Self-Imprisonment and Self-Liberation in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell
by Christine Hoff Kraemer
One of William Blake’s most radical departures from the conventional Christian theology of his time is his implicit denial that salvation comes through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. In explaining this denial, it is not enough to simply say that Blake’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin made Christ’s sacrifice unnecessary. Instead, we must examine the root of Blake’s rejection of original sin in his portrayal of the human condition. For Blake, the oppressed state in which human beings find themselves and from which they require liberation are mental prisons of their own creation. This theme is scattered throughout his works, but particularly resonates in the phrase “mind-forg'd manacles” of his poem “London,” and in his illustration of the Man in the Iron Cage for an edition of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. As Gerda S. Norvig points out in her examination of the plate, Blake’s portrayal of the Man in the Iron Cage emphasizes the fact that the cage is a metaphor for the man’s unyielding, delusional mind (161-2). Although in Bunyan’s text, the man blames God for his imprisonment (35), in Blake’s illustration he appears to be holding his own leg shackles onto his ankles. The cage itself is rendered almost two-dimensionally, giving an appearance of shallowness that makes the cage appear like a stage prop, lacking any real sides or top. In addition, the cage is built so badly it is hardly a cage at all; huge gaps between the unevenly spaced bars give us a clear line of sight at the man inside.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell emphasizes this theme of self-imprisonment and presents a process of self-liberation through the development of a kind of double vision. The work is a parodic examination of Christian theology from Hell’s point of view, in which Blake identifies Heaven with repressive Reason and Hell with Energy, the source of all poetic inspiration. The text proceeds by a series of dialogical movements as Blake plays with oppositions and double meanings and has his characters, both angelic and demonic, debate their respective positions, with the devils steadily maintaining the upper hand. The text culminates in the final “Song of Liberty,” is which Blake gives us a final celebratory vision of divine energy released from its state of repression, enabling the liberated human being to experience a world where “every thing that lives is Holy” (27). Though the narrative is full of the fantastic creatures of Heaven and Hell, the result is a remarkably human-centered theology: one that affirms that “All deities reside in the human breast” (11) and “those who envy or calumniate great men hate God; for there is no other God” (22).
As John Howard points out in Infernal Poetics, the frontispiece illustrates the complexity with which Blake navigates duality in Marriage. Although Heaven (on the upper half of the page) and Hell (on the lower) are joined, their edges blurring into each other, it is notable that the creatures living within each realm have no contact with the creatures of the other. Howard suggests that just as Heaven and Hell are opposed, the figures moving about represent contraries within each realm. Thus, the cover illustrates Blake’s initial position on the properties of Heaven and Hell, which illustrates “marriage” in a slightly different sense: the “marriages” belonging to Heaven and those belonging to Hell. In Hell, we observe joyfully coupling figures, perhaps symbolizing (as Howard suggests) energies joining “freely and equally” with “no domination or delusion” (69). At the upper half of the page, however, the figures are more restrained – the couple on the left seems to be chastely taking a stroll, while another figure engages in what Howard sees as “serenading” but which I read instead as a posture of grief, perhaps over a lost or unresponsive love. (Though the print is unclear, there may be a figure sitting at the base of the tree at the far right – a woman with her back turned.) The differing meanings of “marriage” in the two realms may suggest Blake’s own double perception of the matter as well as illustrate the way the free energies of Hell are repressed and restrained when they enter Heaven’s realm of Reason. G.E. Bentley, Jr.’s description of Blake’s happy and sexually liberated marriage resonates with the erotic images of Hell on the cover of Marriage, while the undemonstrative pairings of Heaven may represent the time’s common convention of arranged and loveless marriages.
Blake, however, does not intend that the ways of Hell should obliterate the realms of Heaven. His third plate announces:
As a new heaven is
begun . . . Now is the dominion of
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.
Read in the context of the previous
plate, The Argument, which tells the story of the “just man” being driven into
“barren climes” by the villain, Plate 3 suggests that the key to Adam’s return
Plate Four continues along the same theme, as Blake allows his embodiment of Energy, the Devil, to speak.
