The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell William Blake
The following entry presents criticism of Blake's prophetic prose poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93). See also, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion Criticism.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, started in 1790 but probably not completed until 1793, represents for many critics William Blake's finest achievement and certainly his most innovative work both thematically and stylistically. It not only broke with the past on many levels but was also an important first step in the articulation of Blake's philosophy and the creation of his new universe, both of which would be expanded in the writing that followed, particularly The First Book of Urizen (1794) and The Four Zoas (1796-1807?). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell defies easy interpretation just as it defies neat categorization as any one genre. Thus, commentary has focused as much on the structure of the text as on its influences and themes.
Blake had established himself as an author and engraver during the previous decade and had produced the treatises There Is No Natural Religion and All Religions Are One around 1788 using his unique method of illuminated printing. Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel followed the next year. Although his time-consuming process of engraving, printing, and hand-coloring each copy produced texts of extraordinary beauty, circulation was necessarily limited, which prevented Blake from achieving either the reputation or the income level his work properly merited. His early association with Emanuel Swedenborg's New Church—the extent of which is still debated—provided one of the most important influences on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake's disenchantment with the increasing rigidity of Swedenborg and his followers made them the primary targets for much of The Marriage's parody and satire. Meanwhile, his political philosophy took shape within a circle that included some of the leading radicals of the day, such as Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a satiric attack on orthodoxy in general and on the Swedenborgians in particular, but it is also an extended description of the educational and developmental process by which the poet-prophet is created. In addition, it is a revolutionary prophecy, written against the historical backdrop of political upheaval in America and in France. The Marriage begins with a poem, "The Argument," in which Blake introduces his prophetic character Rintrah; it ends with another poem, "A Song of Liberty," in which Blake celebrates revolution and foresees a new age of political and religious freedom. Between these two poems is a series of prose doctrinal statements, each followed by a "Memorable Fancy," which comments on the preceding statement while parodying Swedenborg's "Memorable Relations" from the latter's Heaven and Hell. Throughout the work, Blake presents a series of contraries—Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Angel and Devil, Reason and Energy—but then appears to reverse the traditional values associated with each term, thus celebrating Energy, Evil, and even Satan himself. Most critics today reject such a reading as simplistic and insist that, rather than merely inverting the terms of the contraries, Blake was questioning both terms and exploring the limitations of each. The "Proverbs of Hell" section contains some of the most outrageous and most widely-quoted passages of the entire text, among them: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction," and "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires."
The critical debate surrounding The Marriage of Heaven and Hell has been varied and heated over the last one hundred years and shows no sign of abating. Critics differ on the degree of irony Blake employed in some of his bolder statements, questioning when Blake is speaking ironically as the Devil and when he is speaking as himself. They disagree on whether Blake was an innovative revolutionary who mercilessly ridiculed dogmatic religion and rebelled against convention in both art and politics, or if he was merely one of many products of his revolutionary times.
Another area of intense critical debate involves the various influences on the author and, in turn, on the text. Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell is the most obvious source and target of The Marriage's satire and parody. Although Blake directs some barbs at Milton as well, critics seem to agree that their tone is one of gentle irony as opposed to the vicious ridicule he reserves for Swedenborg. Other critics have suggested the writings of Boehme and Paracelsus as inspirations for The Marriage, as well as Lavater's Aphorisms on Man, Spenser's The Faerie Queen, and Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. In terms of form, The Marriage has been called "structureless," but it has also been compared to "the A B A of the ternary form in music"; in this structure, the development of a first theme is followed by the development of a second theme. The work then returns to the first theme (or some variation of it). Others scholars have claimed that the poem draws on dialectic, on a well-established satiric tradition, on the elementary school primer, and on the chapbooks and political tracts of the time. Still other critics insist that it stands alone in its structure and that there has been nothing like it before or since.
SOURCE: "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in William Blake: A Critical Essay, John Camden Hotten, 1868, pp. 204-27.
