William Blake’s work is relatively ignored in comparison to the other major English Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats). I suspect one reason for this situation is the complicated forms of his work. When one first confronts titles like Tiriel, The Four Zoas, The Book of Los, The Laocoon, the names themselves, evoking mystical ideas, are intimidating; add to this observation that many of these poems are lengthy and contain bizarre formatting, and it is not hard to see why some people would rather turn to a nice one page lyric poem by Lord Byron than tackle an abstruse Blake. My previous experience with his poetry had consisted of reading the shorter poems found in Songs of Innocence and Experience, but decided I wanted to attempt reading some of the longer, more esoteric works.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a medium-sized work that consists of both prose and poetry extending for about ten pages. Parts of the work are philosophical argument, part written in the form of Biblical prophecy, part written as allegory, and part as short pithy maxims.
It opens with a poem where Rintrah “roars & shakes his fires in the burdend air” to prepare us for the true prophet of the poem: William Blake. Blake follows this opening section by preparing us for the major themes of his work with a general outline of his philosophy:
“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 & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
Blake’s idea is that human beings progress and become truly human by the marriage and conflict of these contrary impulses. Human beings make a mistake when they try to be too rational or when they try too hard to control their desires; in fact, Blake is suggesting that our desires are not sinful, but come from God, otherwise they wouldn’t be natural desires. He is blurring our perceptions of what is holy and what is profane; often what we consider profane (sexual desire) is actually holy and sacred. Orthodox religion calls our natural desires evil, but in the work Blake is reconfiguring the notions of evil and hell, not as places of suffering, but rather as a place where imagination and sensual desires, which are good things, can be truly free from the fetters of religion, science, and reductionist rationality. Blake is claiming that the world isn’t meant to be merely understood and controlled, but it’s also meant to be enjoyed and explored with our imaginations.
Religion has been an attempt to reconcile the imagination of poetry with rational control of human desires through laws and commandments. In a later section of the work, Blake explains how religion co-opted the ideas of ancient poets. The Bible is full of poetic stories, but religious institutions control the interpretations of these stories and use things like Commandments to control people’s behaviors and repress people’s natural desires.
The second section of the work is entitled, “The Voice of the Devil.” The title is ironic. The arguments that will follow are being spoken in the voice of the devil as it will oppose traditional doctrine of the church, but for Blake the devil isn’t evil in the traditional sense, but the representative of our desires and poetic imagination. The best poets are really devils because they use their imagination to explore their desires. In this section, Blake presents a kind of philosophical outline in which he condemns certain principles of the church: the idea that body and soul are separate, with the soul being superior to bodily pleasures. That energy (evil) is from the body and reason (good) from the soul; Blake seems to be suggesting that the two are mixed. And his last criticism of the church doctrine is the belief that God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies (which can be understood as his desires, his impulses, and his imaginative capacity that creates poetry). These criticism relate back to the basic point of his work: that human beings are a mixture of desire and control, rationality and irrationality, body and soul. By creating this dualism between body and soul, evil and good, the church presents one side of these dualities as undesirable and bad. Blake also suggests that extreme adherence to science and philosophy as the one truth that should govern our lives is no better; in the case of the latter, instead of superstition and imagination, we are supposed to be ruled by our rationality and observable facts.
The next section Blake descends into hell where he shares different paradoxical aphorisms and maxims that he learned there. Here are a few of my favorite:
“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
This can be read as a metaphor for life: as a child we’re growing seeds and should learn, as adults we are fully grown for harvest and we should teach what we have learned, and in old age (our winter) we should enjoy ourselves. However, this could be read simply as a way to live our everyday lives rather than as a metaphor for aging: we plant our seeds for enjoyment when we learn, we harvest that learning (achieve true mastery) and this can teach it, and in our winter we use our new knowledge (the seeds that we planted) for our enjoyment before the process begins again with the next planting of seeds (new learning). Therefore, we should always be learning, teaching, and enjoying; we should always be growing and changing. Likewise, knowledge shouldn’t be for its own sake, but should add to our enjoyment of life.
“The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom: no clock can measure.”
When we engage in folly it’s a waste of our time, but the time spent into acquiring wisdom is priceless. The trick, I suppose, is distinguishing what actions are really just foolish wastes of time and what actions, no matter how time consuming, help us be more wise and therefore, enrich our lives.
“Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.”
This passage suggests that religion’s attempt to control our desires actually causes those desires to increase and people to engage in them clandestinely. Religion’s attempt to control sexuality actually increases those desires and therefore leads to the building of brothels as a consequence.
“What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.”
It is easy to mock the ideas and beliefs of other people that they can’t prove, but it is important to remember that many ideas that seemed crazy or had no real evidence to support them at the time were later proved to be true.
“Expect poison from the standing water.”
Blake returns to this maxim in a later section of his work that helps to give context to this passage’s meaning. Standing water is a metaphor for our ideas and opinions. We need to be careful of becoming ossified in our ideas. We should always be learning new things and changing our minds.
“Listen to the fools reproach! It is a kingly title!”
When an idiot criticizes your idea, it is actually praise for the strength of the idea. In other words, if a foolish person insults or criticizes you because of an idea, then one should take that as a sign that the ideas, arguments, and opinions have validity.
“As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.”
Expressing contempt and derision at a contemptible person is a waste of time. The passage suggests a contemptible person lives within contempt as a bird moves and lives through air. Such a person will enjoy your contempt; such people acts contemptible to rouse a reaction.
In the section that follows, Blake goes to a dinner with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel where they discuss the nature of prophecy. Isaiah writes:
“I was then perswaded. & remain confirm’d; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.”
This again restates Blake’s own purpose with the work. God exists within the human spirit and imagination. Blake is expressing honest indignation at all the systems (science, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and Orthodox religion) that have killed the spirit of man, crushed his imagination, and desires.
In the end, Blake isn’t suggesting desire, evil, hell are superior to rationality, good, and heaven. Rather his work is attempting to recognize that these supposedly contrary impulses are what make us human and perhaps they are not really so contrary after all, but the opposition of these forces are products of human rationality attempting to control and fetter human impulses by defining them as “evil” in the first place. Human beings are both angels and devils, rational and irrational, and Blake suggests we should embrace both our natures and such binaries oppositions are illusions of human thought.