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The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

One of William Blake's (1757-1827) most influential early works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) has had an immense cultural influence, influencing novelists and philosophers like Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) to musicians and songwriters such as Jim Morrison (1943-1971) of the American rock band The Doors. The short book consisted of 27 plates engraved in copper before being inked, pressed, and colored in Blake's innovative style. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell uses a mixture of prose, free verse poetry, proverbs, and illustrations to satirize 18th-century philosophical and religious beliefs while presenting the poet's own unique moral and spiritual vision.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Summary

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a short book comprised of 27 engraved plates. Some plates are filled with illustrations, while others are mainly text.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is split into ten sections that can be seen as chapters:

  1. "The Argument"
  2. "The Voice of the Devil"
  3. "A Memorable Fancy" (1)
  4. "Proverbs of Hell"
  5. "A Memorable Fancy" (2)
  6. "A Memorable Fancy" (3)
  7. "A Memorable Fancy" (4)
  8. "A Memorable Fancy" (5)
  9. "A Song of Liberty"
  10. "Chorus"

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell contains 5 "Memorable Fancies," which are imaginative encounters that the speaker has with angels or devils.

Book Cover: Plate 1

The title page shows an above and below-ground image of the earth, signifying heaven and hell. Two naked figures embrace in the flames while human spirits shoot upwards to the sky. In a single image, William Blake visually introduces his idea of blurring the lines between good and evil, which is the premise of his book.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Cover, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This is one of several versions of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — though copies of the text were made using the same copper plates, each was watercolored by hand differently.

"The Argument": Plates 2-3

Rintrah, an angry, wrathful figure who roars as clouds approach, is introduced without explanation. The story of the “just man” is contrasted with that of the “villain” (plate 2). The "just man" once bravely kept to a “perilous path” until driven off of it into a “path of ease” by the villain (2). Now the just man “rages in the wilds / Where lions roam” (2).

Rintrah is Blake's version of an Old Testament prophet inspired to proclaim God's messages.

The speaker announces that a “new heaven” began 33 years ago (plate 3). This corresponds to the year 1757. This was the year of Blake’s birth but also, according to the Swedish religious mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, the year that the Last Judgment had taken place.

33 was also the age of Jesus Christ when he was crucified and died.

The speaker then introduces the idea that “contraries” such as “Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate” are the cause of progression and are necessary for human existence (3). It then provides a radical redefinition of good and evil: “Good” is “the passive that obeys reason,” and “Evil” is only “the active springing from Energy” (3).

"The Voice of the Devil": Plates 4-7

The speaker proclaims “the Voice of the Devil” and explains that all religions have incorrectly divided body and soul and associated evil with bodily energy and good with reason and the soul (plate 4). Plate 4 states that “man has no Body distinct from his Soul,” both of them being different forms of “Energy,” which is itself defined as “Eternal Delight.”

The speaker elaborates on the argument that so-called evil is energy and good is passive obedience to reason. When desire loses to reason, it says, it is only because the desire is weak enough to be diminished into a “shadow of desire” (plate 5).

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Black and White Hands, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The devil's logic blurs the lines between good and evil.

Blake speaks of John Milton's messiah because, in Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), Satan is portrayed as more energetic and appealing than God and the other angels. Blake describes Milton as "of the Devil's party without knowing it" (plate 6).

"The Voice of the Devil" section ends halfway down plate 6, and "A Memorable Fancy" (1) begins on the same plate.

"A Memorable Fancy" (1): Plates 6-7

The speaker recounts the book’s first “Memorable Fancy,” with the word "fancy" designating an imaginary experience.

When he was “walking among the fires of Hell,” the speaker collected some “Proverbs of Hell” to demonstrate Hell’s wisdom to the earthly world (plate 6). When the speaker returned to the world, he saw “a mighty Devil folded in black clouds” write the following words on the surface of a rock (6):

How do you know but ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way,

Is an immense world of delight closed by your senses five?"

(plate 7)

"A Memorable Fancy" (1) ends on plate 7, and "Proverbs of Hell" begins on the same plate.

"Proverbs of Hell": Plates 7-11

“Proverbs of Hell” contains 70 proverbs and a paragraph about the nature of poetry and religion.

