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Tiffani Douglas
ENGL 312 Romantic Literature
Dr. Potter
28 April 2010
The Spirituality of Blake:
Co-Dependent Conflict in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Despite the religious connotations associated with its title, William Blake’s epic poem
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is primarily concerned with the dialectic nature of human
existence. Throughout The Marriage, Blake presents a plethora of contradictory ideas that
nevertheless by their very nature seem compelled to interact. These ideas culminate in Blake’s
rejection of Religion because it advocates one set of complementary ideals while rejecting
another equally valuable set of ideals. His primary argument in The Marriage is that spiritual
empowerment is the result of rejection of conventional Religion and awareness of the codependence between two opposing ideals that characterize the dual nature of reality.
Blake introduces the idea of contraries in the beginning of the poem. One of the most
famous lines in The Marriage asserts that “without contraries is no progression. Attraction and
Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence” (Blake 104).
These opposites represent the two dimensions of reality: the physical and the spiritual. Blake’s
rejection of Religion is rooted in the belief that Religion devalues physical reality and
overemphasizes divinity.
In his essay on the dialectical vision of Blake, David Gross expounds on the importance
of acknowledging the natural world. He claims that “a sense of the interconnectedness and
mutual influence and determination of all aspects of human reality is the dialectical wisdom

a reshaping of this traditional characteristic of Romantic art—transformed myth becomes the channel for ideological transactions” (Schock 441). Blake demonstrates the tension that saturates all of creation. Harold Bloom made an attempt to understand this reversal of traditional roles in an article entitled. and the serpent seems to be a model of Christianity. And that Reason. Although in traditional theology the serpent is a symbol of Satan. called Evil. He states that the “intellectual argument in The Marriage is a defamiliarized version of the mythology surrounding Satan.” Bloom claims that The Marriage . An awareness of that tension is the foundation of the ability to sense the true nature of reality. “Dialectic in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.Douglas 2 embodied by Blake in The Marriage” (177). here the snake comprises traditionally Christian qualities and those who the reader would normally consider pious are full of rage. Tension between “energy”—the vitality of physical creation—and the more familiar and concrete idea of reason saturate both creation in general and individuals specifically. Called Good. Blake presents Heaven and Hell not as literal spiritual locations but rather as symbols of the contradictory nature of human existence. That Energy. Blake states that “Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body and a Soul. is alone from the Body. He baffles the reader by invoking Biblical imagery: “now the sneaking serpent walks / In mild humility / And the just man rages in the wilds / Where lions roam” (Blake 103). By essentially “marrying” these two contradictions. Blake deconstructs conventional perspectives of Christianity in the very beginning of the poem. is alone from the Soul” (Blake 104). Peter Schock describes this confusing reversal of roles. Conventional religious views are abruptly reversed in these lines. while the violent emotion of the just man repulses the reader. To launch this strange and abstract idea. Throughout the poem. In the beginning of The Marriage.

and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling. Religion is a paradox that inadvertently disrupts the harmony of true reality. Evil is Hell” (104). In The Marriage. And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire” (104). Blake warns that “those who restrain desire. He makes the controversial statement that “prisons are built with stones of law. Blake rejects conventional religion because it smothers the interaction of these two contraries. The Marriage employs another effective tactic in his assault on traditional beliefs. Reason suppresses the natural human tendency to embrace the Romantic ideal of striving beyond the chains of Religion. do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained. Good is Heaven. This reversal of traditional perceptions presents evil as something desirable and good as inert complacent. brothels with bricks of Religion” (Blake 105). Instead. Blake asserts that “from these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. This enables Blake to position humankind in the center of a battle between reason . Blake does not present either heaven or hell as wholly evil or good.Douglas 3 “mocks the categorical techniques that seek to make the contraries appear as ‘negations. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Conventional religion emphasizes structure so much that it suppresses the passionate desires that characterize humankind. which for Blake prevents man from accepting the dialectic conflict of the body and the soul. After the beginning of the poem introduces a succession of contradictory images. or passion and reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.’ The unity of the Marriage is in itself dialectical” (501). the poem’s primary concern is to argue that the characteristics that each location represents in the poem are necessary to achieve the Blakean standard of spiritual awareness within the natural world. true evil is not epitomized by hell but by unwavering adherence to the rigidity of Religion.

