The Human Abstract Annotated Bibliography: The Human Abstract The Human Abstract has not received much critical attention on its own. Of the critical interpretations that do exist, many approach the poem by examining its various manifestations in Blake’s manuscripts, reading it against A Divine Image, a poem w hich was never finally published by Blake, or comparing it to its Innocence counterpart, The Divine Image. Most critics seem to agree that The Human Abstract represents a philosophical turning point in The Songs of Innocence and of Expe rience, and in Blake’s work as a whole.
In 1924, Joseph H. Wicksteed observes that this difficult poem, originally called ‘The human Image, represents Blake’s attempt to summarize his philosophy of revolt against the ob ject of worship he found in the mind of his age. He contends that Blake makes no distinction between God and Man: God is Man and Man is God, and either may be good or bad.Placing the poem in context with Blake’s work as a whole, Wicksteed argues that, with this poem, Blake is moving towards the position definitely reached in ‘The Marriage,’ that Reason, or the abstracting power of the mind, robs life of all its fullness and vigour. He then proceeds with a line-byline reading of the poem. Robert Gleckner briefly treats The Human Abstract in his book, The Piper and The Bard, suggesting that ‘The Divine Image’ of Innocence is perverted in experience to ‘The Human Abstract.’ He places the poem i n the didactic landscape of The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, contending that the rational ‘holiness’ in the poem leads us directly to the ‘holiness’ of ‘Holy Thursday,’ the ‘heaven’ of ‘The Chimney Sweeper,’ the ‘Church’ of ‘The Littl e Vagabond,’ the ‘mystery’ of ‘A Little Boy Lost,’ and the ‘Christian forbearance’ of ‘A Poison Tree.
‘ In a later essay, William Blake and the Human Abstract, 1961, Gleckner offers a more extensive reading of the poem, paying particular attention to t he formulation of its title and observing that of all the songs of experience the one which provides the greatest insight into Blake’s concern with his titles, his struggle to define the two contrary states of the human soul, and his poetic technique (es pecially in the Songs of Experience), is The Human Abstract. He also approaches the poem through an examination of the four drafts located in Blake’s manuscript, pointing out that critics have neglected to examine the way in which the poem A Divine Image is complexly operative in ‘The Human Abstract.’ This connection is the focus of the Gleckner’s essay, which he concludes with the contention that The Human Abstract represents Blake’s final realization that the real disease is not a s ocial, economic, religious, [or] political force, but rather the cancerous tree of mystery..man’s own thinking process. Later, both Geoffrey Keynes and David Erdman will point out that The Human Abstract replaced A Divine Image as the Experience response to The Divine Image.
In Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument, 1963, Harold Bloom reads The Human Abstract in conjunction with its Innocence partner, The Divine Image, noting that the word Abstract should not be misconst rued as literally meaning separated, because the contrast between the two poems is not between the integral and the split human nature, but rather between the equal delusions of Innocence and Experience as to the relationship of the h uman to the natural. He links the poem to both Genesis and the Norse myths of Odin (whom Bloom calls the Norse Nobodaddy) and Balder, observing that both the raven and the Tree of Mystery were drawn from those mythologies. In 1964, E.D. Hirsch also compares The Human Abstract to The Divine Image, contending that the former is not only a satire of [the latter] but also a naturalization of it.
He asserts that the satirical first stanza should be read as if one of the Swedenborgian ‘Angels’ were speaking.He notes a change in tone, however, in the second stanza where Blake quickly drops the angelic mask and converts the two remaining divine attributes of Innocence to something overtly sinister. For Hirsch, the primary myth which Blake is responding to is that of Genesis, and the strongest link to that myth is association of the tree with the Fall. Hirsch, like Bloom, is interested in clarifying the meaning of the title: Blake calls this image a ‘Human Abstract’ because it is the history of an illusion. The tree of religion is an entirely human invention, like Locke’s philosophy.
