Study Guide

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Analysis

  • Sound Check

    What's the sound of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, you ask? Well, to quote the poets RUN-DMC, "It's tricky."

    As we talk about over in "Form and Meter," Blake is not interested in any kind of conventional… .well, anything really. He's not into conventional religion, he's not feeling the conventional notions of good and evil, and he sure as Shmoop isn't interested in writing a typical poem that conforms to expectations of rhythm and rhyme.

    That's not to say, though, that we can't still see traces of Blake's poetic sensibilities floating around in this book. As the saying goes, "You can take the poet out of the poetry, but you can't take the poetry out of the poet." Okay, so we just made that saying up, but we think it holds true in this case. Just check out the poem that begins the book:

    Hungry clouds swag on the deep.
    Once meek, and in a perilous path
    […]
    And on the barren heath
    Sing the honey bees.
    (1.2-1.8)

    If you reads those lines out loud, you'll hear a lot of long E sounds (as in "deep," "meek," "heath," and "bees"). That, Shmoopers, is what's called in the poetry biz assonance. All those long Es are bunched up into these few lines and create a kind of background crying effect, a subtle "eeeeeee!" that echoes through the lines and add a sense of urgency to Blake's description.

    Blake's also one for some alliteration in this introductory poem. We read about how the "perilous path was planted" (1.9) and how the "bleached bones/ […] brought forth" (1.12-1.13). We also read about the "sneaking serpent" (1.17). All these repeated beginning sounds create a punch in your mind's ear (if you can imagine that), underscoring the lines with a kind of sonic exclamation point.

    Despite all the straightforward prose that's going on in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, then, Blake remains a poet at heart. He just can't resist including a few lines of verse, and then manipulating the sound in those lines to add powerful highlights. Even while he was doing his own thing, Blake was a guy who stayed true to his roots. Respect.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "Wuv… twoo wuv." We know, we know—every discussion about marriage has to reference that scene from The Princess Bride. This book's not about marriage in the traditional sense, though—or even in the movie sense. Nope, it's after a much more metaphorical view of what marriage can be.

    In this case, Blake is arguing—through his speaker—for a much more complex understanding of human nature. The best way to understand what he's after is to ask yourself two questions:

    Question 1—Are people bad all the time, always?
    Question 2—Are people good all the time, always?

    Of course, these two questions share just one answer: N-O. Of course people are more complex than "sinner" or "saint." So why do we have a religion that sends them off either to Heaven or to Hell, once they're time on Earth is spent?

    That's the question that Blake's asking, anyway. And that's why we get the title The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It's about bringing those seemingly contradictory elements of human nature together, because—guess what—they're both already a part of every human being.

    Blake is not just trying to complicate our view of humanity, though. He's out to celebrate it. His idea is that, from this push and pull of good and bad impulses, we get vital energy. As he puts it: "Without contraries is no progression" (1.24). We actually need both elements to make us human, to make us creative and capable beings. And that's why, in this book's view, both Heaven and Hell need to rush on up to the altar and get hitched.

  • Setting

    "This is hell," you might have heard someone say when they're not having much fun. Think Algebra test or insurance seminar. When Blake's speaker says that, though, he literally means it. Call it what you like—the inferno, the abyss, the devil's digs, H-E-double hockey sticks—the vast majority of this book takes place in Hell.

    Before we dive into why that's the case, it's interesting to note that Hell is only one half of the setting that the title promises us (check out "What's Up With the Title?"). What happened to Heaven, then?

    Clearly, Blake's not feeling that locale. Maybe it's too boring for him. It's definitely too restrained for him (check out "Themes" for more on that). What's worse, it's filled with angels who "have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise" (7.13). He thinks that they're a bunch of arrogant windbags.

    Nope, Blake (through this speaker) is more of a devils' type of guy. At first, this seems a bit off-putting. Is Blake a Satanist? Is he pure evil? The answer to questions like this is both "yes" and "no." Blake's argument is not that devils are great because they're evil. It's that our definition of evil as, you know, bad is all wrong. Instead, as he puts it, "Evil is the active springing from Energy" (1.25).

    What that means is that Hell is the place for creative expression, artistic indulgence, freedom, freedom, and more freedom. It's a place where he can find "the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity" (3.1). It only looks like a bad place when there are angels around to ruin it for him.

    Check out, for example, the scene in which the angel takes the speaker to show him his fate. There they are, sitting in the roots of a tree that's suspended over a black abyss. Talk about a dramatic setting. Then things get worse. After checking out the fearsome spiders that will be torturing Blake's speaker in the afterlife, a terrible purple-and-green Leviathan emerges from the deep to swallow him up.

