The Marriage of Heaven and Hell  

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"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 through narrow chinks of his cavern." —The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is one of William Blake's books, a series of texts written in imitation of biblical books of prophecy, but expressing Blake's own intensely personal Romantic and revolutionary beliefs. Like his other books, it was published as printed sheets from etched plates containing prose, poetry, and illustrations. The plates were then coloured by Blake and his wife Catherine. At least nine remaining copies of the work exist today.

Contents

Background

The work was composed in London between 1790 and 1793, in the period of radical ferment and political conflict immediately after the French Revolution. The entire book is written in prose, except for the opening "Argument" and the "song of Liberty."

The book describes the poet's visit to Hell, a device adopted by Blake from Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost. As several others of his works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was influenced also by the mysticism of Swedenborg.

Citation

(Plate 4 )

THE VOICE OF THE DEVIL

All Bibles or sacred codes, have been the causes of the following Errors.

  1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
  2. That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, called Good, is alone from the Soul.
  3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True.

  1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
  2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
  3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

Proverbs of Hell

Unlike that of Milton or Dante, Blake's conception of Hell is not as a place of punishment, but as a source of unrepressed, somewhat Dionysian energy, opposed to the authoritarian and regulated perception of Heaven. Blake's purpose is to create what he called a "memorable fancy" in order to reveal to his readers the repressive nature of conventional morality and institutional religion, which he describes thus:

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity;
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood;
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc'd that the Gods had order'd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell. These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The diabolical proverbs are provocative and paradoxical. Their purpose is to energise thought. Several of Blake's proverbs have become famous:

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction;
One law for the lion and ox is oppression"

Blake explains that,

"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."

During a visit to a "printing house in hell," Blake learns that diabolic printing is conducted with corrosives (that is by etching). This method helps to "cleanse the doors of perception." Blake promises to adopt this "infernal method" in his own works back on Earth.

The book ends with a series of revolutionary prophecies and exhortations, climaxing into a fierce proclamation for the different peoples of the world to break the bonds of religious and political oppression.

Interpretation

Blake's text has been interpreted in many ways. It certainly forms part of the revolutionary culture of the period. The references to the printing house suggest the underground radical printers producing revolutionary pamphlets at the time. Ink-blackened print workers were jokingly referred to as "printing devils," and revolutionary publications were regularly denounced from the pulpits as the work of the devil.

In contrast, the book has been interpreted as an anticipation of Freudian and Jungian models of the mind, illustrating a struggle between a repressive superego and an amoral id. It has also been interpreted as an anticipation of Nietzsche's theories about the difference between slave morality and master morality.

Influence

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is probably the most influential of Blake's works. Its vision of a dynamic relationship between a stable "Heaven" and an energised "Hell" has fascinated theologians, aestheticians and psychologists. Aldous Huxley took the name of one of his most famous works, The Doors of Perception from this work (and The Doors took their name from Huxley's work). Huxley's contemporary, C. S. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce about the divorce of Heaven and Hell, in response to Blake's Marriage. It has also inspired many artists and musicians, notably Ulver, who used the work as the lyrical basis for their double album Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Interestingly, an allusion from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, depicting Aristotle's skeleton, is present in Wallace Steven's poem Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit.




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