Evolution in Literature: An Analysis of William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" and the Bible.
Why Blake Wrote about the Bible
Given the status of the Bible in the western literary tradition as one of the most appropriated and alluded to of all ancient and religious texts, it is not unusual that William Blake writes so extensively about it. While a great body of Blake’s mature works, including the longer works “Milton” and “Jerusalem,” deal with biblical themes, his early central work, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” gives insight not only into themes that would later occupy Blake’s longer works, but also into the unique status of the Bible in western literature (Villalobos 246). Blake appropriates biblical themes and characters not for the traditional aim of glorifying the god of the Bible, but rather in order to subvert them and create a whole new mythology of the relationship between the eternal forces set in authority over man in the Bible. Blake’s subversive appropriation of biblical tradition illustrates not only the shift in the prevalent attitudes of western thought towards this tradition from a literal belief to a literary enterprise, but reaffirms these ancient stories’ ability to continually capture the imagination of the most brilliant and progressive minds in western thought, even after their claim to legitimacy is no longer seriously considered a possibility.
The first task to be undertaken is to explore exactly how Blake subversively appropriates biblical ideas for his poem. An understanding of how Blake’s appropriation is emblematic of the shift in attitudes towards the Bible as a literary and spiritual authority can be gleaned from examining his treatment of three specific biblical traditions. The first is the figure of Satan, the fallen Morningstar. The second is Blake’s appropriation of the form of proverb for the section of his poem entitled, “The Proverbs of Hell.” The last is Blake’s startling vision of the biblical heaven and hell. Once this has been done, conclusions can be drawn from the example of Blake’s piece that concern not only the changing position of the Bible in western literature and thought, but also the ability of this tradition to survive no matter how subverted and desacralized its original intent and message becomes.
The traditional role of Satan of the Bible is that of the adversary of man and god. He is the first sinner, whose sin is pride. In traditional Christianity, Satan is the tempter of man. He not only tempts human beings on a daily basis, but is the original tempter who deceives the first human to sin. This original deception is the reason for the loss of paradise in the biblical tradition. This makes it hard for Satan to appear as anything but the ultimate, evil incarnate. However, social forces and Milton’s Paradise Lost change that. “The religious myth of the adversary lost authority and the figure of Satan was reconstituted by ideology and by the idealized conception of Milton’s Satan” (Schock 442). Literary criticism after Milton “increasingly idealized the fallen archangel…as a sublime, human, and heroic figure” (Schock 442). It is this idealization of Satan as a sympathetic figure that makes him such an ideal character to appropriate from biblical tradition if the aim is to subvert it. As critics have pointed out, “this reconception of Satan makes him a ready vehicle for oppositionist ideology” (Schock 450).
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Blake, being informed by the ideas of Satan just discussed, realizes him in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” as “the Jehovah of the Bible…he who dwells in flaming fire” (150). Blake goes on to say that “after Christ’s death, he became Jehovah” (150). Blake can be read as insinuating Satan is Christ, Jehovah, or both. Blake also asserts that a “true Poet” is “of the Devil’s party” (150). Blake’s intent is not to merely undermine the traditional biblical understanding of the deities so as to simply reverse their positions, but he is seeking to establish a relationship between them that provides impetus for the biblical understanding of the true nature of Satan to be incorrect. Blake asserts that what the Bible calls “good” is merely “the passive that obeys Reason” (149). He also asserts that what the Bible calls “bad” is merely “the active springing from Energy” (149). Blake goes on to state that “Energy is Eternal Delight” (149). This idea that good and bad are contraries in the same way that reason and energy are, is central to “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Satan, therefore, becomes emblematic of the way “Reason” would see “Energy”. In other words, Blake is saying that the biblical tradition, because of its bias towards “Reason”, cannot help but interpret a Satan who is full of desire and creative energy as its adversary, that is its contrary. Blake says this is not only a good thing, but also absolutely necessary in one of the poem’s most famous lines, “Without Contraries is no progression” (149). The ramifications of this interpretation for the biblical tradition will be explored later in this paper.
