Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. (72).
These lines appear relatively early in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and are part of the “Proverbs of Hell.” How are these lines representative of this work? Comment on both the themes and the form of these lines.
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William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, undated but whose plates were probably engraved between 1790-1793), as some scholars have noted, is a response to Emanuel Swedenborg's De Caelo et Eius Mirabilibus et de inferno, ex Auditis et Visis (1758) (commonly known by its short title, Heaven and Hell). Swedenborg's work espouses the power of the good over evil; Blake's response in Marriage argues that energy and passivity, evil and good, must be in balance, but Blake, to counteract Swedenborg's belief system, emphasizes the greater power of energy, evil (or Hell), in Marriage. The passage you have quoted above comes in Plate 8 of the engravings. As most scholars read Blake's arguments in Marriage, Blake focuses on his prophecy that an apocalypse is arriving soon.
The "Proverbs of Hell" are preceded by "The Argument," with the character of Rintrah who "roars & shakes his fires in the burdend air" (l. 1), a section full of negative imagery, perhaps the most important of which is "and drive/The just man into barren climes." (ll. 15-16). In short, the poem opens with the devolving of man from original freedom and innocence to repression in a desolate land. The aphorisms which follow in the "Proverbs," statements of general principles, encourage action or energy--in other words, hellish endeavors--to gain true wisdom.
The opening lines of "Proverbs of Hell" clearly demonstrate Blake's doctrine of the opposing forces of good and evil, but when we consider Blake's belief system, we must be clear that Blake believes that these forces must be in balance:
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. . . . /Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity./He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence. (ll. 3-5)
In these lines, Blake follows the argument that action (which is identified with Hell) ultimately leads to that which is good (Heaven). In Blake's cosmology, one has to move through evil ("the road of excess") in order arrive at the understanding of good ('the palace of wisdom"). As we shall see, the marriage of Heaven and Hell is, in essence, a balancing act of good and evil, and both components are necessary to create the whole entity, which, in Blake's belief system, is the "Marriage." The belief that evil and good are intermixed is clearly articulated in several of the lines in your question.
When Blake writes that "Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion" (Plate 8, l. 21), the lines are apocalyptic, in fact, very similar to the sentiments of Blake in his poem "London" (1789) in which law and religion contribute to the misery of London's inhabitants. In "Proverbs," likewise, Blake points out that the evil of prisons and brothels are created by ostensibly good things--law and religion--but these "heavenly" entities actually create hellish things. In Blake's time, prisons were often populated by people incarcerated for debt, and brothels were populated by young women displaced from their agricultural life by the industrial revolution. These lines express quite forcibly the marriage of heaven and hell.
In addition to the expression of Blake's beliefs in the doctrine of balanced opposites (good and evil, Heaven and Hell), "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" is expresses Blake's belief that a political and cultural apocalypse is about to occur between England and France in the form of war. In 1790, it was clear that a revolution was going to radically change France, England's traditional enemy, and England's response to that change, whether through war or diplomacy, was unknowable with certainty, but Blake clearly believed that the response was going to be a disastrous war. The lines you have quoted above contain
The pride of the peacock is the Glory of God./ . . . The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God. (Plate 8, ll. 22-23)
The first can be interpreted to refer to France, specifically, the king whose throne was often referred to as "the peacock throne," and the second line to the king of England, whose coat-of-arms includes a lion and a unicorn. Blake, however, does not speculate in these lines on the outcome of an impending conflict but does note in this section that "[t]he roaring of lions, the howling of wolves . . . and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity to great for the eye of man," (Plate 8, ll. 27-29) an indication that war is coming but the result of that war is not for man to know--clearly, an apocalyptic vision.
In sum, then, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" and specifically the "Proverbs" articulate both Blake's belief in the mutual dependency of good and evil, as well as the immediate vision of an apocalypse about to occur between England and France.
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