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Blake's 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell' - Juxtaposition and Dialectic

Updated on April 27, 2013

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Painting is in the Public Domain; by William Blake (1757-1827)
Painting is in the Public Domain; by William Blake (1757-1827) | Source

Blake wrote (or, at least, began to write) The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in 1790 (William Blake, Selected Poetry, OUP, p.xiv), a piece partly written in prose and partly in verse. In it, he presents his philosophy in a manner that is dialectical, paradoxical and ambiguous. He uses juxtaposition to achieve these effects, and writes in this way not only to demand that the reader interacts with the text, but also to demonstrate that contrast itself is the core of the philosophy he presents, and was in Blake’s view not contrary - that the contrast was not contrast but union - and that the confusion that seems to arise from ambivalence in the text is not confusion at all but is simply the startling effect of suddenly viewing common beliefs from an entirely new perspective.

Illustration by William Blake; Public Domain Image.
Illustration by William Blake; Public Domain Image. | Source

Dialectic and Reader Engagement

Dialectic is reasoned debate; its aim is to find the truth of an issue rather than present overwhelmingly persuasive arguments for either side.

Blake wanted his readers to fully engage and interact with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and from the outset the work makes sense only if read from the dialectical perspective of its own internal logic:

Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where the lions roam
(The Argument (in Marriage), lines 17-20)

Elsewhere in the text, ‘Evil is the active springing from energy,’ and ‘Good is the passive that obeys reason’ (Blake, Marriage (in Selected Poetry, p. 74)) and in Milton’s Paradise Lost, to which Blake explicitly refers in the text, ‘the Serpent, or rather, Satan in the Serpent’ tempts Eve (Paradise Lost, Book 1, The Argument, Norton Anthology, p.1832). And yet in the extract above, the ‘just man,’ from the earlier part of the poem (The Argument (in Marriage), line 4), ordinarily associated with good and reason, is given the active energy of evil (he ‘rages in the wilds’), and the serpent, normally associated with evil action, conversely ‘walks in mild humility’ (Line 18).

Juxtapositions abound in this - not only in the text itself - the ‘meek...just man’ from the beginning of the poem (Lines 1-2), ‘now... rages’ (Lines 17-19) - but also in the mind of the reader, as the previously intricately reasoned, classically-influenced frameworks of the Enlightenment and those of a lifetime of religious dogma cease to support the world-view being proposed, which is that the issues can no longer be seen as black and white: there is good within evil; passive reason is insupportable without chaotic disharmony - and that the reverse of these is also true.

Illustration by William Blake. Public Domain image.
Illustration by William Blake. Public Domain image. | Source

Links to PDFs of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

A PDF of the original, illustrated version of the work (Wikimedia link).

A plain print version of the complete text can be found here: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (PDF version from The Internet Archive - other formats, such as Kindle, are also available)

The Proverbs of Hell - Interpretations

The Proverbs of Hell, because they are short and self-contained aspects of Blake’s philosophy, are some of the most immediately arresting juxtapositions in the text, provoking the reader to further exploration and contemplation, and perhaps illustrating a particular Proverb that ‘One thought fills immensity’ (Blake, Marriage (in Selected Poetry, p. 77)).

Superficially, another Proverb, ‘The most sublime act is to set another before you,’ is almost self-evident to the largely Christian audience of the time, so much was the New Testament dogma a part of society, and yet this is juxtaposition to a paradoxical extent, for this is a proverb of Hell (Blake, Marriage (in Selected Poetry, p.76). At this second-glance realisation, questions flow from the reader’s mind, reinterpreting what appears to be a simple Christian exhortation to ‘put other people first’: how is ‘sublime’ to be interpreted? ‘A religious note was, and is, never very far from accounts of sublimity’ according to popular definition, so possibly in the context of Hell the meaning of the Proverb is inverted, although connotations of sublime are also ‘daunting and dreadful’ which accords with the energy of Hell (Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p.900). Blake would have been aware that eighteenth century readers would have particular difficulties in interpreting the word, as ‘No topic of aesthetic enquiry in the eighteenth century generated greater interest than the sublime...[which according to Edmund Burke] produced a frisson of delight and horror, tranquillity and terror’ (Gothic, p.39).

Another interpretation may be that ‘another’ refers back to ‘act’ so that the meaning of the proverb is that the most sublime act is one which sets another task in front of you - not a person. Again, this interpretation makes use of the internal definitions of the text, where energy and movement - and thus ‘acts’ – are the characteristics of Hell.

A third interpretation is to not interpret the proverb further, but to accept it as it stands. Perhaps the meaning is simply that through the fusion of the marriage between Heaven and Hell, they have some philosophies in common. It may be that Blake intended all of these interpretations; that he meant his readers to adopt all possible viewpoints simultaneously, which seems probable in light of the dialectical aspects of the text, such as the opposing forces of good and evil which depend on one another for continued survival.

Illustration by William Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Public Domain Image.
Illustration by William Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Public Domain Image. | Source

Juxtaposition of Style

There is also the juxtaposition of styles within the work to consider. Part poetry, part illustration, part lists, part dialogue, part journal-like, all linked, largely, only by the philosophical theme of Blake’s perspective on the workings of the world. The changing style is at once slightly disturbing and intriguing. It is alienating in some ways because as the reader begins to understand one part of the text, the style changes abruptly; but it is also an engaging technique - as the reader begins to ask more and more questions of the text, he or she must enter the debate.

Main Effects of Juxtaposition and Dialectic in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The central effects of Blake’s extensive use of dialectic argument and juxtaposition, then, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are to force readers, in order to make sense of the text, to think for themselves rather than accept Blake’s opinions - in which case it would be just a different dogma - and to devise, as Blake himself did, their own world-view.

Another effect is to demonstrate, rather than explain his philosophy: that Hell, evil, is energy and life, and that Heaven, good, is passive inertia, and that the two opposing forces are necessary to one another: not distinct but fused in a ‘marriage.’ Further, to persuade the reader that religion, in dividing and categorising forces into mutually exclusive compartments, has masked the reality, as Blake sees it, that each creature is its own God: ‘For everything that lives is holy’ (Blake, Marriage (in Selected Poetry, p.86).

References and Further Reading

Blake, W. Selected Poetry. (New York: Oxford World Classics, 1990)

Botting, F. Gothic. (Cornwall: Routledge, 1996)

Honderich, T. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. (New York, Oxford University Press, 1995)

Milton, J. ‘Paradise Lost’ in The Norton Anthology English Literature vol I. Greenblatt, S. And

Abrams, MH (eds). (New York: Norton, 2006)

Poplawski, P. English Literature in Context. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)


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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama


      I will tell you the truth. I really love this hub.

      This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing work. I loved the way you presented your topiic. Wonderful graphics.

      This piece was helpful, informative and very interesting.I was glad to vote Up and all of the choices.

      You are certainly a gifted writer. Please keep up the fine work.


      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Blake isn't my favorite, but wonderful analysis.

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