Part 2: The Form & Style of the Marriage

As it is not clearly dated on its title page, for some time there was considerable confusion as to when Blake had actually published The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with scholars selecting dates between 1790 and 1793 according to contextual hints that they sought in the text. It is now accepted that Blake completed all twenty-seven of the plates in the book in 1790, printing most of the extant copies that survive in that year, although he produced three more in the mid-1790s and another two richly illuminated versions in 1818 and 1827.

The Evolution of The Marriage

In the course of bibliographical work over the past two decades to establish the actual date of publication of The Marriage, Joseph Viscomi in particular has drawn attention to the unusual – convoluted, even – history of its printing. Eaves, Essick and Viscomi observe in their introduction to The Early Illuminated Books that “there are clear indications that the Marriage was not begun and finished overnight”, including different shaped letters (particularly lower-case g’s with serifs on the left, right or missing) and text that is in upright roman script in some places but slanted italics elsewhere. They conclude, however, that “the best evidence suggests that the twenty-seven plates of the Marriage took him months rather than years.” (Eaves, Essick, Viscomi 114)

In three essays published in the late 1990s, Viscomi traced the evolution of The Marriage’s publication, drawing on some of the observations that first appeared in Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993), where he had argued that it was probably printed shortly before he began etching plates for C. G. Salzman’s Elements of Morality in October 1790 (Viscomi 1993 259). In the first of his three related essays, Viscomi proposed that The Marriage had developed through four to six distinct printing sessions, suggesting that Blake did not have a completed manuscript before he began work (Viscomi 1997 58-9). The subsequent essays draw upon this technical insight to make observations about how plates 21-4 were intended as a separate pamphlet (1998) and the connections between references to printmaking in the text and Swedenborg (1999). At this point, it is the first essay on the evolution of the printing process that is most relevant.

By measuring impressions on copies of The Marriage, Viscomi established that plates 21-4 had been cut from the same piece of copper and were probably produced as a separate pamphlet before work began on the rest of the book. Indeed, one early copy of The Marriage, Copy K, consists only of these four plates which begin with the line “I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise” and conclude with “I have also: The Bible of Hell: which the world shall have whether they will or no.” (E42-3)

Through his meticulous reconstruction of the plates, Viscomi is able to propose that Blake used seven plates to print the entire Marriage, cutting larger sheets of copper to make the smaller pages of his book. He is also able to suggest a chronology for the sequence in which The Marriage was composed, some parts of this chronology (such as the original, anti-Swedenborgian pamphlet) being more firmly established than others. As such, Viscomi’s argument is that Blake composed his book in the following order of plates: 21-4, 12-13, 1-3, 5-6, 11, 6-10, 14, 15, 16-20, 25-7 (1997 48). That Blake then chose to rearrange his plates into the order in which we typically read them now (plates 1-27), extending what began as a pamphlet into a much more ambitious literary work, has important consequences for the fragmentary nature of this remarkable book. “Blake appears to have changed his mind about publishing an independent pamphlet – and/or a series of individual pamphlets to constitute a Bible of Hell – deciding instead to publish a group of interrelated variations on a set of themes, nearly all of which are raised in some form or another in the original pamphlet.” (Viscomi 1997 60)

The form of The Marriage

Viscomi’s careful and technically intricate set of essays offers a compelling insight into the development of Blake’s ideas, how the disjointed and apparently arbitrary nature of The Marriage emerged from a series of interrelated pamphlets. Nonetheless, while this explains how the book came to be printed in the form in which it comes down to us, as Viscomi himself observes it does not explain the very strong reactions which readers have had when reading this very strange text.

Aside from occasional notices of sale, there was little in the way of response to The Marriage in Blake’s lifetime, and if his original intention of provoking a reaction among Swedenborgians met with any success there is no record of this. Of his later acquaintances such as John Linnell and Samuel Palmer who read the book, they left few comments and the reason why may be gathered from a letter which Palmer sent to Anne Gilchrist in 1862, in which he recommends she censor the text:

I think the whole page at the top of which I have made a cross in red chalk would at once exclude the work from every drawing-room table in England. Blake has said the same kind of thing to me; in fact almost everything contained in the book; and I can understand it in relation to my memory of the whole man, in a way quite different to that roaring lion the “press,” or that red lion the British Public. (Cited in Bentley 431)

Anne did, in the end, allow substantial portions of The Marriage to be published in her husband’s Life of William Blake although with very little in the way of critical commentary, remarking instead that “the student of Blake will find in Mr Swinburne’s William Blake, A Critical Essay, all the light that can be thrown by the vivid imagination and subtle insight of a poet on this as on the later mystic or ‘Prophetic Books.’” (Gilchrist 68) Swinburne himself declared The Marriage “the greatest of all his [Blake’s] books: a work indeed which we rank as about the greatest produced by the eighteenth century in the line of high poetry and spiritual speculation” (Swinburne 204) and, in contrast to the majority of nineteenth-century commentators, saw the variety and audacity of its paradoxes, heresies and eccentricities as examples of Blake’s writing at its most profound.