He argues that Blake’s opposition to this abstraction is Nature, and interprets the last line to mean, among ot her things, that the ‘Human Brain’ can choose to make the world the glorious place it implicitly is, or can create a falsely isolated and therefore fallen world. In 1966, D.G. Gillham also reads this poem satirically, but focuses on the speaker (whom he refers to as the liar) as the object of that satire .
He examines the axioms in the poem, contending that the two axioms of the first s tanza were ‘truths’ told with a wrong emphasis, designed to make men easy about exploitation. With the third axiom, however, the liar is able to feel quite easy about advantage and exploitation for it insists on the necessity of ‘mutual fear.’ Gillha m suggests that the poem experiences an abrupt shift in tone after the first six lines, and that, in the remainder of the poem Blake uses the image of the growth of a tree to describe the advanced stages of deception.
Unlike Hirsch, Gillham does not lo cate Blake’s (or the Bard’s) voice in the second half of the poem, rather, the speaker remains the liar, and, for this reason, the invocation of Nature represents a form of self-deception. He argues that Blake exposes the concealed claim made by the mystery-mongers of ‘nature’ that their suppositions have a basis in fact, that their views have an objective validity, which is, of course, a lie. Also in 1966, Geoffrey Keynes observes that the poem had originally been a devil’s song. In Blake: The Lyric Poetry, John Holloway refers to The Human Abstract as a poem which asserts that the conventional Christian virtues like ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love’ are parasitic on evil and bring it about.
He contends that The Human Abstract, A Divine Image, and The Divine Image must be read together. In 1981, Zachary Leader suggests that the self-tormenting tormentor of ‘The Human Abstract,’ is one of the four old men who prece de the Ancient Bard in the designs in Experience. He locates the other three in the designs for London, The Little Vagabond, and To Tirzah. Leader interprets the design accompanying The Human Abstract, noting that the old man depicted is another of Blake’s self-oppressed oppressors. He argues that although the old man is not himself the Bard, he is related to him, or rather to the experienced tendencies revealed in ‘The Human Abstract.
‘ Through his examination of these four old m en, Leader concludes that though the Piper-turned-Bard is not yet (he never will be) wholly identified with an aged Urizenic oppressor, he has grown much closer to him, in both manner and guise.David Lindsay argues that ‘The Human Abstract’ is a grimly concentrated psychological allegory which purports to show how the vocabulary of Innocence can become the seedplot of sacrificial religion. He compares the ominous peac e in the poem to an arms-race, and contends that the speaker withdraws into mock-Innocence so that his devices can operate. He concludes by suggesting that the critique of Genesis implicit in this lyric is clarified by the narrative of The Book O f Urizen. One of the more recent readings of The Human Abstract is located in E.
P Thompson’s Witness Against the Beast, 1993. Thompson contends that if ‘The Divine Image’ is the hinge upon which the Innocence songs turn, we should expect to find a similar significance for Experience in [The Human Abstract]. But, disputing both Hirsch and Gillham, Thompson discounts the possibility of a satirical reading of the poem.He contends that in the most simplified terms, the one is about the source of ‘good’, the other about the source and origin of ‘evil.’ Nor is it a plain opposite, a mere negation of the first. –Deborah Noel (December 1995) Bibliography Wicksteed, Joseph H.
Blake’s Innocence and Experience: A Study of the Songs and Manuscripts Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human soul. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1928. Gleckner, Robert F.The Piper and the Bard. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1959.
* a name=keynes*Keynes, Geoffrey. (ed.) The Complete Writings of William Blake. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. Erdman, David V.(ed.) The Illuminated Blake.
London: Oxford University Press, 1973. Bloom, Harold. Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. London: Victor Gollancz, 1963. 42-3.
Hirsch, E.D.Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964.
26-7. Gillham, D.G. Blake’s contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ as Dramatic Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.Holloway, John. Blake: The Lyric Poetry. London: Edward Arnold Publishers LTD, 1968.
Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake’s Songs. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.Lindsay, David W. Blake: Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
Atlantic Highlands: Humanties Press International Inc., 1989. Thompson, E.P.
Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and Moral Law. New York: The New Press, 1993.Poetry Essays.