Part 1: The Eternal Hell Revives

As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent: the Eternal Hell revives. And lo! Swedenborg is The Angel sitting at the tomb; his writings are the linen clothes folded up. Now is the dominion of Edom, & the return of Adam into Paradise; see Isaiah XXXIV & XXXV Chap:
Without Contraries is no progression. 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. (E34)

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, published in 1790, is one of the strangest and most remarkable books ever to have been written. Although little noticed during Blake’s lifetime (and discussion of it largely repressed by those who had read it), it has also become one of the most important of his works to writers such as Algernon Charles Swinburne, Angela Carter, and Salman Rushdie whose books have been greatly influenced by its astonishing ideas and rhetoric.

The Marriage began as a pamphlet denouncing the system devised by the eighteenth century mystic and scientist, Emanuel Swedenborg, but it quickly developed into a much more radical assault on the conventions of religion, politics and morality, as well as providing ironic critiques of the theology of Milton and the Bible. Blake’s idiosyncratic, unsettling style and his resolution to write in the voice of the devil was also a response to the drama of the French Revolution, a time when the entire world appeared to have been turned upside down, when the conventions and certainties of Europe became less certain.

The Contrary Vision

As we shall see in the next chapter, The Marriage is not entirely a text that is sui generis, but it is certainly one whose format is exceedingly rare, a factor that accounts for its continuing ability to shock and stimulate generations of readers. The editors of the William Blake Trust/Tate Gallery edition of the book offer one of the best summaries of its effect:

The Marriage, provocative, mocking, sexy, pushy, and playful, bristles with… rebellious optimism. Its gumption is never exposed as bravado, and, although it hammers mercilessly on Emanuel Swedenborg and his “angelic” followers, the mockery is never disillusioned but youthfully, cheerfully antagonistic to foolish conventionality. (Eaves, Essick, and Viscomi 116-7)

After the Argument, which introduces one of Blake’s mythological figures, Rintrah, the just man driven from the paradise that he creates by a villain of false humility who prefers to steal the labour of others than disturb his ease, Blake establishes the key motifs of The Marriage in the plate cited at the beginning of this chapter. While the structure of The Marriage has often defied critics – S. Foster Damon called it a “scrap-book of Blake’s philosophy” (Damon 88) and Michael Ferber thought it a “structureless structure” (Ferber 90) – many have understood immediately the intellectual significance of Blake’s satire, exposing conventional folly through a system of dynamic contraries. Contraries – attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate and, of course, heaven and hell – display a significant element in Blake’s thought: one is not simply the negative or absence of the other. As he was to write in Milton a Poem, “Contraries are Positives / A Negation is not a Contrary” (E129). Blake’s contraries share some features with those of other dialectical philosophers, from ancient Heraclitus through to Hegel writing after him, but – on the face of it, at least – he rejects what can be seen in all those writers as a tendency to subordinate one antinomy to another.

For a truly dynamic system, Blake argues that the opposing elements of human experience must engage equally with each other. Blake’s attempt to avoid the hierarchy of one term over another which is typical of the exercise of power is compelling but ultimately fails: if this is the marriage of heaven and hell, then too often, as critics have noted, it is devils who triumph over angels. When Harold Bloom attempted to demonstrate the dialectical progress that he argued was evident in the text, he did so “in a spirit of tentativeness, respecting its innate trickery” (Bloom 501).

Much of this is due to the extremely important nature of Blake’s struggle with notions of good and evil. John Howard saw The Marriage as “Blake’s prophetic testament on evil and the way to escape it” (Howard 61), which is to work by removing orthodox opposition to sensual enjoyment using his “infernal method of printing” which espouses irony, humour and provocation to subvert systems of codified morality. One means by which Blake does this is to deny the existence of evil – at least as it is commonly understood. Sensual enjoyment is not a negation of being in the Augustinian notion of evil but rather its very fulfilment. Yet here arises an important conceptual difficulty for Blake’s own system, for the temptation then is simply to invert the traditional hierarchies of good and evil, heaven and hell – to declare, as Satan does in Paradise Lost, “Evil, be thou my good” – so that frequently the angels appear as little more than privations of his diabolical heroes. It may be such radical subversion was necessary in the revolutionary contexts of 1790, and the importance of striking against his conservative enemies did not provide him with the luxury of that subtlety of the contrary states of the human soul he was later to demonstrate in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Nonetheless, this relative failure to achieve a true marriage does indicate the considerable difficulty that Blake had, not merely to oppose one system to another in a spirit of rebellion but to break free of systems altogether.

Reason and Energy

If the relationship of good and evil is a fundamental moral concern of The Marriage, then the metaphysical origin of conventional dualism also has an important role to play, and this Blake traces to what he considers its source in the split between body and soul, outlined most clearly in plate 4:

All Bibles or sacred codes. have been the causes of the following Errors.

  1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
  2. That Energy. calld Evil. is alone from the Body. & that Reason. calld Good. is alone from the Soul.
  3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

  1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses. the chief inlets of Soul in this age
  2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is The bound or outward circumference of Energy.
  3. Energy is Eternal Delight (E34)

The origins of good and evil lie in religions and the errors of their sacred codes, fundamental to which is the separation of soul and body, the latter being repressed in the service of the former. However, religious folly, which denies the true nature of humanity by denying the body, is also served by philosophy. Since Plato’s division of reason from appetite at least, philosophy had been complicit in the error of dualism and this is an important area in which Blake distinguishes himself from Enlightened anti-religious commentators: Cartesian dualism may have been an extreme version, but to Blake most if not all Enlightenment philosophers had mistakenly deposed a theistic god, only to replace him with deistic reason that was equally effective in repressing the desires and energy of the body, forgetting the origins of intellectual life that lay in those desires.

