The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Summary
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell starts off with section called "The Argument." No it doesn't. Yes it does—oh sorry, we got carried away by the title. At any rate, in this section we're introduced to a character named Rintrah, and the dude is not happy. He's raging out, while a "just man" keeps walking along the "Vale of Death."
We also have a "villain," who is leaving an easy path to walk a more dangerous road. In doing so, he's also pushing our just man toward a desolate area, where the just fella starts to rage out, too. The section concludes with an announcement: a new Heaven is beginning, kind of like a grand opening. Then it sets forth a few points that seem worth keeping in mind: a) there is no progress without contradiction and b) being good means passively obeying, while being evil means being active with energy.
The next section is "The Voice of the Devil," which we imagine is a cross between James Earl Jones and Bobcat Goldthwait. This section gives us a list of "errors," which the speaker blames on the Bible and other "sacred codes." Essentially, the gist is that the notion that the body is separate from the soul is a bunch of bunk. The body and the soul are actually one (according the speaker, at least).
Then the speaker praises John Milton's Paradise Lost for getting this idea right, as well as for illustrating how resisting temptation actually makes a person weak. In our speaker's view, the real hero of Milton's book is—wait for it—Satan. The Devil followed his desire, which to our speaker makes him the Messiah. The speaker gives props to Milton for his portrayal.
Our next section is entitled "A Memorable Fancy." It's basically a travelogue of our speaker's trip to Hell, which leads to the next section "Proverbs of Hell." Here the speaker lists a whole slew of short sayings that he picked up in Hell, like "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires" (4.67)—okaaay. In general, these saying are pro-desire, pro-temptation, pro-creativity, and anti-repression.
After this, four sections follow—each with the now-familiar title of "A Memorable Fancy." In the first, the speaker has dinner with the Biblical prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. He interviews them about how they knew that God was speaking to them. Then they tell him about the origin of religion: poetry. In the next section, the speaker visits a "printing-house in Hell" (5.1) and basically describes the inner workings of the equivalent of an Amazon warehouse in Hell.
The speaker then goes on to mention Giants who formed the earth. He makes a distinction between a group of people called the Prolific and another group called the Devouring. The Prolific are the creative folks who gain energy from following temptation, which the Devouring are tame, obedient, and oppressed. These groups should be enemies with one another, says our speaker.
In the third "A Memorable Fancy" section, the speaker is visited by an angel, who says that the speaker is cruising for damnation. For some reason, instead of being terrified, the speaker wants to know what that might look like. So the angel shows him a flaming abyss where giant spiders will chase him for eternity. Once the angel takes off, though, the scene changes to a pleasant riverbank, complete with a harper.
The speaker then offers to return the favor for the angel. They open up a Bible, which turns into a deep pit, and they both dive in. They wind up in a brick house, within which a bunch of monkeys are chained up and doing unspeakable things to one another (e.g. rape and cannibalism). The angel is annoyed by this, just as the speaker was annoyed by his vision of the spider abyss. The speaker then goes on to diss both Aristotle and Swedenborg—the latter of whom "has not written one new truth" (7.16).
In the final "A Memorable Fancy" section, the speaker sees a devil talking to an angel. He tells the angel that to worship God is to love "the greatest men best" (8.1). He also says that you have to break the ten commandments to be truly virtuous, and that Jesus Christ did exactly that. Initially peeved by the devil's arguments, the angel eventually comes around to his way of thinking and—presto change-o—he turns into a devil. We also learn that this angel was Elijah.
"A Song of Liberty" is our next section, which gives us twenty lines on the politics of the day, including the situations in France and America. The upshot of this section has our speaker calling out for an end to empire and freedom for oppressed people. The final section, "Chorus," calls one last time for an end to religious repression, wrapping everything up with a famous last line: "For everything that lives is holy" (10.2).
- This Marriage begins, well, not like an ideal marriage—somebody's raging out.
- Rintrah is on the warpath, gang. He "shakes his fires in the burden'd air" (1.1), which sure sounds like he's got a pretty big bee in his bonnet.
