Search Menu


“The Human Abstract”

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

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


This poem offers a closer analysis of the four virtues—Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love—that constituted both God and Man in “The Divine Image.” The speaker argues that Pity could not exist without poverty, that Mercy would not be necessary if everyone was happy, that the source of Peace is in fear, which gives rise to only “selfish loves.” The poem describes how Cruelty plants and waters a tree in “the human Brain.” The roots of the tree are Humility, the leaves are Mystery, and the fruit is Deceit.


The poem has six quatrains, each comprised of two rhyming couplets. The lines have none of the lilting quality so typical of Blake; the poem’s didactic tone and austere subject matter occasion the harsh, severe rhythms he employs.


This poem asserts that the traditional Christian virtues of mercy and pity presuppose a world of poverty and human suffering; so, too, do the virtues represent a kind of passive and resigned sympathy that registers no obligation to alleviate suffering or create a more just world. The speaker therefore refuses to think of them as ideals, reasoning that in an ideal world of universal happiness and genuine love there would be no need of them. The poem begins as a methodical critique of the touchstone virtues that were so praised in “The Divine Image.” Proceeding through Pity, Mercy, and Peace, the poem then arrives at the phrase “selfish loves.” These clearly differ from Love as an innocent abstraction, and the poem takes a turn here to explore the growth, both insidious and organic, of a system of values based on fear, hypocrisy, repression, and stagnation.

The description of the tree in the second part of the poem shows how intellectualized values like Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love become the breeding-ground for Cruelty. The speaker depicts Cruelty as a conniving and knowing person; in planting a tree, he also lays a trap. His tree flourishes on fear and weeping; Humility is its root, Mystery its foliage; but this growth is not natural; it does not reflect upon the natural state of man. Rather, the tree is associated with Deceit, and its branches harbor the raven, the symbol of death. By the end of the poem we realize that the above description has been a glimpse into the human mind, the mental experience. Thus the poem comments on the way abstract reasoning undermines a more natural system of values. The result is a grotesque semblance of the organic, a tree that grows nowhere in nature but lies sequestered secretly in the human brain.

More Help

Previous Next
The sick rose

by slowpulsegirl, September 11, 2012

By "rose" W.Blake could also mean his heart,and the worm could be some thoughts he has regarding a lover that is a temptation for him.His love for this person is secret,and he has thoughts about her when he is alone in his bed at night.The fact that from what we see this love is single sided slowly kills the speaker's heart and life.


25 out of 36 people found this helpful


by naddoushe, February 09, 2013

hi,please can someone help me how to find te figure of speech in the peom amd its metaphores?


9 out of 24 people found this helpful


by grmurray, June 13, 2013

An important feature to note reading any poem within Songs of Innocence and Experience is that it allows the marginalized figures of society a voice. A voice in which their story can be told. Innocence would seem to the be the more controlled,ignorant perception of the truth. Whereas Experience breaks down Songs of Innocence and shows the real horror of the situation.

Blake does this brilliantly by the use of contrast and it is when the 'sister poem' in Songs of Experience is read and that voice of the truth comes through - it forces... Read more


273 out of 285 people found this helpful

See all 18 readers' notes   →