Study Guide

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Religion

By William Blake


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.

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