- Wait a second—who is this Rintrah character anyway? We're not told directly. Luckily for you, though, we can use our extra-Shmoopy powers of research to reveal that this character was really an invention of Blake's. He was meant to personify the righteous anger of a true prophet.
- We next learn about a "just man," who was once "meek." He's walking along "The Vale of Death," which is probably not famous for its pedestrian crossings.
- Still, the scenery is nice: we have roses now where thorns used to grow, and bees are singing where the land used to be barren.
- We learn that a path was planted, even though it was "perilous" (1.9).
- As well, rivers and streams were placed "On every cliff and tomb" (1.11). Also, there was red clay "on the bleached bones," which "brought forth"… something (1.12). We're not told exactly what that might be.
- This is a good time to note that, if you're having trouble imagining how all this landscaping works, you're not alone. These lines—the few that are written in actual poetic form—are pretty ambiguous. The upshot, though, is that the land used to be desert-like, but now it's making a comeback with signs of life (like water and nourishing clay).
- After we're told about the clay, the speaker mentions a "villain" who left an easy path to take a more dangerous one.
- Doing so, it seems, pushed the just man into this desert-like land. We're not told exactly how, though.
- Before we have time to ponder that too much, though, we're moving on to a "sneaking serpent" (1.17). It's walking around "In mild humility" (1.18).
- Now, if you're like us, you're having a hard enough time picturing a humble snake, much less one that walks.
- Meanwhile, our just man is still in the wilderness, and now it's his turn to rage out.
- Not to be outdone, we're reminded of Rintrah's original anger party (1.1), and led to make the connection that this Rintrah is, in fact, our just—and angry—man.
- At this point in the section, we have a form change (see "Form and Meter" for more). We shift from poetic lines to prose ones, which tell us that "a new heaven is begun" (1.23).
- It's been thirty-three years since it began, apparently, revived by "Eternal Hell" (1.23). Hmm—a Heaven that was started by a Hell? That's quite a paradox.
- It turns out that someone named Swedenborg is sitting on a tomb. (Check out "Symbols" for more on who this guy was.) Next to the tomb are Swedenborg's writings, which are folded up like a bunch of laundry. Translation: cold burn—this guy's words were like a bunch of soiled undergarments.
- The speaker tells us that now Edom is in charge, and Adam has returned to Paradise. Check out "Allusions" for more on these guys.
- We're also told to read the Book of Isaiah, Chapters XXXIV and XXV.
- After this helpful advice, the speaker lays this on us: "Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence" (1.24). This seems important. What we think of as opposites are actually both vital to being human, says our speaker.
- From these, he continues, we get the religious terms "Good" and "Evil."
- Good is passive and listens to reason. Evil is active and springs "from Energy" (1.25).
- The section concludes with a reminder that "Good is heaven. Evil is hell"—just in case you were confused (1.26).
The Voice of the Devil
- We begin this section with another mind-blowing declaration. The speaker has found three errors, which he blames on "All Bibles or sacred codes" (2.1).
- These errors are as follows:
- 1. Body and Soul are separate things.
- 2. Evil comes from the Body and Reason comes from the Soul.
- 3. God will punish all humanity for following Evil ("his Energies").
- All that is totally bunk, according to the speaker. Instead:
- 1. The Body and the Soul are one and the same.
- 2. "Energy is the only life, and is from the Body" (2.7). In other words, the Body is what gives us our Energy, so it's not truly Evil. Also, Reason is what puts the breaks on our pursuits of Energy.
- 3. That's too bad, because "Energy is Eternal Delight" (2.8)—just don't go overboard on those Red Bulls, gang.
- The speaker then goes on to bust on "those who restrain desire" (2.9). If you do that, it's only because your desire wasn't strong enough in the first place.
- When this happens, Reason takes over and runs everything.
- Want to see an example of this? Our speaker suggests you read John Milton's Paradise Lost
- The force of Reason that's in charge "is called Messiah" (2.11), but Milton's Messiah is actually Satan.
- From the pro-God point of view, the fall of Satan was Reason kicking desire out of Heaven, but our speaker sees this as Satan rebuilding his own Heaven down below.
- The speaker also refers to the Gospel of John—in which God sends down the Holy Spirit to teach humanity—as a mixing of Reason with a desire for new ideas.