although it associated with hell in the poem. Some will say. and to deny either the soul or the body is to deny that aspect of the self that allows progression. and each one is placed within the categories of good and evil. in which heaven and hell are to be married but without becoming altogether one flesh or one family. This conflict is the catalyst of The Marriage. By the ‘marriage’ of contraries Blake means only that we are to cease valuing one contrary above the other in any way” (502). Blake’s use of heaven and hell in the poem to represent two conflicting ideas is merely an expression of his desire to reiterate that reason and passion are as fully contradictory as heaven and hell. He terms them the Prolific and the Devourer. Is not God alone the Prolific? I answer. Bloom describes the conflict of ideas in the poem by stating that “this is a dialectic without transcendence.Douglas 4 and energy in which energy is not necessarily a bad thing. The introduction of reason as the epitome of good and energy as the manifestation of evil raises another captivating issue. Because these two aspects of the human being reflect the contradictions of good and evil. The amount of contradictions referenced in the poem is abundant. and the poem seems to suggest that these terms reference God and Satan respectively. and it also holds the key to understanding the poem’s title. Blake reiterates the interdependent nature of God and Satan: The Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights. The poem asserts that the body and soul of an individual are contradictory in nature and yet inextricably interdependent. In this sense. God only Acts and . life itself is in conflict. Later in The Marriage. Blake introduces yet another set of contradictory ideas.

yet each is necessary for the existence of the other. These two classes of men are always upon earth. Blake seeks transcendence within the natural world because if heaven is beyond the material. in existing beings or Men. (107) In this loose allusion to Blake’s belief in the deity of humankind. Although these two deities are irreconcilable. then no conflict can exist between heaven and hell. and the conflict between them should remain eternal. their conflict is necessary and serves as a macrocosm of the individual’s conflict between body and soul. The relationship between the two is an eternal cycle. and the Prolific would cease to produce without the Devourer. Bloom goes on in his essay to point out that “Religion seeks to end the warfare of contraries because it claims to know a reality beyond existence. this Biblical reference serves to reiterate that the Prolific and the Devourer should not be reconciled. as in the Parable of the sheep and goats” (107). Blake believed that “to destroy enmity between Prolific and Devourer would destroy existence. Religion is an endeavor to reconcile the two. Blake is emphatic in his certainty that “whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence. such destruction being religion's attempt to inflict upon us the greatest poverty of not living in a physical world” (504). Blake wants the warfare to continue because he seeks a reality within existence” (504). Note. Jesus Christ did not wish to unite but to separate them.Douglas 5 Is. The Devourer could not devour without the production of the Prolific. the Prolific and the Devourer are in conflict. Blake presents the view that . According to Bloom. and they should be enemies. In addition to introducing another set of contradictions. The passage in The Marriage goes on warn against the dangers of attempting to resolve this conflict.

One of these maxims states.” in which Blake presents several maxims that reflect his views concerning progression. This awareness is not enough. The presence of desire—which religion seems determined to suffocate—is the source of action. it should be indulged.Douglas 6 dialectical tension is between the natural and the supernatural within the material world is vital to comprehending human existence. Elsewhere in his poem. The Marriage goes on to specify Biblical examples of Jesus’ impulsive actions. Activity and passivity are only two of many contradictions introduced in The Marriage. Blake makes it clear that he does not reject Biblical teachings. Because desire precipitates action. no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. and action is the vehicle for progress. and acted from impulse. “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough” (Blake 106). “I tell you. and acknowledgement of both is necessary to follow His example. Blake asks: . Rather. The restriction of the Ten Commandments is yet another boundary Blake believes should be broken by impulsive actions. Blake demonstrates how these contradictions propel development. however. Blake denies the traditional beliefs attributed to the Ten Commandments in his interpretation of scripture. not from rules” (Blake 109). for another maxim further develops the need for indulging in desire: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” (Blake 106). rules and impulse also have an interdependent yet conflicting relationship. He asserts controversially. As with the sheep and goats allusion. A considerable amount of The Marriage consists of the “proverbs of hell. Jesus was all virtue. Blake ties the idea of rules and impulse with Biblical teachings. Blake argues that even Jesus understood that reality consists of two opposites. Consistent with rest of the poem.

