‘The Human Form Divine’: Radicalism and Orthodoxy in William Blake, by Rowan Williams

The Human Imagination and the Eternal Body

 

Priests promoting Conflict and Soldiers promoting Peace

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight

Return their thankfulness.

 

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is Man, his child and care.

 

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.

 

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, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.

Blake might have been surprised to learn that these verses, ‘The Divine Image’, from Songs of Innocence, are sometimes printed – and sung – as a hymn. On their own, they are indeed a touchingly direct statement of a certain kind of Christian humanism, apparently optimistic and universalist – a suitable text for the enlightened, perhaps rather Tolystoyan, Christian who looks to Blake as part of his or her canon.

But Blake is a dialectical writer, to a rare and vertiginous degree, and to understand what a text like this means we also have to read his own reply to it – indeed, his own critique of it. The textual history of this dialogue is itself intriguing, as if he could not easily settle on how he was to ‘voice’ the necessary riposte. His first attempt, not finally included in the Songs of Experience, survives in a design from 1791 or 1792:

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