Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” is an exercise in contrasts, contraries, and double meanings. The supposed philosophy of the Devil emphasizes wit over faith, action over thought, and self over others, but the proverbs are not always clear in their meaning. And this is one of Blake’s points – evil is encompassed in saying one thing and meaning another. Of course, Blake himself relies on contraries throughout his work, and his productions are not always easily interpreted either. We can explain this to a certain extent by noting that Blake fully engaged in presenting the opposing or contrary side of an argument, and perhaps it is his intent that we be not entirely sure of where his allegiances lie.

One of the proverbs in the last section declares, “Exuberance is Beauty.” What are we to make of this? Initially exuberance might bring to mind enthusiasm, but since it is a Proverb of Hell, we know that exuberance must be a concept at least traditionally associated with evil. Exuberance, in the context of Blake’s other Proverbs, likely refers to excess of word, thought, or deed. Acting upon lusts, overindulging in pleasure, and pursuing one’s own goals and ambitions at the expense of others – all of these are exuberant actions. They over-present the self and its interests. The last line of the Proverbs, “Enough! or Too Much” encapsulates this idea. Evil is bound up in the “too much” of life; restraint and restrictions are good. This is, of course, the traditional “moral” view; to the Devil, exuberance is not only right and good but also beautiful. It is the means by which life is made meaningful.

Where does the human Blake come down on this issue? His work, in many ways, is defined by exuberance – his visions are overwhelming in their style and color, his poems are sometimes incomprehensible because they are filled with so much meaning, and his adherence to his vision supplanted all other goals and desires. Blake’s art is certainly not defined by restraint. We can also reasonably say that Blake’s goal was to produce beauty: to create art that gave meaning to life and presented truth. To Blake, then, exuberance was beauty. We cannot say for sure whether Blake sympathized with the Devil as he perceived him or with his contrary. We can only know what Blake’s body of work itself tells us: that at least to some degree, Blake the artist believed that exuberance does make for beauty.

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