William Blake, “A Divine Image” and “The Divine Image”

11 years ago I started blogging on poetry and desperately needed content. The rule was to post daily, and this had three consequences I didn’t foresee:

  1. I really did build an audience, but I had no idea what to do with it other than engage in self-promotion.
  2. Reading as often as possible and taking notes does not get you daily posts. Writing about literature, however badly, simply does not work that way.
  3. I needed more poems than I even knew existed. The second you start writing and want to say something genuine is the second you realize you know nothing.

A friend was bored out of his skull at work and sent me the following over e-mail. I realize now that it is pretty cool to send someone a suggestion and find it promptly written on, published, added to the public record. Unfortunately, I confess the quality of what I produced was somewhere between “garbage” and “sewage.” Allow me to try to correct the record, 11 years later. Here’s William Blake’s “A Divine Image:”

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.

A longtime reader of this blog, an excellent poet himself, considered Blake “twee.” The verses like nursery rhymes, the elaborate riddles, the excessively bright or dark imagery—it can feel to me like prog rock gone Satanic. Certainly this poem is accompanied, in Songs of Experience, with some curious art. A sweltering, muscular person swings a hammer, attempting to forge or crush something, while a strange face watches him.

I don’t believe this work is “twee,” as it’s stranger than that. It looks to me like a code which you memorize. When you have an encounter that throws you, like others being cruel or jealous, you repeat the words to yourself, and you realize that the emotions directed toward you are a form of power. Cruelty, jealousy, terror, and secresy are ways of maintaining rule. The poem is not a spell, it’s not scripture, it’s not recognized as philosophy. But it is radically subversive, mystical, and educational. It could inform a child at the expense of parental and traditional authority. It does not accept our cheap, tawdry capitalist ways as proper child-rearing. The accusation the poem levels against us by its very existence should not be underestimated.

This poem corresponds to another in Songs of Innocence entitled “The Divine Image.” As if there were only one divine image, God our father dear. To Him, The Divine Image, we pray. In doing so, we also pray to Mercy Pity Peace and Love… [and] to these virtues of delight / [we] return their thankfulness. Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love do not seem to have anything whatsoever to do with Cruelty, Jealousy, Terror, and Secresy, but that’s precisely the riddle in which Blake is interested.

Before we take a closer look at that riddle, I want to introduce the last two stanzas of “The Divine Image,” as they are enormously significant:

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

Everyone prays, and everyone prays to the human form divine(!). This human form, heathen, turk or jew, is no less than God. Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell, there God is dwelling too. We can surmise that even in Songs of Innocence, this is very radical. Anti-Semitism in the UK is still a notable problem, and what a sizeable number of Brexit voters understood by “Leave” is one of the more disgusting phenomena of our time. I’ve got to wonder about European colonialism/imperialism, religion, and white nationalism—how long have these been explicitly linked? You could easily imagine this sort of speech spat upon in, say, Orbán’s Hungary, or other despotisms condemned to the limits of their vision.

So though “The Divine Image” more than likely holds a unique theological vision, it does not contain the full teaching. Still, it alone can be useful. Blake assigns to Mercy, “a human heart;” Pity, “a human face;” Love, “the human form divine,” and Peace, “the human dress.” It’s a beautiful picture with which a child could approach his schoolday. He could see showing Mercy as the only way to have a heart. He would face bad situations with Pity more than anger. Love would not be used for objects, and Peace would be manifest in one’s manners, one’s gait, one’s complete conduct. It’s not what you wear, but how you wear it.

Blake takes this, a fairly detailed moral teaching, and flips it on its head. Now Cruelty, not Mercy, has a human heart. Jealousy replaces Pity in our faces. Terror replaces Love as nothing less than the human form divine. Secresy replaces Peace, and “dress” becomes less about conduct and more about concealment. It’s cynical, but it’s hard to pinpoint in what exact way Blake is being clever. What has the schoolchild encountered that turns him from Mercy, Pity, Love and Peace? On a larger scale, what are we supposed to know as the world explodes on account of a violent, paranoid white nationalism not even barely concealing itself in religious garb?

I think the way to approach “A Divine Image” is to start with the immediacy of cruelty and jealousy. I remember when people were (still happening, btw) dumping on my approach to scholarship. I’m not a perfect student, certainly not an accomplished writer, but it didn’t take a lot of reflection to see that some people were jealous of the audience. Political philosophy is personal for me, mainly because I’ve learned that arbitrary cruelty isn’t arbitrary at all. It has a purpose—maybe not “terror” explicitly, but a constant fear of doing wrong, of being harshly punished for the least mistakes. That fear is implanted in order to promote someone else secretly. If you doubt me on this, look up what Donald Trump Jr.’s net worth is, and note where he has been brought in to speak the last year or two.

You can use “A Divine Image” to hone in on the realities of race, sex, and class in America. But Blake can speak beyond the pettiness of his world, the backwardness of ours. That last stanza is chilling. The human dress is forged iron, / The human form a fiery forge, / The human face a furnace sealed, / The human heart its hungry gorge. The nursery rhymes are there, it’s singsong, but it’s a dark chant about how nasty the forces we face are. “The human dress is forged iron”—a major reason why hate and anger can’t be defeated is that they are constantly projected onto others. Angry at yourself? Just project your failures onto some other group. You can’t pay the bills, but you work, unlike group such-and-such that’s leeching. Do this enough and you can talk yourself into supporting genocide. This awful dress of iron, this eagerness to embrace violence, comes from a lack of honesty. People in all ages and times try to hide the worst parts of themselves from themselves. Potentially limitless desires (“hungry gorge”) sealed off by ways of operating in the world that make us look sane no matter what crazy thing we do. I live in a state where prisoners boil to death in prison and the people in charge just shrug. The human form, a fiery forge indeed—we can only beg forgiveness for what we’ve wrought.

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