The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793)

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Author: William Blake
Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks


© Copyright Oxford Paperbacks

© Copyright Oxford Paperbacks

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell stands out for its unorthodox perspectives and its combination of genres such as poetry and prose, religious allegory, and critical essay. Through the voice of the devil, Blake parodies and attacks the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg, the cosmology and ethics of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and biblical history and morality as constructed by the established Church and state. Energy and passion are valorized. Reason and temperance are characterized as restraints on spiritual insight and self-expression.

The text begins with “The Argument”, a retelling of the making of man and the coming of evil. The tale is told in the form of verses. Rhythm and musicality are very important to this plate. They evoke a folk tradition, a knowledge that has been (or should have been) passed on since the dawn of time: “Then the perilous path was planted,/ And a river, and a spring,/ On every cliff and tomb;/ And on the bleached bones/ Red clay brought forth”. Though this plate serves as an introduction to the twenty-five that follow, “The Argument” is an autonomous text with its own beginning and end. It comes full circle within itself. The first stanza, “Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;/ Hungry clouds swag on the deep”, is the same as the last. Here, Blake exposes his main argument, as the plate’s title suggests, without elaborating on it. The rest of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell consists of a detailed explanation of this first statement.

In plate three, the text suddenly takes the shape of a critical essay. It is written in very clear and concise prose. Few artistic liberties are taken. It is a brief and direct exposition of the main topics in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” This radical change allows the text to grab the reader’s attention as it conveys its thesis. Again, themes are presented more than they are explained.

This changes in the fourth plate, “The Voice of the Devil”, as the text takes on a more graphical form. The “Bibles and sacred codes’ Errors” are numbered from one to three and matched with their “Truthful Contraries”. In what looks very much like a quick reference guide, the reader is explained the concept and role of Energy, the basis of Blake’s philosophy: “3. Energy is Eternal Delight.” The dynamic form of the plate permits the reader to quickly and easily understand this more theoretical aspect of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, while the numbering of the “Errors” and “Contraries” incites the reader to memorize the concepts.

In plates five and six, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell reverts to its critical essay form. This section is mainly a criticism of Milton’s work in which the notion of Satan, or the Devil, is introduced to the reader: “But in the Book of Job, Milton’s Messiah is call’d Satan.” Again, there are few artistic liberties in this section. The tone is serious, giving Blake’s criticism more credibility. However, the text does retain its dynamic nature. The pace is quick and unencumbered. Paragraphs are no more than one or two sentences long: “The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, and the Governor or Reason is call’d messiah.”

The next section is the first “Memorable Fancy”, expanding through plates six and seven. It is a parody of Swedenborg’s Memorable Relations, accounting his journey to heaven. Blake emulates Swedenborg’s narrative style, using a first person narrative and the past tense: “As I was walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their proverbs.” Instead of a trip to heaven, Blake depicts a voyage through hell. This subversive approach comes suddenly and functions as a stunning contrast to the scholarly tone used in the previous plates, grabbing the reader’s attention as “The Proverbs of Hell”, the most peculiar section in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is introduced: “So the Proverbs of Hell shew the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments.”

“The Proverbs of Hell”, plates seven through ten, is a more or less random collage of sixty-nine twisted dictums celebrating excess and human impulse: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”; “The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.” Listed at the very center of the piece, each of the proverbs represents the core of Blake’s message. The dictums’ large number and diversity insures the reader will relate to at least a few, and their simplicity and wit make them easy to memorize. If the reader is to retain anything from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, it’s likely one of the proverbs of hell.

“The Proverbs of Hell” ends abruptly with the sentence “Enough! Or Too much”, which, after reading the section, the reader should understand as one and the same, and the text reverts to conventional prose. Plate eleven reads like a history book: “Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of and enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood.” Through his telling of the origin of Priesthood, Blake, using a clear and simple style, exposes the new elements of his criticism, elements that are further explored in the following plate: “Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.”

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