The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a short work by William Blake, a mixture of poetry and prose, and was composed between 1790 - 1793 (it can be found online here). It may well be the hardest thing I've ever read!

The piece opens with a poem - 'The Argument': 
Rintrah roars, and shakes his fires in the burden’d air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

Then the perilous path was planted,
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb,
And on the bleachèd bones
Red clay brought forth;

Till the villain left the paths of ease,
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.

Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.

Rintrah roars, and shakes his fires in the burden’d air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep. 
Rintrah is a prophet figure, but who he truly is is uncertain. The true paths (where "The just man kept his course"), which were the more difficult of paths, have been taken over by the villains who "left the paths of ease", and the "just man" is pushed into "barren climes".

The second part of the argument is written in prose:
As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent, the Eternal Hell revives. And Io! Swedenborg is the Angel sitting at the tomb: his writings are the linen clothes folded up. Now is the dominion of Edom, and the return of Adam into Paradise. See Isaiah xxxiv and xxxv chap. 
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. 
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.    
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
Swedenborg, the "Angel sitting at the tomb" (which is empty - Swedenborg missed the resurrection) is Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mystic (1688 - 1772) who claimed that humanity is divine, something Blake believed himself, and that the spiritual world was real and something that could be entered in at will. However Swedenborg had a dualistic cosmological outlook in which good and evil are polarised. Blake disagreed; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is on the unity or balance of these principles. Note too that if Swedenborg sat at the empty tomb thirty-three years too late at the beginning of this poem's composition in 1790, the advent would have been in 1757: the year of William Blake's birth.

The second part of the piece is 'The Voice of the Devil': the Devil, the rebellious angel, is admired by Blake. He makes several points to highlight traditional errors. For example - 

Error: "That Man has two real existing principles, viz. a Body and a Soul."
Truth: "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age."

Error: "That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul."
Truth: "Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy."

Error: "That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies."
Truth: "Energy is Eternal Delight."

He argues that energy, wrongly called 'evil' ought not to be restrained and the Devil is misrepresented in works such as John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). 'Reason' should not be contrasted with 'Desire' and then cast out. He adds at the end of this section,
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
The third section is called 'A Memorable Fancy'. Blake walks "among the fires of Hell", entering the spiritual world at will just as Swedenborg believed, and delighting in "the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity". Here he collects proverbs, and these are presented in the fourth section, 'Proverbs of Hell', a contrast with the Bible's 'Book of Proverbs'. Here, as an example, are the first twelve lines:
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plough.
Dip him in the river who loves water.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.
By creating dualities of good and evil and by imposing them, Blake argues "Thus men forgot that All Deities reside in the Human breast".

Following the 'Proverbs of Hell' are four more sections all titled 'A Memorable Fancy' (as before). So I'll refer to the next section as 'A Memorable Fancy [II]' and so on. In this Blake talks of meeting with Isaiah and Ezekiel, and he asks them "how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition." Isaiah answers "my senses discover’d the infinite in everything", and he "cared not" for the consequences of what he wrote. Ezekiel answers in a similar vein and it suggested that convention and laws have affected to kill the spirit of mankind. The passage concludes,
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
'A Memorable Fancy [III]' sees a return to hell - Blake is in a printing house and talks of six chambers:
In the first chamber was a Dragon-Man, clearing away the rubbish from a cave’s mouth; within, a number of Dragons were hollowing the cave.
In the second chamber was a Viper folding round the rock and the cave, and others adorning it with gold, silver, and precious stones.
In the third chamber was an Eagle with wings and feathers of air: he caused the inside of the cave to be infinite. Around were numbers of Eagle-like men who built palaces in the immense cliffs.
In the fourth chamber were Lions of flaming fire, raging around and melting the metals into living fluids. In the fifth chamber were Unnamed forms, which cast the metals into the expanse.
There they were received by Men who occupied the sixth chamber, and took the forms of books and were arranged in libraries.
He then writes of two classes of man, "the Prolific" and "the Devouring". Blake writes,
These two classes of men are always upon earth, and they should be enemies: whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
In 'A Memorable Fancy [IV]' Blake is challenged by an angel, and, in a way not dissimilar to Dante's Inferno he is guided to the Abyss:
By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swum, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; and the air was full of them, and seem’d composed of them—these are Devils, and are called Powers of the Air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? He said: ‘Between the black and white spiders.’
When the Angel disappears so to does the Abyss, and Blake explains to the Angel later, "All that we saw was owing to your metaphysics; for when you ran away, I found myself on a bank by moonlight hearing a harper." Blake then shows the Angel his 'eternal lot', a horrifying vision of monkeys and baboons devouring each other. He returns to Swedenborg:
Thus Swedenborg’s writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime—but no further.
In the final section 'A Memorable Fancy [v]' Blake concludes with a dialogue between the Devil and the Angel, and the Devil argues, for example, "no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules." The Angel is convinced and won over by the Devil; he becomes a Devil himself and remains a friend of Blake's. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ends,
One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression.
It is a very difficult work and I hope I've basically got to grips with it. It is, as the title suggests, a 'marriage' or union of good and evil, heaven and hell, and the embracing of all energies so that they exist in balance and harmony. It's also a very disturbing work: Blake writes with authority, that is an assumed authority that he is correct, and overturns convention: everything that we have always known Blake suggests is wrong. For this it is a troubling work but however hard I found it I enjoyed it.



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Further Reading

That was my thirteenth title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf.

Comments

  1. a challenging and perilous reading adventure. it kind of sounds like he'd been reading dante too much... hard to imagine all that cooped up in one tiny brain; colorful, though...

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    1. Haha, yes!

      I did like it, but my goodness it was hard work making sense of it. :)

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  2. Yes, I agree with Mudpuddle ..... too much Dante, except it appears as if he tried to accomplish the opposite of Dante. I read a little of his bio, and if you had trouble making sense of it, you're not alone. It sounds like he was virtually unknown during his lifetime and it was only later that his works were recognized. His story sounds interesting in any case. Thanks for the review and therefore for pushing me to find out more about Blake.

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    1. I know nothing of the man himself - I'll have to look him up, at least on Wiki. Glad I'm not the only one who found this poem tough! Pleased I've read it now, though. I do like the idea of it, the more I think about it :)

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  3. "too much" Dante! No, no, just the right amount of Dante. Maybe too much Swedenborg.

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    1. I'll have to check Swedenborg out. Might order Heaven and Hell at some point. Have you read it?

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  4. I like that you dissected the poem inch by inch. Very methodical. I recently wrote about Blake's Heaven and Hell as well. My take is that he is trying to overturn our traditional understanding of contrary ideas and show that all of these things are what make us human.

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    1. Actually I struggled so much the *only* way I could do it was inch by inch! Took a while for me to get an overall picture of it! But yes, agree with you - and that's why I found it so unsettling, that overturn of norms so to speak :)

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