Algernon Charles Swinburne (essay date 1868)
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 metres of sound. The book swarms with heresies and eccentricities; every sentence bristles with some paradox, every page seethes with blind foam and surf of stormy doctrine; the humour is of that fierce grave sort, whose cool insanity of manner is more horrible and more obscure to the Philistine than any sharp edge of burlesque or glitter of irony; it is huge, swift, inexplicable; hardly laughable through its enormity of laughter, hardly significant through its condensation of meaning; but as true and thoughtful as the greatest humourist's. The variety and audacity of thoughts and words are incomparable: not less so their fervour and beauty. "No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings." This proverb might serve as motto to the book: it is one of many "Proverbs of Hell," as forcible and as finished.
It was part of Blake's humour to challenge misconception, conscious as he was of power to grapple with it: to blow dust in their eyes who were already sandblind, to strew thorns under their feet who were already lame. Those whom the book in its present shape would perplex and repel he knew it would not in any form have attracted; and how such readers may fare is no concern of such writers; nor in effect need it be. Aware that he must at best offend a little, he did not fear to offend much. To measure the exact space of safety, to lay down the precise limits of offence, was an office neither to his taste nor within his power. Those who try to clip or melt themselves down to the standard of current feeling, to sauce and spice their natural fruits of mind with such condiments as may take the palate of common opinion, deserve to disgust themselves and others alike. It is hopeless to reckon how far the timid, the perverse, or the malignant irrelevance of human remarks will go; to set bounds to the incompetence or devise landmarks for the imbecility of men. Blake's way was not the worst; to indulge his impulse to the full and write what fell to his hand, making sure at least of his own genius and natural instinct. In this his greatest book he has at once given himself freer play and set himself to harder labour than elsewhere: the two secrets of great work. Passion and humour are mixed in his writing like mist and light; whom the light may scorch or the mist confuse it is not his part to consider.
In the prologue Blake puts forth, not without grandeur if also with an admixture of rant and wind, a chief tenet of his moral creed. Once the ways of good and evil were clear, not yet confused by laws and religions; then humility and benevolence, the endurance of peril and the fruitful labour of love, were the just man's proper apanage; behind his feet the desert blossomed; by his toil and danger, by his sweat and blood, the desolate places were made rich and the dead bones clothed with flesh as the flesh of Adam. Now the hypocrite has come to reap the fruits, to divide and gather and eat; to drive forth the just man and to dwell in the paths which he found perilous and barren, but left safe and fertile. Churches have cast out apostles; creeds have rooted out faith. Henceforth anger and loneliness, the divine indignation of spiritual exile, the salt bread of scorn and the bitter wine of wrath, are the portion of the just man; he walks with lions in the waste places, not worth making fertile that others may reap and feed. "Rintrah," the spirit presiding over this period, is a spirit of fire and storm; darkness and famine, wrath and want, divide the kingdoms of the world. "Prisons are built with stones of Law; brothels with bricks of Religion." "As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys." In a third proverb the view given of prayer is no less heretical; "As the plough follows words, so God rewards prayers." This was but the outcome or corollary of his main doctrine; as what we have called his "evangel of bodily liberty" was but the fruit of his belief in the identity of body with soul. The fear which restrains and the faith which refuses were things as ignoble as the hypocrisy which assumes or the humility which resigns. Veils and chains must be lifted and broken. "Folly is the cloak of knavery; shame is pride's cloak." Again; "He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence." "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires." The doctrine of freedom could hardly run further or faster. Translated into rough practice, and planted in a less pure soil than that of the writer's mind, this philosophy might bring forth a strange harvest. Together with such width of moral pantheism as will hardly admit a "tender curb," leave "a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire," there is a vehemence of faith in divine wrath, in the excellence of righteous anger and revenge, to be outdone by no prophet or Puritan. "A dead body revenges not injuries." Sincerity and plain dealing at least are virtues not to be thrown over; Blake indeed could not conceive an impulse to mendacity, a tortuous habit of mind, a soul born crooked. This one quality of falsehood remains damnable in his sight, to be consumed with all that comes of it. In man or beast or any other part of God he found no native taint or birthmark of this. Upon all else the divine breath and the divine hand are sensible and visible.