Turning now to Blake’s appropriation of the biblical proverb with his “Proverbs of Hell”, the biblical proverb must first be understood. Critics inform us that biblical proverbs express “transmuted religious truths through intuitive flashes of vision” (Villalobos 250). They are also “considered important intellectual documents” (Villalobos 248). Scholarship on the biblical parables was an active enterprise in the century before Blake wrote “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” There was much debate about “the ‘received wisdom’ of the age” in much the same way the traditional understanding of Satan had been in flux before Blake’s writing (Villalobos 246). This means it can almost be expected of Blake to be somewhat critical of the biblical proverb he is appropriating.
How and why exactly Blake appropriates this biblical tradition can be understood if we examine what he says about proverbs within the poem. Blake invests about a fifth of the entire poem into the section entitled “Proverbs of Hell”; this must mean they are extremely significant to whatever aim he has for the poem. Given this, it is reasonable to investigate carefully Blake’s interest in proverbs. At the very least, it is obviously the informing interest behind the interest his narrator in the poem expresses, namely that, “the sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell show the nature of Infernal wisdom” (150). Critics have argued as to whether or not the “Proverbs of Hell” should “be categorized as wisdom literature, or rather as a critique and parody of proverbial wisdom, a biblical genre that came under close scrutiny in the years following the Puritan Interregnum” (Villalobos 247). While this debate informs Blake’s appropriation of the biblical proverb, a more firm understanding can be gained by examining exactly what Blake’s proverbs have to say about their particular nation, that is, hell.
The proverbs echo the themes discussed when examining Blake’s use of Satan. A good example of this is the proverb “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence” (151). From the Blakean perspective of energy, or hell, to desire but not act is a sin by its denial of the very essence of hell, eternal delight in energy. This is a direct contradiction to the biblical teaching to curb desire. The biblical proverb of sparing the rod and spoiling the child reinforce the difference in perspective between the “Proverbs of Hell” and the biblical proverbs. The goal is to force order born of reason upon action in the biblical proverb, while the Blakean asserts the necessity of action, or energy, driven by desire. Blake describes this relationship between reason and energy from his own perspective by saying, “Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy” (149). Once again, just like in the discussion of Satan, there is the idea that Blake is not attempting to simply replace god with Satan, but rather radically redefine the relationship between the two contraries as that of “energy” and “reason” and not the traditionally limited and therefore misleading, “good” and “bad”. Another “Proverb of Hell” that enriches this understanding is “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough” (152). Contrary to the biblical tradition that excess leads to folly, Blake is expressing the truth from a different perspective. Both traditions recognize the foolishness of excess, but while the biblical understanding relies on rules and reason to ensure the avoidance of excess, the Blakean perspective speaks to the truth that true wisdom of and ability to avoid excess come not from knowing the effects of moderation, but knowing the effects of excess. This difference in perspective ones again explains how things in hell must necessarily appear horrible to heaven and vice versa.
William Blake: 1757 - 1827
This brings up the discussion of Blake’s appropriation of the biblical spiritual realms of heaven and hell. The traditional understanding is obviously one of hell as a place of torment and suffering. Even in Milton, hell has a lake of fire and is a place of constant suffering from which Satan wishes to escape. Heaven, in contrast, is paradise. It is a place that eternally rings with the beautiful praises of Jehovah who sits on a throne in fellowship with his blessed and blameless creation.
While there is not much precedent of changing sympathies toward hell the way there is with the character of Satan, there is a general sense, informed by science and new beliefs about the world, that the traditional damnation and torture view was not strongly held by the intellectual circles in western thought in which Blake participated. Hell would seem to be much more functional as a symbolic reality rather than a real fate. This is the result of a cultural disconnectedness from the literally held beliefs of hell that dominated the western world of thought for over a thousand years. If anything, this would give Blake at least some sort of precedent to speculate on the actual heat of these fires in hell.
