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Blake and The Bible
William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, plates 22-24, describes a heated debate between the devil and an angel regarding the laws of God and Christ. The Devil asserts, “The worship of God is: honouring his gifts in other men, each according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best: those who envy or calumniate great men hate God; for there is no other God”. This seemingly heretical comment is closer to the teachings of Christ than the words of Satan, though for Blake these two opposing forces are sides of the same coin. For Blake, opposing forces are essential to create a tension that ignites the imagination, the true manifestation of divinity. In addition, Blake asserts that the presence of God exists in all men, especially those of genius. Blake says, “Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast”(Plate 2). This statement explodes religious dogma while simultaneously upholding the biblical teachings of Christ. Here we see Blake’s philosophy of opposites in action. In Plate 22, The Angel is deeply disquieted by the devil’s musings. Blake describes, “The Angel hearing this became almost blue; but mastering himself, he grew yellow & at last white, pink, & smiling, and then replied: Thou Idolater. Is not God One and is not he visible in Jesus Christ? And has not Jesus Christ given his sanction to the law of ten commandments, and are not all other men fools, sinners & nothings?”(Plates 22-24). The Angel’s critique is diametrically opposed to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:11, who says “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all
kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”. The prophet to whom Jesus refers might easily be one of Blake’s great men of genius. When the angel rebukes the devil as an idolater for worshipping the Great man as a god, he seems to dismiss the fact that Christ and all the prophets were great men infused with genius, or the spirit of God. Manifestations of god as a burning bush or blinding face diminish in The Book of Samuel. In later scenes, moments of theophany embody a new personal relationship to God, unique to each individual. Blake alludes to this private experience of divinity in his reference to great men. The talents that infuse a man with greatness are derived from a divine, sublime experience that is personal and unique. Although this greatness may not be understood, it ought to be respected and revered. Jesus said, “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at the time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you”(Matt 10:19). In Plate 23, the Devil derails the Angels argument. He says, “if Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love him in the greatest degree; now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: did he not mock at the Sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God, murder those who were murder’d because of him? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.” The Devil’s statement is provocative because it cuts to the heart of Jesus teachings, which directly oppose the Ten Commandments. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
…”(Matt 5:43). Blake echoes these sentiments at the conclusion of plate 24. There is a note, which reads, “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.” Here, Blake’s “diabolical sense’ is his interpretation of the Bible, which is vastly different form the church’s imposed reading. Like Christ’s call to pray for one’s enemy, Blake’s Devil and Angel exchange ideas and develop a relationship. Jesus up-ended the archaic notion that one ought to retaliate against his enemy. Instead, he called for a prayer, acceptance and even love of one’s enemy. Blake demonstrates this with his Angel and Devil. He goes on to say, “I have also the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no”(Plate 24). Here, Blake is referring to his own book of poetry and etchings, which he juxtaposes with the Bible to suggest that the “infernal” nature of his work is simply a subjective interpretation. Furthermore, the Bible itself might also be interpreted in such a way that it contradicts religious dogma, in an “infernal sense”. This is the point of Blake’s debate between the Angel and the Devil. He demonstrates that good and evil are entirely subjective terms that may easily be reversed. The conclusion of plate 24 says, “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression”. This “commandment” speaks directly to both the Devil’s description of Jesus and Blake’s criticism of religious dogma. The Devil says, “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules”(Plate 24). Blake extracts a basic description of this necessary individualism, what Emerson would call “Self-Reliance”, and reduces it to a simplistic animal model. The natural laws that apply to the ox are obviously not the same for he lion. The lion will not pull a plow nor will the ox snare his prey in the jungle. Blake further illustrates the necessity of individualism with an etched figure of a man crawling
on the ground, “debased and brutalized until he tries to live by eating grass, that is, the mental food provided by the world of materialism”(Keynes, Plates 22-24). This etching visually forces an image of the consequences of blind adherence to law into the reader’s consciousness. In Plates 17-20, Blake asks the Angel to show him what eternal damnation will be like and offers to do the same for the Angel. He says, “Perhaps you will be willing to shew me my eternal lot, & we will contemplate together on it and see whether your lot or mine is most desirable”(Plate 17). Blake describes a terrifying vision in which a rolling black abyss of ocean is infested with a gargantuan serpent and bloodthirsty leviathan. For the Angel, Blake projects an enormous Bible in which vicious apes tear each other limb from limb and a skeleton becomes Aristotle’s “Analytics”. Clearly, Blake is criticizing church interpretation of the Bible and the logical or metaphysical paradigm. The last line states, “Opposition is true Friendship”(plates 17-20). This echoes Jesus teaching regarding love of one’s enemy and persecutor, yet it also describes the essence of Blake’s argument for the necessity of opposites. The Angel and the Speaker inflict condemnation and hell upon the other, which creates a tension of opposites. This tension then creates a magnetic attraction or energy that leads to a relationship through dialogue. Thus, “Opposition is true Friendship”. When Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34), he spoke to the same concept of opposition espoused by Blake. Jesus was a revolutionary prophet, a man ahead of his time. The word play that Blake employs by inverting Heaven and Hell is the same revolutionary tactic used by Christ at “The Sermon on the Mount”, when he delivers the Beatitudes, in many ways undermining the Ten
Commandments. Jesus understood the necessity of acting from the truth of one’s heart in the same way that Blake despised commercialism and blind obedience. The philosophy of opposing forces as necessary for action and energy, what Blake describes as “Evil” is actually pure physics. Newton’s Third law says that, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Blake says, “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence”(Plate 3). Christ explained these phenomena when he refined the commandments. He said, “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”(Matt. 5:45) Blake’s tome that “Opposition is Friendship” is derived from this fundamental spiritual tenet of duality. Christ and Christianity were well known and understood references in Blake’s time. He might have easily mentioned Buddhism or Taoism or Hinduism in his religious reference, but it would not have had the same effect. Although the spirit of Blake’s work is to critique organized religion and archaic empirical thought, he does rely upon religious tome and imagery to make his point. Blake dispels conventional thoughts about man and inspiration by writing subversive, heretical lines such as, “That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his energies”(Plate 4) and “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of religion”(Plate 8). Today, these words hold equal weight, although many may be interpreted from the vantage of eastern philosophy. For example, lines such as “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”(Plate 7) are reminiscent of Siddhartha, the Buddha. Guatama Buddha had to experience every physical pleasure in excess before he attained enlightenment beneath the banyan tree. It was brilliant and dangerous for Blake
to make these assertions in 16th century England because he directly challenges the most powerful entity in Europe at the time, the Church. When Einstein said, “Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds” it was likely someone like Blake he had in mind. Blake inverts common notions of good and evil to challenge religious dogma and authority. He illustrates the problematic relationship between the artist and the church while maintaining a spiritually focused work of art. His philosophy is fiercely individual and revolutionary. Thus, his landmark work of art/literature may only be described as the direct influence of a higher nature. Clearly, Blake channels a sublime force to create The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that can be ascribed to the magnetic energy of opposites, divine and nefarious, dark and light, angelic or satanic. They are the forces of inspired proliferation.
Works Cited: Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Paris: Oxford University Press, 1975. Coogan, Michal D., ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition. New York, 2007
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