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.
All form and all instinct is sacred; but no invention or device of man's. All crafts and creeds of theirs are "the serpent's meat:" and that a man should be born cruel and false is barely imaginable. "If the lion was advised by the fox he would be cunning." Such counsel was always wasted on the high clear spirit and stainless intellect of Blake.
We have given some of the most subtle and venturous "Proverbs of Hell"—samples of their depth of doctrine and plainness of speech. But even here Blake rarely indulges in such excess and exposure. There are jewels in this treasure-house neither set so roughly nor so sharply cut as these; they may be seen in the Life, taken out and reset, so as to offend no customer. And these sayings must themselves be read by the light of Blake's life and weighed against others of his words not less weighty than they. Apology shall now and always remain as far from us as it was in life from Blake himself; to excuse and to explain are different offices. To plead for his acquittal on the base and foolish ground that he meant no harm, knew not what he did, had no design or desire to afflict or offend, is no office for his counsel; who must strive at least to speak not less frankly and clearly than did Blake when he could speak in his own cause. Neither have we to approve or condemn; but only to endeavour that we may see the right and deliver the truth as to this man and his life. "That I cannot live," he says, in the Butts correspondence, "without doing my duty to lay up treasures in heaven, is certain and determined, and to this I have long made up may mind. And why this should be made an objection to me, while drunkenness, lewdness, gluttony, and even idleness itself does not hurt other men, let Satan himself explain. The thing I have most at heart—more than life, or all that seems to make life comfortable without (it)—is the interest of true religion and science." His one fear is to "omit any duty to my station as a soldier of Christ;" a fear that "gives him the greatest torments;" for "if our footsteps slide in clay, how can we do otherwise than fear and tremble?" And such books as these were part of his spiritual taskwork. From whencesoever the inspiration of them came, inspiration it was and no invention. He is content with that knowledge; and if it please the hearer to call it diabolic, diabolic it shall be. If he has a devil, he will make the most and the best of him. If these things come from hell, let us look to it and hold them fast, that we may see what it is that divides hell from heaven.
As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent: the Eternal Hell revives. And lo! Swedenborg is the Angel sitting at the tomb: his writings are the linen clothes folded up. Now is the dominion of Eden, and the return of Adam into Paradise; see .
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.
THE VOICE OF THE DEVIL.
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
- That man has two real existing principles—viz., a Body and a Soul.
- That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, called Good, is alone from the Soul.
- That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following contraries to these are True.
- Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
- Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
- Energy is Eternal Delight.
Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer, or reason, usurps its place and governs the unwilling.
And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, and the Governor, or Reason, is called Messiah.
And the original Archangel, or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is called the Devil or Satan, and his children are called Sin and Death.
But in the Book of Job Milton's Messiah is called Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties.
It indeed appeared to Reason as if Desire was cast out; but the Devil's account is, that the Messiah fell, and formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.
This is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire, that Reason may have Ideas to build on, the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he who dwells in flaming fire. Know that after Christ's death, he became Jehovah.
But in Milton the Father is Destiny, the Son a Ratio of the five Senses, and the Holy Ghost, Vacuum.
