‘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:

Cruelty has a human heart,

And jealousy a human face –

Terror, the human form divine,

And secrecy, 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.

This is a simple negative image, at the heart of which are the metaphors of sealing, hiding, and imprisonment on the one hand and the fires of the metalworker on the other.

Humanity has created for itself an iron covering, forged out of an unappeasable hunger inside the human self. The intense greedy fire of this ‘gorge’ is what solidifies the surface of human behaviour and interaction into mutual repulsion and fear. Terror here wears the same ‘human form’ as does pity in the Songs of Innocence text; so these ideas are not abstract; they are real only in their incarnate shape. We cannot, in other words, talk about either pity or terror without talking about actual embodied human history, about what men and women make of themselves.

“The intense greedy fire of this ‘gorge’”. As Matt Taibbi notes, this gorging is both psychological and economic: “the first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Imperialism changes its forms but its underlying drive remains the same – “an unappeasable hunger”


Beyond Good and Evil

So far, the balance is between self-evidently good things (mercy, pity, peace) and evil ones. But Blake does not leave it there. The 1791-2 notebook shows a more complex level of response:

I heard an angel singing,

When the day was springing,

‘Mercy, Pity, peace,

Is the world’s release.’


Thus he sung all day,

Over the new-mown hay,

Till the sun went down

And haycocks looked brown.


I heard a devil curse

Over the heath and the furze,

‘Mercy could be no more

If there was nobody poor.’


‘And pity no more could be

If all were as happy as we .’

At his curse the sun went down,

And the heavens gave a frown.


Down poured the heavy rain

Over the new-reaped grain;

And misery’s increase

Is Mercy, Pity, Peace.

A bit later, this is reworked into the first draft if what was to appear as ‘The Human Abstract’ in Songs of Experience, beginning

Pity would be no more

If we did not make somebody poor;

And Mercy no more could be,

If all were as halineliney as we.


And mutual fear brings Peace,

Till the selfish loves increase.

Then Cruelty knits a snare

And Spreads his baits with care.


He sits down with holy fears

And waters the grounds with tears;

Then humility takes its root

Underneath his foot.


Soon Spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head;

And the caterpillar and fly

Feed on the Mystery.

The earlier draft also contains two lines between the two final stanzas that were dropped in the final version but are a significant pointer to the theme and direction of the poem:

They said this mystery shall never cease:

The priest promotes war and the soldier peace.

Mystery has a human face

Here we have moved beyond the straightforward oppositions of ‘Cruelty has a human face.’ What the devil is pointing out is that, once we have started taking human history, embodied action, seriously, there can be no timeless and unambiguous ‘virtues of delight’.

Mercy, pity, and peace are, as a matter of fact, created by human division; they depend on those situations where love is hemmed in by fear or greed. Peace appears not as a gift but as simply what happens what conflict is exhausted; it does not actually transform the heart but makes room for new dangers, especially the selfish cruelty that generates ‘humility’ – a humility that is obviously meant to be seen as a form of that poisonous concealment referred to in the earlier ‘Cruelty has a human heart’ text. And the entire process is wrapped up in terms of the characteristic religious appeal to mystery, which, in the first draft, is seen as the mechanism by which learn to ignore the contradiction of priests promoting conflict and warriors promoting peace.


Abstracting Pity

Somewhere between the opposing rhetorics of ‘The Divine Image’ and ‘The Human Abstract’ (and the tension between the titles itself, between ‘image’ and ‘abstract’, declares a major theme), Blake is taking soundings for an understanding of how to ‘image’ the divine which is a fair way on from the simplicity of the earlier poem.

Orc: God as revolution

In the ‘Preludium’ to America, he has the virgin daughter of Urthona recognising the ‘terrible boy’, the power he calls Orc, as ‘the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa’, the life-giving but chaos-generating angelic power of revolution; and it is plain that the divine image is here the principle that overturns law and human (specifically colonial) power.

This is the image of God conceived not as a set of benign properties or activities – ‘the human form divine’ as the idealised possessor of mercy, pity, and peace – but as imaginative energy itself; which is as we might expect from ‘The Voice of the Devil’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘Energy is the only life and is from the body, and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy’.

Imaginative energy itself: to dissociated reason, desire will always appear as rebellion

Central to this perspective is the insistence that one of the basic errors of orthodox religious rhetoric is to conceive good as passive, or, as ‘The Human Abstract’ implicitly sees it, as purely reactive and thus dependent on evil. ‘The Voice of the Devil’ goes on, in a particularly complex passage, to recast Trinitarian theology in stark opposition to what Blake reads as Milton’s model in Paradise Lost.