    After the angel next to him takes off, though, the Leviathan instantly disappears: "then this appearance was no more; but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moonlight, hearing a harper who sung to the harp" (7.7). Once the angel is gone, the Hell that the speaker was experiencing changes from a full-on nightmare to a full-on daydream.

    The message of the setting, then, is tied to the message of the book as a whole. The conventional perspectives of Heaven and Hell are totally off base. Good—as we've come to define it—is really not that great. Evil—as we call it—is really pretty rad. At the end of the day, we need both things to be human: "Without contraries is no progression" (1.24). Since we're typically focused on Heaven and goodness, the speaker takes us with him on these visits to Hell in order to make sure that get a fuller, truer picture.

  • Speaker

    One rule in poetry, prose poetry, even genre-bending poetry-prose combos like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is this: don't confuse the writer with the speaker. You see, Shmoopers, writers are sneaky creatures. Even though they might be using a first-person point of view, they could be hiding behind an invented character and speaking as them, rather than of themselves.

    Blake seems to be doing that here. After all, do we really think that Blake himself had a meal with biblical prophets, visited Hell's publishing house, and convinced an angel to turn himself into a devil? That's just crazy. Surely Blake is using his speaker like a kind of imagined, devilish anti-hero. Right?

    Well, let's look a bit closer. We learn in the first section of the book that it's been 33 years since the rise of a "new heaven," one that the speaker also refers to as "the Eternal Hell" (1.23). (Remember that our speaker is actually a fan of Hell—at least as it's defined by conventional religion—because that's where the people who indulge their impulses wind up.) That number 33 seems pretty significant to us. For one, it's the age of Jesus when he was crucified. And, it also happens to be the age of… William Blake when he wrote this. Coincidence? Let's read on.

    In the first "A Memorable Fancy" section, the speaker tells us about something he saw on "a flat-sided steep [that] frowns over the present world" (3.2). Specifically, he "saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds […] with corroding fires he wrote." Hmm—this sounds an awful lot like Blake himself, looking down on the world and using a corrosive method (like copper engraving) to write. Later, our speaker makes a pledge to use this same technique: "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" (5.13).

    Still later, the speaker has an argument with an angel, in which he convinces that angel that Jesus actually broke each of the Ten Commandments. Even still, "Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules" (8.3). The speaker is so convincing that the angel converts into a devil on the spot. This is another section of the book that makes us say "Hmm," because here our speaker is putting forth an argument in favor of impulse and against conventional religion—both of which are ideas that were near and dear to Blake's heart.

    So, to sum up: we have a speaker who may be the same age as Blake, who uses the same printing techniques as Blake, and who feels the same way as Blake. So maybe our speaker is just a thinly disguised version of… Emmanuel Swedenb—nah, it's Blake. We know that we said it's dangerous to mix up speakers and writers, but here the similarities are just too many to ignore. Whether he's directly drawing parallels to Blake's biography, or observing other people (or devils) that are doing some classically Blake-ian things, it's a safe bet to read the "I"s and "me"s in this poem as coming directly from Blake himself.

    Of course, that doesn't mean that he really and truly traveled to Hell. Given that the speaker is pushing Blake's ideas forward at every turn, a better way to read his adventures in the underworld is as satire. In particular, Blake is poking fun of Emmanuel Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell, which saw that author taking trips through the afterlife, but not really telling us anything new about it. Blake, unhappy with that portrayal, uses the same set-up and positions himself as the star of the show, happily pointing out how Swedenborg got, well, pretty much everything all wrong.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    Pack a lunch, Shmoopers. Between Blake's eighteenth-century language, his biblical and literary allusions, his genre-bending forms, and—oh yeah—his wildly unconventional imagery and content, this can be one tough climb. Just keep your eyes on the prize—and your browser bookmarked to Shmoop.

  • Calling Card

    Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

    William Blake is one out-there cat—we mean gone, daddio. He's so unique that he makes us break out in late '50s beatnik slang just to describe him. Like all visionaries, though, you know it's him when you read his work. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell isn't the only work of his to feature his unique gumbo of art, politics, religion, wild imagery, and proverbs. For more of the same, check out both his Songs of Innocence and Experience, or Milton.

  • Form and Meter

    It's a Blake Thing—You Wouldn't Understand

    Normally this is the section where we break out our meter-o-meter and enlighten you with some sweet breakdowns of the various patterns of rhythm and rhyme that are going on in a poem.

    In this book, though, we have just… one section that's written in verse. The rest is written in regular prose that's pretty straightforward. And by "pretty straightforward" we mean "totally bizarre, because this is William Blake we're talking about here." Got it? Great—let's tackle the first poetic section… first. That seems appropriate.

