Category: Proverbs of Hell (9/18)

Proverbs of Energy and Imagination

The “Proverbs from Hell” are an odd mixture are proverbs that seem incredibly similar to Proverbs found in the Hebrew Bible it is meant to counter and proverbs that obviously occupy the position of counter to the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible. One of my personal favorites of Blake’s proverbs is “What is now proved was once, only imagin’d” (72). To me, this proverb encapsulates a large portion of Blake’s personal philosophy. It is a simple proposition that many would find difficult to see much fault in. The status of this proverb as a possible counter to a traditional proverb and even to the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible seems unlikely to me. I see this proverb as a statement of creative and poetic possibility. Here, Blake, yet again, makes a case for individual genius and progress through imagination. In his sense, Blake’s proverb takes me back to Plato and Aristotle. Much like Aristotle, Blake is arguing for the value of creativity and imagination and its potential for creating the future and stands against Plato’s desire to expel poets in his Ideal Republic.  “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is an interesting text. It continually asks the reader to analyze the words beyond their immediate surroundings. Within the “Proverbs of Hell,” there are proverbs that are easy to agree with, creating difficulty for the reader as these are meant to stand as a counter to the “heavenly” or “good” proverbs. These proverbs are from “Hell” in that they are energetic in large part and in that way counter passive proverbs, not necessarily “good” proverbs.


I think the most fascinating line in Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” is the very last one. He writes, “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not to be believ’d” (73). If we read the rest of “Proverbs of Hell” with this line in mind, we can begin unpacking Blake’s complicated rhetoric. First of all, Blake has named this piece “Proverbs of Hell.” A proverb is generally understood to convey truth or advice, and the most famous example of collection of proverbs is the book of Proverbs in the Bible. However, Blake’s last proverb contradicts the fundamental meaning of a proverb—a proverb is a fundamental truth, yet Blake is arguing that truth can never be told in a way that conveys understanding. This is a theme we see woven throughout Blake’s works—truth cannot merely be heard and believed, it must be imagined. The complicated imagery and rhetoric of “Proverbs of Hell” is not meant to be taken at face value. Instead, this piece as a whole acts as a foil for both the book of Proverbs and the religious teachings of Blake’s contemporaries, such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Much like he does in “The voice of the Devil,” Blake uses an unbelievable narrator (someone from hell) to cast doubt on this work, and to force readers to make comparisons between these proverbs and the proverbs of religion. When compared, are they really all that different? In this way, Blake is inspiring his readers to find their own truth—for after all, “truth can never be told so as to be understood.”

The aphorisms of “Proverbs of Hell” operate on an antimonian rhetoric—indeed, their ideas often diametrical oppose to traditional conception. Such is there purpose: they are defibrillators for the soul, some shock, to stab into the stubborn, sluggish self and usurp pat formulations. Their infernal wisdom is one couched in dialectics. The proverb: “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are the roads of Genius” is curious in that we imbue notions like “improvement” and “genius” with positive valences and prefer to pair like with like, yet it is the “crooked roads,” those that we would traditionally think of negatively—i.e. difficult to traverse, hazardous—that those of Genius. They do not lead to Genius but are of it; Genius is an inhabited state rather than a telos. “Improvement” here is pejorative, an imposition on what would otherwise lead to natural discovery. Patching the world as we are able provides resolutions, which precludes revelation. James Joyce, a disciple of Blake’s, is particularly elucidating here, having his Stephen Dedalus espouse: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” The dark, the gaps, the crooked, the imperfections in the world or ourselves (self-constructed or foisted) are apertures though which we can launch our search for constitutive meaning. Any attempt at an accord requires a delving down to some constitutive core, a common denominator that ties things together—the essential element in things. The essential element of anything cannot be approached via any convention as that preconditions it in some regards; it is already tainted with some self-perceived sine qua non and thereby the object/subject in question is distorted. “The eye altering alters all,” said Blake, after all. Conventions must be unsaid, emptied, dispensed, “the lights, the definitions[1]” thrown away. Otherwise we buy into the myth of even referentiality—that our words possess an empirically verifiable equivalence with that to which they refer, that they get at some definitive quid. The man of Genius recognizes that the world must be experienced and seen afresh, worn anew, and platitudes, assuagments, or “improvements” prevent such.

