Study Guide

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Quotes

  • Religion

    As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent, the Eternal Hell revives. And lo! Swedenborg is the angel sitting at the tomb: his writings are the linen clothes folded up. Now is the dominion of Edom, and the return of Adam into Paradise.—See Isaiah xxxiv. and xxxv. chap. (1.23)

    Here the speaker frames his argument as the birth of a "new heaven," as well as the revival of an "Eternal Hell." Come again? How can it be both? In essence, Blake is trying to flip the conventions of Christianity on their head. He's not trying to do away with them altogether, though. He's just trying to get us to look at them in a new light. (See "Theme: Good vs. Evil" for more.)

    All Bibles or sacred codes have been the cause of the following errors:—
    1. That man has two real existing principles, viz., a Body and a Soul.
    2. That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, called 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 called Body is a portion of Soul discerned 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. (2.1-2.8)

    Religion—all religion according to the speaker—gets three things wrong. The body and soul are not separate. The body is not the source of all evil. And God will not be punishing us for following our impulses. Here Blake directly flips the script. Energy and impulse are actually good things in his view, and religion should not be telling us otherwise.

    Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion. (9-10)

    Man, Blake, tell us how you really feel. Here he blames the existence of brothels directly on religion—and in the same breath as he discusses prisons. That's not an accident. This proverb is calling religion out for its confining hypocrisy. Maybe if people weren't so shamed into suppressing their natural urges, goes his argument, then we wouldn't need prostitution in the first place.

    The ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive. And particularly they studied the Genius of each city and country, placing it under its mental deity. Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of and enslaved 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 pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast. (4.71)

    Have you thanked a poet today? If you like religion, then Blake thinks you should. Here he argues that all religion began as poetry. It was originally poets who took on the task of naming and organizing the world into words. Then priests came along and gave the credit for all that to the gods. Wrong-o, says Blake. The impulses for these gods began in the minds (or "breast") of human beings.

    We of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle, and all the others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests and Philosophers of other countries, and prophesying that all Gods would at last be proved to originate in ours, and to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius. It was this that our great poet King David desired so fervently, and invokes so pathetically, saying by this he conquers enemies and governs kingdoms; and we so loved our God that we cursed in His name all the deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had rebelled. From these opinions the vulgar came to think that all nations would at last be subject to the Jews. (5.5)

    Again, poets are the reason for the season—in Blake's eyes anyway. Through this explanation by Isaiah, we see that the Judeo-Christian religion owes its energy to poetry. Coming from a poet like Blake, you might be forgiven if you take this idea with a huge grain of salt. At the same time, we see how this energy quickly translated into a steadfast faith that supported the rise and spread of religion.

    "This," said he, "like all firm persuasions, is come to pass, for all nations believe the Jews' code, and worship the Jews' God; and what greater subjection can be?" (5.6)

    Even though it has its roots in poetry, we see here that Blake's not a huge fan of what religion turned out to be. He sees the spread of the Judeo-Christian religion as a kind of subjugation, taking over the world and enslaving—in a sense—its peoples and their beliefs.

    These two classes of men are always upon earth, and they should be enemies: whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence. Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two. (6.12-6.13)

    Religion, you've messed up again. The "two classes of men" here are the Prolific and the Devouring. The Prolific are the creative, energetic, impulsive, and—in religion's eyes—sinful group of people. The Devouring are the restrained, tame, and—in Blake's eyes—weak group of people. The claim here is that religion says that creative, energetic people can also be "good," if they restrain themselves and avoid the classical temptations of sin. Not so, says Blake. Those are two different groups of people who don't belong at the same lunch table.

    I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules (8.3)

    The speaker has just finished explaining how Jesus broke not one, not two, not three, but all ten commandments at some point and time in his life. Therefore, Blake's argument goes, folks should be valued for being impulsive and independent, not for blindly following the rules.