    So, "The Argument" features five stanzas of varying lengths, varying meters, and varying end sounds. Check out an example:

    RINTRAH roars and shakes his fires in the burden'd air,
    Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

    Once meek, and in a perilous path
    The just man kept his course along
    The Vale of Death.
    Roses are planted where thorns grow,
    And on the barren heath
    Sing the honey bees.
    (1-8)

    Notice any patterns there? Nope—neither do we. The result—just in terms of poetic form—is what's called free verse. This creates a conversational tone to the language that's not constrained by any set, repeating patterns.

    Did somebody say "constrained"? (Yes, we did—just one sentence ago.) Well, if you think the verse is free, then you better hold on to your top hats. In terms of form, ol' Willy Blake is just getting warmed up.

    Right after the poetic discussion of Rintrah in the book's first section, we move right into a section of prose. So, we know that Blake's not trying to highlight this poetic part in anyway; it's right there in the mix with prose writing.

    But wait—there's even more than just regular old prose going on here, too. We have lists, like the ones in "Proverbs of Hell" or "A Song of Liberty." We also have short stories, like the ones in the "Memorable Fancy" sections. In fact, in terms of form, this book is all over the map.

    Of course, the $25,000 question is "why?" Why did Blake mash all these different forms—poetry, prose, fiction, proverbs—into one book? Critics have fistfights (or, you know, polite written arguments) about these sorts of things all the time—especially when it comes to a wildly individual writer like Blake. We think that one legit answer to this question, though, has to do with Blake's central focus on Energy.

    Since he's arguing for the role of both good and evil in human beings, explaining that together they foster creativity and productivity, Blake's pretty smart to show just how productive and creative he can be. This book hates pretty hard on repression, so how effective would it be if it delivered that message in a tight, controlled form? Answer: not very. Blake's all over the map here, form-wise, because he wants to show his readers just what's possible when your good and bad sides mix, and your imagination is let loose.

  • Emmanuel Swedenborg

    Blake is straight beefing, gang. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell can be understood in a variety of ways, but to get to the heart of it's argument, it really helps to understand that Blake wrote this in response to Swedish philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg's book Heaven and Hell. In it, Swedenborg basically pulls his best impression of Dante's Divine Comedy, describing what he sees as he wanders around the afterlife in a series of spiritual visions. It's a long, complex book, but it essentially just adds detail to the already-central idea of Christian religion: good folks go to Heaven; bad folks go to Hell.

    At first, Blake was super-interested in Swedenborg's visions, since Blake recorded his own visions of God. However, when he read Heaven and Hell, Blake was disappointed—big time. If he were alive today, he probably would have gotten off an epic negative review on Amazon. Instead, Blake came up with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a response to Swedenborg's work.

    The major issue that he took with Swedenborg is that he essentially just parroted the conventional idea of Heaven and Hell. In the book, Blake writes that "Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; though it is only the contents or index of already published books" (7.14). Blake's major problem with this is that he believed that human beings possessed both good and evil inside them—and that was a good thing. To Blake, this conflict made humans… well, human.

    He also saw these qualities less in terms of good and bad, and more in terms of restraint and impulse. And Blake was big on impulses. So, Blake's view of human nature is not the separate Heaven and Hell that Swedenborg describes. Instead, it's a marriage of the two.

    And Blake doesn't miss a chance to bust on Swedie for getting this wrong. He compares Swedenborg's writings to "the linen clothes folded up" outside Jesus's tomb (1.23). In other words, they're useless. Later in the book, he compares Swedenborg to a man who thinks he's smart, just because he's smarter than his pet monkey. Then he stops beating around the bush and states his case directly: "Swedenborg's writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further" (7.18).

    To Blake, Swedenborg was like a man "who only holds a candle in the sunshine" (7.20), not bringing anything new to the table. He was also a symbol of conventional religious views. Blake was anything but conventional, and so Swedenborg became the perfect target for his broader criticisms of the good-bad, either-or way we tend to view the human spirit.

  • Prophets

    As much as he was anti-Swedenborg, Blake was pro-prophet. He considered himself a prophet, after all, so it's not at all surprising to find multiple prophets in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In fact, this book reads a bit like Where's Waldo?, if Waldo were a biblical prophet instead of some weird dude in a red striped shirt. Lucky for you, we're here to point these guys (yes, they're all guys) out.

    Rintrah

    This may come as a shock to you, but Blake had a pretty active imagination. He went so far as to develop his very own set of mythological-philosophical characters, and among those is Rintrah. Rintrah is characterized by a bunch of shouting, fist pounding, and dirt kicking. In other words: dude is mad.

    Blake saw him as a symbol of wrath, but not just in the way we think of being angry or seeking vengeance. Instead, this was due to the frustration at being confronted with injustice or wrongheadedness. In this way, Rintrah was a prophet who foretold a better way, or at least warned the world when it was on the wrong track. Think of him as your driver's ed instructor, one who "roars and shakes his fires in the burden'd air" (1.1)—or, you know, shouts right in your ear when you make a wrong turn.

