Part 4: Without Contraries is No Progression

During the 1790s, the Enlightenment critique of religion was to advance rapidly into outright hostility. Critical ideas that had been the preserve of an elite of educated philosophers or the rich echelons of society were taken up in very different forms by a wider section of society.

The Bible of Hell

As has been noted, a considerable amount of The Marriage echoes some of the classical Enlightenment critique of religion that could be discovered in Hume, Voltaire and Bayle. For example, in his The Natural History of Religion (1757), David Hume offered the following account of the origins of polytheism that appears to share some similarities with Blake’s version of the beginnings of religion which we have already encountered in chapter 1:

…if, leaving the works of nature, we trace the footsteps of invisible power in the various and contrary events of human life, we are necessarily led into polytheism and to the acknowledgement of several limited and imperfect deities. Storms and tempests ruin what is nourished by the sun. The sun destroys what is fostered by the moisture of dews and rains. War may be favourable to a nation, whom the inclemency of the seasons afflicts with famine. Sickness and famine may depopulate a kingdom, amidst the most profuse plenty… In short, the conduct of events, or what we call the plan of a particular providence, is so full of variety and uncertainty, that, if we suppose it immediately ordered by any intelligent beings, we must acknowledge a contrariety in their designs and intentions, a constant combat of opposite powers, and a repentance or change of intention in the same power, from impotence or levity. Each nation has its titular deity. Each element is subject to its invisible power or agent. The province of each god is separate from that of another. (Hume 6)

The resemblances between Hume’s and Blake’s texts are that both look for the human rather than superhuman origins of religion (at least – explicitly – in polytheism), and Hume’s combative vision of the natural world appears to share features with Blake’s universe of contraries. The differences, however, are more profound: for Hume, the beginnings of religion are fear, war, famine and privation – faced with uncontrollable nature mankind takes refuge in the whims and caprices of human projections, a position that was espoused as one of the three principles of history by Giambattista Vico in his Scienza Nuova (New Science 1725). While Blake does not spell out the motivating desire that leads to religion in plate 11 of The Marriage, by placing its origins in the words of poets immediately he conveys a very different source for religious sentiment than fear, for it is priests not poets who “choose systems of worship from poetic tales” (E38) and so corrupt the original impulse. Likewise, the contrarian nature of Blake’s angels and devils is not that of domination and extermination through war, the subordination of one opposite to another, but argument and intellectual fight whereby angels may become devils (and, presumably, though it must be admitted Blake offers no concrete examples of this in The Marriage, devils transform into angels).

While Blake, like the philosophes, has no truck with conventional organised religion, he does not strike camp with the philosophers. In his first experiments in illuminated printing, All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion, he had critiqued the use of reason as sufficient to explain religion, choosing instead imagination as its source: “Conclusion, If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character. the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.” (E3) To depend on reason alone, as Hume and others had done, is to submit to the dull round in which mankind must ultimately acquiesce to a Deism in which the original creator (or creators) is resigned to rule according to either the iron laws of necessitarianism or fear. While Blake maintained this position throughout his life, he could, however, understand the significance of contemporary attacks on superstition and priestcraft. In his annotations to Robert Watson, Bishop of Landaff’s An Apology for the Bible (1797), written in response to Paine’s The Age of Reason (1794-5), Blake observes that “It is an easy matter for a Bishop to triumph over Paines attack but it is not so easy for one who loves the Bible” (E611), indicating that while Paine’s Deism troubled him greatly he also recognised the need for such revolutionary attacks on organised religion.

Blake was to decide that, according to E. P. Thompson, Paine had not understood the Everlasting Gospel but was correct in his assault on moral law (Thompson 60), but his radical sympathies with Paine are indicated by an observation near the beginning of his copy of An Apology for the Bible: “I have been commanded from Hell not to print this as it is what our Enemies wish” (E611). What is more radical than Paine, and which continues to make The Marriage such a remarkable text, is that not only does not Blake remark himself as aware of being of the devil’s party but recruits the fount of Christianity to the same cause:

Once I saw a Devil in a flame of fire. who arose before an Angel that sat on a cloud. and the Devil utterd these words.
The worship of God is. Honouring his gifts in other men each according to his genius. and loving the greatest men best, those who envy or calumniate great men hate God, for there is no other God.
The Angel hearing this became almost blue but mastering himself he grew yellow, & at last white pink & smiling, and then replied,
Thou Idolater, is not God One? & is not he visible in Jesus Christ? and has not Jesus Christ given his sanction to the law of ten commandments and are not all other men fools, sinners, & nothings?
The Devil answer’d; bray a fool in a morter with wheat. yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him: if Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love him in the greatest degree; now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbaths God? murder those who were murderd because of him? turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? steal the labor of others to support him? bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? covet when he pray’d for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments: Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules.
When he had so spoken: I beheld the Angel who stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire & he was consumed and arose as Elijah.
Note. This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend: we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense which the world shall have if they behave well (E43-4)

As philosophers and priests looked for the origins of religion in fear and reason, Blake’s source was very different Jesus Christ was the “greatest man” because he “acted from impulse: not from rules”. In his later works, particularly Milton and Jerusalem, Blake linked deistic Natural Religion and pious Moral Law as twin pillars of repression, the gods of this world as it were; as Christ opposes such worldly deities which comprise our mind-forg’d manacles, then the only option for both Blake (and Christ) to ally with the devil and produce the “Bible of Hell: which the world shall have whether they will or no” (E44).