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, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd 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 call'd
Body is a portion of Soul discern'd 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
Interestingly, though the Devil maintains the relation of opposites in his portrayal of Reason and Energy, the character of this opposition is very different from that of Heaven’s portrayal, where Reason dominates and restrains Energy for the sake of the soul. In Hell’s portrayal, Body and Soul are one, and Reason is the binding or limiting quality of Energy, not an entirely separate phenomenon. Thus, rather than two separate forces that are at war, Reason is the property of Energy that keeps it from being fully expressed. From the Devil’s point of view this is an unconscionable error, because as long as Reason fails to recognize that it too springs from Energy, it seeks to contain and even to kill the thing that gives it life. As the Devil continues on Plate 5: “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 restrain'd it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.” If Energy is the only life, then from the Devil’s point of view at least, to allow Reason to dominate Energy is a living death.
Plate 6 once again echoes the image
with which we began our discussion: “the mind-forg’d
manacles,” or the idea that the true nature of humanity’s imprisonment is
mental. In the Voice of the Devil, Blake writes, “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.” Clearly
What, then, does Blake suggest is the cure for the mental imprisonment that blocks the source of life and poetry? One clue may be in his first “Memorable Fancy” which leads into the collected “Proverbs of Hell.” On Plates 6 and 7, Blake uses an image of infernal engraving that he repeats several times throughout the work. A mighty Devil writes “with corroding fires” on the sides of a rock the sentence, “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?” This short passage contains a number of “doubles” in both meaning and imagery. First, there is a doubling or opposition implied when Blake invokes the process of engraving, in which a design is burnt with acid into a copper plate, leaving a raised image and a negative image that is its opposite surrounding it. In order for the engraver to create an image in relief, he must burn away the areas that he does not want to print, leading to a kind of double vision in which positive space is created with negative space. Secondly, there is the use of the word “corroding,” which as Blake points out later in Plate 14, was also an adjective applied to medicines. Finally, there is the proverb itself, suggesting that in the mundane figure of the bird lies “an immense world of delight” closed off to the viewer only by the limitations of his senses. This double way of seeing, which Blake demonstrates in his infernal revisions of Christian theology – for both parties adopt the same history (3), yet come to different conclusions – is central to Blake’s program of self-liberation from Reason’s restraint.
Plate 7 begins the “Proverbs of Hell” section, which parodies the conventional wisdom of biblical proverbs with devilish alternatives. Opposed to the Book of Proverbs’ admonitions to moderation, control, and principled living, Blake offers sayings that celebrate inordinacy, offering gems such as “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom” and (recalling the pride of Lucifer, the Light-bringer) “He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.” Although both Heaven and Hell seem to value wisdom, they are very much opposed as to what kinds of behavior and thoughts lead to it – and, perhaps, which men and women are to be thought wise. Yet this contradictory form of opposition is not the only kind of duality to be found in the Proverbs of Hell. Howard sees many of the proverbs as having double meanings and/or pointing out the duality of existence, while simultaneously revolving around the theme of the oppression of Energy by the delusions of Reason.
An example is “The cut worm forgives the plow.” While this proverb can be seen as an injunction to submit to power as an act of Christian forgiveness, it also has another perspective, one that denies the right of the usurper: only the cut or dead worm gives up and accepts the inevitable. We other worms must keep faith until death and never bless the usurping plow. (77)
Thus the superficial meaning appears to be Heavenly, celebrating passive submission; but the second Hellish meaning instead urges the listener towards resistance.
