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, 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...
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