[In the following excerpt, Swinburne ranks The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as Blake's greatest work]
In 1790 Blake produced the greatest of all his books; a work indeed which we rank as about the greatest produced by the eighteenth century in the line of high poetry and spiritual speculation. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell gives us the high-water mark of his intellect. None of his lyrical writings show the same sustained strength and radiance of mind; none of his other works in verse or prose give more than a hint here and a trace there of the same harmonious and humorous power, of the same choice of eloquent words, the same noble command and liberal music of thought; small things he could often do perfectly, and great things often imperfectly; here for once he has written a book as perfect as his most faultless song, as great as his most imperfect rhapsody. His fire of spirit fills it from end to end; but never deforms the body, never singes the surface of the work, as too often in the still noble books of his later life. Across the flicker of flame, under the roll and roar of water, which seem to flash and to resound throughout the poem, a stately music, shrill now as laughter and now again sonorous as a psalm, is audible through shifting notes and fitful...
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SOURCE: "The Thief of Fire," in Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, Princeton University Press, 1947, pp. 194-201.
[In this excerpt, Frye describes The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a work that both participates in and departs from the tradition of English satire associated with Swift, Sterne, and others.]
The central idea of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to put it crudely, is that the unrest which has produced the French and American revolutions indicates that the end of the world might come at any time. The end of the world, the apocalypse, is the objective counterpart of the resurrection of man, his return to the titanic bodily form he originally possessed. When we say that man has fallen, we mean that his soul has collapsed into the form of the body in which he now exists. Hence, while no one could be less of an ascetic than Blake, the premise from which the ascetic starts is also his. The body is "vile"1: it is the body of a peeled ape, a witch's cauldron of tangled tissues and sodden excrement cooking in blood. This is as true of the nightingale as it is of the vulture, and as true of the tender virgin as it is of the gorilla. The physical nausea so painfully developed in Swift is an example of a soul's disgusted reaction to its degraded state. But where the ascetics go wrong is in forgetting that all mental activity is also a bodily struggle, because...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, University of Miami Press, 1963, pp. 8-31.
[In this excerpt Emery finds The Marriage of Heaven and Hell chaotic in form yet full of energy and an important first step in the creation of Blake's universe.]
Blake had not yet created his new universe when, in 1790 (or thereabouts—its date is not certain), he set about his Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Yet, insofar as the work represents an ordering of a chaos of ideas and a firm statement of a position never afterward to be negated, it is an important initial step toward that creation. It is, as it were, a jotting of ideas in terms of which the later structure can be built. But the ideas are such, and Blake's mind is such, that a mere exhortatory self-memorandum was out of the question. Though the work is not a normal poem nor a play nor a story, is, indeed, so loosely organized as to seem a mere potpourri, it has such energy and dramatic potential as to appear always to be bursting from its expository cocoon to take flight. This is especially true of the prose parts. In them, the rebel's wrath and the humanitarian's love, the myth-making visionary's energy and the epigrammatist's reason are so electrically combined as to light lights, start motors, and make the hair stand on end. Ezra Pound says somewhere that "Not the idea but the degree of its...
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SOURCE: "An Audience for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,'' in Blake Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1970, pp. 19-51.
[In this essay Howard claims that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not addressed to the orthodox in general, but rather very specifically to the members of the New Jerusalem Church and the Joseph Johnson circle.]
Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell pleases critics for its "blistering ridicule of the wisdom that dwells with prudence, with its rowdy guffaws at the doctrines of torturing hell and a boring heaven,"1 and it has been shown by scholars that the Marriage directs much of that ridicule at Emmanuel Swedenborg.2 But as one reads the Marriage, no doubt wondering how Blake could have wasted all his ridicule on a man long passed away, one yearns to know if the blistering satire raised welts on any living man. And one searches the critics for an answer without much success. Of course, there are hints here and there, as in J. C. Davies' Theology of William Blake (Oxford, 1948) or in David Erdman's William Blake: Prophet Against Empire (Princeton, 1954) where a wealth of facts surrounding Blake's life can be found; but even Martin Nurmi's Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell: A Critical Study (Kent, Ohio, 1957) does not attempt to...
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SOURCE: "Bible of Energy: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, Cornell University Press, 1971, pp. 64-70.
[In the following excerpt, Bloom situates The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in the historical context of revolution both in America and in France during an age fearful of the energy that Blake celebrates.]