[1] Stevens, Wallace. “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1954. Print.

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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We read much of Blake’s work as an attack on empiricism.  Beginning with his critique of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ representation of genius as following a certain form, Blake continually critiques acceptance of absolutes.  Through this Blake uncovers the contraries constructing the idea of absolute fact, implying that empirical “proven” data is not more valuable than imagined ideas.  The imagined and the proved are transitory rather than permanent states.  If this is the case there is more room for individual interpretation of one’s circumstances and surroundings.  That is, man need not subscribe to another’s system of determining meaning.

By placing this aphorism amongst the “Proverbs of Hell,” Blake requires the reader to question whether the speaker can be trusted.  In so doing the reader replaces the “proved” idea that things of hell are entirely evil and misleading with the “imagin’d” that even the words of the devil may contain truth.  We can extend this reading beyond the “Proverbs” to the broader work of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” presenting the work as Blake’s covert attack on the widespread acceptance of the absolute authority of religion.  Rather than directly criticize the dominance of the church, Blake gives value to the voice of hell.  Then, as the reader discerns truth amongst these proverbs, he must refute the idea of absolute evil and absolute good put forth by the church.  In this way Blake guides the reader to a position of religious skepticism while also providing the individual reader with interpretive space as he reaches an independent conclusion.

Infernal Wisdom

For next Wednesday (9/18), write a post that explicates ONE of the “Proverbs of Hell.”  Please take the time to unpack the meanings of the images, symbols, themes, and paradoxes contained in these explosive proverbs or aphorisms.  What do the infernal wisdom of these proverbs imply about the genre of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell?”  Please categorize under “Proverbs of Hell” and don’t forget to create specific tags.


For inspiration, I’ve inserted a YouTube video of Marilyn Manson reciting the Proverbs of Hell during a 2011 poetry reading at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  The spirit of Blake lives on! Enjoy!

The Point of the Proverbs

Most of Blake’s proverbs in Proverbs of Hell are short and memorable but require the reader to make his own individualized interpretation of them.  For Blake, proverbs are useful in this way because only the reader can create a meaning and in doing so, they are using the poetic genius, which I see is the main purposes for Blake writing Proverbs of Hell.  Blake wants his readers to harness the poetic genius because, to him, this state brings freedom and joy as well as diminishes the constricting ideologies associated with Urizen.

Blake’s proverbs are filled with contraries.  Take “The crow wish’d everything was black, the owl, that everything is white,” which presents two birds, or contraries, opposing each other.  One prefers white while the other prefers blacks.  With these two contrary animals interacting, the reader understands that their is differing states one can live by.  Another example, “Where man is not nature is barren,” indicates also contrary states of existence but these contraries, although separate, depend on each other.  Without one, their cannot be the other and for Blake, progression can only happen through experiencing both contraries.

Today, I experienced the poetic genius or apocalyptic vision that Blake wished all to utilize.  There was no thought other than a flashing image of how I interpreted the meaning of my chosen proverb, which I then immediately drew.  When presented with a task, a connection was made to the task without really thinking it over, using any kind of logic, or much planning.  What I saw as most prominent during the experience is described in the proverb “the busy bee has no time for sorrow.”  I was so engrained in the activity that I had no time to use reason or feel like I was doing an inconvenience/ annoying work and by consequence, I felt free of the burdens of society and a life of responsibility and was rather plainly enjoying in the activity itself.

