Blake's Poetic Myth of Transformation

"The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavor to Restore what the Ancients calld the Golden Age." -William Blake (Johnson/Grant,xxiv).

William Blake completed the manuscript of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as well as the twenty-five accompanying engraved plates, in 1792. In the sense that the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a vision of a particular version of reality, it subscribes to one definition of the mythic, but also fulfills another as Birenbaum writes in Tragedy and Innocence: "...on a more specialized level..."true myth"...suggests a penentration to the essential nature of human experience, made by conspicuously violating features of observable reality" (112-3), [and] "...its truth is not told, it is revealed, it happens to one" (136). In the first half of the above statement, Blake acknowledges his role as mythmaker, and then relates his purpose. Joseph Campbell echoes Blake when he explains, "What the myths are for is to bring us into a level of consciousness that is spiritual," (14). And how is consciousness transformed? "Either by trials...or by illuminating revelations" Campbell answers (126), because the vision transforms the mythmaker who then uses the myth to bring visions to others. Yet Blake's goal is not simply philosophical but also aesthetic, for " see through the fragments of time to the full power of original being is a function of art" (Campbell, 228).

Though the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell has elements of satire in its "parodies of the Bible and of the religious teachings of Emanual well as assaults on popular images of heaven and hell" (Johnson/Grant, 81), its role as a manifesto or prophetic proclamation, as well as the way imagery is used in service of this goal, are the subjects of this paper. Blake uses traditional symbols of angels and devils, animal imagery, and especially images of fire and flame to: 1) set up a dual world, a confrontation of opposites or "contraries" which illustrate how the rules of Reason and Religion repress and pervert the basic creative energy of humanity, 2) argues for apocalyptic transformation of the self "through the radical regeneration of each person's own power to imagine" (Johnson/Grant, xxiv), and 3) reconstructs Man in a new image, a fully realized Man who is both rational and imaginative, partaking of his divinity through creativity. The form of the poem consists of "The Argument," expositions on his concepts of the "contraries" and of "expanded perception" which are both interspersed with "Memorable Fancies" that explicate and enlarge on his expositions, and concludes with "A Song of Liberty," a prophecy of a future heaven on earth.

"Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and
Repulsion, reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are
necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call
Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason.
Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell."
(MHH, pp. 66-7)

One of the main themes of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the confrontation of the grand oppositions of orthodox Christian doctrine: Heaven and Hell, good and evil, angels and devils. The above excerpt succinctly states that "contraries," or paradoxes if you will, are essentials of human nature, but religion has polarized Man's dual qualities, using one side of his nature to repress the other; Christian "good" represses "evil" energy. Blake expresses this idea through language in many ways. The Devils are witty, lively, and have wise things to say,whereas the Angels are dull and in error (and get angry when crossed!). Thus, Hell is quite a nice place and Heaven is rather awful, as is especially illustrated in the fourth "Memorable Fancy." Blake turns the conventional Christian image of fire as punishment and suffering on its head, thereby taking it back as an image of energy rather than fear. He writes of "walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity..." and speaking with a Devil who writes with "corroding fires" of "an immense world of delight..." in the first "Memorable Fancy" (68). In the fourth "Memorable Fancy", an Angel takes the narrator into Hell in order to convince him that his blasphemies will lead to eternal damnation, but after traversing a "fiery" landscape of destruction where the Angel leaves him, the traveller finds himself "on a pleasant bank beside a river," the previous being only illusions conjured by the Angel (74-6). And those who attempt to write of the sublime using only religious notions merely "hold a candle in the sunshine" (77).

Blake distinguishes between contraries, which are necessary to each other, and negations, in which one quality attempts to repress its opposite in other ways. The poem's "Proverbs of Hell" section is especially full of images of animals placed in pairs to represent contraries in nature, such as "The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit watch the roots; the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits," "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction," and "The crow wish'd every thing was black, the owl that every thing was white" (69-70). Male and female are also placed in natural and positive opposition in the "Proverb," "Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep" (69). Given the biblical themes of the poem, these contrasted pairings of animals, which differ in kind and nature, some being predators and others prey, suggest a reworking of the Noah's Ark fable. In Blake's world, Man must admit both sides of his nature, the force and power of desire and the ordering principles of reason, just as the predator and prey have achieved a symbiosis in the natural world; the predator never completely wipes out his prey because it would mean his own demise. To go into the realm of imagination to the extreme where reason can no longer operate, or vice versa, would be to deny one's full humanity.

Martin K. Nurmi agrees that Blake's contraries "...act positively in opposed but complementary directions, and their opposition is like that...between the creative imagination and the ordering reason, or between idea and form" (Johnson/Grant, p. 560). The significance of the title becomes apparent here because the relationship between imagination and reason should be like a marriage in which the partners work together, while each maintains the integrity of his/her own unique sphere of perception and action; the relationship is interactive but not dialectic. Man moves back and forth between the poles: "Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps" (69), and "One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression" (78), for "Opposition is true Friendship" (76).

For Blake, creative imagination is the First Principle, whereas reason mediates between it and the external world, much like the ego mediates the desires of the Id. Yet orthodox religion, in usurping the natural role of reason, attempts to repress and control rather than give "form" to the "idea." Negations happen when external laws of morality and reason are imposed on man's essentially creative nature. Blake specifically singles out Christian dogma as a tool for such negation when he calls these "sacred codes" "Errors" in the section "The Voice of the Devil:"

1. That Man has two real existing principles, Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body; & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

[Instead Blake maintains] the following Contraries to these are True:
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd 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.