Douglas 7 Did he [Jesus] not mock at the Sabbath. ambiguous “ancient Poets” imbued every object in the physical world with “Gods or Geniuses. Just as in the Bible. Blake warns of a deeper consequence for strict adherence to Biblical rules. (Blake 106) Corruption entered the world when Religion—represented here by Priesthood—attempted to compartmentalize creation. This passage stresses the truth that even Biblical rules are not universal and that there are occasions in life when one should act on impulsive feelings instead of rules that advocate a contrary action. however. and “thus men forgot that all deities reside within the human breast” (Blake 106). which for Blake is a rejection of the true nature of reality. Blake makes the very valid point that rules such as the Ten Commandments leave no room for mercy. . In addition to hindering virtuous impulse. perfection went awry: They studied the genius of each city and country. which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects. and so mock the Sabbath’s God? murder those who were murder’d because of him? turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? steal the labor of others to support him? bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? (109) Using these examples. placing it under its mental deity. as in the instance of the adulteress. Instead of viewing spirituality as immanent. thus began Priesthood…at length they pronounced that God had order’d such things.” naming them just as Adam did in the Garden of Eden (Blake 106). The imposition of order and rules within creation masks the true nature of humankind. Till a system was formed. Religion compels men to acknowledge the transcendence of the divine. In his rendition of ancient history that faintly echoes the creation story.

reason retains its role as the boundary. however. and reason. Blake wants both. He claims that “Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy” (104). Blake concedes that the ideals represented by Heaven carry significance as well. This marriage is not a conventional one. hence the marriage of contraries” (Bloom 503). however. In one section of the poem. Bloom demonstrates this principle using the spokesmen for Heaven and Hell. claiming that “to force into our consciousness awareness of connections among realms or practices we had not seen as related is Blake's primary purpose” (Gross 180). While energy is the core of human existence. and energy are as necessary to an awareness of the spiritual within creation as passivity. Blake advocates immanence. Gross sums up Blake’s intentions succinctly. He observes. rules. the emotional power of passion would be uncontainable. The ideas in The Marriage do not discard the tenets of religion. impulse. the vitalist —or Devil—heat without light.Douglas 8 Blake devotes the majority of The Marriage to forming the argument that action. Without these values. claiming that humans can perceive spirituality within the world by accepting the contradictions presented in The Marriage. Rather. rejects . Instead of acknowledging the traditional theological view that divinity exists in the cosmos. their very opposing nature is central to Blake’s doctrine of spirituality. Throughout The Marriage. Blake adheres to the basic tenets of the Bible while introducing an interpretation of the scripture that defends his own belief in the dual nature of physical creation. Ideally—when the views of Religion are rejected—energy and reason encompass each other even as they are in conflict with each other. Blake deconstructs the conventionality of heaven and hell. “the Angel teaches light without heat. only its unyielding structure. because there is no harmony between the two ideals.

. and provides readers with insight into the complex dialectic nature of reality.Douglas 9 Religion as a model for Biblical truth.

ELH (1993): 441-470. Fort Worth. Modern Language Association. .>. 22 April 2010. <http://www.jstor. “ Infinite Indignation: Teaching. 22 April 2010.jstor. JSTOR. David. 1995. Johns Hopkins University Press.” PMLA. Peter.” 60. Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. Harold. English Romantic>. Dialectical Vision.2. <http://www. 73. “Dialectic in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.5 (1958): 501-504. JSTOR. National Council of Teachers of English Stable.2 College English (1986): 175-186. Gross. Perkins. <http://www.jstor. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Blake's Myth of Satan and Its Cultural Matrix. and Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 22 April 2010.>.” 48. Schock.Douglas 10 Works Cited Bloom.