NOTE.—The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
Something of these high matters we have seen before, and should now be able to allow for the subtle intricate fashion in which Blake labours to invert the weapons of his antagonists upon themselves. Neither can the banns of marriage be published between heaven and hell with the voice of a parish clerk. This prophet came to do what Swedenborg his precursor had left undone, being but the watchman by the empty sepulchre, and his writings as the grave-clothes cast off by the risen Christ. Blake's estimate of Swedenborg, right or wrong, was, as we shall see, distinct and consistent; to this effect; that his inspiration was limited and timid, superficial and derivative; that he was content with leaves and husks, and had not the courage to examine the root and the kernel of things; that he clove to the heaven and shrank from the hell of other men; whereas, to men in whom "a new heaven is begun," the one must not be terrible nor the other desirable. To them the "flaming fire" wherein dwells a God whom men call devil, must seem a purer element of life than the starry and cloudy space wherein dwells a devil whom they call God. It must be remembered that Blake uses the current terms of religion, now as types of his own peculiar faith, now in the sense of ordinary preachers: impugning therefore at one time what at another he will seem to vindicate. Vague and violent as this overture may appear, it must be followed with care, that the writer's intensity of spiritual faith may be hereafter kept in sight. The senses, "the chief inlets of soul in this age" of brute doubt and brute belief, are worthy only as parts of the soul. This, it cannot be too much repeated and insisted on, this and no prurience of porcine appetite for rotten apples, no vulgarity of porcine adoration for unctuous wash, is what lies at the root of Blake's sensual doctrine. Let no reader now or ever forget, that while others will admit nothing beyond the body, the mystic will admit nothing outside the soul. That the two extremes, if reduced to hard practice, might run round and meet, not without lamentably curious consequences, those may assert who will; it is none of our business to decide. Even granting that the result will be about equivalent if one man does for his soul's sake all that another would do for his body's sake, we might plead that the difference of thought and eye between these two would remain great and important. Indulgence bracketed to faith and vivified by that vigorous contact with things divine is not (we might say) the same, whether seen from the actual side of life or from the speculative, as indulgence cut loose and left to decompose. But these pleas we will leave the mystic to advance, if it please him, on his own behalf.
A MEMORABLE FANCY.
As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs: thinking that as the sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell show the nature of the Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments. When I came home, on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat-sided steep frowns over the present world, I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of the rock; with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence, now perceived by the minds of men, and read by them on earth:—
'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?'
Here follow the "Proverbs of Hell," which give us the quintessence and the most fine gold of Blake's alembic. Each, whether earnest or satirical, slight or great in manner, is full of that passionate wisdom and bright rapid strength proper to the step and speech of gods. The simplest give us a measure of his energy, as this:—"Think in the morning, act in the noon, eat in the evening, sleep in the night." The highest have a light and resonance about them, as though in effect from above or beneath; a spirit which lifts thought upon the high levels of verse.
From the ensuing divisions of the book we shall give full extracts; for these detached sections have a grace and coherence which we shall not always find in Blake; and the crude excerpts given in the Life are inadequate to help the reader much towards a clear comprehension of the main scheme.
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive.
And, particularly, they studied the genius of each city and country, placing it under its mental deity.
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood,
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales;
And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.
From this we pass to higher tones of exposition. The next passage is one of the clearest and keenest in the book, full of faith and sacred humour, none the less sincere for its dramatic form. The subtle simplicity of expression is excellently subservient to the intricate force of thought.
A MEMORABLE FANCY.
The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition.
Isaiah answered, 'Ί saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite or organical perception; but my senses discovered the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded, I remain confirmed, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God. I cared not for consequences, but wrote.'
Then I asked, 'Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?'
He replied, 'All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains. But many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.'
Then Ezekiel said, 'The philosophy of the East taught the first principles of human perception. Some nations held one principle for the origin and some another. We of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle, and all the others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests and Philosophers of other countries, and prophesying that all Gods would at last be proved to originate in ours, and to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius. It was this that our great poet King David desired so fervently and invokes so pathetically, saying by this he conquers enemies and governs kingdoms; and we so loved our God, that we cursed in his name all the deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had rebelled; from these opinions the vulgar came to think that all nations would at last be subject to the Jews.
'This,' said he, 'like all firm persuasions, is come to pass, for all nations believe the Jews' code and worship the Jews' God, and what greater subjection can be?'
I heard this with some wonder, and must confess my own conviction. After dinner, I asked Isaiah to favour the world with his lost works. He said none of equal value was lost.
Ezekiel said the same of his....
(The entire section is 8396 words.)