(MHH, 67)

When reason denies the validity of intuitive or visionary knowledge or when moral obedience is fostered at the expense of the will, strength, or intelligence, the creative interplay of contraries is short-circuited and Man is alienated from Himself. The "Proverbs" "Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion" (69) and "He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence" (68), and the second to last line of the poem "Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity that wishes but acts not!" (80) are all images of the repression and passivity of the imaginative wrought by conventional religion. This condition is the true fall of Man that Blake seeks to remedy.

"Rintrah roars, & shakes his fires in the burden'd air:
Hungry clouds swag on the deep."

(MHH, 66)

"Once I saw a Devil in a flame of fire, who arose before
an Angel that sat on a cloud, and the Devil utter'd these
words: 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.

(MHH, 77)

The Herder Dictionary of Symbols says of Fire: "It is considered by many peoples to be sacred, purifying, and renewing; its power to destroy is often interpreted as the means to rebirth at a higher level" (p.75). Blake used the symbols of flame and fire to satirize the traditional Christian notion of Hell, as shown above, but more importantly, to represent transformation. He wished to reacquaint his readers with their creative selves and fire represents both the process of transformation and creativity itself. The transformation needed is that of consciousness, to develop and use a new kind of visionary perception, and the revelations of this new perception will be that the Divine is in Man, not cut off from Him as orthodox religion maintains.

Blake proclaims in The Marriage, "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite" (73), and Joseph Campbell, in describing a statue of the Hindu goddess Shiva, says " Shiva's...hand there is a flame which burns away the veil of time and opens our minds to eternity" (224). Just as in the Biblical accounts of the Burning Bush and the Column of Fire in which God reveals himself to Man, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell speaks of fire transforming perception and revealing truth. "For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard of the tree of life: and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy, whereas now it appears finite & corrupt" (73). Indeed, the last "Memorable Fancy" ends with the transformation of an Angel into a Devil: "When he had so spoken, I beheld the Angel, who stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire, & he was consumed and arose as Elijah" (a prophet from the Bible), and "This Angel, [has] become a Devil" (78), a being in touch with fires of visionary Energy rather than being dominated by the external laws of religion.

"This is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father
to send the comforter of Desire; that Reason may have Ideas
to build on: the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he
who dwells in flaming fire. Know that after Christ's death,
he became Jehovah."

(MHH, 68)

Fire operates as a symbol of transformation, of spiritual alchemy, but also as a symbol of light, inspiration, and spiritual vision. And this new perception, this visionary Energy, is God within us. As Blake writes, " [have] forgot[en] that All deities reside in the human breast" (71), and "God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men" (74). And contrary to one's conception of Jesus as meek and gentle, Blake argues that he, too, was in touch with his fiery, creative self because he did not allow external laws to dominate him but broke several of the commandments, yet "Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules" (78). Campbell concurs that "you have to identify yourself in some measure with whatever spiritual principle your god represents to you in order to worship him properly..." (211). And, of course, when we can find God within us, we have the potential of creating heaven on earth. Such a mystic vision can only empower us, placing the responsibility of creating our own lives squarely on us because we have the capacity, indeed it is our spiritual inheritance, to do so.

Kathleen Raine writes in Blake and Antiquity, "In the final draft Blake has implied an identity of the deeps and the skies; but unless we realize that his starting-point is their opposition, we shall miss the force of the paradox, which suggests that Heaven and Hell may be, after all, aspects of the One Thing" (79). The symbol of fire is particularly suited to this reading in that it represents heaven because " is associated with the sun, the light...and is often thought to come from the sky" and also hell because " is closely associated with...destruction, war, evil, the demonic," (The Herder Dictionary of Symbols, p. 76). Blake plays on these symbolic associations in both senses and yet it is also the perfect symbol to wed the two in bonds of holy matrimony through its third symbolic representation, its power to transform. All of these symbolic uses of fire come together in the conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "A Song of Liberty." Fire falls from heaven and wreaks destruction yet when the cataclysm is done a new age is upon the earth and Man sees with a new perception: "For every thing that lives is Holy" (80).

Birenbaum writes of Blake's Songs of Innocence: "The infinite is perfect with its own fullness. The tensions of the world resolve here, appropriately--not in rest, however, but in play, a fluency of energy in absolute delight," "...thus the meaning of life itself is not a philosophical problem but the function of a process or activity--properly a dramatic or a mythic problem" (143). Such reflections also apply to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell where Man discovers in the interplay of his imagination and reason that "Energy is Eternal Delight" (67) yet "One thought fills Immensity" (69). And it is in our human nature to learn, to grow because "Where man is not, nature is barren" (71); Humans create their own meaning, but it is largely through the flames of imagination, not the arrogance of reason.


Birenbaum, Harvey. Tragedy and Innocence. Wahington D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1983.

Blake, William. Selected Poetry. Edited by W.H. Stevenson. London: Penquin Books ltd., 1988.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1988.

Farrell, Deborah, and Presser, Carole, eds. The Herder Dictionary of Symbols. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 1978.

Johnson, Mary Lynn, and Grant, John E., eds. Blake's Poetry and Designs. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, INc., 1979.

Raine, Kathleen. Blake and Antiquity. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1977.

© 1995 Shirley Galloway

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