The essence of false (Miltonic) theology, Blake argues, is in the centrality of control – ‘reason’ taking charge of desire, with the result that desire itself is cast as ‘evil’ and good becomes an exercise in damage limitation which seeks to keep desire within bounds; and, conversely, desire will then always appear as rebellion. Milton’s Christ is the one who is victorious over desire; Milton’s Satan is the commander of heavenly energies in rebellion.

But this means, according to Blake, that Milton has effectively emptied the biblical Trinity of its meaning: ‘the Father is destiny, the Son a ratio of the five senses, and the Holy Ghost vacuum’. The divine is not only defined as control but as stasis – a fixed future determined by the Father who is absolute will, which the Son them embodies as conqueror over desire, as the one who sets boundaries for the world of the senses (and so the world of sensual enjoyment).

In contrast, Blake’s voice, presented ironically as the ‘diabolical’ voice, depicts the biblical Christ praying that desire may flood the world of reasonable control so that reason may be imaginatively fertile. Descended, ‘fallen’, into the material world, this Messiah has the task of holding in one the awareness of a world in which ‘reason’ observes the particular, the boundaried, yet is ceaselessly animated by the energy of desire to go beyond boundaries and incarnate the energy of joy in which soul and body inseparably share.

This is not to say that Christ or the true Christian faith is a means of reconciling opposites. Later in The Marriage, Blake famously contrasts the Prolific and the Devourer – the productive energy from which life comes and the principle of separation or what we could call specificity, essence within bounds. The latter is unaware of the excess of being which surrounds every boundary; yet the former could not exist in actuality without its excess being continually absorbed in the particular – that is, without the indeterminate productive energy at the source of things being embodied in a presumably infinite variety of actual and imaginable forms.

These two principles determine two kinds of human beings. Blake refuses to say that God alone represents the boundless creativity of the Prolific (presumably over against the unfreedom and limitless of finite agents), since ‘God only acts and is in existing beings or men.’ In other words, we cannot identify God with a general and abstract principle of creativity beyond all boundaries; God is actual only in the historical process of dialectic between the excess of being and the limits of the particular.

Between the Prolific and the Devourer as ideal models of agency, for Blake, there is no peace possible: their opposition is precisely what constitutes them as what they are. And Christ – unlike ‘religion’ – is not out to reconcile but to clarify the difference. Yet the implication of the earlier passage seems also to be that Christ also keeps the tension from becoming complete separation (which would actually be fatal to both elements). From within the bounded world of history and particularity, he prays for the gift of primordial, undifferentiated desire, identified with ‘the comforter’, that is, the Holy Spirit; after his earthly life, he is absorbed or reabsorbed into the eternal agency (the ‘flaming fire’) of that desire, ‘he became Jehovah’.

“Christ – unlike ‘religion’ – is not out to reconcile but to clarify the difference”

Thus, as the human face of the divine, Jesus embodies a humanity in which, without a facile ‘reconciliation’, there is a true and productive relation between the Prolific and the Devourer: the Prolific is not subordinated to the Devourer, and so imagination is released. And this may help us see also what Blake is up to when he more than once mischievously elaborates on Jesus as a paradigm of bad’ behaviour – cavalier about the law, anything but meek and gentle, even responsible for the deaths of those who die for his sake – yet at the same time the exemplar of true, instinct-driven virtue.

Summing up so far, Blake’s ‘divine image’ is a matter of how imaginative action or initiative is realised in the world of limits. The conventional categories of good and evil are useless here (hence Blake’s teasing and sometimes shocking ‘Proverbs of Hell’), because they insistently return to a fundamentally passive notion of the good as that which controls or limits evil; since the foundation of all life is undifferentiated desire, this can only have the result that desire and evil are assimilated to one another (and implicitly life itself is turned into death). The realising of the divine image is a matter of rejecting this model in its entirety and replacing any compromise between the necessarily opposed principles involved.

“Pity would be no more If we did not make somebody poor”: Western charity is rooted in its own complicity in the creation of poverty. As Nick Duffell notes, “pity as a conceptual stance became a mechanism for Enlightened society as a whole to rationalise its superiority and take advantage over those who had lost their personhood and become objects”.


Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012 and is a a theologian, poet, and Blake scholar. The above article is taken from his wonderful essay ‘The human form divine: Radicalism and Orthodoxy in William Blake’, in Radical Christian Voices and Practice: Essays on Honour of Christopher Rowland (OUP, 2012). 

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