Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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."

Critical Reception

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.