The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The importance of contraries and progressions in Heaven and Hell and theories of revolution.

            Blake was one of the oldest writers of his generation. Blake combines poetry and media it is clear that you cannot just read Blake as a poet, must recognize him as an artist and indeed a philosopher. The 1790’s was a period of revolution throughout Europe. Conservative England was cracking down on revolutionaries. Blake became heavily involved in 1790’s London. Blake believed that he in some way had a part to play in heralding in a new world order, a new, just and fair society. He is a quintessential representative of that ambitious romantic writer who thinks they can alter public opinion. In the following essay I will discuss the context in which Blake was writing, his method of printing.

            Blake was writing in the age of enlightenment which was also known as the age of the Age of Reason. The “Enlightenment” was not a single movement or schools of thought, for these philosophies were often mutually contradictory or divergent. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science. The American and French Revolution had an immense influence on Blake when writing the Marriage of Heaven & Hell: The American and French Revolutions promised a better world; and stirred Blake to a new enthusiasm. While Romanticism has its roots in the Enlightenment an equally important movement known as the counter enlightenment must be recognized. This movement developed in reaction to the counter enlightenment which had emerged in reaction to the new age of reason. The counter enlightenment was not anti-rational movement, but a balanced dichotomy. Very few of the enemies of the Enlightenment abandoned reason entirely. The battle was over the scope, meaning and application of reason per sae.  Blake was not an irrational artist, but he became increasingly worried that the world was discounting the importance of emotion and imagination in an increasingly rational world.

            I wish to start by discussing Blake’s method of printing. Blake not only wrote revolutionary poetry he also published his books in a revolutionary way. Books of this time were created by intaglio method. However Blake created his own method “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Blake used a copper plate method which reduced the number of stages in the intaglio method; however the drawback of this was that he had to draw everything backwards. The marriage of heaven and hell turns everything upside down philosophically, politically and poetically. The manner in which the book was created goes hand in hand with what the book is saying. Each book is finished in a unique way. This is very important to Blake as his philosophy is a celebration and protection of difference. Blake wished to be independent of publishes and patrons so he could achieve his own personal independence.

            Blake uses traditional symbols of angels and devils, animal imagery, and especially images of fire and flame to: set up a dual world, a confrontation of opposites or “contraries” which illustrate how the rules of Reason and Religion repress and pervert the basic creative energy of humanity, for Blake contraries and progressions are essential for society. Fire is a central element throughout the Marriage of Heaven & Hell. If one postulates on fire and what it symbolizes, one can posit that Fire has both negative and positive connotations. Fire provides heat and light, fire allows us to cook, weld and create. It is considered by many peoples to be sacred, purifying, and a renewing symbol. Ironically what fire creates it can also destroy. Therefore one posits that fire contains an internal contrary. Blake recognizes this internal tension, and for Blake fire can never be either an entirely good or evil element. In an increasingly black and white rational world, Blake recognizes without contraries there can be no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence. In The Songs of Innocence and experience which was printed after the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake deconstructs the oppositions. Innocence also means ignorance, experience is before which can mean sin, but also it means knowledge and wisdom. Blake deconstructs the notion of innocence and experience. He leaves us with something which is not merely just an opposition, he creates a new vision which is more enlightened than an oppositional way of thinking. This is similar to Blake’s treatment of fire in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

            The title is an ironic reference to Emanuel Swedenborg’s theological work Heaven and Hell. Though Blake was influenced by his grand and mystical cosmic conception, Swedenborg’s conventional moral structures and his Manichean view of good and evil led Blake to express a deliberately depolarized and unified vision of the cosmos in which the material world and physical desire are equally part of the divine order, hence, a marriage of heaven and hell.

Blake’s purpose seems to be the resolution of arbitrary classifications made by institutions

such as church and state. For him, contraries are too important for human life to arbitrarily

categorize or classify them by giving them moral values. For Blake heaven & hell are to be married but without becoming one flesh or one family. By the marriage Blake means that we are to cease valuing one contrary over the other. That what is important is the actual existence of contraries. Blake feels that the revolution is a manifestation of the liberation of human creativity that has been repressed by society’s rigid morality. While many Romantic authors like Shelly do not wish to see a continuous revolution. Blake desired a continuous questioning and examination of the world order for continuous progressions to occur.

Fire’s power to destroy is often interpreted as the means to rebirth at a higher level.” Blake used the symbols of flame and fire to satirize the traditional Christian notion of Hell, as shown above, but more importantly, to represent transformation. He wished to reacquaint his readers with their creative selves and fire represents both the process of transformation and creativity itself. The transformation needed is that of consciousness, to develop and use a new kind of visionary perception, and the revelations of this new perception will be that the Divine is in Man, not cut off from Him as orthodox religion maintains.

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