Howard sees the proverb “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” as another example of this kind of doubling, suggesting that it appears to be a “horrible injunction to give in to the impulse to murder,” but actually expresses the idea that murdering an infant desire is similar to, and as vile as, murdering a child (78). This reading seems simplistic to me, however, and I believe the proverb can be read more insightfully if paired with one from Plate 7, “He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.” In the context of this second proverb, it becomes clear that in Blake’s eyes, to nurse an unacted desire is to risk producing energies far more dangerous and malign than the desire itself, such that a wise man would rather commit the horror of infanticide than nurture the “pestilence” Blake warns against. This theme is also echoed in a later “Memorable Fancy,” when in Plate 19 Blake remarks of his acquaintance the Angel, “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.” The proximity of this passage to the appearance of Leviathan suggests that the monster may be an example of such a reptile – an appropriate embodiment of the potent malign power Blake sees as growing from the repression of Energy.
Howard further interprets “A fool sees not the same tree as the wise man sees” as pointing out that there are at least two modes of perception, and that the wise man will be able to find the one that can turn an object into an “immense world of delight” (78). Thus this proverb reinforces the themes of duality and repression, and reiterates again that the path of wisdom and freedom is a mental one. A similar interpretation can be given to “Listen to the fools reproach; it is a kingly title!” from Plate 9. Once again, the double way of seeing reveals truth – Blake advises that one should be proud to be reproached by a fool, because what the fool condemns, the wise man will praise. “The crow wish’d that every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white” from Plate 10, is more straightforward in meaning, but addresses the same theme: the way we approach the world and how we wish to order it often has more to do with who we are than with the world outside; thus as Blake remarks in Plate 6, the things he experiences in Hell as “the enjoyments of Genius” look to the Angels “like torment and insanity.” Unable to appreciate the gifts of Hell as Blake does, the Angels too would wish that everything were governed by Reason, just as the Devils would advocate the full and untrammeled expression of Energy.
When we read the proverbs as a unit, it becomes clear that no single overall interpretation of their meaning will be adequate. Like the various biblical collections of wisdom sayings, they form no kind of unitary whole, and contain a number of internal contradictions. For example, despite the proverbs critical of foolishness quoted above, Plate 7 also contains the proverb “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” perhaps suggesting that in energy and devotion to a mode of being, even an initially foolish one, wisdom can be attained. Because the theme of multiple perspectives and ways of seeing is so central to Marriage, however, this fragmentation only reinforces Blake’s point. Hell’s protest against Heaven is against the rigid inflexibility of Reason that allows for no movement and no real life; Heaven’s representative Angel is said never to change his mind. In contrast, Blake’s Devils seem to embrace a way of seeing that is double if not multiple.
Plate 11 contains Blake’s explicit formulation of the process by which mankind’s poetic genius, which sprung from Energy and life, came to be codified into a system of domination and control.
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 pronounc'd that the Gods had order'd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.
This radical theological statement makes it clear that not only is the source of human oppression mental, but it is also something that human beings have imposed on each other, and at length on themselves. The excuse of Bunyan’s Man in the Iron Cage, that God is the cause of his imprisonment, is no more convincing to Blake than it was to Bunyan. However, where Bunyan believed that the Man in the Iron Cage had to free himself from despair, but only Christ could give him salvation, Blake puts the keys to destiny entirely in human hands. “All deities reside in the human breast”: thus all enslavement and salvation must also come from within.
Plates 12 and 13 contain a “Memorable Fancy” in which the narrator speaks with Isaiah and Ezekiel and learns that their God was poetic genius, and that Isaiah “saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discovered the infinite in every thing, and I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God . . .” Once again, Blake locates the source of divinity within mankind rather than without. Plate 14 describes Blake’s vision of what will occur when Reason’s dominion is ended, and human beings are once again in touch with their unfettered Energy.
tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand
years is true, as I have heard from Hell.
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.
This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.
But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. . . .
Blake sees the world as being consumed in fire – a cleansing rather than destructive fire that is related to the infernal printing method of engraving. Blake notes that in Hell these corrosives have medicinal properties, and that what they burn away is only surface, leaving the true, infinite reality (perhaps revealed like the raised design of an engraving) behind. Thus the fires of Hell become associated with cleansing “the doors of perception,” or the five senses, so that infinite reality may be revealed. For Blake, fire clears away falsehoods and limitations, and is therefore a symbol for the Hellish life force that Marriage is written in praise of, Energy. Blake’s assertion that “This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment” is a direct attack on the prudishness of time. It is indicative of his belief in the power of sexuality as a primary manifestation of divine Energy that he asserts that sexual liberation is a key factor in the cleansing of creation.
