The Human Abstract - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Tree - In the Bible, Jesus describes the kingdom of God as being like a strong plant which develops from a tiny seed (of faith). It is an image of freedom and life – all the birds find shelter in its capacious branches Mark 4:30-32 (see Trees). 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

Fruit – The reference to attractive fruit would suggest to Blake's readers allusion to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden (see Fruit, pruning). Though not specified in the Bible, this fruit was traditionally held to be an apple, which fits the poem's description of it as ‘ruddy'. Adam and Eve were told by God not to eat it. However, Eve was tempted to eat the fruit by the deceit of the devil, who was in the form of a serpent, so ate it along with Adam. As a result, they fell from innocence, becoming aware of their sexuality and so ashamed of their nakedness. They are cast out of Eden. (See Big ideas from the Bible > Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, Second Adam.)

Raven, photo by Peter Wallack, available through Creative CommonsBy combining these two references, Blake produces a powerful image of a huge, all-encompassing growth in the mind which is dark, evil and deceitful.

Raven – this large, entirely black bird eats carrion and is frequently associated with death. In view of Blake's stance against ‘man-made' religion, it may also represent the clergy who were traditionally attired in black.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • What do you think Blake is trying to convey by the repeated term ‘Mystery'?
    • In what way is it ‘food'?


The effects of ‘fallenness' on repression of sexuality and other emotions

Blake believed that inhibitions lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy.

The effects of the Fall

A second, related theme is the effect on human relationships of fallen divided selfhood which sees itself at the centre of its world as something to be protected and defended. Its pleasures must be jealously defended and denied to others. One chief pleasure is exerting control over others, which can often masquerade as showing protective love.

God in man's image

Blake disagreed with the creation of the image of an external God-figure, as simply being a projection of human needs and attitudes. Blake felt that merely human understanding created a limiting vision of the creator, simply as a projection of its own human qualities:

  • Those who have fallen into divided selfhood see the creator only in terms of their own capacity for jealousy, cruelty and possessiveness. They create an image of God as a tyrant who must be appeased

How the human mind sees the nature of the world and its creator

The Human Abstract suggests that human virtue and human evil are bound together, and that the human construct of truth is at the same time a product of self deception and blindness. This reflects Blake's belief in the ‘contraries' about the world and about the nature of the creative force behind it. For example, ferocious power and energy exist alongside what is fragile and tender. Both good and evil impinge on human experience.

Investigating themes

  • Make notes on how the themes in The Human Abstract are a development of London's image of ‘mind-forg'd manacles'.
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