fly. It produces the sweet fruit of deceit or lies. The raven (a bird linked with death) finds its nesting place in it. No gods have ever discovered the tree because it grows in the human mind.


The Human Abstract is a symbolic analogy of how the human mind is the agent of its own downfall. This poem analyses the virtues - Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love - that constituted both God and humanity in The Divine Image in the Songs of Innocence.

This poem asserts that the traditional Christian virtues of mercy and pity presuppose a world of poverty and human suffering. By implication, if this is humankind's understanding of God, then he, too, seems to desire or accept such poverty and suffering.

Virtue as a human construct

These virtues represent a kind of passive and resigned sympathy which is blind to the fact that they, in fact, feed off the unjust situations so-called virtuous people create!

  • People like to experience pity for others and therefore may feel virtuous in giving a donation to the poor. However, few wish to change their way of life to ensure that no-one is poor
  • Mercy flatters individuals, because they can condescend to those more miserable than them, but it does not inspire them to raise others to their own level of contentment
  • Peace is similarly self-serving, arising not from love of others but from fear of what they might do otherwise
  • Meanwhile, love is expressed out of concern for the self rather than for others.

By speaking and thinking in abstract concepts, Blake illustrates how people are able to deceive themselves concerning the true motives for their conduct. It is a way of avoiding the world humanity has created. The poem's title suggests humankind has produced an image of human nature made up of abstract concepts, which actually flatter and conceal the truth about it.

Religion as a human construct

According to Blake, such abstract ideas are at the root of what he observes of contemporary religious practice. For Blake, the whole religious ‘system' issues from self-centred love, which breeds a cruel desire to control and repress human powers.

Blake then uses an allusion to a tree. In the Bible, Jesus describes the kingdom of God as being like a strong plant which develops from the seed of faith. It is an image of freedom and life – all the birds find shelter in its capacious branches Mark 4:30-32. However, the tree described in the poem represents the system of religion devised by the human brain. It is an image of oppression and death:

  • According to Blake, the mind which has fallen into selfish love begins to develop ideas of God as one to be feared, a God ‘out there' who is ruler, judge and potential tyrant
  • Fear leads to tears of repentance for causing offence to this ruler, thus keeping the mind in subjection to ‘God'
  • This gives rise to humility. Rather than the positive association usually given to this, Blake saw humility as an undervaluing of human powers and their capacity to be indwelt by God. He held that humility meant believing oneself to be nothing in comparison to this external authority figure
  • The more such humility grows, the more incomprehensible and divorced from human beings the human idea of God becomes
  • This develops into ‘Mystery' – the belief that humankind is living under a system unfathomable to the mortal mind. According to this perspective, individuals are, therefore, subject to powers beyond themselves
  • This leads to more pernicious beliefs, symbolised by caterpillars and flies which are destructive or disease-bearing
  • The final result is the ‘fruit' of deceit, the religious system which, to Blake, was a web of lies about the true nature of reality
  • Unlike the biblical image, the human grown tree in the poem shelters, in its deepest shade, spiritual death, represented by the raven.

Humanity imprisoned by itself

Implicit in the poem is a critique of the way in which people have developed ‘mind-forg'd manacles'. These are systems of thought which have led to the construction of oppressive social structures. Chief among them is the Church, and its authority as the guardian of ‘mystery'. Also included is the monarchical state, underpinned by Church authority. This adds to the image of a regal, hierarchical and controlling God.

So Blake suggests here that the origins for social ills are, in fact, to be found within human beings who have fallen into divided selfhood. They have created a ‘God' and a social order in their own image.

Investigating The Human Abstract

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