William Blake, a great poet, lived between the middle of the 18th and the early part of the 19th centuries. His life and work were largely overlooked. The Human Abstract is one of the Songs of Experience collections that Blake published. The collection focuses on what could be described as metaphysical issues. It primarily addresses the relationship between humans and divinity-takers. This paper will argue for Blake’s poem as a meditation on human condition, almost as if anticipating existentialist philosophy.
Blake’s theme is set by the opening stanza. Blake says: “Pity is not more/ If you didn’t make anybody Poor:” There are two main points. First, pity, which is a concept matter, can’t exist without some notion of poverty (not necessarily an economically based notion). It would be absurd for one being to feel sorry for another if they were all equal in every aspect. This could lead to a false belief that the object pity might be inferior in some ways. To clarify, pity doesn’t necessarily require actual inequalities. It requires perceptions of them as such. Blake’s second point is empirical and not conceptual. He seems to believe that humans are the only ones who can appropriately pitiate an individual or thing. This point is common in discussions about differences between humans, animals, and other species. Morality can only be understood when there are human beings. Pity, however, is not a moral concept in itself. Blake’s text is sufficient to prove that the point was made. It’s not possible to doubt its existence. In the second stanza, mercy and happiness are discussed. This seems to have been intended as an extension to the earlier discussion. (Blake, 4,) Blake seems not to think mercy is the same as pity. It is impossible to (correctly!) pitie everyone if they are all on equal footing. So it makes no sense to think that anyone could be merciful if everyone is happy. Mercy, as with pity, is only possible if there is some privation. Blake then turns his attention toward fear, compassion, selfishness cruelty, and care. Blake seems to believe that fear is the only thing that will keep people at peace. Blake says, “Till the selfish loves increase/ Then Cruelty sets a trap/ And distributes his baits carefully” (Blake 8, 8). This may imply that selfishness is compatible with peace, but not at all. This last point should not be taken literally. Blake isn’t suggesting that there is a Platonic Type of Cruelty. Blake’s point is that selfish love can not only disrupt peace, but also lead to cruelty. The “baits of cruelty” can be spread with care and very few people, if any, will escape its grasp. It is not clear whether Blake meant “selfish love”, which can be either romantic or sexual, but it is something to consider. In its abstractest sense, love could simply be a preference for one thing or another. This reading seems out of sync with the poem’s gravity, especially its first lines.
In the third stanza, we see the idea of divinity. Blake suggests that fear of God may be the main source of fear. But such fear can be a source of good, as it leads to humility and recognition of higher powers. Next Blake will introduce mystery and perhaps, change. The divine can be understood in a certain way. It would be impossible to know its true nature and power. Blake describes this mystery by calling it “the dismal shadow”, suggesting that it’s not a good thing. It is possible that Blake intended to invoke the idea change by mentioning the caterpillar. However, a fly also appears in the poem. Its role is not clear. It is possible, however, that the fly represents death and decay in the same way that the caterpillar symbolizes transformation.
The penultimate section seems to juxtapose the mystery, divine, and deceit. Or at least suggest that the mystery isn’t all benign. Blake acknowledges the negative connotations of deceit, but also admits that it can be “sweetly eaten.” This recalls Marx’s statement that religion was the opiate to the masses. Blake might not have intended to do anything like this. You should remember that divinity is recognized with mystery. It’s also accompanied in humility. This is, perhaps, the human predicament, despite all its flaws. Blake clearly contrasts God and man in these lines. Blake writes that the “gods” of the sea and earth tried to reach some goal through nature. It’s tempting to think that this alludes to evolution. This is impossible, however, as the theory was not yet discovered by Blake. Blake wrote that gods sought out something through nature. But, the divine source was not nature. Instead, the gods looked to the human brain.
Perhaps the most important question regarding the poem is how it came to be. What are our current knowledge? It is something that grows. It must be of some significance or value; otherwise, the gods wouldn’t be looking for it. The previous lines mentioned a raven building a nest under its “thickest shade”. Both ravens as well as the shade’s thickness are thought to suggest something black. Black has been associated with negative attributes for a long time. This implies that this object, no matter its nature, can be evil or bad.
The solution is to trace the path of the poem’s content, starting with the necessary conditions of mercy and pity, then moving on to the peace that fear brings. Fear, humility, and then finally deceit. Blake’s “thing”, according to him, is deceit. Blake claims that deceit and possibly dishonesty, as well as contrivance, are to be found in the human mind, not in the earth or the sea. The “earth” and “the sea” only signify the nonhuman. This reading is not satisfying. This reading could be compared to the Garden of Eden’s Fall of Mankind. You could argue that the gods created humans and therefore they are responsible for our natural propensity to deceit. The Biblical story could also be described as a similarity. This is Blake’s poem.