"To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love all pray in their distress/ And to these virtues of delight return their thankfulness." So begins William Blake's Song of Innocence, "The Divine Image." In his Songs of Experience, however, Blake responds point by point to the earlier poem in a manner which is both unexpected and disturbing: "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." The simple, straightforward logic of Blake's surprising response to the conventional sentiments of "The Divine Image" rings devastatingly true, with implications that will be echoed far into the future by the likes of Whitman, Nietzsche, Marx and . . . Brecht -- who "once said that he might be inclined to allow pity and terror place in the theater 'if the theater were to cooperate in removing these conditions among human beings that generate mutual fear and necessitate mutual pity. For the Fate of Man is now Man himself.' " [as quoted in Bertolt Brecht, His Life, His Art and His Times, by Frederic Ewen, The Citadel Press, p. 232. On the same page, Ewen also quotes George Bernard Shaw: "I do not want there to be any more pity in the world because I do not want there to be anything to pity."] For more on the relation between Blake and Brecht, I recommend this very interesting essay, by Brian Cliff: William Blake and Bertolt Brecht: "Without Contraries is no progression"
Blake's poem begins as simplicity itself but quickly progresses into much more difficult terrain. His original intention was to match it with the earlier poem by calling it "The Human Image." But the title he finally settled on is very strange: "The Human Abstract." Is his message equally strange? and abstract?
Pity is produced by poverty, mercy by unhappiness, peace is the product of mutual fear, love is compromised by selfishness. From selfishness it is only one small step to Cruelty, which "knits a snare" and "spreads his baits with care." "Holy fears" and "humility" are unmistakeable references to religion, which, nourished with the holy water of selfish tears, "takes root" at the foot of Cruelty itself. And from this root grows "the dismal shade of Mystery" in the form of a tree, bearing "the fruit of Deceit." Pity, mercy, peace, love, cruelty, humility, mystery, deceit. For Blake, the progression from the loftiest sentiments to the depths of hypocrisy is inevitable because all stem from the same root of the same tree. Appropriately enough, the Raven, ancient harbinger not only of war and doom, but symbol also of "ravenous" greed, makes his nest "in its thickest shade."
What is this tree, which cannot be found in nature, growing only "in the Human Brain"? If we would want to attribute this conundrum to the mysterious workings of Blake's "visionary" poetry, we'd have to reckon with the poet's own deep suspicion of mystery itself, as expressed in this very poem. I believe there is a simpler explanation. For me, Blake's tree is a symbol of what later would become known as "bourgeois ideology." Existing entirely out of sight, in "the human brain," elusive, mysterious, cruel, deceitful, this repository of ostensibly noble sentiments and ideals, born in fantasies of altruism, love and enduring peace, exists only to spread its tentacle-branches as far and wide as possible, maintaining a rigid system of repression and control. Indeed, the first verse encapsulates the entire notion of ideology, as it would eventually come to be understood by Marx, with remarkable efficiency: "Pity could no be no more/ If we did not make somebody poor." In other words, our noblest ideals can be understood as rooted in a reality of pain and exploitation for which we must assume responsibility.
In the spirit of Blake, whose images can be said to in some sense interpret his poems, I have attempted an interpretation of my own, in the form of a musical setting. Since for me the first verse is the key to the work as a whole, I have treated it as a refrain. Recurring three times during the course of the poem, it serves to remind us that all its mysteries have their source in a simple, if disturbing, logic. Since the critical thinking of "The Human Abstract" was conceived as a response to the "innocent" ideology expressed in "The Divine Image," I have included the first verse of the earlier poem as an introduction. In my play, this verse will be sung by a street preacher, accompanied, karaoke style, by some guitar chords played on a boom box. Striking workers will respond, singing "The Human Abstract" to the accompaniment of a lively jam by a pair of street musicians, playing a real guitar -- and bass.
To listen, click here. Scroll down to follow the music and text.
Writing of this poem in his classic study of Blake, Mark Schorer makes the following essential point: "And now, finally . . . the genuine irony of Blake's Songs becomes clear. Imitations of the 'good-Godly' songs of the newly founded Sunday schools, the Songs of Innocence appropriate the piety doled out to the underprivileged children of the factory and the mining districts, and then, in the same meters, the Songs of Experience shift from the ideal images of shepherds and lambs, flowers and fruits, and retain only those which the children of the poor really knew, the images of poverty, despair and death." [William Blake: The Politics of Vision, Vintage Books, 1946, p. 210.]
A very similar irony is at work in Brecht's first book of poems, the Hauspoststille, a title invoking books of pious verse popular in Germany at that time, translated by Eric Bentley as Manual of Piety. But here Brecht conflates the moods of simple piety and bitter irony in one and the same poem, e.g.: "And in the mild light Jacob Apfelboeck/ Struck both his father and his mother down/ And locked the bodies in the laundry chest/ And went on living in the house alone." [Bertolt Brecht, Manual of Piety, translated by Eric Bentley, Grove Press, 1966, p. 19.]
With reference to another Blake poem, Mark Schorer writes: "The tree itself is significant: it is the tree of judgement, of good and evil, of restraint, and it will appear again and again; it is authority, law, and it 'grows . . . in the Human Brain." [Mark Schorer, William Blake: The Politics of Vision, Vintage Books, 1946, p. 208.]
The figure of the tree is important for Brecht as well, something which will come as a surprise for those who associate his work so closely with "the asphalt cities." One will not go very far among the poems of Brecht without encountering this image. As for example: "Praise ye the tree that from carrion shoots whooping toward Heaven!/ Praise ye the tree!/ Carrion that feeds it praise ye!" [Bertolt Brecht, Manual of Piety, translated by Eric Bentley, Grove Press, 1966, p. 121.]