Proverbs from God

Blake’s Proverbs of Hell are interesting in that their form is not all that different from those proverbs present in the Bible.  Consider passages like “Do not accuse a man for no reason–when he has done you no harm. ” (Proverbs 3:30) compared to Blake’s “He who has suffered you to impose on him knows you.”  Obviously the message in both of these passages is different, but the voice used is similar.  In both cases the speaker takes on the voice of a disembodied advice giver.  None of the advice is related to specific experiences, but is rather relayed through some divine authority.  The reader is meant to understand in both books that the advice will lead to a happier life, though in both cases no piece of advice is ever fully explained.

Herein lies the important point present in Blake’s work.  In the book of proverbs, the only time advice is explained, it is given some divine authority.  For example, in chapter 3, “Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being snared.”  The only thing that separates the proverbs of hell from those of heaven is this divine authority.  Blake’s advice is similar in character to that of the Bible, but is lacking any appeals to the lord’s approval.  Seeing this connection, the reader is compelled to reexamine the advice in proverbs, considering whether any of it would be taken seriously if it was not approved by God.


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.

Blake opposes Swedenborg’s belief that Heaven and Hell balance each other out in a stable equilibrium.  For Blake,  Heaven and Hell can never be equal, and the whole concept of contraries is that they are the “never-ending clash of ideas.” (67).

“Without Contraries there is no progression.  Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” (69).

When Blake quotes the Voice of the Devil, one of the sacred codes is that “Energy is Eternal Delight,” and energy=evil, so in the voice of the Devil, the entirety of human existence is in a sense evil, that love and passion (of the body, and of the sexual kind) is, well, evil.

We think of love as this good, multiplying force in the world, but it can also “multiply” the human race, but to do so requires sexual love, condemned as “bad.”  So…is it good or bad?  Let’s go back to the beginning of the  16th century in Northern European Art.  (This is before the Reformation).

Hieronymous Bosch created some pretty “Blakean” triptychs–triptychs are three paneled pieces of art meant to go in a church, usually over the altar piece.  Triptychs can be closed, and the outer panels usually display art that juxtaposes the interior scenes.  Right now we are going to focus on The Garden of Earthly Delights (1504), now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Bosch depicts the Creation of the World, from the creation of Adam and Eve in the Terrestrial Paradise aka The Garden of Eden (on the left), to what their fall created (the center piece, meant to be Earth), and then on the right is Hell.

There is some pretty crazy stuff going on if we look closely.

The left wing shows the institution of marriage (Adam and Eve) as approved by God, but we all know that that innocent state didn’t last long.  The fact that Bosch names the piece The Garden of Earthly Delights (despite the fact that we cannot be sure who named this triptych…the idea of artists “naming” their own art is a modern concept), it plays on the name the Garden of Eden, suggesting that Earth is a type of paradise as well.  This is the kind of thinking that the Devil (and probably even Blake), would encourage.  Yet the church teaches that humans live in a state of sin–so is constant sex a sin, or is it living out God’s message to go forth into the world and procreate, and in procreation, create more poetic-geniuses?

I thought this passage from Oxford Art Online summed it up nicely: The ambiguity is, in fact, intended and is fundamental to a proper understanding of the triptych. Its ‘message’ is approximately as follows: sexuality can become an end in itself, owing to an unchaste interpretation of the paradisiacal state of marriage instituted by God, with the command to increase and multiply. Thus men and women believe they are living in a lovers’ paradise (the grail), but it is really false and pernicious.”

Earth is the very combination of Heaven and Hell–a sexual paradise is the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  In the central panel, all the possible forms of copulation remind me of  the cover page for Blake’s the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. One of the most powerful statements in the entire Marriage book for me is that “if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”  (75).

Love is infinite, as we discussed in class, and perhaps by clearing our perceptions of what love is, from Blake’s point of view, infinite love is the union of both spiritual and bodily love.  The opposite of Heaven is Hell, but what is the contrary to Earth?  Progression is made by contraries–progression of the human race with sexual relations (man vs woman), and in the collision of Heaven and Hell is Earth.