An Essay on William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake was an artist of, and unarguably, ahead of his time. Blake was, presumably, avidly aware of the effects that various events are occurring before, and during, the Romantic era had on society. In both his arts – writing and engraving, Blake aimed to rouse the faculties of his audience to act. That is to say; Blake encouraged people to think, to create questions that they could research for themselves, and ultimately lead his audience to have the level of awareness he had himself about society. In the process of searching for answers, arguably, Blake was leading a revolution of world perception. To this point, this essay will be focusing on William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The title page of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell portrayed an image of Heaven and Hell joining in marital unity, forming an alliance between angel and demon. The text of the title was presented in the format of a wedding invitation as if inviting the reader to this celebratory occasion. Blake was daring his readers to continue reading; mocking the reader’s intelligence and ability to be perceptively open-minded. As the fires of Hell merge with the clouds of Heaven to create leafless trees, arid land, sky and people; interpretively, Blake was suggesting that Earth was the offspring of Angel and Demon (Lansdown, 2014). Portraying that the world had traditionally, by religious morality, separated into “good” and “evil,” “Heaven” and “Hell.” Blake was presumably aiming to convey in this image that the world is, in fact, neither good nor evil, but a murky mixture of both. From the title page imagery, it becomes clear Blake would satirise and subvert religion, during an era of devout Catholicism.

On the second and third plates, Blake presented his argument about the change in society that was caused by the French Revolution.

Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden’d air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep … (xv)

Blake does not specify who or what Rintrah was, leaving Rintrah to be defined by the reader’s perception. Keynes (1975) suggested that Rintrah was Blake chastising a society that had become devoid of energy and imagination, welcoming revolution to enlighten the people. One interpretation was that Rintrah was a portrayal of John Milton. Depicting Milton as an angry prophet of revolution; as Milton was able to acknowledge the truth, but could not effectively communicate it (Lansdown, 2014). Another view of Rintrah could be that of religion struggling to maintain its laws and values in an era of intellect and want of knowledge. Arguably, Blake wanted his readers to think outside of the norm, to join him in the intellectual revolution, and therefore gifted his readers with the character of Rintrah to interpret for themselves.

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 (xvi).

On plates four through to the top half of the sixth, Blake portrayed the voice of the Devil. The Devil explained that religion was splitting humans into two elements: body and soul. The body contains the five physical senses which can influence reason, while the soul contains the life force of the body. The soul contains energy, imagination, temptation, and impulse. If the body was “good” and the soul “evil,” then the body acted as a boundary, ultimately prolonging or preventing progression of any kind. Assuming Blake’s logic of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; poets, artists, philosophers, and the leaders of the French Revolution were of Hell; “evil” friends of the Devil because they allowed imagination and energy to influence their actions, unattested by the Body of Reason.

At various segments of this allegory, Blake inserted his voice as A Memorable Fancy. The first of these fancies describe how Blake was inspired to devise the Proverbs of Hell, which subvert the original Biblical Book of Proverbs.

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? (xvii).

Blake acknowledged that the body could stump inspiration, sublimely insinuating that religion conditions the mind to a certain way of thinking. The second of the memorable fancies portrayed Blake having an imaginary conversation with Isaiah and Ezekiel. This conversation leads Blake to the realisation that everything in the world was infinite and holy, but reason created the illusion of a finite world. Once again presuming Blake’s view, reason created a corruption that could only end when the whole world’s perception was able to reach Blake’s level of intellect and perceptiveness.

The third memorable fancy portrayed Blake’s view of knowledge being eternally passed on to future generations through books and art. The fancy then proceeded to discuss the Prolific and the Devourer; the Prolific being the saints who resist energy, the Devourer those who succumb to the allure of energy.

Some will say: “Is not God alone the Prolific?” I answer: “God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men (xxiii).”

Blake encourages the reader to the view that God is a matter of individual perception. That religion attempts to unite the Prolific and Devourers when in fact they were intended to be enemies.

In the fourth of Blake’s fancies, he has a discussion of reason with an angel. As Blake presented his opinions of the world, the angel becomes vanquished as symbolic destruction caused by traditional religion. Arguably, Blake intended to mean that religion had no place in society. Alternatively, that religious teaching should progress with society rather than maintaining outdated views of the world. It is clear that Blake intended to subvert religion, arguably, the subversion was to create controversial thoughts within his reader’s mind as a form of progression.

In the final memorable fancy, Blake shared his vision of a demon and angel conversing on the politics of Religion.

The worship of God is: Honouring his gifts in other men, each according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best: those who envy or calumniate great men hate God; for there is no other God (xxvi).

Blake once again portrays that God is a matter of individual perception, but also illuminated the idea that God is worshipped when it best suited an individual. For example, when a person falls into dire misfortune he/she will hate God; when a person meets fortune, he/she will unrestrainedly worship the goodness of God. By the end of this fancy Blake had created the alignment of the “marriage” between Heaven and Hell.

