William Blake is arguably one of the most controversial poets of the Romantic Age. As a child, Blake claimed to have a vision of a tree that was filled with angels (McGann 130). This was just the beginning of controversy for this prolific eighteenth century philosopher. During the course of his life, Blake claimed to have visited both heaven and hell on different occasions.
There are several complexities surrounding Blake’s work. One of these complexities is highlighted in Blake’s poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. This poem was written around 1792 and it is largely a critic of Emanuel Swedenborg’s doctrine. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is a noteworthy work of philosophy. In the first part of the poem, the author proclaims that “without contraries there is no progression” (Blake 1).
The poem then lists some of the most common contraries like love and hate, and attraction and repulsion (Blake 1). According to Blake, contraries are a necessity when it comes to human existence. This paper will explore the significance of the statement “without contraries there is no progression” and how it applies to the philosophy in this poem. The contraries used by the poet in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” are the backbone of this poem.
The main reason why Blake uses contraries in his poem is to set up a world of parallels. The contraries help in highlighting the confrontational views that are used by the author to argue how common reasoning and religion contrast humans’ creative energy. There are various elements of satire in this poem.
The parts of the poem that are most satirical seem like an attack on the Bible, religion, and other popular imagery such as heaven and hell. The structure of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is the first feature of the contraries used in the poem. The poem has an “arguments” part that covers popular views and then “memorable fancies”, or parts of the poem that cover Blake’s outlook. This structure is meant to put two arguments on opposing sides and therefore highlight the use of contraries (Raine 47).
One of the poet’s major concerns in this poem is the contraries that are characteristic of Christianity. These contraries include heaven and hell, angels and demons, and good and evil. These contraries have always been the pillars of the Christian doctrine. Blake’s school of thought argues that all of these contraries are part of human nature and that is why there cannot be progression without them. However, religion has turned one part of the human nature against the other.
According to the poet, religion has put the body and soul against each other (Blake 2). Religion portrays the body as the source of evil, and the soul as the source of all good things. Therefore, the soul has to be used to suppress the needs of the body in order for purity to be achieved (Blake 2). Blake uses several contraries to exemplify these contradictions. First, the poem highlights the portrayal of devils as witty, smart, and colorful creatures. On the other hand, angels are noted to be dull and easily annoyed.
This portrayal would mean that hell is a lively place whereas heaven is a dull place full of annoyed creatures. In the fourth memorable fancy of this poem, the speaker contradicts the image of eternal fire. He argues that fire could also be used to portray energy as opposed to arousing fear. The speaker talks about “walking among the fires of hell delighted with enjoyment… in an immense world of delight” (Blake 3).
This contradicts the image of hell as a place eternal suffering and regret. The speaker does not stop here, he talks of a time when the angel took him through hell to give him a prelude of eternal suffering. However, after the angel leaves, the traveler traverses the “fiery” landscape only to discover a ‘pleasant bank beside a river” (Blake 4). The traveler is trying to accuse the angel of creating illusions because when the angel disappears, so does the fiery landscape.
The poet also distinguishes between contraries that seem to complement each other and contraries that are likely to suppress their opposites. The poem has a section titled “Proverbs from Hell”. This section features proverbs that encourage humans to rebel and liberate themselves against repression. Blake referred this as the wisdom of fools.
In this section, the poet uses several animal-based nature contraries to pass his message. For instance, the speaker says that “the rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit watch the roots; the lion, the tiger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits” (Blake 4). In another instance, the crow and the owl are used as contraries.
By using contraries in nature, Blake was trying to fault the practice of natural pairing. Even man and woman are portrayed as differing in nature. This poem is biblically themed; therefore, the author might have been faulting pairing as it was done in Noah’s ark. He is suggesting that there could be a different form of animal pairing that focuses on the principle of desire. This kind of contrary is meant to suggest that human beings should not appeal to just one aspect of their nature.
The contraries used in this poem are both opposing and complementary of each other (Johnson and Grant 560). Most of their opposition is aimed at the differences between imagination and reasoning. The title of the poem signifies a marriage between contraries. Blake is trying to marry both imagination and reason.
The poet maintains that the relationship between contraries is the key to clarity and liberation. However, human beings will always move back and forth between contraries. This is exemplified in the poem through lines like “Excess of sorrow laughs” and “Excess of joy weeps” (Blake 4). In addition, the speaker asserts that “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression” and “Opposition is true Friendship” (Blake 4). These and other contraries are Blake’s main tools for conveying his message in this poem.
After a close evaluation of this poem, one can agree that indeed “without contraries, there is no progression”. William Blake considered himself a divine writer. Most of his works are a parody of mainstream religion and other famous philosophers (McGann 134). In this poem, Blake uses contraries to offer a solid two-sided argument.
In addition, Blake tries to marry both imagination and reason in this poem. To accomplish this, Blake uses contraries that feature the concept of heaven and hell, good and evil, and angels and demons. The resulting poem is an outstanding work of literature that has survived centuries of scrutiny and managed to remain relevant.
Blake, William. Selected Poetry, London: Penguin Books, 1988. Print.
Johnson, Mary and John Grant. Blake’s Poetry and Designs, New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.
McGann, Jerome. The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
Raine, Kathleen. Blake and Antiquity, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. Print.