    Let the Priests of the Raven of Dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the Sons of Joy. Nor his accepted brethren whom, tyrant, he calls free, lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious lechery call that virginity that wishes, but acts not!
    For everything that lives is holy. (10.1-10.2)

    These are the last words of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Blake reserves them for some parting shots at organized religion. He calls for a time when priests aren't ruining everyone's good time, when religious hypocrites aren't calling folks virgins despite their inner urges to be otherwise. Then he leaves us on an up note: everything is of value to Blake, not just the people who follow the rules of religious fuddy-duddies.

  • Good vs. Evil

    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 and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys reason; Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is heaven. Evil is hell. (1.24-1.26)

    Here Blake is turning the conventional ideas of good and evil on their heads. Good isn't about living up to a higher moral code. It's about being passive, weak, and too in line with reason. On the other hand, bad isn't about doing horrible things to others. It's about expending energy, independence, creativity. By those new definitions, Heaven is no place to go. Hell's where it's at.

    All Bibles or sacred codes have been the cause of the following errors:—
    1. That man has two real existing principles, viz., a Body and a Soul.
    2. That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, called 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 called Body is a portion of Soul discerned 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. (2.1-2.8)

    According to Blake's argument, what we call "Evil" is really just a collection of natural urges that spring from our bodies. And what we call "Good" is just a series of restrictions we place on those natural urges. If that's the case, then, it's not hard to see why he advocates for Hell and hates on angels for the rest of the book.

    It indeed appeared to Reason as if desire was cast out, but the Devil's account is, that the Messiah fell, and formed a heaven of what he stole from the abyss. (2.15)

    The biblical story of the fall of Lucifer is usually seen as the defeat of evil by good. In this book's framework of evil-as-energy and good-as-repression, though, the fall of Satan becomes the ascension of a new messiah. It's like a biblical opposites day.

    As I was walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their proverbs (3.1)

    Hell is where it's at, gang. More than that, this description tells us that Hell is where the expression of creative energy can give way to genius. Angels, however, just don't get it. To them, genius looks like madness. Hmm—that sounds pretty familiar. Don't we always say that geniuses walk a fine line between sanity and insanity?

    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. (8.5)

    Did you know that there was an "infernal" way to read the Bible? That's news to us, too, but it's more evidence here of Blake's re-imagining of what good and evil actually mean. The fact that an angel converts to a devil here further speaks to his disruption of the old definitions of good and evil.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    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. (2.7-2.8)

    Blake's inversion of good and evil can get a bit confusing, so it might help to think of Energy and Reason. His idea is that evil is just the misunderstood expression of the body's energy, while good is really an over-emphasis on reason. Here, he explains that reason is what constrains ("the bound or outward circumference") energy, and that's a bad thing. Energy, for Blake, means non-stop good times.

    Their love is an eager meaninglessness
    Too tense, or too lax. (15-16)

    Love is usually the bee's knees. It's a thing we tend to associate with extreme satisfaction. And yet, that's not the case here. Even the usual goodness of love is ruined by "meaninglessness." Color us (and women) dissatisfied.

    They hear in every whisper that speaks to them
    A shout and a cry. (17-18)

    It's hard to be satisfied with you're acting neurotic. These lines suggest that women are paying too much attention to the unimportant details of life (like a "whisper"). You've probably heard the cliché "Don't sweat the small stuff." Well, there's a lot of sweating going on in these lines, which is a perfect recipe for dissatisfaction.

    Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling.
    And being restrained, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire. (2.9-2.10)

    Here Blake's speaker dishes out some advice: if you restrain or confine your energy long enough, it will eventually dissipate "till it is only the shadow of desire." To put this in bumper sticker terms: "use it or lose it," "let the good times roll," and "let it all hang out."

    Note.—The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it. (2.18)

    Even Milton suffered from being restrained ("in fetters"), though he didn't know it. His subject matter was to blame. Luckily—in Blake's view—he was able to be free when he wrote about devils and Hell and all that other good stuff. To Blake, this is the kind of creative expression that makes for a true poet.