- By this token, according to the speaker, Satan actually became Jehovah after the death of Jesus.
- In essence, the speaker is saying that it's more than just good and reason up above, evil and desire down below. You need desire to help you take advantage of divine wisdom, which is why Satan is not such a bad guy after all.
- You know who else was a good guy? Mr. John Milton—that's who. Our speaker also notes that Milton wrote in a restrained way ("in fetters") when he wrote about God and angels, but that he was more free when writing about the Devil (2.18). That's because Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it."
- That sounds bad, but remember that Milton was using creative Energy to put his book together—not unlike a certain William Blake is doing, right?
A Memorable Fancy (1)
- Scanning ahead, we can see that there are actually five sections of this book with this same title, "A Memorable Fancy." We've used numbers to make it clear just which one of those we're talking about.
- Did Blake just really love that title? Or was he just super-lazy when it came to naming these sections?
- As it turns out, it's neither. These sections are joking references to the "Memorable Relations" entries in another of Emmanuel Swedenborg's books, Apocalypse Revealed. But for now just know that this is Blake taking another dig at the dude.
- In this first fancy, our speaker tells us all about a trip to Hell—sounds like a blast.
- In fact, our speaker did have a good time. He enjoyed experiencing the local "Genius" (which angels really hate) and he got some souvenirs as well: some proverbs.
- He tells us that the sayings of a country say a lot about the character of its inhabitants, so he decided to collect some sayings to get a better sense of Hell.
- When our speaker returned from his trip, he found a fearsome devil, surrounded by black clouds and looking down on the world of humanity. He wrote down a question "with corroding fires" (3.2).
- The gist of the question is this: how do know you that every single bird we see flying through the air isn't a whole world of delight that we're just not able to sense?
- Ponder that while we tell you that the reference to "corroding fires" is a sly reference to the Blake-meister himself. He used a copper engraving technique to produce the original plates of this book, which employed his own version of corroding fire to sketch the illustrations—pretty sneaky, there, Mr. B.
Proverbs of Hell
- This section begins with a list of all the proverbs that our speaker brought back from Hell.
- The list is long—70 proverbs long, to be exact. So we won't be going through every single one (you're probably happy to read).
- We should explain, though, that a proverb is a basically a truthful saying, something that your grandma might call "words to live by," if she was a reflective sort of person.
- In this case, we get a whole slew of words to live by, but we'll just tackle a few representative examples.
- The third proverb is pretty famous: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" (4.3). Here again, our speaker is reminding us of the importance of desire to human experience. This is also something to say to your parents when they ask you why you ate your sister's entire birthday cake.
- We also get a set of animal-themed proverbs. They say that "The pride of the peacock," "The lust of the goat," "The wrath of the lion," and "The nakedness of woman" are all examples of "the work of God" (4.22-25). Our speaker sees God's handiwork in every aspect of experience—not just the restrained and devout parts.
- We're also told "The cistern contains, the fountain overflows" (4.35). In other words, motion and energy are productive. Containment and restraint are not.
- These aren't all that straightforward, though. We get a few like this one:
- "The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth" (4.48). Our best idea is that the speaker is encouraging us to use all our senses to take in the full range of the world around us, but… well, maybe he's just envisioning a weird face that he likes to call "Ol' Earthbeard."
- Later we learn that, "The crow wished everything was black; the owl that everything was white" (4.63). This could be a metaphor to mean that your original coloring can influence the way you see the world around you.
- Or, it could just be a story about a crow and an owl and their shared hatred of plaid.
- Again, these proverbs are a bit scattered in their focus. In general, though, they reinforce the speaker's idea that desire and freedom are a vital part of life.
- The speaker wraps this section up by commenting on the role of poets in first describing and naming everything in the world—lakes, cities, mushrooms, the works. Only poetry was up to the challenge of putting the world into words.
- And then along came religion. It added another level of abstraction that gave deities all the credit for ordering the world.
- As a result, according to our speaker, people forgot that all those gods actually live in the human imagination.
A Memorable Fancy (2)
- In this next section, our speaker is having a meal with the Biblical prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel.
- In between bites, he asks them how they knew that God was actually speaking to them.
