Tag Archive: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

William Blake’s 8th proverb of Hell, in which he explores the acquisition of wisdom through an authority figure uses contrasting animal symbols of wisdom and meekness to show how information is controlled by those in power and backed by a false religious ideology. Although speaking in the voice of Satan, Blake brings up provoking and valid points about how those in power are deplorable and reaffirm their power in religion. In the beginning of the proverb, Blake uses animals as symbols of vices and equates them with being “of God”. This paradox suggests that God/religion has enabled the vice, which is reaffirmed in the first line “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion” (line 21). These vices are then exalted in the next lines, as they “are too great for the eye of man” (line 29). Blake becomes somewhat allegorical here, as the peacock stands in for those that are flashy, the goat stands in for those that are have avarice, and the lion stands in for those that have wrath. It is worthwhile to mention that all of these types of people are in positions of power and use Religion to back them up. Their counterparts, the vermin amongst the animals: the rat, the mouse, the fox, and rabbet are meant to symbolize those that are considered to be worthless but are actually the fosters of “the roots” (line 33). In light of Blake’s history as an engraver, craftsman, and mechanic, he would have been a rat amongst lions who claimed all the fame and righteousness, and yet shunned Blake and his progressive thought. This is perhaps made stark by the concluding lines, “Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you” (37), the base man being the peacock, goat, and lion, or those in power. Blake’s final message of egalitarianism and progressive thought is echoed again in another animal metaphor: “the eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted to learn of the crow” (line 39), meaning that one loses time when they submit to those in power. This ties back to the genre of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” because it suggests that Heaven and Hell are not so different and that we may be living under the false pretense that one is the other. While conventional thought might appear to be of God, it could in reality be of the Devil.


-Sara Nuila-Chae


Why so many “Moravian” animals?

This post is a response to the previous post’s fourth question,  “Does the line ‘The Tigers couch upon the prey & suck the ruddy tide’ (Europe 18/15:7; page 106) allude to a Moravian view of Christianity or, literally, to images of fearful tigers in other Blake poems (such as ‘The Tyger’ for instance)?”

Firstly, why do we have to choose between two possible interpretations? Surely the line can allude to both Blake’s other images of fearful tigers and a Moravian view of Christianity. To suggest that interpretation is a matter of either/or is especially “Urizenic” (it has just struck me that metalworkers call compasses “dividers”). Indeed, I think that its allusion to a Moravian view of Christianity makes Europe’s image of a tiger more fearful and therefore more likely to evoke the fearful description (but not depiction) of the tiger in “The Tyger.”

I have argued before that Blake used seemingly Moravian imagery in connection with animals; Europe‘s image of a tiger seems to be an extension of that (my argument is in the third comment down). We don’t have to be aware of the image’s Moravian undertones to find it fearful, but it is easy to read as Moravian. “Couch” gives the image a sexual interpretation that it would not otherwise have had. Although “couch” functions in this sentence as a verb with a similar meaning to “crouch,” it also evokes the idea of beds and lovemaking. The tiger’s sucking of blood then can allude that specific Moravian practice in The Shifting Times. The main cause of the fearfulness of the tiger in “The Tyger” is its predatory nature, the fear it inspires in humans and other animals alike. The image of the tiger in Europe takes this further by suggesting the tiger is also a sexual predator like the primates in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

So, why does Blake make images of animals fearful by having them engage in predatory/destructive sex or sexual acts? The sexual images of the tiger and the primates contrast with the visual images of couples having apparently very enjoyable sex throughout Europe and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. One possible interpretation is that Blake is commenting on ideas of prelapsarian and postlapsarian sex, given the figures in the clouds are angelic and therefore presumably not fallen. However, the excessive and hedonistic depiction of floating couples having intercourse would probably not have matched traditional understandings of prelapsarian or ideal sex1. The naked couples’ obviousness to what is going on around them suggests they aren’t entirely earthly or fallen beings. In contrast, the animals’ sexual behavior is predatory, fatal and therefore very morally compromised. However, in the case of the primates, it is very highly exaggerated and the same is somewhat true with the tiger. It is also incongruous, even ridiculous,  to have happy couples mating amid textual and visual images of destruction. Maybe Blake is lampooning the idea of an unsurpassable distinction between ideal prelapsarian sex and less ideal postlapsarian sex. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw the distinction as “Urizenic.”

