We probably all know someone like William Blake. We may even have someone like him in our family. You know that uncle that you never really hear from who only comes around for Thanksgiving? The one who spends the whole dinner telling everyone about his business making personalized tennis ball cozies out of alpaca wool? The one who, after dessert, entertains everyone by covering his favorite Metallica songs on the accordion?
Sure you do—we all know someone like this. We don't mean that your relatives have their own alpaca-based Etsy businesses. What we mean is that William Blake—like most memorable people in our lives—was a little… off. Born in 1757 in London, Blake was, from the get-go, a fellow who did his own thing. He told his parents how he saw visions and angels, and so—being cool parents—they promptly shipped him off to art school.
Unfortunately for li'l William, the money for art school soon ran out, so Blake became an engraver's apprentice instead. Soon after, he began writing poetry. And not too long after that, another of Blake's major interests emerged: politics.
You see, the mid-to-late 1700s were a pretty rambunctious time to be in London. For starters, in the 1770s something called the "American Revolution" was going on across the Atlantic. Not too long after that, the French Revolution kicked off. In both cases, Blake was considered a political radical. He railed against the tyranny of kings and in favor of individual liberty.
These views soon made their way into Blake's poetry—if you can call it poetry, that is. Ever the non-conformist, Blake wasn't content to write down a few lines and submit them for conventional publication. Instead, he combined his poetic, artistic, and political ideas together to create his own illustrated copper engravings, combining his original words and images.
One such example of this illustrated writing was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. When you check out those original illustrations, you'll notice that Blake added one more ingredient to his poetic-artistic-political gumbo: religion.
Well, "religion" is probably not the best way to put it. Blake was not someone who was into organized church going. That's not to say he wasn't a believer. At the age of four, Blake told his parents that he saw God poke His head through his window—though no word if God asked Blake to borrow a cup of sugar. And—like many of his fellow Romantic writers—Blake never really outgrew this kind of visionary spiritualism. A lot of his poetry, in fact, focuses on the direct relationship between the individual and God, without any of those pesky religious rules getting in the way.
And this, Shmoopers, is essentially what The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is about. To get the full picture, you should know that Blake used this book to respond to a book by the Swedish philosopher and theologian, Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg wrote a book called Heaven and Hell, in which he laid out in painstaking detail what the afterlife looked like. The short version? Good people were up in Heaven; bad people were down in Hell.
Blake, initially attracted to some of Swedenborg's ideas, eventually found himself disagreeing with this all-good or all-bad version of events. He just didn't buy that life was that simple. After all, he wondered, don't we all have a bit of good and a bit of bad inside us? And isn't that ultimately a good thing?
And so, in an effort to complicate Swedenborg's version of events, Blake came out with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in 1790. This is a classic Blake production that delivers all the hallmarks of his work. We have art—the original appeared with illustrations on engraved copper plates. We have poetry—although he wasn't afraid to mix in prose as well. We have politics—check out our "Detailed Summary" for more. And, yes, we have a heaping helping of spirituality.
It all adds up to an important example of William Blake's writing: progressive, original, and fiercely unique—just like those tennis ball cozies.
Quick, Shmoopers: Coke or Pepsi? Cake or Pie? Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga?
Still debating? Well, perhaps that's because the world is a bit more complicated than these either-or questions would suggest. While we like to lump things into categories—especially oppositional ones—the reality is usually a bit more complicated.
Think about it: have you been good every single moment of your life? Or have you been a bad person every step of the way? Could we say the same about… anyone, really? Of course not. Yet, for being such complex creatures, we humans seem to have a pretty cut-and-dry idea of morality and the afterlife: either you're good and you go to Heaven, or you're bad and you go to Hell.
Well, William Blake wasn't buying any of this. He celebrated the nuances, complexities, and even hypocrisies of every human being. He saw that it really took two to tango, that the oppositional forces of good and evil both were actually what made us human. And any human, if they're being honest, can see that this is true. We're not always going to be on Team Evil, just as we're not always going to rep Team Good. We're a mix of the two, in varying degrees and depending on varying contexts.
In the end, this book reminds us, what we really are is Team Human. And that can be a pretty powerful message to keep in mind, the next time you're patting yourself on the back for being great, or kicking yourself in the shin for doing wrong. We're a complex intermingling of the impulses toward right and wrong, but that's ultimately a good thing. It keeps us vital and dynamic. So, you know, just embrace it—like Blake did.
Blake, The Archive
Here's your first stop to exploring all things Blake on the interwebs.
A Solid Foundation
The Poetry Foundation provides a detailed biography and links to Blake's work.
The Marriage of… Image and Text
Here you can find the original pictures that accompanied The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Check out this documentary for an overview of Blake's life and works.
Blake, Plus Cartoons
Here's an informative overview, with a cartoony backdrop for some reason.
Ancient of Ways
This video tells (and shows) you all about Blake's printing techniques.
Here's an audiobook version of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
You Down with BBC?
Yeah, you know us. Check out this reading, with a helpful introduction.
Far Out, Man
This video pairs Blake's original artwork with some pretty trippy chanting. The effect is probably a bit darker than Blake likely intended.
Self-Portrait, with Glare
Here's a younger Blake's take on himself. Is he mad, or just concentrating?
This is the view of William that we're most familiar with.
Once upon a time, it used to be a thing to make a plaster casting of someone's face after they had died. This is Blake's.
"William Blake's Radical Politics"
Blake was an outside-the-box thinker when it came to… well, everything, including politics.
"William Blake and Me"
Golden Compass author Phillip Pullman discusses Blake's influence on his own life and work.
The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake
Get it all right here.
In Living Color
Here's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, reproduced with the color