- Isaiah tells him that, while he never actually saw or heard God, he was still able to sense the infinite nature of the world. Once that happened, Isaiah really didn't care if folks believed what he wrote or not.
- Our speaker wants to know if this is enough. Does believing that something is true make it actually true?
- Isaiah tells him that this is what the poets believe. That faith used to be enough to move mountains, but these days folks have less conviction.
- Now it's Ezekiel's turn to pipe up. He says that the people of Israel believed that all belief came from "Poetic Genius" (5.5), which is why they felt that other gods and forms of worship were off the mark.
- The fact that now "all nations believe the Jews' code," Ezekiel continues, illustrates that they were right about this (5.6).
- The speaker thinks that Ezekiel makes a good point.
- Then he asks the pair what lost work they might want to share with him, but they both tell him that they're not holding back anything as important as what they've already written and published.
- Then the speaker hits Isaiah with a hard-hitting question: what made Isaiah walk around barefoot and naked for… three years?
- Isaiah has a simple answer: it's the same thing that likewise affected Diogenes of Greece. Hey, ask a simple question and get a simple answer.
- Then our speaker is curious as to why Ezekiel used to eat dung and lay for a long time on his right and left style. (And what sort of stuff do you talk about after dinner?)
- Ezekiel says he got the idea from "North American tribes" (5.9). He did so to help encourage others to see the infinite in the same way he did. Yeah… thanks a lot Eze, but we'll pass on the poop.
- Next our speaker lets us know that it's true that, after 6,000 years, the world will be consumed in fire. He heard as much in Hell.
- The angel in charge of protecting the tree of life will be commanded to step aside. When he does, the world will be destroyed.
- On the plus side, it will seem "infinite and holy," as opposed to "finite and corrupt" like it does now (5.11).
- Also, once that angel steps aside, folks will be able to enjoy their senses more—party time, y'all.
- The speaker then reminds us that the idea that the body and soul are separate is total nonsense. He's going to stamp out that idea through his printing methods, which he picked up in Hell. They have the effect of revealing the infinite, which sounds… useful.
- Is it us, or is our speaker starting to sound a lot like William Blake? Check out our "Speaker" section for more.
- The speaker feels like, if the "doors of perception" were cleaned up, everything would be seen as infinite (5.14).
- Trivia note: In 1954, writer Aldous Huxley wrote a book about his drug use called The Doors of Perception, based on this line. Then, in the 1960s, the psychedelic rock back The Doors named themselves after Huxley's book. So, Blake's poem indirectly influenced Jim Morrison, almost 200 years after he wrote it.
- The speaker concludes with the point that people these days have closed themselves off to the reality of the world around them. They only see a small portion of it, as if they're looking at it through a narrow cavern.
A Memorable Fancy (3)
- In this section, our speaker visits a printing press in Hell. That sounds like a pretty special field trip.
- He describes the method of printing he finds there:
- In the first cave-like room, we have a "dragon-man," cleaning up the trash while other dragons are working on hollowing out the chamber. So far, that's pretty normal.
- In the next chamber, he sees a snake twisting around a rock while others decorate it with gold, silver, and jewels. What—how else do you expect a printing press to work?
- The third chamber features "an eagle with wings and feathers of air" (6.4). Got it.
- The eagle is making this room "infinite," while other "eagle-like men" build palaces on huge cliffs. This all seems just perfectly reasonable.
- The next room has "lions of flaming fire"—oh my—which are melting metals into liquid (6.5).
- Chamber five has "unnamed forms" that are pouring the liquid metals into huge casts (6.6.).
- In the six chamber, this casts take the form of books. Some guys take them and organize them into libraries.
- And that, Shmoopers, is how Amazon-in-Hell makes its books.
- After this description, we're told about the Giants who made the world.
- They were responsible for giving it "its sensual existence," but now it's like they're all chained up—thanks to "weak and tame minds" (6.7).
- Our speaker divvies up existence into two parts: the Prolific and the Devouring. A helpful way to think of these guys is as the creatively energetic (the Prolific) and the fearfully repressed (the Devouring).
- Devourers think that the Prolific beings are in chains, but that's just because they (the devourers) don't fully experience life.
