Back To CourseHumanities 101: Intro to the Humanities
27 chapters | 241 lessons
Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.
Heaven is good, and hell is bad. This simple statement is something most of us have been told since we were children, whether or not we were raised in religious households. Countless stories, books, movies and anecdotes equate Heaven with all that is good and Hell with all that is evil. Ever heard the expression that we all have a little angel and a little devil on each shoulder? And which one are we always supposed to listen to?
Well, what if life isn't composed of such neat polarities? What if it doesn't actually make sense to see everything in terms of opposites: good and bad, right and wrong, true and false? What if life is more like a giant pulsing mass of energy, which not only includes but actually needs the darker impulses we normally try to avoid?
These are the questions William Blake grapples with in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a book of writings and illustrations he created in 1793. According to Blake, both good and bad are necessary, interwoven parts of existence. If we shut ourselves off from the bad, we're also denying ourselves the good.
Or, as Blake says, 'Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.'
We can think of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a guided tour of Hell, in which Blake sets out to correct some of our incorrect notions. The book is quite short at just 27 pages and is composed of brief texts and accompanying engravings done by Blake himself.
The first two sections are The Argument and The Voice of the Devil. In these opening pieces, Blake tells us that good and evil aren't what we think they are. They're just different kinds of energies, and both are needed to keep the world going. The Bible and other religious texts, he says, have been responsible for a lot of the misinformation we've been given.
A Memorable Fancy explains how Blake actually went on a visit to Hell. He is not the first writer to come up with this idea; both Dante and Milton wrote first-person accounts of their supposed trips to the netherworld. Blake has a very different view of the place, though. To stuffy religious outsiders, he says, Hell might look like it's full of torment, but it's actually a place where free thinkers can delight and revel in the full experience of existence. He dines with prophets and receives more information about how philosophers and religious leaders have misinterpreted the truth of Heaven and Hell. Humans have the capacity for greatness, he claims, if only they could shed their stodgy and fearful ideas and embrace who they really are, both good and bad.
While he was touring around, Blake says he collected some of the Proverbs of Hell. A proverb is a little catchy saying, usually one with a pithy moral that's supposed to help people remember to do right. The Bible has a whole book of Proverbs, and Blake knew that his 18th century audience would be familiar with them. He uses these little verses to turn the established world on its head, espousing his new vision. For example, while traditional Christian doctrine advised people to be humble and embrace poverty, Blake writes, 'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.' These sayings are satirical or blasphemous, depending on who's doing the reading.
The book ends with the Song of Liberty, a prose poem where Blake uses apocalyptic imagery to incite his readers to embrace change.
Symbolism and Images
Basically, we want to think about opposites when we think of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. We see a lot of traditional imagery - angels and demons, men and god, nature and cities - but everything is mixed up. Here, angels are stuffy pedants who hold people back from their true potential. Demons are actually the good guys, because they offer liberation. Their negative energy is what keeps the world in a constant state of flux - and that's what we want, according to Blake.
In addition to the religious symbolism, we also see a lot of apocalyptic imagery. We have cities burning down, fires tearing the skies - real end-of-the-world stuff. This reflects Blake's visionary tendencies - he was after transcendence, here, not stability - and may also be drawn from his real-life experience living in London during a period of social change. (More on that later.)
Blake was a printer, and as you might guess, a real visual thinker. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was originally published as a pamphlet that included original illustrations of angels and demons, soaring birds, and swirling fireballs. These are really inseparable from the text. With just the words, we're only getting part of what Blake was trying to show us.
Blake was mostly self-taught, with only the rudimentary education normally given to a working-class boy. At an early age, he had to go to work as an apprentice, which is where he perfected his natural artistic skills. So, he's really writing to the common people here, using words and pictures that could be understood by a wide audience. Like all people of his time, Blake's main source of education would have been the Bible and other Christian texts. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell mimics the prophetic tone found in the Bible and contemporary sermons. As we mentioned before, for example, the Proverbs of Hell are modeled in tone from a book of the Bible.
Romanticism and Revolution
Just as the title implies, this is a book about Hell. Now, as you can imagine, in 1793, when Blake published this work, Hell wasn't really something you were supposed to be into - unless, of course, you were into detailing the long list of tortures inflicted on lost souls that went on down there, or warning people against winding up there. Not Blake, though. He's reacting against the Enlightenment ideals of reason and truth. In contrast to Enlightenment philosophers, Romantics like Blake wanted to emphasize emotional experience, especially upheaval and mystery. Where the Enlightenment focused on classifying things into categories, the Romantic period sought to highlight the unity of all existence.
The late 18th century, when Blake was writing, was a period of unrest throughout the Western World. The American Revolution had just taken place, followed by the French Revolution. England, too, was experiencing social upheaval as the lower classes began to demand equality and politicians and philosophers sought to find democratic modes of government. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell reflects this turmoil, as Blake inverts typical ideas of power, putting the little guys on top and poking some fun at big names in philosophy and religion.
Good and evil aren't what we think they are, William Blake tells us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In fact, by dividing the world into diametrically opposed categories of right and wrong, we've missed out on a lot of human potential. In this Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment period's focus on reason, Blake's illustrations and texts suggest that life needs to be embraced in all of its dualities.
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Back To CourseHumanities 101: Intro to the Humanities
27 chapters | 241 lessons