A proverb is a short saying meant to embody some larger truth. Proverbs are often common folk sayings that exist in all languages. Common English proverbs include sayings like “waste not, want not” and “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

The Bible’s Book of Proverbs is perhaps the best-known collection of proverbs. It provides short sayings that illustrate God's wisdom.

Some of the most memorable proverbs from this section include:

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."

(plate 7)

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise."

(plate 7)

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.”

(plate 8)

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unattended desires."

(plate 10)

It is unclear to what degree these proverbs are meant to be taken literally, as bits of wisdom distilled by Blake's devils, and to what degree they are supposed to be satirical, making fun of conventional proverbial wisdom.

The list of proverbs ends with a paragraph of text stating that ancient religion began as a kind of poetry, in which each object in the natural world was turned into a “natural deity” based on what their “enlarged and numerous senses” could perceive (plate 11). Over time, people began to abstract these deities from the real objects in the world that they were intended to describe. So began priesthood and organized religion, leading people to forget that “All deities reside in the human breast” and giving churches and their administrators power over others (11).

"A Memorable Fancy" (2): Plates 12-14

In the second “Memorable Fancy,” the speaker converses with the Biblical Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. The speaker asks the prophets how they knew that God spoke to them. They agree that “a firm persuasion that a thing is so” makes it true (plate 12). They also agree that “Poetic Genius” is the most important way of accessing the truth (plate 13).

The speaker goes on to state that the world “will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years” but that this will make everything “infinite and holy” whereas it is now “finite and corrupt” (plate 14). This will be accomplished further through an “improvement of sensual enjoyment” (14).

The speaker then repeats the need to destroy false beliefs, such as that body and soul are separate. He concludes with the famous statement:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite."

(plate 14)

" A Memorable Fancy" (3): Plates 15-17

In the third “Memorable Fancy,” the speaker visits a printing house in hell containing six chambers. Each chamber contains different creatures: dragons, vipers, eagles, lions, and eventually men. These represent the progressive improvement of humankind’s ability to perceive the world.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 16, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Plate 16 illustrates the sadness of the chained "Giants" Blake writes about.

Plate 16 has a picture of five sad-looking men huddled together on the floor. The first line of text explains that these are the “Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence” (plate 16). Plate 16 divides people into two categories: the “Prolific” or creative, and the “Devourers” or consumers. These two types of people are enemies, though religion tries to bring them together.

The third "Memorable Fancy" ends on plate 17, the same plate on which the fourth "Memorable Fancy" begins.

"A Memorable Fancy" (4): Plates 17-22

In the fourth “Memorable Fancy,” an angel warns the speaker that they are doomed to a “hot burning dungeon” (plate 17). The speaker asks the angel to show him his fate, and they descend in stages from a stable, to a church, to a tomb, to a mill, and finally into an Abyss. They see warring black and white spiders in the Abyss, and the angel informs the speaker that his place is between them.

Suddenly Leviathan, an enormous sea creature, arrives. The angel is scared away, but when he leaves, the whole Abyss disappears, and the speaker finds himself next to a river with a man singing:

The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.”

(plate 19)

Realizing that hell was just a creation of the angel, the speaker then finds the angel and forcibly shows him his own future, with a series of monkey-like figures fighting and devouring each other. The speaker grabs the skeleton of one of the dead figures before fleeing and later discovers that it contains a copy of a work of Aristotle’s philosophy. He dismisses the angel as a useless philosopher.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 21, StudySmarterFig. 4 - At the top of plate 21, the nude man sitting by the river and gazing at the sky refers to the speaker's escape from the angel's abyss.

The speaker notes that angels insolently believe themselves the sole possessors of knowledge because of their over-reliance on “systematic reasoning” (plate 21). He then criticizes the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg for only relying on an unoriginal conversation with angels, never bothering to speak to devils. He claims that the writings of Dante and Shakespeare are infinitely better.

The fourth "Memorable Fancy" ends and the fifth begins on plate 22.

"A Memorable Fancy" (5): Plates 22-24

In the fifth “Memorable Fancy,” an angel and devil confront each other. The devil shocks the angel by stating:

The worship of God is Honouring his gifts in other men"

(plate 22)

The angel responds that Christ alone should be worshiped, but the devil points out that Christ himself broke all of the Ten Commandments in one way or another. The angel is eventually convinced that this is true, and a note informs us that the angel has become a devil and is now a good friend of the speaker and that they often read “The Bible of Hell” together (plate 24).

