On Blake’s “A Divine Image”

Thank you to Josh for bringing this poem to my attention.

A Divine Image
William Blake

Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secresy the human dress.

The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart its hungry gorge.


It would behoove us to be familiar with another poem of Blake’s – one from “Songs of Innocence” – which could shed light on this one.

Now “The Divine Image” has four stanzas that do not correspond to this poem. The only one that does correspond is here:

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Now we can see how “mercy” and “cruelty” oppose, and likewise “pity” and “jealousy.” But how are “love” and “terror” related? And “peace” directly opposes – “secresy?”

The nice thing about the “Songs of Innocence” version is that it gives the key to interpreting this poem in the other four stanzas it has. If you look at the other poem, you’ll notice that “love” in the next to last stanza is out of order, and that “peace” is missing in the last stanza. That’s the clue that tells us that the 4 stanzas that do not correspond to this poem do correspond to “mercy, pity, love and peace,” and the “heart, face, form, dress” order. From the other poem, we can deduce that mercy is connected with not just heart, but with “delight.” We can also see that the “human face,” in that poem being pity, is tied to how we picture God, and by extension, ourselves. The “form” is not merely “love” there, but the universality of prayer – all men pray. Finally, “peace” is the love of that form, the having of “mercy” on particular “faces” – “peace” is the garment all of us wear, that melts distinction.

So much for “The Divine Image.” How does it inform our reading of “A Divine Image?”

The place to start is with recognizing the difference between “innocence” and “experience.” We start with ideals, and then we meet the world. In that meeting, priorities are reorganized. Notice how the second stanza of the above poem moves from the dress to the heart – that is not the movement of the first stanza, nor the movement of the poem “The Divine Image.” Our priorities are literally reversed because of “experience:” we do not assume we know the solution to life’s ills; we now want to know what truly lies in men’s hearts.

So we move from the outside in. Forged iron implies armor and armaments – secresy is maintained not through hiding, really, but through the threat of using strength (see Shakespeare, Sonnet 94 for more on this). The same fire which might cause love – the flame of desire – is what forges that strength and in forging, makes us willing to use it. Contrast this relation with the exactly parallel relation in the previous poem: there, love of the human form led to peace: here, there is “terror,” which is the “human form divine,” and it leads to secresy (which can be obliquely seen in the words “furnace sealed,” too).

The devil in Milton is desire for control: he must have due respect for what he perceives to be his by right. I think “terror” is what gives one control over all men – to get them to be afraid, to rob them of spirit, is what is characteristic of excessive desire. The “human heart” is a “hungry gorge,” after all – it is that void which characterizes it, a void which speaks of unlimited desire.


  1. Thanks for stealing my thunder dude! I posted ‘The Divine Image’ this morning and was going to use contra ‘A Divine Image’ later. Bastard!

    Of course you have saved me the embarrassment of misinterpreting, or just being silly with, this poem. A very thoughtful write up. A lot to ponder in the course of the evening. I don’t think that the poems compliment each other though. I feel that they contradict? One is giving us a view of Humanity that is less than pleasant. The other gives us the divine image, which oddly enough is us. So the divine is horrid but must be recognized in all men. We have peace when we keep secrets, dressed in iron.

    I don’t know I will have a better thought tomorrow. Very curios set of poems though!

  2. On second thought that is even better than I thought. You are right, I am one step ahead in your analysis. I still feel that Blake is making a comment about god and our relation to him, and that it may be futile.

    At any rate thank you for listening the other night, and for the encouragement and inspiration. As always good luck with the exams. You are in my prayers.

  3. You’re very good at this. One of my favourites of Blake’s is “the Human Abstract” from songs of experience (another verision is found in “the human image” from Notebook, poems and fragments, 1789-93). I’d be interested in your interpretation of that, if and whenever you have time, it’s the one that begins:

    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


    another favourite, much easier to interpret is this, from fragments:

    He who binds himself a joy,
    does the winged life destroy,
    but he who kisses the joy
    as it flies
    lives in eternity’s sunrise

    (just quoting from memory, but should be fairly accurate except from spelling)

    An then I must admit I like The everlasting gospel, which is quite irreverent. Blake was quite a favourite of mine when I was in my early teens…

  4. This poem by Blake is based on oxymorons and dualites. These dichotomies are coexistent in the mankind life. Therefore, the poem has religious overtones as it tackles the ontological question of good and evil.

  5. Fantastic analysis however I must say that fiery forge symbolizes terror rather than love. It makes more sense in this poem if forged iron symbolizes secrecy. the fiery forge is something that must be avoided lest one wishes to be burned and therefore it is feared.

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