Plate 16 returns the reader again to the image of chains or manacles symbolizing mental repression and limitation.
The Giants who
formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in
chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity,
but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to
resist energy, according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in
Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, recieved the excess of his delights.
Some will say: 'Is not God alone the Prolific?' I answer: 'God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.'
These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.
Note: Jesus Christ did not wish to unite but to seperate them, as in the Parable of sheep and goats! & he says I came not to send Peace but a Sword. . . .
Howard interprets “Giants” as referring to the widespread belief of the time that early humans had been of giant stature (91). Thus this passage refers to the notion that the wildness and greatness of early humans have been chained or repressed by Reason, which is the product of weakness and cunning rather than strength. Once again, “chains” represent a mental/spiritual rather than a physical state of being. Blake then introduces a new dichotomy of Devouring and Prolific, with the devourers clearly being Heavenly and the Prolific being the seemingly enslaved Energy of Hell that yet supports and is the source of Heaven’s Reason. Again, Blake affirms that the divine is within human beings, rather than without. Blake closes this place with a series of statements that again make the works’ titular marriage difficult and unclear. He asserts the fundamental opposition of Reason and Energy, condemns religion as the dangerous attempt to reconcile the two by having Reason dominate and tame the other, and praises Jesus as one who set the opposites firmly apart. In what sense, then, can these two opposing forces be “married”?
In the following “Memorable Fancy” that continues through Plate 20, the narrator converses with an Angel, who shows him his ultimate fate in a pit of torment filled with spiders. The Angel’s vision, however, frightens him so much that he flees, leaving the narrator alone, at which point the narrator finds himself by a peaceful stream, listening to a harper. In turn, then, the narrator shows the Angel his own ultimate fate, where insane monkeys perpetually molest and devour each other. When the Angel complains that the narrator has imposed his fantasy upon him, the narrator responds that they “impose on each other.” Again Blake emphasizes the reality of double vision: both the Angel and the narrator see the other’s ideals as a kind of torment, though the narrator remains calm at the Angel’s vision while the Angel is deeply disturbed by the narrator’s. Though it is still not clear of what “marriage” of the two sides should consist, that it has to do with having this double vision that yet does not reconcile the opposites is clear (as this fancy ends in some copies: “Opposition is true Friendship”). Similarly, in the expository section that follows this “Memorable Fancy,” Blake attacks the radical theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, whose works had heavily influenced Blake’s ideas, as having this very fault of single vision: “He conversed with Angels who are all religious, & conversed not with Devils who all hate religion, for he was incapable thro' his conceited notions” (22). To hear only one side of the story, it seems, is to throw oneself in with the Angel who never changes his mind and is thus stagnant.
In the last “Memorable Fancy,” Blake reiterates his anti-religious doctrine of human-centered divinity, and portrays the transformation of the Angel upon hearing the truth of the Devil’s infernal wisdom.
Once I saw a
Devil in a flame of fire, who arose before an Angel that sat on a cloud, and
the Devil utter'd 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.' (22-3)
The Devil continues on to assert that if Christ is the greatest man, the Angel ought to love him most, and observes how he broke all ten of the Commandments and yet was virtuous. When the Devil concludes that perhaps Christ was virtuous because of these transgressions, the Angel is consumed by fire – which, as we know from earlier passages, cleanses the senses and reveals the truth. At the end of the passage, however, Blake notes that the Angel “is now become a Devil” – suggesting that no straddling of the two sides is possible. The passage concludes with the proverb, “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression,” signifying that the law of Reason must always oppress those who are of the Devil’s party at heart – and, perhaps, that the Devil’s anarchy may well oppress those whose disposition is Heavenly.