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 24, StudySmarterFig. 5 - The naked man crawling is likely King Nebuchadnezzar, a biblical king who destroyed Jerusalem and went crazy, beginning to eat grass.

"A Song of Liberty": Plates 25-27

"A Song of Liberty” is a triumphant declaration of the superiority of Blake’s devils over angels, linking them to the American and French Revolutions and declaring:

Empire is no more and now the Lion and Wolf shall cease."

(plate 27)

"Chorus": Plate 27

The chorus then zeroes in on religious authorities as a force of oppression. The book concludes with a simple but powerful declaration:

For every thing that lives is Holy."

Symbolism in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake's work is rich in complex and often idiosyncratic symbolism, which is just as often visual as textual. Some even argue that Blake's writing is "fundamentally symbolic."2

A full explanation of Blake's symbolism in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell would fill a book. This article will only note some of the work's more critical symbolic qualities: its use of traditional religious symbols, animal symbolism, and the beginnings of Blake's symbolic universe.

Religious Symbolism

Blake's inversion of traditional religious symbols is already clear from the image on the book's title page: the flames of hell, traditionally used to symbolize evil and eternal suffering, seem to give rise to trees and living human beings. At the same time, angels, who typically symbolize the divine and are god's messengers or helpers for humanity, are depicted as closed-minded, insolent, and inactive.

Animal Symbolism

Animals also make a number of appearances in the work. The "tigers of wrath" and the "horses of instruction" from the "Proverbs of Hell" are two of the most notable examples. Here the raw energy of the tiger is opposed to the relentless forward-plodding of the horse. The proverbs state that the tiger is the wiser of the two, which is another way of expressing Blake's preference for evil, re-conceived as creative energy, to good, which is passive reason.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Tiger in Water, StudySmarterFig. 6 - The tiger is an alluring, fearsome, and powerful creature representative of the appeal of evil.

Blake's Symbolic Universe

The unexplained Rintrah from the second plate of the book represents wrath, particularly the revolutionary wrath evident in the violence of the American and French Revolutions. Rintrah would eventually become just one of a number of characters that Blake invented to symbolize various qualities, such as Urizen for reason or Palambron for pity.3

Themes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Blake's deep interests in religion, philosophy, and politics are evident in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Morality and Religion

The work's central message is that heaven, hell, good, and evil have all been misrepresented by traditional religious beliefs (Christianity in particular). Hell and evil, especially, have gotten an undeservedly bad reputation. The work characterizes evil as a font of creative energy that good and its representatives have always tried to keep under control. Blake's moral vision, as expressed in this book, is the re-unification of heaven with hell, good with evil, and body with soul. Only after such a unification takes place will human beings be able to live fully.

Liberty and Revolution

Blake was keenly aware of the political developments of his time, notably the French Revolution, which was underway as he wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Conservatives in Blake's time interpreted the people's rebellion against their king as analogous to Satan's rebellion against God. Both were a result of the sin of pride and were doomed to failure.2

Blake, of course, saw things differently: Satan was right to rebel, and the creation of hell was not a failure but a triumph of creative energy and delight. Blake celebrates the overthrow of the monarchy and the end of empire (prematurely, as it turns out) as worldly manifestations of his call for the marriage of heaven and hell.

Hypocrisy

Blake's moral and political vision also addresses those who claim to be on the side of good and reason. These are specifically identified as priests and angels but could be any authority figures who promote the good of prudence and reason while condemning the evil of desire and creation. They are the targets of biting satire in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which laughs at the idea of hell being a place of eternal torment while depicting heaven and angels as cowardly, boring, and pompous.3

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Angel Statue, StudySmarterFig. 7 - Blake depicts angels and authority figures as hypocritical and boring.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Analysis

A medley of visual art and various literary forms, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a groundbreaking work touching on politics, psychology, and religion. Blake puts his unique engraving method and complex symbolism to work in his call for a dynamic union of opposites such as reason and passion, body and mind, good and evil, and heaven and hell. The driving force behind the work is the acknowledgment that these conflicting opposites can, if they are not suppressed, be a source of creative energy that is productive and moves humanity forwards.

