I was reminded of ‘The Divine Image’ the other night at about three in the morning when my daughter came in to talk about her plans for revising William Blake for her A level English. The exam is next week.
So I exaggerate. It was more like half past ten.
My experience of this poem is as a song, not a poem, thanks to the beautiful setting of it by Lies Damned Lies (who are Steve Butler, Charlie Irvine and Dot Reid) on their live album The Human Dress.
They have claimed in an interview that the poem/song is about incarnation: the presence of God in everyone -as Charlie Irvine puts it: ‘Something to stake your life on.’
But for all of the weight of its doctrinal imperative, the poem does not act on us because of the ‘truth’ it espouses. It acts upon us precisely because it is a poem, beginning in delight and ending in wisdom as Frost would have it.
As Seamus Heaney has said in The Government of the Tongue: ‘It does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused ‘Now a solution will take place’, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as a distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.’
You do not have to believe in God (or god) or the incarnation to be persuaded of those things while living in the world of the poem as you read it. But it is hard not to.
This is one of the paradoxes of poetry.
The Divine Image
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.
William Blake (via Lies Damned Lies: The Human Dress, Sticky Music)
To read about The Human Dress click here
To listen to more Lies Damned Lies music click here