1 I’m drawing on the distinction between prelapsarian and postlapsarian sex from Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which sex before the Fall is depicted as purely loving, whereas afterwards it is more lustful. Perhaps someone could enlighten me further on ideas of prelapsarian sexuality? Given Blake’s obsession with Milton, it does seem highly credible he could be playing with his distinction, but I wonder if it was a manifestation of a wider theological distinction.

In class on Wednesday, I had difficultly reconciling the apocalyptic revolution depicted in “A Song of Liberty” with its abrupt, triumphant ending. The poem’s allusions to the Book of Revelation notwithstanding, “Empire is no more! and now the lion & the wolf shall cease” is a very simplistic resolution to the violence, conflict and chaos of the rest of the poem (verse 20). Thinking about the poem’s position in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I began to wonder if Blake were inherently more interested in the immediate chaos of revolutions than their outcomes. Might the poem be reveling in its own chaos and that of the continental revolutions? Blake certainly seems to be displaying an anarchist streak.

I’d like to quickly contrast the depiction of revolution as apocalyptic in “A Song of Liberty” with the playwright Samuel Beckett’s depiction of a post-apocalyptic situation in Endgame. Although obviously Blake never read Beckett, I’m putting the two together because perception is hugely important in both their works.  There is also to my knowledge no text that better depicts the sheer banality of a dull round of being than Beckett’s. The following clip from a production of Endgame wasn’t my ideal choice, but it does address perception and convey Hamm and Clov’s dull round.

One of the consequences of the apocalypse in Endgame is the narrowing of the characters’ perceptions. Hamm has lost his sight and can’t move, while Clov cannot see anything clearly out of the windows. In contrast, an apocalyptic revolution for Blake seems to entail the complete opposite. In “A Song of Liberty,” the son of fire falling from the sky – the appearance of revolution – increases the perceptions of the human race. The narrator extorts the citizen of London to “enlarge thy countenance,” the Jew to “leave counting gold” and the African to return to his oil and wine (verse 12). This urge to abandon ethnic stereotypes suggests that revolution will enhance human perception  to a level where we no longer be confined by restricted modes of thinking. This might explain how the prophesied peace would be achieved. The apocalyptic revolution in the poem entails the destruction of established religion, the law and empire. Blake is suggesting that human perception will be expanded once the institutions that he believes limit it are gone.

Furthermore, the narrator’s journey through Hell or chaos throughout The Marriage of Heaven and Hell strongly suggests that the narrator’s experience of chaos/Hell as well as order/Heaven increases his perception and understanding. However, as the narrator spends almost all of his time in Hell, isn’t Blake suggesting that chaos is infinitely preferable to order, despite the fact that they are supposed to be in a marriage?

There’s more to be said here, but I’ll end on the heart of the issue. Blake seems to focus on the immediate chaos of revolution because he believes that the tearing down of old and corrupt establishments gives humanity a chance to see reality more clearly. Uncharacteristically, he seems to take the outcome of revolution as given in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Perhaps modern readers and artists have become much more concerned about the outcomes of revolutions and apocalypses with experience. How would Blake respond to depictions of apocalypse like Beckett’s, which suggests that chaos and destruction only make it harder to tell illusion from reality and friend from foe?

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.

An ancillary contrary.

The “Proverbs of Hell” section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell offers yet another glimpse into Blake’s complex system of contraries. As we have seen in “All Religions are One”, “There is No Natural Religion”, and the Songs of Innocence and Experience, these contraries can lead the meticulous reader down a wormhole of contradictions. Such as is this case with The Marriage, where one may find difficult the challenge of pinpointing exactly where Blake and his purported Christianity stand in all the madness. In this fascinating piece, angels are put in their place by demons and devils preach an inverted doctrine, all while Blake maintains the voice of those supernatural antagonists. Interestingly, Blake offers no discerning narrator who can lead the reader to the proper moral in spite of the ghoulish orator. We are left only with the words of the demon and the responsibility to take seriously or not his conclusions falls to us.

Take for example this proverb: “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.” We know that Blake has his issues with organized religion. Recall that in our explication of “And did those feet in ancient time,” we revealed the anti-cermony, anti-dogma, anti-Anglican undertones that made its performance in the royal wedding ever so ironic. In this proverb, we see those same sentiments, but coming from Hell. Are we to believe Blake dabbled in the occult and truly felt that the voices from Hell could adequately guide mortals towards a more happy and peaceable existence? How dense are you? There is obviously a more nuanced answer, and again I must return to the madness to find it. Thoughts?