One of Blake's targets, though not specified directly in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, was empiricist philosophy, especially as represented by the work of John Locke (1632-1704). Locke held that all knowledge resulted from sense perceptions and that the mind was a passive medium formed through experiences.

Do you think Locke's philosophy is compatible with Blake's message in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell? Why or why not?

Blake's inversion of traditional religious symbolism in the work amounts to a denial of heaven and hell in the traditional sense. We shouldn't think of passivity alone as good or of energy as demonic or evil. Blake invites us to explore the implications of this redefinition of good and evil in his open-ended, thought-provoking "Proverbs of Hell" while lampooning the upholders of traditional beliefs in his "Memorable Fancies." Blake's message failed to find a wide audience in his lifetime. Still, its revival in the 19th century would have enormous implications for both literature and pop culture, especially in the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - Key takeaways

  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is one of William Blake's earliest and most influential works.
  • The work is a series of 27 plates, each of which was etched in copper before being printed and colored in a process that Blake himself invented.
  • The work is a medley of visual art, free-verse poetry, prose, proverbs, satire, and song.
  • Its central message is that good and evil need to be re-conceived, with evil being productive, creative energy, and good being the passive acceptance of reason.
  • The book is most famous for its 70 "Proverbs of Hell," each demonstrating the book's central point or implications, often ironically adapting well-known proverbs.

References

  1. W. Blake and Sir Geoffrey Keynes (editor). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with an Introduction and Commentary. Oxford UP, 1975.
  2. L. Damrosch. Symbol and Truth in Blake's Myth. Princeton UP, 2014.
  3. N. Frye. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton UP, 2013.
  4. Fig. 1: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy I 1827 Fitzwilliam Museum object 1 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Marriage_of_Heaven_and_Hell_copy_I_1827_Fitzwilliam_Museum_object_1.jpg) image by William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  5. Fig. 2: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, copy I, object 16 (Bentley 16, Erdman 16, Keynes 16) (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Marriage_of_Heaven_and_Hell,_copy_I,_object_16_(Bentley_16,_Erdman_16,_Keynes_16).jpg) image by William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  6. Fig. 3: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy D 1795 Library of Congress object 21 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Marriage_of_Heaven_and_Hell_copy_D_1795_Library_of_Congress_object_21.jpg) image by William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  7. Fig. 4: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy I object 24 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Marriage_of_Heaven_and_Hell_copy_I_object_24.jpg) image by William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently Asked Questions about The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Blake radically re-defines hell and evil as creative energy, and heaven or good as the passive use of reason. The book generally advocates that the clash and reconciliation of opposites produces energy and moves the world forward, and the union of heaven and hell is the supreme example of this.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell has no hero in the traditional sense. The work's speaker, who recounts his "memorable fancies" with angels and devils and presents the Proverbs of Hell, could be thought of as a kind of hero.  The devils of the book, who represent creativity, energy, and freedom could perhaps also be seen as its heroes.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell's message is complicated, but it basically tells us that we need to re-evaluate our traditional beliefs about what is good and what is evil. Evil turns out to be a good and necessary form of creative energy when viewed from this new perspective.

While heaven and hell themselves are the main contraries the book deals with, it also attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, body and mind.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell defies classification into any one genre. It contains free verse poetry, proverbs, dialogue, and satire, among other things.

Final The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Quiz

Question

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell makes use of all of the following forms EXCEPT

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Answer

illustrations

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Question

What does Rintrah symbolize?

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Answer

Wrath

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Question

What does The Marriage of Heaven and Hell define as "the active springing from Energy"?

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Answer

evil

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Question

What does The Marriage of Heaven and Hell define as "the passive that obeys reason"?

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Answer

good

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Question

What is the best definition of a "Memorable Fancy" as used throughout the book?

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Answer

An imaginary encounter with an angel, devil, or other supernatural figure.

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Question

Which of the following could NOT be used to describe the "Proverbs of Hell"?

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Answer

moralistic

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Question

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell uses all of the following types of symbolism EXCEPT

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Answer

traditional religious symbolism

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Question

Which of the following are NOT major themes addressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell?

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Answer

Death and mortality

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Question

Which major historical event was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell contemporary with?

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Answer

The French Revolution

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Question

What technique did Blake use to create The Marriage of Heaven and Hell?

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Answer

His own unique engraved copper plates

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