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Abstract

‘The Human Abstract’, one of two companion pieces to ‘The Divine Image’ from Songs of Innocence, begins by describing a moral condition in which the performance of morality depends upon systems of impoverishment and inequity, pity requires forced deprivation and mercy can only exist as long as there is suffering in the world. The first stanza consists of two couplets, in which the first lines name a Christian virtue and indicate its contingency upon the anti-Christian condition stated in the second. It ends with a semicolon after the final ‘we’, which suggests that the second stanza will continue in the same spirit as the first, describing the paradoxical position of morality in lapsarian existence. At first glance, this seems to be the case, for line 1, stanza 2 reads: ‘And mutual fear brings peace’ (1.5; E27). The conjunction ‘And’ suggests that this couplet will provide a third instance of virtue depending upon vice. The couplet does in fact do this, but it deviates from the couplets in stanza 1 by condensing its moral paradox into the first line. It does this by describing a paradoxical activity — ‘mutual fear brings peace’ — rather than presenting a contingent virtue followed by the condition upon which it paradoxically depends.

Keywords

Biblical Text Solid Fibre Outward Form Narrowing Perception Divine Wisdom 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. James T. Boulton, rev. edn (London: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 2.3, pp. 58–9.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968; repr. 1987), p. 171Google Scholar
  3. John C. Whale, ‘Literal and Symbolic Representations: Burke, Paine and the French Revolution’, History of European Ideas, 16 (1993), pp. 343–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    Fairbanks suggests, during his apprenticeship to Basire, Blake would have encountered a testament to Burke’s aristocratic lineage in the form of the monument to the ‘Countess Dowager of Clanrickard’, the inscription on which ‘identifies [her] as the wife of “MICHAELL, […] the Head of the Antient and Noble Family of the BURKES”’ (A. Harris Fairbanks, ‘Blake, Burke, and the Clanrickard Monument’, Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, 31 (1997), pp. 76–81 (p. 76)).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Susanna Jordan, ‘Burke’s Pain: The Authority of the Invisible in Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry’, Romanticism and Empirical Method (Conference Paper, Queen Mary College, University of London, 2–3 March 2001), March 3.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Emanuel Swedenborg, The Wisdom of Angels, Concerning Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, trans. [N. Tucker] (London: W. Chalklen, 1788). I have consulted Blake’s copy of this text. References are to section numbers, not pages, for this text as well as for Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, Divine Providence, and Conjugal Love.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Thompson links Volney directly to The Marriage, plate 11, suggesting that Blake could have come across extracts in Johnson’s Analytical Review, published in January 1792 (p. 201); however, given Viscomi’s re-dating of the text to 1790 {Blake and the Idea, pp. 235–40), Blake’s text precedes the English translations of Ruins.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (New York: Prometheus Books, 1984), p. 181Google Scholar
  9. Common Sense and Other Political Writings, ed. Nelson F. Adkins (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953), p. 4.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. T.J.B. Spencer (London: Penguin, 1980), 1.3.78–80.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind, ed. Joseph Priestley, 2nd edn (London: J. Johnson, 1790). All references to Hartley refer to this edition.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations, 3 vols (London: [n. pub.], 1744; repr. J. Johnson, 1791).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Harald A. Kittel, ‘The Book of Urizen and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, in Interpreting Blake, ed. Michael Phillips (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 111–44 (p. 120).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    David Worrall, ‘Introduction: Blake’s Urizen Books’, in William Blake: The Urizen Books (Italy: Princeton University Press/William Blake Trust, 1995), pp. 10, 12.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Such effects are, to be sure, anathemas to the democratic spirit of Priestley’s work and Locke’s. However, the ease with which combinations of religious humility and theories of moral education could be co-opted by conservative forces is aptly attested to by the preponderance of anti-levelling tracts published throughout the 1790s. A prime example of such pamphlets, as Erdman notes (Prophet, p. 274), is William Vincent’s A Discourse, Addressed to the People of Great-Britain (London: [Hookham and Carpenter], 1792). Vincent, the Dean of Westminster, seeks to justify the existence of an impoverished class and promotes education as a form of charity that will teach the poor ‘their duty’ and thereby allow the wealthy to secure both their earthly possessions and their spiritual rewards. Through education, the poor will be deterred from vice and ‘robbery might be removed from our streets, and plunder from our houses’, whilst the robbers and thieves will have their soul’s saved, certainly ‘the most acceptable service you can render to God’ (p. 17).Google Scholar

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© Matthew JA Green 2005

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  • Matthew J. A. Green

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