William Blake’s Strange Theology: An Introduction to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Though it is not the pinnacle achievement in William Blake’s broad range of literary and art works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell could be one of the most controversial (and offensive) widely acclaimed works of literature ever published, especially in regards to the time period in which it was written. It stands apart as one of the clearest and most concise pictures of the overarching themes and symbols throughout Blake’s works, and it is a snapshot into Blake’s theology, beliefs, and his theory on poetry. These reasons alone, despite its relatively short length, its accompanying visuals (beautiful plates that Blake painted), its striking imagery, and its many one-liners, should be enough for you to want to dive right in. However, reading this introduction first might help you appreciate it more, understand it much easier, and find more meaning in details you otherwise would overlook.

William Blake’s eccentricity started when he was a child. Not long after his birth in 1757, he began to have visions of angels, spirits, and of God himself. He famously claimed to have seen God in a window at age four, a tree full of angels at age nine, and various other visions thereafter. His parents, a hosier named James and his wife Catherine, did not despise Blake’s peculiarities, and wisely resolved to support him in whatever his unique endeavors would be. Blake was schooled at home until age ten, when he developed an interest in painting and was sent to drawing school. When it became too costly, Blake’s parents decided to apprentice him to an engraver. After his seven-year apprenticeship, Blake studied for a short time at the Royal Academy and then freelanced as an engraver and illustrator. On August 18, 1782, Blake married Catherine Butcher, which seemed to be the only happy event in his life for a period of several years. Soon after his marriage to Catherine, his father died. Then his youngest and favorite brother, Robert, died in his arms after a long and drawn out fight with an illness Blake had worked day and night to remedy. If this wasn’t enough, his lack of success as an artist and his impoverished way of life led him on a slow and steady decline until his death in 1827. Though he published many works, his ideas were rarely accepted as genius and more often labeled as insane. His artwork, though now widely appreciated, was called hideous by many of his contemporaries. It was roughly 70 years after his death that anyone took serious notice of his writings or art.

Blake wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in his thirties, during a period in which he associated closely with many of the other radical thinkers of his time: Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Johann Heinrich Füssli, and the like. Blake gained affirmation and inspiration from this circle of artists, and though he had his own unique beliefs, he strongly related to each of them in their desire to challenge the status quo. He was a revolutionary at heart, a forward thinker who strove to think outside the box and find things no one had seen before. This ingenuity led him to be heavily influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost, particularly with the idea of Satan being a misunderstood protagonist.

No one can be sure exactly what Blake’s theology or beliefs were, although he would say that he was a Christian. He simply did not buy into the religious and pharisaical beliefs of his culture, and made dramatic statements to try to stir up the Pharisees of his day. This makes sense, given the injustices he saw in London: child labor, a miserably poor working class, and an apparently unconcerned upper class that used religion to suppress the poor. To Blake, the bible was an important but misunderstood book, and Jesus was an important but misunderstood man. He saw both the bible and Jesus as true insofar as they pointed their admirer towards their own instincts and open-mindedness, and away from focusing on one belief being true. In fact, Blake lived most of his career from a theme expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “All poets believe that…a firm perswasion that a thing is so, [makes] it so,” (Plate 12). His firm persuasions were canonized in his mind as authoritative truth because he believed that “the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God,” (Plate 12). This core value caused Blake to take on the role of a poet-prophet, one who speaks out against injustice, tradition, and religion.

This was certainly a potent role in the late 18th century, a time in which English nationalism was dominant, and the French Revolution was threatening. The Royal Academy Blake joined in his early twenties was a patriotic breeding ground for British art of every kind, and an attempt at giving British art dominance over anything else. The national projects that artists began largely circulated the prevailing beliefs of late 18th century British culture: an age of reason and of faith in the Anglican church. John Locke’s writings on reason favored a reformed faith. The emphasis on reason garnered conservative beliefs with traditional sacraments, piety, and a fundamental view of the bible. On the other hand, Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century scientist and theologian, claimed to be the heroic revolutionary of his time as he taught a Christian form of mysticism and wrote his own new theological beliefs.

In this context, the themes of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell held particular potency. Its genre falls somewhere between prose and poetry, and it is structurally similar to a book of the bible, claiming to be a prophetic vision, containing proverbs and stories. Its form is more artful than academic, as it was written on plates with illustrations. Throughout the work, Blake frequently inverts traditional stereotypes and symbols to make strong points. In his works, devils are good, angels are bad, reason is heresy, and impulse is truth. The angels in Blake’s works always represent religious Pharisees, and the devils represent revolutionary free-thinkers. This idea is most concise towards the beginning of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell when Blake says, “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,” (Plate 3). The theme of contradiction and paradox is central in this work, and appears in various forms throughout The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, such as his unconventional conversation with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, his journey into the abyss with an angel, and the vision of an angel and demon becoming one. Blake sees the terms “good” and “evil” as misnomers. He summarizes this view near the end of the work when he says, “no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules,” (Plate 23). According to Blake, truth only exists in contradiction and disagreement. This is why the work’s title speaks of two opposites joining together. He believes that good and bad are antiquated falsities, and that truth is found when both are seen together as two sides of the same coin.

Perhaps the most blatant contradiction in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell occurs through his portrayal of Satan and devils. Peter Schock comments on the purpose of this inversion of theme, saying that “a defamiliarized version of the mythology surrounding Satan, a reshaping of this tradition characteristic of Romantic art-transformed myth becomes the channel for ideological transaction” (441). This is certainly true, in that this inversion disarms biases and fights against prevailing beliefs. But is this inversion so drastic that it becomes inaccessible? Or could it be that it is actually “Blake’s most revolutionary vision, one calling forth God Himself as Satan, or calling forth the uniquely Christian God as Satan, that very God whom Nietzsche in The Anti-christ can know as the deification of nothingness or the will to noth-ingness pronounced holy,” (Altizer 35). Perhaps this contradiction is the cornerstone reason why Blake is effective in the first place. Regardless, Blake’s outrageous symbolism of evil as good and good as evil further enforces the idea that together, what is considered good and evil form a more complete whole.

You may not know what you believe about The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and you might not like what you read. But whatever your response, give Blake his due credit for thinking outside the box, imagining something brand new, and breaking the mold. Regardless of what your biases are, you will not understand what Blake is trying to say unless you intentionally suspend judgment and read with an open mind. Blake’s writings were certainly radical for his time, but they are still outlandish today as well.

Bibliography

Altizer, Thomas J.J. “The Revolutionary Vision of William Blake.” Journal of Religious

Ethics 37.1 (2009): 33-38.

Guthrie, William Norman “William Blake: Poet and Artist.” The Sewanee Review, 5.3

(1897): 328-348.

Keller, Johanna. Rev. of “Blake, A Biography,” ed. Peter Ackroyd. The Antioch Review

54.4 (1996): 487-488.

Mulhallen, Karen. “The William Blake Project.” University of Toronto Quarterly 80.4

(2011): 779-785.

Schock, Peter A. “The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell: Blake’s Myth Of Satan And

Its Cultural Matrix.” ELH 60.2 (1993): 441-470. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

“Swedenborg, Emanuel.” Britannica Biographies (2011): 1. MAS Ultra – School

Edition. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

Viscomi, Joseph. “The Evolution Of The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell.” Huntington

Library Quarterly 58.3/4 (1995): 281. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

Williams, Nicholas M. “Blake Dead or Alive.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 63.4

(2009): 486-498.

 

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