The final two segments that made up The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are the Proverbs of Hell and the Song of Liberty. As mentioned previously, the Proverbs of Hell was a subversively satiric re-write of the Biblical Book of Proverbs. In writing these proverbial sentences, Blake celebrated the notion of the French Revolution, imagination and the want for knowledge that the Revolution created within the Romantic society. Blake then ended his allegory with the Song of Liberty. In this final segment, Blake celebrated the freedom of the poet and artist to succumb to their subconscious desires and imagination. Blake desired the liberation that surrounded the Revolution and encouraged England, and the rest of the world, to progress as the French had done. In his final quote, Blake wrote:

Empire is no more! And now the lion & wolf shall cease … For everything that lives is Holy (xxviii).

So far the essay has briefly elaborated on Blake’s text of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; however, the pictorial illustrations also assist in provoking the readers’ faculties to act and interpret meaning. On the right side of the third plate, a person is depicted standing on a high tree branch pulling up a second person. Beside this tree is a withered plant, and moving toward the left of the plate are people laying, possibly starved, on the drought-ridden Earth. At the top of the fourth plate is an angel engulfed in flame, and there is a small image within the text, of two people holding hands. At the bottom of the plate, are two people eloping in the clouds, and a woman giving birth. These two plates hold the text of Blake’s Argument. When affiliating the text with the images, the meaning is arguably a portrayal of a society uplifted by the Revolution, and inaction or lack of progression would destroy the Earth. The angel in the fire, a symbol of the end of religious views; creating an opening for Heaven and Hell to unite and give birth to Knowledge and Enlightenment.

At the bottom of the tenth plate, Blake had drawn the Devil on an island holding a scroll between two angels. The angel on the Devil’s left is studiously writing, while both Devil and the angel on the right watch. The text of this plate is the last of the Proverbs of Hell.

Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not believ’d. Enough! Or too much (xx).

Arguably, Blake portrayed this image to be the Devil teaching the angels of the Proverbs of Hell. One perception is that the studious angel is copying the proverbs from the Devil’s scroll, while the Devil encouraged the angel to learn about the knowledge of Hell as the second angel looked on warily. Another perception is that the studious angel is steadfast in religious belief, fighting the temptation of the Devil, while the Devil and second angel attempt to lure the first angel toward Hell. The second perception compliments the symbolisation of part of the world rejecting the revolution and the remainder accepting it.

At the top of the fourteenth plate is a person lying atop a flame that moves to engulf a lifeless person lying on the Earth. At the bottom of the fifteenth plate is a spread-winged eagle grasping a snake. At the top of the sixteenth plate are a group of people afraid and in the dark. These images appear among Blake’s Memorable Fancy as follows:

The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains; are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity; but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy, according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning (xxii-xxiii).

Blake is arguably referring to the Ancient Greek philosophers as being the “Giants who formed this world.” The three images together present a perceptive symbolisation of the “Old World” replaced by a “New World.” The flame engulfing the Earth is interpreted to symbolise the abruptness of the changes caused by the French Revolution, spreading the progression globally. The eagle, arguably, represents the liberation in accepting the new world order. The figures afraid in the dark could symbolise the people who rejected the progression. Alternatively, the giants could be the Ancient Greeks, afraid of how their philosophies had affected the world. However the images are interpreted by the reader, it is further evidence of Blake inviting his reader to interact, and intellectually consider what meaning may lie beneath what Blake is showing them. 

William Blake’s combination of imagery and text within The Marriage of Heaven and Hell effectively causes his audience to question: religion, good, evil, and the changing world around them. Blake’s ultimate goal for this allegory was, arguably, to satirise the traditional views of religion. By the end of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake’s reader is left contemplating what they have already learned and perceived of Heaven and Hell. Questioning if everything and everyone is a combination of both good and evil, should there be a separation of the two, in Blake’s terms of body and soul? Religion then becomes a matter of interpretation; Blake dares his readers to produce their own perceptions of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and to search for answers, striving for knowledge. William Blake was indeed a poet and artist of, and ahead of, his time in producing a revolution of intellect among a society already changed by the French Revolution.

Works Cited

Blake, William and Sir Geoffery Keynes. Ed. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975. Print.

Landsdown, Richard. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hill: Reading Notes” The Romantic Vision. EL2048/3048. James Cook University. 14 August 2014.

Works Consulted

Blake, William. Energy and Reason. The Modern Tradition: Backgrounds of Modern Literature. Ed. Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson, Jr. Oxford University Press, New York, 1965. Print.

God in Man.

The Eternal World of Vision.

Visionary History.

Eaves, Morris. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 2003. Print.

Hodgart, Patricia and Theodore Redpath. Eds. Romantic Perspectives: The Work of Crabbe, Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge as Seen by Their Contemporaries and by Themselves. George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., London, 1964. Print.

Ferber, Michael. The Cambridge Introduction to British Romantic Poetry. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2012. Print.

Fuller, David. William Blake. Literature of the Romantic Period: A Bibliographical Guide. Ed. Michael O’Neill. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998. Print.

Makdisi, Saree. Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998. Print.

Sabri-Tabrizi, G. R. The ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ of William Blake. Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973. Print.