The content alone was not all that caused early critics apart from Swinburne to falter in their assessment of The Marriage. As the editors of the Blake Archive observe, Blake’s heterodox perspectives further disorient readers through a radical combination of genres – poetry, prose, cultural history and Menippean satire. This latter form, which began to be applied to The Marriage by Blake scholars in the 1990s, originated in the now lost works of Menippus, a Greek Cynic and satirist who lived in the third century BC and whose texts influenced classical writers such as Varro and Lucan (and whose influence on Blake Leslie Tannenbaum noted in the 1970s). Menippean satire combined different genres and styles of writing as well as rapidly shifting viewpoints, a miscellany or medley of positions and situations that can be observed in such writers as Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll. “In philosophy, Menippean satire is a method for analyzing propositions, clearing off conceptual confusion, and discrediting intellectual mythology.” (Kaplan 21)

Dustin Griffin remarks, with some justice, that “although Blakeans have seen the Marriage as prophetic satire, they have by and large done little more than label it a ‘Menippean satire’.” (Griffin 57) Part of the reason for this is due to the revision of our understanding of The Marriage’s evolution in the light of Viscomi’s careful bibliographical work: Blake did not set out to write a miscellany; rather one emerged during the rather complex schedule of etching different plates. Nonetheless, if he did not intend to produce a Menippean satire Blake appeared happy enough with the final disjointed form of his book. The startling variations that occur from plate to plate, or section to section, serve as intellectual shocks to the reader that prevent him or her from settling too comfortably in the precincts of hell or the fields of heaven.

Proverbs and Fancies

Despite the incongruities in the production and form of The Marriage, it must also be recognised that as well as strong thematic consistencies running throughout the entire text there are also repeated formal motifs that provide some coherence to the structure of the book. For Martin Nurmi, the book “developed according to no traditional logic or plan” (Nurmi 51) and yet, as John Howard suggests, “Blake’s infernal philosophy emerges from what is superficially a disjointed collection of heterodox thoughts and fanciful experiences”, and that “the work has a unity, though it escapes the reader at first” (Howard 61).

This formal unity is most evident in the series of Memorable Fancies. These comprise the greater part of The Marriage and while the situation and perspective of each one can be radically different (whether dining with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, for example, or witnessing an angel and devil conversing over the true nature of Jesus), after only a few encounters the sudden punctuations of each of these fantasies leads the reader to expect tumult and disorder. This anticipation of anarchy itself provides an unusual form of coherence, an act of imaginative reading whereby we are expected to make intellectual leaps between each scene in a form befitting Menippean satire.

The first of the Memorable Fancies offers a short prologue to the section of The Marriage that has become the most famous:

As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity. I collected some of their Proverbs: thinking that as The sayings used in a nation, mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell, shew the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments.
When I came home; on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat sided steep frowns over the present world. I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of the rock, with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence now percieved by the minds of men, & read by them on earth.
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? (E35)

Many of the individual proverbs that follow, such as “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” or “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion”, have become memorable in their own right, detached from the immediate contexts of the work in which they first appeared. These maxims obviously have their roots in biblical proverbs such as those found in Ecclesiastes, but whereas the general tenor of the older sayings is conservative in character that of those in The Marriage is deliberately provocative and disturbing. Probably only the aphorisms of Nietzsche approach Blake’s for boldness, but in their economy, vividness and sustained wit Blake’s proverbs are without peer in the literature of any language.

The Memorable Fancy that precedes the Proverbs of Hell also indicates the important transformation of perception that Blake expected to accompany the act of reading: as another famous adage expresses it pithily, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.” Thus, according to traditional theories of experience espoused by Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, perception was largely a passive affair in which the external world illuminated the closed cave of human senses. Blake, however, unfolds the cave, opens up the abyss so that the bird becomes an “immense world” when understood by the imagination. Rather than the operation of transcendent reason organising passive sense impressions, active imagination proceeds from the desires of the body. Such an understanding is indicated in the following Memorable Fancy in which the narrator sits down to dinner with Isaiah and Ezekiel:

I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert. that God spake to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.
Isaiah answer’d. I saw no God. nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded. & remain confirm’d; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.
Then I asked: does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?
He replied. All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing. (E38-9)

As such, the form and structure of The Marriage is designed to compel this perception of the infinite in everything, the “firm perswasion” that it is imagination that shapes the world rather than vice versa, a conscious reformation that, as Gross remarks, is a vital, libidinous and necessary response to the grinding development of political systems of his day (Gross 176). Blake’s point is polemical and contentious – deliberately so – but the important point here is that by refusing the conventions of an orderly narrative, the support of rational, organised, and also restricted thought, the book brings reason to the the abyss of senses so that by falling into the precipice of rational thought it will be forced to take flight, for “No bird soars too high. if he soars with his own wings.” (E36)