Tag Archive: Proverbs of Hell

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.

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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.

Blending Contradictions

As we discussed in class, a lot of Blake’s poetry is centered on the tension between contraries and the simultaneous embodiment of opposing states. We addressed the potential double-meanings in his works and the reciprocity of experience and innocence. These issues made me think of two articles I read pertaining to myths by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth.” This genre relies on constituent units that consist of a relation, and “bundles” of such relations form universal meaning. In many myths, the different realms oppose each other while contributing to the qualities of each other’s existence, which is possible “by the assertions that contradictory relationships are identical inasmuch as they are both self-contradictory in similar ways.” Many of the relationships portrayed in such tales show that contradictions are drawn to each other by the complimenting faculties of differentiation, and that “mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their. But for Blake, asserting the oppositions is an end in itself and not merely a means for man to reconcile life’s contradictions, as Levi-Strauss seems to suggest. Blake’s concern is more to recognize the tensions of two opposing facets of existence and transcend the physical limitations through Poetic Genius. In his Proverbs of Hell, many of the axioms suggest a different, or more complex, meaning than one would infer from a first read, creating a layered definition composed of contradictions. One proverb I found interesting is: “Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.” This seemed to imply a cyclical nature of emotion in that the good and bad can be linked through excess: any human feeling when over-exerted becomes its opposition. This also suggests that when investigating two sides of an argument, contraries tend to blur together instead of maintaining a stark divide, which relates back to Levi-Strauss’s assertion that contraries are interdependent by the very fact of their opposition.


Considering both interpretations of opposing forces within existence, do you think its possible to reach a resolve between contraries? Or is Blake more on the right track with pursuing a sort of third-space accessible through the exertion of Poetic Genius?

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.