    The cistern contains, the fountain overflows. (4.35)

    Blake breaks out a metaphor in this proverb to remind his readers that motion and freedom are better than stagnation. The fountain is all about the motion and energy of the water, while a cistern is a just a lame jug that holds it in. Of course, if a fountain overflows, it's ceases to become a fountain and instead turns into a water leak, but we feel like Ol' Willy is on a roll here, so we're not going to quibble.

    For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern. (5.15)

    It's not just physical and spiritual freedom that Blake's concerned with here. Here he reminds us that there are also constraints on perception that can be equally damaging. So open your eyes, people.

    In it were a number of monkeys, baboons, and all of that species, chained by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but withheld by the shortness of their chains. (7.10)

    This scene is probably the most disturbing part of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, what with all the monkeys chasing, raping, and eating one another. It's probably not an accident either that they're all chained up. Remember that the speaker is showing the angel what his (the angel's) future has in store for him, just like the angel did for the speaker when he showed him the spider abyss. The idea here, then, is that the spiritual restraints, which the angel has on in the name of being good, will eventually turn into physical chains. And, we guess, the angel will eventually become a cannibalistic monkey. In any case, it sounds like bad times to us.

    20. Spurning the clouds written with curses, stamps the stony law to dust, loosing the eternal horses from the dens of night, crying: "Empire is no more! and now the lion and wolf shall cease." (9.20)

    Did you forget that Blake was also all about political freedom as well? Just in case you did, he tacks on "A Song of Liberty" at the end of the book. (Some versions appear without the last two sections, in fact.) In it, he calls for an end to empire, for countries to stop colonizing other lands and peoples. In this idea, Blake was way, way ahead of his time. Sadly, the world didn't listen to him. The Age of Empire cranked up not long after The Marriage of Heaven and Hell appeared, setting up a colonial system in which a few countries tried to take over the rest of the world. To this day, the legacy of colonialism is one of suffering and resentment.

  • Literature and Writing

    When I came home, on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat-sided steep frowns over the present world, I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds hovering on the sides of the rock; with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence now perceived by the minds of men, and read by them on earth:— (3.2)

    These "corroding fires" seem pretty appropriate for a devil to write with, but they're also a sly reference to the copper engraving technique that William Blake pioneered for his own work. Here, Blake's really referring to himself as a "might Devil." We wonder if that was a favorite nickname that his friends called him.

    The ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive. (4.71)

    Before there was religion, Blake claims, we had poetry. Poets were the ones responsible for naming the world and everything in it, because only they had the ability to appreciate the world as a whole. Here, we get a bit more of Blake patting himself on the back for being a poet. Good job, Willy.

    Isaiah answered: "I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception: but my senses discovered the infinite in everything; and as I was then persuaded, and remained confirmed, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote." (5.2)

    It's hard not to see Blake referring to himself here again. Isaiah explains that the power of his perceptions convinced him to write his prophecies down—regardless of the consequences for doing so. It's not hard to think of Blake making the same claim about his own work, which was pretty… you know, out there.

    We of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle, and all the others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests and Philosophers of other countries, and prophesying that all Gods would at last be proved to originate in ours, and to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius. (5.6)

    Have you ever wondered where religion comes from? Blake's answer is: poetry. In fact, the poets had it right in the first place. The priests and philosophers were just riffing on the poets' original ideas ("Poetic Genius"). Unsurprisingly, Blake thinks that religion gets a lot of the poets' ideas wrong.

    I was in a printing-house in Hell, and saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation. (6.1)

    Of all the places to see in Hell, a publishing house is a pretty weird tourist destination. However, the printing-house was where Blake worked his day job. Not only did he know a lot about what went into printing, he also had an important perspective on what printing actually did for the world. Namely, as he describes here, printing was how ideas and knowledge got around—you know, before the Internet. Since he printed The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, himself, Blake must have been particularly interested in how his ideas would get out into the world. We wonder what he would have thought of us.