- All the same, the Prolific can only be prolific because the devourers take away "the excess of [their] delights" (6.9).
- This is a bit confusing, but the idea is that there is a productive, energetic force in humanity (the Prolific) and a restraining, denying force (the Devourer). And it seems that they need each other to exist.
- If you ask our speaker if God is Prolific, he'll tell you that God only acts in existing beings.
- Even though they need each other, the speaker says that the Prolific and the Devouring should be enemies.
- Religion tries to put them both together, but Jesus Christ himself wanted them to be at odds.
- The last note here is that Satan was once thought to be one of these founding Giant "Energies" (6.14).
A Memorable Fancy (4)
- In this section our speaker gets a visitor—that sounds nice.
- In fact, it's an angel who comes to him, to warn him about the sorry end he's heading for (i.e., hell and damnation).
- Rather than being afraid, our morbidly curious speaker wants a sneak peek at his future punishment, so the angel obliges.
- They go through a stable first, then through a church (that doesn't speak very highly of churches), and finally down into a vault, which has a mill in it.
- They go through the mill and come to a cave, and then they make their way through a cavern until they come face to face with "a void boundless" (7.3).
- The speaker and the angel hang on to tree roots, dangling over this void—sounds like a good time.
- Our speaker's impatient to see if Heaven ("Providence") is around here somewhere, but the angel tells him that he's doing to see what's coming to him very soon.
- Then, little by little, an abyss comes into view—black and shiny.
- Giant spiders are down there, chasing after the corrupted shapes of animals, which are running around everywhere. The speaker calls these "Devils" and "powers of the air" (7.4).
- The speaker wants to know where he's going to end up, and the angel points out a space right between the black and white spiders—sounds cozy.
- Then the speaker sees a giant serpent moving through the blackness below. Its forehead is striped like a tiger's, only in purple and green. It opens its mouth and moves toward the speaker and the angel.
- Seeing this, the angel heads back toward the mill. When he does, and the speaker is alone, the scene totally changes.
- The speaker is now sitting on a moonlit riverbank, listening to a harper playing a theme called "The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind." It sounds pretty catchy to us.
- The speaker goes in search of the angel, who is surprised that the speaker managed to escape from the giant serpent.
- The speaker tells him what happened when the angel left, and then suggests that they go and take a sneak peek at the angel's fate.
- The angel laughs and tries to brush him off, but the speaker grabs the angel and flies west.
- They head toward the sun and the speaker puts on white clothes. He breaks out all of Swedenborg's books and then heads to a spot in the universe just past Saturn. This is where the angel's going to end up, says the speaker.
- They see a stable and church, and the speaker heads to the altar.
- He opens up a Bible, which becomes a "deep pit," and they both go down into it (7.10). Don't worry; it's not just you. Things are getting weird here—even for Blake.
- They see seven brick houses in the pit and go into one of them.
- In the house are a bunch of monkeys, chained up and trying to attack each other. The weak ones that get caught suffer pretty horrible fates (like being raped and eaten).
- Some monkeys are even eating their own tails. Eww.
- The place is getting stinky, so they take off into the mill. Wait—that's why you leave the room?
- The speaker has a skeleton in his hand, which turns out to be Analytics by Aristotle.
- The angel gets annoyed with the speaker, and the speaker gets equally annoyed with the angel. He says that it's a waste of time to talk to someone who is into Aristotle's Analytics.
- The speaker thinks that angels are full of themselves. They think that they know everything.
- His next point is that Swedenborg thinks that he's up to something new, but it's just a tired old rehash of other books.
- Swedenborg's like a man who has a pet monkey. No, this isn't a Ross from Friends comparison. The idea is that, since he's smarter than a monkey, he thinks he's smarter than everyone else—not so.
- Swedenborg has "not written one new truth," says the speaker. In fact, "he has written all the old falsehoods" (7.16).
- This is because Swedenborg only consulted with angels when writing his books. He never bothered to get the devils' side of things.
- Basically, then, Swedenborg is just restating superficial ideas. In an apt metaphor, he "only holds a candle in sunshine" (7.20). Ooo—take that, Swedie.