    Isaiah

    In first section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake gives his reader's homework: go read the Bible, specifically Isaiah, Chapters 34 and 35. In those chapters, the prophet Isaiah is saying two things to the people of Israel: 1) change your ways or terrible destruction is coming and 2) happy days are on their way. Isaiah is known for this good-cop, bad-cop routine, but his goal is to bring about change by foretelling the consequences of wrongheadedness. Sound familiar?

    Blake even brings Isaiah, along with Ezekiel, into his writing in the book's first "Memorable Fancy" section. He asks them how they knew that God was actually speaking to them, to which Isaiah replies "I saw no God, no heard any […] but my senses discovered the infinite in everything" (5.2). In this way, Isaiah sounds a lot more like a poet than a traditional prophet, which is one of the points Blake is trying to make in this book: all our original ideas of God come from poets, not priests.

    Ezekiel

    Much like Isaiah, Ezekiel is a biblical prophet who foretold of awful destruction and harmonious salvation. Much like Blake, he did so with a heaping dose of weird and troubling imagery. His role in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is to discuss the role of "Poetic Genius" in the founding of religious thought. More specifically, he says: "We of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius […] was the first principle, and all the others merely derivative" (5.5).

    In other words, Ezekiel—like Isaiah—reps the role of poetry as the founding force of religion. He also explains why he "ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side" (5.9), which pretty much sounds like the worst time ever. For Ezekiel, though, it was totes worth it, since it helped him to satisfy "The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite" (5.9). We're… going to take your word on that one, Ezie.

  • Animals

    Here is a partial list of all the animals that appear in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: bee, serpent, lion, worm, bird, peacock, goat, wolf, fox, sheep, spider, rat, mouse, rabbit, tiger, horse, elephant, eagle, caterpillar, crow, and platypus. Okay, so we threw that last one in ourselves to see if you were still reading. The point is, at times this book reads more like a zoo's manifest than a work of philosophy.

    So, what's up with all the animal imagery? Was Blake an environmentalist before his day? The answer to that question is a resounding yes, but not in the way we think of environmentalists today. We're sure that Blake would have been down to hug a tree or two, but he was more concerned about a broader notion of environment, one that included spirituality and philosophy, as well as the physical and natural world.

    We can see this in the "Proverbs of Hell" section, where Blake uses animals a lot to illustrate his points. In this way, the proverbs are a lot like fables, short stories that often star animals as their main characters. (Aesop's are the most famous.) Let's check out a few examples:

    We're told, for instance, "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship" (4.31). In this case, we're asked to make the connection between building a home and making a friend. The work these animals do is a model for how people should approach their relationships with others.

    As well, the speaker lets us know that "The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow" (4.39). This reinforces Blake's point about the importance of honoring talented people and giving them their due (see the "Detailed Summary" for more on that). Right away, the use of animals here provides a sharp contrast—noble eagle, lame crow—to get the point across.

    Blake throws a ton of these kinds of animal-based lessons at his readers, using their relatively simple examples to illustrate more complex truths. Try it yourself some time. You might surprise yourself and come up with a gem, like "The kangaroo knows that the hedgehog makes a poor handkerchief."

  • Writing and Publishing

    Okay, so this one's probably a no-brainer. Blake was both a writer and a publisher, so it probably stands to reason that he would talk about this in his work. Usually, when a writer does something like this—when a poet writes about… writing poetry, for example—it's a sign that the idea well has run totally dry. But that's not the case with Blake.

    For one thing, Blake was an innovator in pretty much everything he did. He learned engraving as a trade, but then he totally changed the game with his new process. He applied this process when he printed his own work, which means that he knows what he's talking about when he writes: "I saw a mighty Devil […] with corroding fires he wrote" (3.2). Those corroding fires were in fact part of Blake's copper engraving method, and so we can see that this is a sly nod to himself as this Devil. (Check out "Speaker" for more.)

    Later, Blake visits "a printing-house in Hell" (6.1), which seems like a strange place on your list of destinations if you're touring the underworld. But the fact that he does include this stop shows us the importance that Blake put on his own daily work. The dragons, vipers, and eagles that Blake describes in this "Memorable Fancy" section are all hard at work, doing jobs with which he would have been very familiar. More importantly, they're stocking Hell's libraries with books, books that contain exactly the kind of Energy and creative force that Blake is arguing for throughout The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

    • Steaminess Rating

      PG-13

      For a book that features a tour of Hell, this is a pretty suitable book—until you get to that unfortunate scene with the monkeys doing all sorts of unspeakable things to one another. Like a good many things, the monkeys ruin it for everyone.