Thoughts on Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven & Hell”

“evil is the active springing from energy”

William Blake (28 Nov 1757 – 12 Aug 1827) English poet, painter, and printmaker

For those who have not dived into the 27 pages of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a composition of brief texts and accompanying engravings (done by Blake himself). I would highly recommend that you embark on this very interesting journey as Blake takes the reader on a guided tour of Hell, in which he sets out to correct some of our incorrect notions. Blake was considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic and at times iconoclastic views on religion and politics, in as much he drew inspiration from the French and American revolutions. A more recent (and very short) study, William Blake: Visionary Anarchist by Peter Marshall (1988), classified Blake and his contemporary William Godwin as forerunners of modern anarchism. In later years after his death he was/is held in high regard for his expressiveness and creativity.

Heaven is good, and Hell is bad. We have had this trite observation told to us since we were old enough to comprehend “right and wrong” – or were told we had an angel on our one shoulder and the devil on the other, each trying to pull us towards right and wrong, good and evil. We have, and still are exposed to countless stories, books, movies and fables equating Heaven with all that is good and Hell with all that is evil. Which one are we always supposed to listen to?

 ‘Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.’

Life isn’t such cut and dried, neatly separated into such clear polarities. Does it actually make sense to see everything in terms of clear distinct opposites: good and bad, right and wrong, true and false? “What if life is more like a giant pulsing mass of energy, which not only includes but actually needs the darker impulses we normally try to avoid?”

Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.

Each person reflects the contrary (opposite) nature of God, and that progression in life is impossible without contraries, almost as if in the extremes one finds balance. The push and pull of good and evil, this dynamic relationship is what makes us complete. We need them both to exist. Furthermore Blake explores the opposing nature of reason and of energy, believing that two types of people existed: the “energetic creators” and the “rational organizers”, or, as he calls them in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the “devils” and “angels”. It is this vision of the dynamic relationship between a stable “Heaven” and an energized (chaotic) “Hell” that has fascinated readers of this polemic (poem) since it was composed between 1790 and 1793.

In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell. These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Book of Proverbs found in the Bible. Biblical. The diabolical proverbs are provocative and paradoxical. Several of Blake’s proverbs have become famous:

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

“The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”

 

These are the questions Blake grapples with in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as he feels that both good and bad are necessary, interwoven parts of (our) existence. If we shut ourselves off from the bad, we’re also denying ourselves the good.

The book ends with the Song of Liberty, a prose poem where Blake uses apocalyptic imagery to incite his readers to embrace change.

Let the Priests of the Raven of Dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the Sons of Joy. Nor his accepted brethren whom, tyrant, he calls free, lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious lechery call that virginity that wishes, but acts not !

For everything that lives is holy

Closing Notes:

 

220px-Nebuchadnezzar_in_MoHaH

Plate from Marriage of Heaven and Hell

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