Given the Angel’s total conversion and Blake’s repeated insistence that no reconciliation between the opposites is possible, it is tempting to propose that Blake entitled the work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” purely ironically, noting that no such union was possible. David V. Erdman in Blake: Prophet Against Empire, however, has a more complex take on the matter.
Blake is half in jest when he speaks of the “marriage” of Heaven and Hell, for Hell does not exist except as the negative way of looking at Energy, while the Heaven of things-as-they-are is really a delusion . . . which springs from a denial of the true Heaven of progression. Blake’s theory admits of a true or necessary Reason as “the bound or outward circumference of Energy” but leaves it no role in “life” except to be pushed about. Reason is the horizon constantly on the move by man’s infinite desire. The moment it exerts a will of its own and attempts to restrain desire, it turns into that negative and unnecessary Reason which enforces obedience with dungeons, armies, and priestcraft and which Blake refers to as “the restrainer” which usurps the place of desire and “governs the unwilling.” (178-9)
Erdman’s formulation of Blake’s dichotomy suggests that perhaps there is a sense in which Heaven and Hell, Reason and Energy, are married: rather than two separate forces, they are more like two directions in which a single force can flow. Reason is that which decreases and restrains desire; Energy is that which increases and encourages desire to flow freely. Blake’s thinking on this matter, however, is muddy; it is clear from the “Voice of the Devil” plate that Blake sees Reason as part of and dependent on Energy, which is the fundamental life force. This, however, undermines his assertion that the two are (equal?) contraries and must be in opposition for human progress to take place; for though it is clear that if Reason ever conquered Energy, the fundamental life force, the result would be nothingness (thus Blake’s assertion that “whoever tries to reconcile [the two classes of men] seeks to destroy existence”). However, it is never clear why Blake believes that Energy should not seek to completely overcome Reason. In fact, the closing “Song of Liberty” seems to assert just the opposite – the piece is full of images of freedom and new birth, and closes with a statement of anticipation of a time when “pale religious lechery” will no longer praise that which wishes but does not act as “holy virginity”; “For everything that lives,” writes Blake, “is holy” (27).
In the end, I believe we must excuse Blake for his incompleteness on the grounds that he was a poet and an artist rather than a philosopher; his concern was with the rationalism and Deism that he saw threatening to strangle the source of life as he knew it, and not with the consequences of a world where Energy ruled and Reason was nothing more than the horizon of humanity’s desire. Erdman sees Hell as existing only as Heaven’s negative view of Energy, which (like all of creation) is actually divine; but Blake could equally well be accused of portraying a Heaven that is nothing more than Hell’s negative view of Reason. Yet the theme of double vision and multiple perspectives in Marriage suggests that Blake appreciated the importance of understanding both sides of the story before declaring allegiance.
It is clear that once this ability has been developed, however, Blake believes that no human being will continue to ally with repressive Reason. For Blake, the moment of developing double vision is also the moment in which it becomes apparent that, like the Man in the Iron Cage, we have been holding our own manacles on ourselves. For Blake, it is the very mental inflexibility that insists on Reason’s unbending point of view that also imprisons the soul. With the removal of these “mind-forg’d manacles,” Blake believed, came the revelation of the divinity of humankind, and an experience of the infinite so profound that no one could turn again to the restrictive and lifeless God of Reason. Thus, in the end, Blake’s seemingly fantastic text is grounded in a remarkably optimistic humanism. With this humanism, one final interpretation of “marriage” becomes possible: when we have finally understood that both Heaven and Hell are not externals, but spring from the same contradictory forces of the human psyche, the Marriage of Heaven and Hell takes place in each one of us as we contain and yet transcend these pairs of opposites.
Bentley, G.E., Jr. The Stranger from
Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Erdman, David V. Blake: Prophet Against Empire. Revised edition.
Howard, John. Infernal Poetics.
Norvig, Gerda S. Dark Figures
in the Desired Country: Blake’s Illustrations to The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Christine Hoff Kraemer