As The Book of Isaiah gathers to its judging climax, a red figure comes out of Edom, moving in the greatness of his strength. His garments are like those of one who treads in the wine vat, the day of vengeance is in his heart, and the year of his redeemed is come. This apocalyptic figure is the red Orc of Blake's symbolism, an upsurge of the Hell of desire against the Heaven of restraint. In 1790, Edom is France and Orc the spirit of revolt which has moved first from America to France and now threatens to cross into England.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is an apocalyptic satire, created in response to the threatened dominion of Edom. Blake is thirty-three, the Christological age, and in this greatest of his polemical works he enters fully into the kingdom of his own thought and art. He has been reading the theology of Swedenborg (who died in 1772) and he likes less and less what may once have seem to him an imaginative protest against orthodoxy. Swedenborg is another minor Orc aged into...
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SOURCE: "Dialectic of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 49-56.
[In this seminal essay on the contraries, originally published in 1971, Bloom contends that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is dialectical in both form and content.]
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell assaults what Blake termed a "cloven fiction" between empirical and a priori procedure in argument. In content, the Marriage compounds ethical and theological "contraries"; in form it mocks the categorical techniques that seek to make the contraries appear as "negations." The unity of the Marriage is in itself dialectical, and cannot be grasped except by the mind in motion, moving between the Blakean contraries of discursive irony and mythical visualization.
Apocalypse is dialectical in the Marriage, as much so as in Shelley's Prometheus or the poems by Yeats written out of A Vision, or in Blake's own Night the Ninth of The Four Zoas. The great difficulty of dialectical apocalypse is that it has got to present itself as prophetic irony, in which the abyss between aspiration and institution is both anticipated and denounced. The specific difficulty in reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is to mark the limits of its...
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SOURCE: "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in William Blake, Hutchinson University Library, 1975, pp. 70-84.
[In the following excerpt Nurmi focuses on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a philosophical manifesto that goes considerably beyond mere satire.]
During the time Blake was producing Songs of Experience, he was also writing and etching a work of a very different kind, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, begun, as indicated in a chronological reference in the text, in 1790 but not completed until 1792 or 1793. It is a strange work, a kind of philosophical manifesto, partly in satiric form, affirming the polar nature of being and the need for a change in man's perception so that this polar nature can be recognized. The immediate object of the work, arising from its satiric theme, was to expose and reject the normative moral categories of Good and Evil of orthodox religion by showing that Good and Evil are merely abstractions, distortions of the vital 'contraries' that inform all being and that must be allowed to function without restraint in human life. Good and Evil as ordinarily conceived deny each other and are hence what Blake later calls 'negations'. In The Marriage, he explains 'what the religious call Good & Evil' really are: 'Good is the passive that obeys Reason [.] Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is...
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SOURCE: "Milton as a Revolutionary," in Angel of Apocalypse: Blake's Idea of Milton, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1975, pp. 188-219.
[In the excerpt below, Wittreich treats The Marriage of Heaven and Hell not as satire, but as prophecy.]
"The prophetic poet," Angus Fletcher has written, "is uniquely sure of himself, and this he shows by allowing his utterance to be enigmatic and obscure on its surface, knowing that the immediate surface of the riddle is supported by an underlying clarity."101 Since the time of Alexander Gilchrist, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell has received special acclaim among Blake's works; but it has also been denied, even by Gilchrist, the "underlying clarity" that Fletcher promises from prophecy. Gilchrist acknowledges that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is "the most daring in conception and gorgeous in illustration of all Blake's works" but argues that these wild utterances "defy description and interpretation."102 Moreover, even if it was once said that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the central work in Blake's canon, "the most complete and concise expression of his philosophy that can be found,"103 it has since been urged that the work represents a set of attitudes that Blake "had repudiated" by the time he came to write the major...
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SOURCE: "Blake's News from Hell: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and the Lucianic Tradition," in ELH, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 74-99.
[In this essay Tannenbaum examines The Marriage of Heaven and Hell less as polemic than as satire, situating it firmly in the Lucianic or "News from Hell" tradition.]
Yet what can satire, whether grave or gay?
It may correct a foible, may chastise
The freaks of fashion, regulate the dress,
Retrench a sword-blade, or displace a patch;
But where are its sublimer trophies found?