Of the Devils party

While much of The Marriage was written as a counter-argument to Swedenborg, for the majority of readers it is Blake’s argument with Milton that has proved to be more stimulating and controversial, taking on as he does one of the greatest poets in the English canon.

On Plates 5 and 6, Blake provides a summary of his response to Paradise Lost which has become one of the most famous readings ever to have been made of the poem, even more remarkably so considering its brevity:

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restraind it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost. & the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah.
And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is calld the Devil or Satan and his children are call’d Sin & Death
But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call’d Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties
It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out. but the Devils account is, that the Messiah fell. & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss
This is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire that Reason may have Ideas to build on, the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he, who dwells in flaming fire.
Know that after Christs death, he became Jehovah.
But in Milton; the Father is Destiny, the Son, a Ratio of the five senses. & the Holy-ghost, Vacuum!
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it (E34-5)

Here Paradise Lost provides a specific textual example of the more philosophical statement that precedes it: as the narrator has inverted the relationship between energy and reason to explain the error of biblical codes, so this diabolical reader (the section is titled “The voice of the Devil”) now performs a similar reversal of the typically reception of Milton’s account of the war in heaven, ascribing the role of heroic messiah to Satan and concluding with his famous assertion that Milton was “of the Devils party without knowing it.”

Readings of Milton by the Romantics generally, and Blake in particular, have been well-discussed, providing for Blake a role model for the sublime and religious verse (see, for example, Newlyn, Wittreich and Dunbar). At the time of writing The Marriage, it is not necessarily the case that Blake’s knowledge of Milton extended much further than Paradise Lost, although he draws on images from the ode On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity in Europe A Prophecy. A more extensive demonstration of his knowledge, however, is clear after 1800, not only in his composition of Milton a Poem but also the series of illustrations to Milton’s works undertaken for a number of clients and covering a very wide range. In this he was almost certainly stimulated by William Hayley who was working on completing Cowper’s edition of Milton while Blake was at Felpham (having written a Life of Milton in the early 1790s). Of these illustrated works, Dunbar remarks that they show how “Blake’s relationship with Milton never became a slavish, one-sided affair” but was instead “a lively, stimulating, intimate, intense, and provocative kinship of mind and spirit” (Dunbar 1).

It is important to note that Blake’s comments on Milton in The Marriage do not represent his whole opinion of the poet, which indicated much greater complexity in the nineteenth century. Not that he necessarily became less critical of the epic poet: if, as Lucy Newlyn points out, Milton is more important in Blake’s works after the return from Felpham then his concerns have also deepened, for he saw that “the classicist had won out over the Hebrew prophet” (Newlyn 260), impairing Milton’s poetic craft and corrupting it to the services of war.

While being aware, then, that Blake’s response to Milton is much more complex than the few lines from The Marriage cited previously would indicate, there is a pugnacious attitude that runs through all his references to the poet. Although being much more receptive to Milton’s revolutionary credentials than many writers of the eighteenth century, Blake has little time for the hagiography that had attended the epic creator of Paradise Lost. The irony of the rebuke to one who could only write at liberty when writing of the devil’s party should not be forgotten (after all, this is not Blake’s voice, but that of the devil); it is also quite clear from Milton a Poem that Blake does not regard Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. However, the remark in The Marriage draws attention to the unconscious energies of Milton’s work and seems especially perceptive insofar as it draws attention to the repressed features of the poet’s life: the pamphleteer of political liberty could also serve a republican dictatorship, the theological freethinker ended with a vision of God as predestinarian tyrant, and the biblical prophet was seduced by the possibilities of neoclassical militarism.

The Song of Liberty

Ultimately, Blake does not simply invert the marriage of heaven and hell simply to place Satan in the role of Messiah. The whole of The Marriage is a satirical rebuke to Milton’s pomposity and autocracy that deploys a playful energy to indulge the unconscious desires that Milton dares not indulge and so – ironically – renders more dangerous in their repressed perversity: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence”, as one of the Proverbs of Hell has it.

It is this sense of play that remains with the reader long after the conundrums of Swedenborgianism, or the subtleties of arguments with Milton have been settled. The ideas of The Marriage are astonishing, and Swinburne was surely right to number this book among the most profound produced in English literature, but those ideas ferment and proliferate because presented the boldest, liveliest and most vivacious style possible. Blake ends his satire with “A Song of Liberty”, heralding in his prophetic voice the power of revolutionary forces unleashed in France, searching for the day when “Empire is no more!” Although that declaration was premature, the line with which The Marriage concludes demonstrates just how far his vision was able to see beyond what would become factional power struggles within the French National Assembly and between the nations of Europe: “Everything that lives is Holy” (E45).