The Human Abstract, William Blake: Summary & Analysis

"The Human Abstract" by William Blake is a thought-provoking poem that delves into themes of human nature, morality, and the complexities of emotions. The poem scrutinizes the connections between human virtues and vices, highlighting the inherent contradictions within the human experience.

The Human Abstract by William Blake

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 his 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 caterpillar 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 through nature to find this tree,
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the human Brain.

Critical Analysis

"The Human Abstract" presents a stark exploration of the duality inherent in human nature. The poem begins by questioning the foundations of virtues like "Pity" and "Mercy," suggesting that they only exist because of their opposites – poverty and suffering. The progression from "mutual fear" to "Cruelty" paints a picture of how negative emotions and actions emerge as self-interest intensifies.

The imagery of "spreads his baits with care" and "waters the ground with tears" illustrates the calculated nature of cruelty, while "Humility" grows from this soil. This Humility then gives rise to "Mystery," symbolizing the complex and enigmatic aspects of human nature. The reference to the "caterpillar and fly" feeding on the mystery symbolizes the destructive potential within the unknown.

The poem's final stanza suggests that the tree of deception doesn't exist in the external world but within the human brain. This image underscores the idea that human behavior and emotions are intricately connected to the mind's complex workings.

Themes of the Poem

  • Contradiction within Human Nature: The poem explores the contradictory nature of human virtues and vices, highlighting how one often emerges from the other.
  • Interplay of Virtues and Vices: The poem emphasizes how virtues like "Pity" and "Mercy" are rooted in their corresponding vices, such as poverty and suffering.
  • The Mind's Complexity: The poem suggests that the origins of human behavior and emotions are deeply intertwined with the workings of the human brain.

Stylistic Analysis

  • Imagery: The poem uses vivid and contrasting imagery to illustrate the progression from virtues to vices and the complexities of human nature.
  • Metaphor: The metaphor of the tree of "Deceit" growing within the human brain encapsulates the core message of the poem.
  • Rhythm and Rhyme: The poem follows a structured rhyme scheme and rhythm, creating a musical flow that adds to the contemplative tone.


  • Contemplation: The poem reflects a sense of deep contemplation and introspection regarding human nature and its intricacies.
  • Curiosity: The mention of gods seeking the tree of "Deceit" reflects a curiosity about the origins of human behavior.


  • Symbols: The use of symbols like "Pity," "Mercy," "Cruelty," and "Deceit" encapsulate the core themes and progression of the poem.
  • Imagery: The vivid and contrasting imagery amplifies the poem's message and engages the reader's imagination.

Sound Devices

  • Rhythm and Rhyme: The structured rhyme scheme and rhythm contribute to the musical quality of the poem, enhancing its contemplative nature.

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