Zoapod 5: Blake’s Poems – The Divine Image (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast five, Blake’s Poems – The Divine Image. In this podcast I shall be doing something different, looking at one of Blake’s poems in some detail rather than concentrating on how Blake’s works have been taken up by subsequent artists. In the first of this (irregular series), I shall be looking at a lyric first published in 1789 as one of the Songs of Innocence, his poem “The Divine Image”.

2. Songs of Innocence was one of Blake’s first books to be printed using a technique that has since become known as illuminated printing, a technique that allowed Blake to combine text and image in the innovative fashion for which he has become best known as an artist. In 1789, this work consisted of thirty-one plates, and Blake produced sixteen or seventeen impressions of the collection during that year. He continued to issue copies of Songs of Innocence over the following years, printing it as a separate book even after he had combined the poems of Innocence into an edition that included Songs of Experience in 1794.

3. As Andrew Lincoln observes in the William Blake Trust/Tate Gallery version of the poems (London, 1991), Songs of Innocence was originally produced to take advantage of the rapidly expanding market for children’s books that existed in the late eighteenth century. Such books were often illustrated with engravings or woodcuts, but Blake’s own production methods went far beyond conventional printing methods. Likewise, while he used many apparently familiar motifs of children’s literature in his poems and illustrations, such as shepherds, the mother watching her baby, or children at play, the aim and tone of the Songs was radically different, sometimes deceptively so as in a poem such as “The Divine Image”:

4. 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 & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too

5. At first reading, this poem may seem very familiar from generations of Christian verse, its pronouncement that God is love seeming no different to those hymns such as Charles Wesley’s “Stupendous love of God most high!”, first published in 1780. However, as Lincoln and others have pointed out, the difference between Blake’s poem and the hymns of his contemporaries is clearest when considering the following lines from Isaac Watts’s “Praise for the Gospel”:

6. Lord, I ascribe it to thy Grace
And not to Chance, as others do,
That I was born of Christian Race,
And not a Heathen, or a Jew. (Cited in Lincoln, p.159)

7. Watts published his Divine and Moral Songs in 1720, and many of the hymns promise justice and retribution for those who fail to follow the message of God’s word. “Praise for the Gospel” ends with the promise that Gentiles and Jews will “in judgement rise” against the speaker if he does not keep God’s law. In “The Divine Image”, by contrast, there is no mention of God’s anger or retribution (just or otherwise), only the constant refrain that God is mercy, pity, peace and love. Over the years, when I have taught this poem, plenty of listeners have tended to assume that it is rather saccharine in its nature – too sweet, literally too good to be true – but this is a failure to see just how radical Blake’s message is within the song.

8. Lincoln believes that Blake’s hymn asserts that all religions have the same emotional basis, but also that all religions are essentially Christian. There is no reason to doubt that Blake may have believed this, but the poem does not state this quite as clearly as Lincoln does – it ascribes, rather, the simple belief that God is Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, nothing more than this, and it is easy to see how this Song could be adapted by certain types (though by no means all) of Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or various other creeds. In All Religions are One (1788), Blake had written that “The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy.” (E1) In contrast to the vast majority of Christian assumptions, there is no innate superiority of Christianity in this view: it is but the one response of one group of people to the divine that Blake believed intrinsic to the human condition.

9. And this is where Blake’s poem reveals its radicalism. God is not something separate to man, but revealed entirely within and through man: it is the human face and human heart which demonstrates to us the reality of divinity. Rather than a metaphysical presence behind this world, we encounter God whenever we experience (or, indeed, demonstrate) the virtues of mercy, pity, peace and love. While these are familiar Christian virtues, their choice is significant: it would be very easy to conceive a God based on righteousness, or obedience, but these are far from Blake’s conception of the human form divine. In his later works, particularly the epic poems Milton and Jerusalem, Blake was to identify this tendency to self-righteousness as the Moral Law, and to ascribe it as a spiritual condition closer to Satan than to Christ.

10. This raises another important point about the poem: in many respects, it deals less with belief and more with practice. Religion is not the doctrine that we profess to follow, but the actions that we perform. As many scholars working in Blake studies have observed, Blake’s actual religion in terms of a clear-cut denomination is hard to pin down. His parents were probably non-specific Nonconformists (although recent research suggests that while his mother came from a Moravian background, which so influenced the young John Wesley, his father may have been more traditionally Anglican than previously thought). Certainly, a brief flirtation with the doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg aside, Blake himself never expressed particularly strong inclinations to one sect or another. To seek exactitude on this matter is completely to miss the point: Christianity, or indeed any religion, is not following one creed over another, defining oneself against what one is not, but to practice simple virtues to all. With this thought, Blake is able to express the most radical vision of the poem in the final stanza, expressing universal communality with all mankind, whether they live Christians, Jews, Muslims or even have no professed belief in God. It is not what men say that they believe that is important, but what they do.

11. The illumination for “The Divine Image” shows groups of figures, some praying, others walking, standing or reclining, amidst fronds that rise and swirl about the text. In some, particularly early copies, these fronds are coloured green, clearly plants shooting up in the flow of life. In some later copies, however, these forms are painted red, and look more like flames or the fires of divine energy that lick around the words and figures. E. D. Hirsch suggested that an angel in the image is carrying bread and wine, but an important point to make is that if we are to distinguish between humans and angels in this illustration, that distinction is not immediately self-evident: all we, the reader of the poem, are presented with is the human form living amidst these rising forms of vernal or fiery life, and whatever we see Blake’s hope must be that we respond with love, mercy, pity, peace.

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