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged &  numerous senses could percieve.

And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country. placing it under its mental deity.
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood.
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounced that the Gods had orderd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast. (E38)

Robert Essick has noted the ways in which politics, science, the Bible, and linguistics collide in Blake’s work during the 1790s (Essick 189), and though this was particularly the case following the publication of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason in 1794, the beginning of the decade saw a surge in biblical exegesis that spread the fruits of Enlightenment criticism. Much of what Blake writes in plate 11 above would not look entirely out of place in David Hume, Voltaire, Pierre Bayle or Constantin Volney, but Blake’s attitude to perception creates an important distinction from such figures: for them, reason operates upon the faculties of sense as a higher order, ordering and categorising sense impressions. However, for Blake the role of energy and imagination as the animating motivation of such systems of categorisation (whereby poets placed cities and countries under mental deities) returns the desires of the body to the highest capabilities of which humanity is capable.

Blake’s final statement, that “All deities reside in the human breast”, can be read as remarkably close to atheism: however, it is more accurate to emphasise that in this and his other works he emphasises again and again the divine nature of humanity. God is a creation of imagination, and Blake appears to have no problem with conceiving of man as the creator of God. Man’s mistake is to apotheosise his reason, abstracting a system of mental deities as separate from the material world and projecting it onto the heavens. Plate 11 explicitly attacks priestcraft, denounced by many Enlightenment philosophers as that scheme by which God was removed to the heavens from where he could still meddle in human affairs. The radical nature of Blake’s critique is that ultimately he sees little difference between such abstraction and that of the philosophers themselves, who removed the divine entirely from the universe and, through Deism, contented themselves with a prime mover which, like Newton’s Pantocrator, established an immutable system of nature that imposed upon the passive perception of mankind. Both priest and philosopher forgot that all divine energy resides in the human breast, not in an abstract out there, whether heaven or the origin of the universe.

Revolutionary Satire

While Blake’s Marriage may have begun life as an anti-Swedenborgian pamphlet, it very quickly transformed into a much more wide-ranging satire as the events of 1790 unfolded. David Erdman was one of the first critics to trace in detail the connection between The Marriage and the events of the French Revolution, although unfortunately the fact that he dates its composition between 1790 and 1793 means that he frequently looks for allusions that are simply not there, seeing the final “Song of Liberty”, for example, as a celebration of “the casting out of French monarchy and the rout… of Brunswick’s starry hosts” at the end of 1792 (Erdman 192).

By contrast, if we view Blake as being inspired into a new way of thinking by the progress of the Revolution in 1789-90, it is possible to understand more profoundly what Eaves, Essick and Viscomi recognise as the optimism of his diabolic support for what was taking place in France. After the meeting of the Three Estates in 1789 and the formation of a new National Assembly at the end of that year, which brought with it the promise of potential republicanism or at the very least constitutional monarchy, the Revolution was largely still in its benevolent phase. Certainly there had been the Great Fear of the Summer of 1789, which betokened the potential tyranny that would come, but the brief fits of violence that occurred, such as the storming of the Bastille, could still be presented as part of the progress of France towards enlightened government. Feudalism had been abolished and in May the Assembly had even renounced any involvement in wars of conquest. With the exception of Edmund Burke, perhaps, few suspected that the Revolution itself would lead directly to despotism, and even he could not have realised just how bloody the Terror would be when it was unleashed in 1793.

As such, Blake’s Marriage is a joyful manifesto, one which celebrates fully the revolutionary fervour that had exploded in France. Announcing himself as being of the devil’s party, he launched into radical visions with an exuberance that rapidly disappeared from his illuminated books as the decade progressed. There is little of that exultation in texts such as The [First] Book of Urizen or The Book of Ahania where the innocence of his diabolism is tempered by the knowledge of revolutionary violence. Peter A. Schock has observed the ways in which the figure and mythology of Satan was used by both radicals and conservatives in the early years of the Revolution. His argument, like that of Erdman, suffers slightly from the current understanding that The Marriage was published in 1790 (thus removing some of the immediate sources that he draws upon), but it is clear that British propaganda against Satanic rebels made Blake increasingly proud of his diabolism – at least until it became no longer safe to display such partisanship publicly (Schock 446).

Richard Cronin notes the difficulty of determining who The Marriage was actually written for, building on Howard’s observation that it could have been the circle around Joseph Johnson, which included Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft and Joseph Priestley. Cronin suggests that Blake had turned against the Swedenborgians when they abandoned the more revolutionary aspects of their founder’s ideals and increasingly declared themselves in favour of the political status quo (Cronin 48-51). Yet the Johnson circle, as Cronin observes, was not itself amenable to the wilder flights of fancy that Blake indulged in and, in Jon Mee’s words, The Marriage does not represent a retreat from conventional Christianity into Deism but rather a move into “radical enthusiasm” that would have been denounced by the rationalists gathered around Johnson’s table (Mee 53).

The Marriage, then, responds with energy and optimism to the events of 1789-1790. Although Blake had originally sought to mock the tenets of a fashionable but still slightly obscure sect in London, he quickly expanded his vision to politics, religion, and literature, easily sweeping in literary giants such as Milton. In tone and style, if not always in content, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is sometimes reminiscent of his earlier satire of the 1780s, the unpublished An Island in the Moon, mixing raucous Augustan comedy with matters of import. As the dawn of Revolution turned into the bloody sunset of the Terror, it was a mood that was largely to disappear from his writing for more than two decades.