Deceit and Humanity in Blake’s “The Human”
William Blake was a great poet who lived from the mid-18th to the early 19th centuries. His work was largely unappreciated during his lifetime. The Human Abstract is part of a collection that Blake published under the title Songs of Experience. The collection deals with what might broadly be called metaphysical issues, more specifically the relation between human beings and those, if any, who partake of divinity. This paper will argue that Blake’s poem is best understood as a kind of meditation on the human condition—almost as if in anticipation of existentialist philosophy.
The first stanza of the poem sets the tone and suggests Blake’s topic. When he states: “Pity would be no more,/ If we did not make somebody Poor:” (Blake, 2). A couple of points seem to be made therein. The first is that pity is an emotion that, as a conceptual matter, cannot exist in the absence of some notion of poverty (not necessarily an economic notion). For example, if all the beings in the world were somehow made on a par in every respect, it would make no sense for one of the beings to pity another, or a group of the others. Of course, such a being might mistakenly think that the object of the alleged pity is beneath him or her in some respect. So we must qualify the point by saying, not that pity requires an actual inequality, but that it requires a perceived inequality. Blake’s second point seems to be empirical rather than conceptual. He seems to be saying that, as a matter of fact, only human beings can render someone, or some thing, appropriately pitied. This is a common point in discussions of differences between humans and other animals. The point is that morality enters the picture only with the emergence of human beings. Of course, pity is not itself a moral notion. So the point must be inferred from Blake’s text—one could doubt whether it is there. The second part of the stanza discusses mercy and happiness, in a way that seems intended to extend the previous discussion: “And mercy no more could be/ if all were as happy as we;” (Blake, 4). Blake seems to ascribe to mercy the same status as pity. Just as no one could be (correctly) pitied if all were on a par, so it would make no sense to suppose that a person were merciful if everyone were equally happy. Mercy, like pity, requires some privation for its proper application. It is again implied that morality, or perhaps better morality, is the sole province of human beings (at least among terrestrial animals).
Blake then turns his attention to fear, peace, selfishness, cruelty, and care. He seems to subscribe to the Hobbesian view that only fear will keep peace among people. Blake continues: “Till the selfish love increase;/ Then Cruelty knits a snare,/ And spreads his baits with care” (Blake, 8). This seems to mean that selfish love, at a certain point, is incompatible with peace. The final point is surely not to be taken literally. Blake is not saying that there is some Platonic Form of Cruelty that meddles in human affairs. Instead, his point seems to be that selfish love not only disturbs peace but leads to cruelty. If the “baits” of cruelty are spread with care then very few, if any, can escape its embrace. One question to keep in mind, though it does not seem to be settled by the poem, is whether Blake means by “selfish love” romantic and sexual love, on one hand, or a more generic notion. At its most abstract, love, in the relevant sense, might be the result of a simple preference for one thing over another. However, this highly abstract reading seems incompatible with the gravity of the poem, and especially of its initial lines.
The third stanza brings in the notion of divinity, presumably as a contrast to humanity as suggested when he states: “He sits down with holy fears” (Blake, 9). Blake seems to suggest that fear of God is a source, perhaps the primary source, of fear. However, something good comes of such fear, namely the humility that inevitably accompanies acknowledgement of a higher power. Next Blake brings in mystery and, at least arguably, change. There is surely a sense in which the divine is necessarily mysterious. To know it would be for it to lose its power over us. However, this mystery is described by Blake as “the dismal shade”, suggesting that it is not an altogether positive thing. The mention of the caterpillar seems to be intended to evoke the notion of change. However, a fly is also mentioned. Its role in the poem is less clear. It is plausible that, just as the caterpillar suggests change and transformation, the fly is meant to signify that which accompanies death and decay.
The penultimate stanza seems to equate the mystery of the divine with deceit, or at least to suggest that the mystery is not wholly benign. While deceit has negative connotations, Blake also acknowledges that it is “sweet to eat.” This reminds one of Marx’s claim that religion is the opiate of the masses. However, Blake may not intend anything this extreme. Recall that recognition of divinity is accompanied by mystery. Yet it is also accompanied by humility. Perhaps the point is that, for all its imperfections, this is the human predicament. This reading is supported by the final lines of the poem: “But there search was all in vain:/ There grows one in the Human Brain” (Blake, 24).There Blake explicitly contrasts the divine with the human. He writes, of the “gods of the earth and sea”, that they attempted to achieve some end through nature. It is tempting to infer here an allusion to the process of evolution. That is not possible, however, since the theory had yet to be discovered in Blake’s time. Through nature, Blake writes, these gods sought to find something; but it was not to be found in nature, but instead the human brain.
Perhaps the key question concerning the poem is what it is, precisely, that was not to be found in nature but rather in the human brain. What do we know about it? It is something that grows (and is not found in nature but the human brain). It must have some value or significance; if it did not the gods would not be searching for it. Preceding lines made mention of a raven making a nest in its “thickest shade”. Both ravens, and thickness of shade, are presumably meant to be evocative of something black. Traditionally some have associated the color black with negative attributes. This suggests that this thing, whatever it is, may be bad or evil.
My solution to the problem is that when one traces the arc of the content of the poem, from necessary conditions of pity and mercy, to the peace that fear of mystery brings, to fear and humility, and finally to deceit. Blake’s “thing” is deceit and the ugliness associated with it. It is deceit, and perhaps dishonesty and contrivance in general, that Blake is claiming is to be found in the human brain, rather than in the earth and the sea; where the “earth and the sea” merely signify the non-human. Of course, there is something unsatisfying about this reading. Is it not merely a version of the Fall of people in the Garden of Eden? One could object that since the gods made humans, it is they who are responsible for any innate propensity toward deceit. However, the same could be said of the Biblical story itself. Unsatisfying or not, this is the reading of Blake’s poem that one seems driven to by reflective contemplation of it.
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Abstract William Blake was a great poet who lived from the mid-18th to the early 19th centuries. His work was largely unappreciated during his lifetime. The Human Abstract is part […]