As might be expected, the heaven and hell in Blake’s piece are in striking contrast to their traditional presentation. This difference, once again, speaks to the difference in perspective that is one of the underlying themes Blake brings out beautifully throughout the course of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Specifically, critics find Blake’s hell to be “the source of all life and all creativity, and without it existence would not be possible” (Stewart 48). Moreover, “at each level [“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”] is constructed in such a way as to present Blake’s leading ideas as if they were from a hell imagined in startlingly unconventional terms” (Schock 441). Blake’s hell is the contrary of heaven.
To understand exactly how Blake appropriates these ideas within the text, we must examine his presentation of both places. In one particular section towards the end of the poem, the narrator and an angel visit both heaven and hell with one another to examine where the other will spend eternity (155-157). Upon entering hell, the two see “the head of Leviathan…his mouth… [hanging] just above the raging foam, tinging the black deep with beams of blood, advancing toward [them] with all the fury of a spiritual existence” (156). However, when the angel leaves for a moment, the scene fades to a peaceful “river by moonlight, hearing a harper, who sung…’the man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind’” (156). Their trip to heaven has similarly horrible results. There, they see chained animals eating one another (157). Blake’s narrator realizes the problem is that because of their contrary nature, heaven and hell must necessarily appear horrible to one another as the complete void of the essence which makes the other that which it is. He says as much when he states, “all that we saw was owing to your metaphysics” and “we impose on one another” (156-157). This, again, speaks to the difference in perspective that Blake has stressed in his appropriations of both Satan and the proverbs.
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What can be said about Blake’s appropriation of biblical tradition as a whole in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” must be that despite its lack of appeal as a document that literally prescribes true salvation for man, as its obvious intent is, it still retains strong spiritual appeal and evidently a form that works for an understanding of the relationship between man, god, and Satan that is radically different from the original. Blake’s genius is in the consistency and imaginative brilliance that cohesively makes his presentation in his small poem a small but powerful footnote, significant enough to alter the meaning of the most read text in the history of mankind.
What this says more generally about the relationship between literature and the Bible in the Romantic period is that there is evidence to support that the Bible is as rich and as fertile of a text for the imagination of these poets as it was for the religious fervor and intellectual sincerity of a history over a thousand years old. This is a tradition that, writing from the perspective of the twenty-first century, has gone far beyond Blake’s achievements three hundred years ago. The ubiquity of Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in twentieth century culture, an issue not touched on in this paper, is at least one example that shows that the Bible remains as rich and fertile a ground for literary and cultural imaginations to this day. If this is true, what is truly seen in Blake is a significant shift or addition to a tradition of appropriation, interpretation, belief, and artistic creation that centers on this ancient sacred text and the western tradition’s relationship with it.
The significance of such a shift can only be understood by exploring Blake’s radical reformation of the dynamics of the relationship between heaven and hell into a marriage. This investigation is beyond the scope of this paper. For now, the significance must be found in the understanding of his appropriation of biblical themes as a means not only to divorce ourselves from old understandings of the Bible, but also to usher in new understandings that revitalize the biblical story in a manner which seems to be saying:
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 thro’ narrow
Chinks of his cavern. (154)
(c) 2006 Clark Waggoner
May not be used or republished without permission.
Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Blake: Complete Writings. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. Guernsey: Oxford, 1966. 148-160.
Schock, Peter A. “‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:’ Blake’s Myth of Satan and its Cultural Matrix.” ELH 60.2 (1993): 441-471.
Stewart, Dave. “The Context of Blakean Contraries in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.’” Essays in Literature 21.1 (1994): 43-54.
Villalobos, John. “William Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’ and the Tradition of Wisdom Literature.” Studies in Philology 87.2 (1990): 246-260.