A Memorable Fancy (5)
- In the final "Memorable Fancy," the speaker tells us about a devil he once saw.
- The demon dude rose up before an angel and told the angel that the way to worship God is to honor the gifts and talents that God has given to others.
- To love God is to love "the greatest men best" (8.1).
- The angel freaks out for a second at this idea, then replies that Jesus Christ is the greatest man and so is worthy of this honor.
- Now it's the devil's turn to pipe up. He says that, if Jesus is the greatest, then, yes, he should be properly loved.
- However, the devil's not done with this speech. He goes on to point out several examples of how Jesus broke the ten commandments, and so he concludes with the notion that you can't have virtue without breaking the commandments.
- Jesus, says the devil, was a man of virtue because he was a man of impulse. He wasn't a stickler for the rules.
- The angel is convinced by the devil, so he throws up his hands and is changed into a devil on the spot—neat trick.
- We then learn that this angel was formerly—wait for it—Elijah (8.4).
- We also learn that, after he converted to devil-dom, this ex-angel is "my particular friend" (8.5). Given that language, then, we can assume that the devil in this story was actually the speaker all along—tricky, fella, very tricky.
- Elijah-devil and speaker-devil hang out together, reading the Bible "in its infernal or diabolical sense" (8.6). In other words, they have their own interpretation of the Good Book.
- The speaker concludes the section with a tease: the world will get this infernal take on the Bible if it behaves. Mind your P's and Q's, world.
- No, never mind—our speaker is just kidding. You're going to get this book whether you like it or not.
- The speaker concludes with a reminder about greatness: "One law for the lion and ox is Oppression" (8.7). In other words, it doesn't make sense to hold everyone accountable to the same rules. This gets back to the earlier point about the importance of honoring "great men."
A Song of Liberty
- While some versions of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell end after the last Memorable Fancy, others include two more sections at the end.
- The first of these—the ninth section overall—is "A Song of Liberty."
- Remember when we told you about Blake's interest in politics, back in "In a Nutshell"? Well, go read that if you don't.
- In this case, the section is a list of 20 sentences or short paragraphs about the various revolutions going on around the world at the time Blake was writing this.
- The speaker describes how "The Eternal Female groan'd" (9.1), which seems to symbolize the other countries that are clamoring to be free.
- The speaker says that things are too quiet in "Albion," or England (9.2).
- Next he calls for France and Spain to break free of their rules (the monarchy and the Catholic Church, respectively).
- The speaker describes a "new-born fire," which is located "by the Atlantic sea" (9.8). This is more symbolism to reference a newly-independent (when Blake was writing, anyway) America.
- The speaker then calls on London's citizens to open their eyes ("enlarge they countenance") (9.12). Then—and there's no other way to put this—he calls for the Jew to stop counting gold. He also calls for "winged thought" to "widen [the] forehead" of the African.
- So… yeah—the speaker's definitely got some backwards, racist views going on here.
- The gist of what he's calling for, though, is that the rest of world wake up to the energy of the recent revolutions in America and France.
- What follows is a pretty entailed fantasy in which "the jealous king" and his buddies are forced to run away and then are buried in the ruins that they have created (9.12-9.17).
- The king tries to push through a wasteland with his ten commandments, but his world has changed.
- The speaker ends with the image of the dawn: "Morning plumes her golden breast" (9.19). The revolution is complete, according to the speaker: "Empire is no more! And the now the lion and the wolf shall cease" (9.20). Good times all around, gang.
- The final section, "Chorus," is short and sweet.
- The speaker calls for three things to happen:
- Thing 1: "the Priests of the Raven of Dawn" should curse with horse voices the "Sons of Joy" (10.1). In other words, the forces of conventional religion (the priests) should mock the new revolutionaries, but in in vain.
- Thing 2: Tyrants should no longer be able to set borders or roofs on anything.
- Thing 3: Religious figures should stop calling people virgins if they have sexual urges, but just choose not to act on them.
- In other words: down with all your repression, man.
- Still, the speaker ends on a positive: "Everything that lives is holy" (10.2). He celebrates all creation, not just the people that follow religious rules.
- And with those famous last words, our speaker's tale is finished.