I chose this proverb because it is very incongruous with the Proverbs of Hell. If, as a footnote in our Norton Critical Edition explicates, the proverbs are “nuggets of infernal wisdom [that] counter the prudent ‘heavenly’ Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible,” then why would Blake include a proverb that sounds so like a biblical one? The idea of setting another before you is reminiscent of Biblical proverbs such as “The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself” and the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Perhaps its place in the Proverbs of Hell suggests that Blake wants to attack Christians who he would view as self-serving or hellish rather than neighbourly. As a dissenter who was affected by Anglican and state persecution, Blake might want to shock these readers out of their complacency by putting a heavenly commandment in the mouths of devils.

However, Blake is also drawing attention to the fact that setting others before you is an energetic act. It is also a sublime act, a term which in the Romantic context takes on a particularly complicated meaning. This is the diabolical element of this proverb in the context of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell because energy is associated with the devil and evil. For the Romantics, the sublime was associated with powerful experiences of awe, terror and danger. For example, Burke wrote that the effect of the sublime could place the soul in a state “in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” The proverb can therefore imply that setting others before you has to be done against a powerful compulsion not to do so. It stresses that you have to be powerful and energetic in order to be self-sacrificing. In other words, it is impossible to be good if you are passive.

In conclusion, this proverb illustrates a harmonious marriage of Heaven and Hell because it conveys a highly moral idea through Blake’s constructed logic of Hell. For this reason, I am inclined to view this proverb as sincerely meant even though it is designated as a proverb of Hell.

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