What vice has it subdu'd? whose heart reclaim'd
By rigour, or whom laugh'd into reform?
Alas! Leviathan is not so tam'd:
Laugh'd at, he laughs again; and, stricken hard,
Turns to the stroke his adamantine scales,
That fear no discipline of human hands.
The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.
Already familiar with the satiric visions of, journeys to, and dialogues and letters from the infernal regions that had appeared in the popular press, as well as in books and periodicals of a more literary nature, none of Blake's contemporaries would have...
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SOURCE: "Roads of Excess," in William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 103-17.
[In this essay, originally published in 1985, Gleckner studies The Marriage's allusions to Spenser and Milton to determine when Blake is speaking ironically and when he is speaking "in his own voice. "]
Frye's fine essay entitled "The Road of Excess" was succeeded a year later by Martin Price's book To the Palace of Wisdom. Although the latter does not refer to the former, both titles come from one of Blake's famous Proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Frye's allusion, in his half of the proverb, is to the extremity of "Blake's statements about art," which demands "some kind of mental adjustment to take them in." Price, on the other hand, says that the proverb reminds us "that all literature thrives on risk and overstatement, thrusts beyond the measured and judicious, and strains against order, if only to make us know what measure and order mean." With both of these applications in mind I too take up Blake's proverb, in an attempt to provide a critical entrée into an odd ménage à deux indeed—Blake and Spenser in the "house" of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Although all sensible Blakeans acknowledge that The Marriage is some sort...
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SOURCE: "Contrary Revelation: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 24, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 491-509.
[In this essay, Miller questions the critical assessment of The Marriage as a revolutionary document, suggesting instead that it is far more paradoxical than the usual manifesto.]
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell holds a special place in the Blake canon. It marks the transition from the early works, in which Blake's poetic vision is articulated primarily in single lyrics or groups of lyrics, to the prophecies, where that vision assumes narrative and systematic form. A convenient point of entry to the later works, this text frequently serves critics as the programmatic statement of Blake's prophetic method and doctrine. According to Harold Bloom, the book represents Blake's visionary coming of age: "in this greatest of his polemical works he enters fully into the kingdom of his own thought and art."1 Martin K. Nurmi reads The Marriage as "a kind of philosophical manifesto," and for S. Foster Damon it is nothing less than "Blake's Principia."2 Such characterizations are common among Blake's interpreters, and their critical practice confirms that this has become the key text in the corpus. Critics invoke the notion of contraries set out in this work to explain the organization of Songs of Innocence...
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SOURCE: "The Context of Blakean Contraries in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 43-53.
[In this essay Stewart challenges the usual interpretations of the term "marriage" and explores the importance of the ideas of Behmen (Boehme) as a source for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.]
One of the most problematical aspects of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the term "marriage." How are we to interpret it? In the biblical context of two becoming one flesh,1 or in the more modern context of two joined in equal harmony? The statement "Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human Existence" (34), implies that both contraries are important, and therefore, the modern reading of marriage would be the more appropriate. However, throughout the work the heavenly contrary, represented by the angel, is completely dominated by the hellish contrary, represented by the devil, and at the end the reader does not witness a true "modern" marriage between these two, for the Angel, we are told, is consumed and becomes a Devil:
When he had so spoken: I beheld the Angel who stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire & he was consumed and arose as Elijah.
Note. This Angel, who is now...
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Bloom, Harold. Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963, 454 p.
Explores The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a satiric response to the writings of Swedenborg.
Butler, Marilyn. "Art for the People in the Revolutionary Decade: Blake, Gillray and Wordsworth." In Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, pp. 39-68. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Looks at Blake's commercial success in the first half of the 1790s and his subsequent decline in popularity as his radicalism caused him to fall out of step with the mainstream.
Casimer, Paul A. "Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell." Contemporary Review 183, No. 1050 (June 1953): 351-5.
Asserts that Blake was far more radical than even the revolutionary figures of his day; he was, in fact, "a rebel amongst rebels."
Erdman, David V. "The Eternal Hell Revives." In William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 37-47. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
This essay, originally published in 1954, suggests that Blake's evolution as a religious humanist and a political radical was hardly unique for his time.
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