First published: 1790
Edition(s) used: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, copy C, in The William Blake Archive, edited by Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. Charlottesville: University Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, 1997
Subgenre(s): Narrative poetry; parables and fables; proverbs; satire
Core issue(s): Gnosticism; good vs. evil; the Word
William Blake was born in London to a working-class family. His father, a hosier, provided for his training in drawing and engraving, practical skills which he would use to support himself and his wife Catherine for the rest of his life. One of six children, Blake claimed to have received angelic visitations and other visionary experience even as a child. After his brother Robert’s death, William said that Robert often appeared to him, providing him with practical information such as an acid-wash engraving system that William used to produce his “illuminated,” or illustrated, works, including The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Never financially successful as an artist or writer, he was often reduced to drudge work, such as engraving drawings for the catalog of the Wedgwood China Company. From 1800 to 1803, Blake received the patronage of minor poet William Hayley; however, the experience proved bitter and demeaning to the independent-minded Blake. During this period, the fiery-tempered Blake was also accused of treason after evicting a drunken soldier from his garden with the epithet “God d—— the King!” Blake, who was eventually acquitted of the charge, transmuted the twin ordeal of patronage and accusation into his masterpieces Vala: Or, The Four Zoas (wr. 1795-1804, pb. 1963; best known as The Four Zoas) and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-1820).
Two concepts are key to understanding The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Blake’s idiosyncratic form of Christianity. First, as articulated in his classic Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), is the notion of “contraries,” or opposing forces, similar to the Daoist notion of yin and yang. Blake saw all life as a necessary interplay of opposites. “The Argument” of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell applies this notion of the contraries to orthodox Christian dogma:
As Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy: “Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
For Blake any system, religious or philosophical, which tries to give preference to one half of such a dichotomy does not admit the complexity and unity of human experience and is destined to failure. Such failure leads to oppression and tyranny by the “elect” half of the dichotomy, which turns its opposite, to use Calvinist jargon, into the “reprobate.”
The second key concept springs from the first. In the personal mythology presented in his prophetic works, Blake satirizes the notion of the Old Testament Jehovah, as refracted through Enlightenment thought, as “Urizen” (often seen as homophone for “Your Reason”). Blake rejects the notion of God as a ruthless, rule-making punisher who is guided by an impersonal, stony rationalism. Blake excoriated the Christianity of his day, both Protestant and Catholic, as a form of primitive idol worship to this “Old Nobodaddy” with his rules and regulations, rewards and punishments. He considered the Church of England an arm of state tyranny, offering an ideological framework for un-Christian practices ranging from child labor to slavery. Even more than the physical abuses of which the Church washed its hand,...
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Blake deemed the mental enslavement of its believers as its ultimate corrupting influence.
For Blake, imagination, and not rationality or intellect, is the central faculty of mind that unites the human with the creativity of the divine. Blake identified this creative imagination with the notion of the Logos, or Word made Flesh, in the divine humanity of Jesus Christ. Several of the “Proverbs of Hell” reinforce the primacy of imagination and energy: “What is now prov’d, was once only imagined” and “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” The first indicates that the creative act begins with an imaginative concept; the second suggests that wisdom is not a matter of following the straight and narrow rationalistic guides but the impulses of creative energy.
Blake’s faith in the creative imagination as the link between the divine and the human leads him to satirize what he perceived as the rational materialism underpinning Enlightenment Christianity. Five sections of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are titled “A Memorable Fancy.” Blake uses sarcastically the term “Fancy” (the term used by John Milton and eighteenth century poets for “imagination”). The first of these describes Blake as “walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity”; a “mighty Devil” appears and, just as Blake used corrosives in his engraving process, inscribes the following couplet on a plutonian mountainside:How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,Is an immense World of Delight, clos’d by your senses five?
Unlike the biblical Jehovah who inscribes his Ten Commandments for Moses, Blake’s Devil is more concerned about imagination than ethics. The “fires of hell” burn away the constricting limitations of the material world as perceived by the five senses.
Blake, whose later works belie easy identification with any religious system, has been cautiously interpreted as a Gnostic Christian. However, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, an early work, would seem to fit such a label. The very title indicates a quest for mystical unity capable of transcending the apparent dualism of the body and soul, physical and metaphysical worlds. Also, his identification with the devils in the work conforms to the Gnostic belief that a demiurge rather than the transcendent godhead was responsible for creating the material world.
In the work’s second “Memorable Fancy,” Blake “dines” with Ezekial and Isaiah, who sound more like Gnostic seekers than Old Testament prophets. When Blake asks them to explain how God spoke to them, the latter responds: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded, and remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”
The section ends with a famous epigram later borrowed by Aldous Huxley for the title of his influential book on hallucinatory mescaline and then adopted by the 1960’s rock group The Doors:
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
While Blake seems to undertake the Gnostic’s quest for hidden knowledge, he does not assume the Gnostic denial of the reality of the body or physical world. Thus his search for the infinite comes not through denial of the senses but by an expansion of them.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell also sketches Blake’s unusual, if not heterodox, vision of Jesus Christ. Blake sees Christ as an incarnation of the eternal Logos or Word, but one that is at odds with a biblical literalism symbolized by the Ten Commandments. In the fifth “Memorable Fancy” Blake presents a dialogue between an angel and a devil regarding Jesus’ adherence to Old Testament law. After a literalistic angel argues that God and Jesus are one in the law, a subtle devil responds that Jesus broke many of the Ten Commandments, including ignoring the Sabbath and protecting the woman caught in adultery. The devil concludes: “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
Sources for Further Study
- Altizer, Thomas J. J. The Genesis of God: A Theological Genealogy. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1993. “Death of God” religious thinker and Blake student Altizer incorporates Blakean ideas and language into his notion of the ultimate “contrary” of God and Nothingness.
- Bentley, G. E., Jr. The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Bentley offers a detailed biography of Blake as artisan and visionary, providing practical information on Blake’s work as painter and engraver as well as speculation on Blake’s idiosyncratic Christianity.
- Bindman, David, ed. Blake’s Illuminated Books. 6 vols. Princeton, N.J.: William Blake Trust and Princeton University Press, 1991-1995. This herculean effort reproduces all of Blake’s illustrated and engraved works, in color, in a single collection. Volume 3 includes The Marriage of Heaven and Hell among Blake’s early illuminated books.
- Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry. Edited by Nicholas Halmi. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947. Reprint. Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Still the starting point for modern criticism of Blake, Frye’s work analyzes Blake’s use of contraries as the guiding principle for his personal mythology based upon Christianity.
- Viscomi, Joseph. Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Viscomi, an expert of Blake’s innovative printing method, explores Blake’s approach to the book as both physical object and metaphysical idea.