The Apocalyptic Character of Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”
The word apocalypse derives from the Greek word meaning “revelation”, lending its name to the last book of the New Testament, The Book of Revelations. It refers to a prophetic vision which, through elaborate and often violent symbolism, signals an end to the current world and its inhabitants and importantly is followed by a regeneration of the world to a perfect state. The violence and destruction visited upon the earth is cleansing, purging the earth of its evils and evil-doers, in preparation of the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom on earth. I aim to explore this idea of apocalypse through an examination of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and discussion of its social, political, historical and poetic context.
Followers of Millenarianism believe that with the evil and unjust destroyed, there will be a period of one thousand years of peaceful bliss upon earth, the millennium, after which the forces of evil will be released in order for them to be banished forever. The philosophy of the Three Ages refers to the belief that apocalypse would follow a thousand years after the completion of the Age of the Father, the Age of the Son and the Age of the Holy Spirit respectively. Famously Adolf Hitler subscribed to the theology of the Three Ages, believing that his Third Reich would bestow glory upon the world for a thousand years. Such images of destruction and great changes in the state of the world readily lend themselves to ideas of political revolution. Through the reading of the Bible’s apocalyptic books one could read into them the promotion of destroying the status quo in order that humanity’s plight should be replaced by a new earth and in it a paradise regained. This is immediately relevant to the Romantic poets who were inspired by the promise of the American Revolution, which culminated in the election of George Washington as the first President of the United States of America in 1789, and the more radical expectations prompted by the early years of the French Revolution happening at the same time. They saw the French Revolution as an overture to the end of history, presaging a new age of joy, a return to Paradise. Given this context, and England’s own ongoing revolution from a primarily agricultural to a modern industrial nation, it is understandable why so many thought the social structure was on the verge of collapse and apocalypse imminent.
Political revolution was running alongside literary revolution, and Shelley in his Defense of Poetry described how the literature of the age “has arisen as it were from a new birth” and that within the age’s works an “electric life burns” which is “less their spirit than the spirit of the age” , thus coining the term the Spirit of the Age. William Hazlitt entitled his book of essays The Spirit of the Age and in it claimed that the early years of the French Revolution had appeared to herald “the dawn of a new era” and claimed that “a new impulse had been given to men’s minds”, commenting that it was “a time of promise, a renewal of the world – and of letters.” Wordsworth and Coleridge embodied this spirit when they revolutionized the theory and practice of poetry with their Lyrical Ballads of 1798. It is difficult for us to comprehend this spirit of fervour and anticipation of something truly great, as Robert Southey, writing in 1824, recognised:
“Few persons but those who lived in it can conceive or comprehend what the memory of the French Revolution was, nor what a visionary world seemed to open upon those who were just entering it. Old things seemed passing away, and nothing was dreamt of but the regeneration of the human race.”
As well as poets, this biblical language of regeneration was taken up by preachers, such as Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Joseph Fawcett and Elhanan Winchester, who openly supported the Revolution, envisioning it as a confirmation of biblical prophecy.
William Blake wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in the early 1790s during the early years of the French Revolution. At this point it still promised much and Blake had high expectations of it being the universal violence which would bring about the inauguration of the Kingdom of Christ. By opening The Argument (Plate 2, line 1) with “Rintrah”, whom Morton D. Paley believes “embodies…the prophetic wrath of the just man” Blake immediately sets his work in line with the biblical prophets Elijah of the Old Testament and John the Baptist, who retells the prophecy of the Apocalypse in Revelations. The idea of the poet himself as a prophet is presented to us in the introduction to the poem on Plate 3, where Blake mentions Swedenborg, whose most famous work was entitled a Treatise Concerning Heaven and Hell, and his prediction that the Messiah would return in 1757, the year of Blake’s birth. At the time of composing this poem Blake was thirty three years old, the same age as Jesus was when he was resurrected, and he sees himself as the imaginative poet-prophet who will bring about redemption through this work, through the marriage of the “Contraries” for “progression”. Amongst these he cites “Reason and Energy” as “necessary for human existence” which he elaborates on as “”Good being the passive that obeys Reason, Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.” And it is through their marriage that the millennium will come about. He refers the reader to Isaiah XXXIV and XXXV which prophesy “the day of the Lord’s vengeance” and the subsequent redemption of the earth when “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose”, respectively. He also mentions Edom; the place whence the holy avenger comes stained with blood in Isaiah LXIII and prophesies the redemption of Adam and the recovery of Paradise. In the historical context of the early 1790s this nation of Edom comes to represent France with the figure of the holy avenger, a manifestation of the French Revolution; in Blake’s eyes the sign of apocalyptic regeneration and Paradise regained. In writing about such subject matter as Paradise, Blake aligns himself with Milton, whom Blake claims “was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” in Plate 6.
If the Apocalypse is a revelation, an unveiling, then Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell is apocalyptic in its very nature. He rails against any absolutism in religion by questioning how separate good and evil are and by confusing the roles of Jesus and Satan. Blake states that “in Paradise Lost…the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah”, that is Jesus, “but in the Book of Job, Milton’s Messiah is call’d Satan” for it is he who acts as moral accuser and physical tormentor. Blake argues that if they can share roles how can such absolutism as orthodox religion preaches exist? Further similarities between Christ and Satan are exposed, such as the Devil rebelling against authority, challenging God, and being expelled from Heaven, while on Earth Jesus rebelled against the Pharisees whom he felt were oppressing Him and His people. The Devil questions “did He not mock at the Sabbath?” thus showing that Jesus questioned the status quo as it was too restrictive. Furthermore did He not “turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery” because of the hypocrisy and oppressive nature of the law? Both Satan and Jesus have acted as revolutionaries in the past and this not only supports Blake’s argument against absolutism in religion but also in proving that revolution is not necessarily evil.
He also parodies Swedenborg, whom he once admired, for being a “conventional Angel in the disguise of a radical Devil”. He also felt alienated by the increased institutionalisation of the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem and some of his controversial writings on what Paley calls “the concubinage dispute” which sanctioned men’s use of concubines under certain circumstances but not women’s, perhaps referred to in the line “Brothels [are built] with bricks of Religion”. He inverts many of Swedenborg’s teachings, focusing at the start on Hell, depicted as a source of unrepressed creative and revolutionary energy, rather than Heaven, depicted as authoritarian and regulated, and casting himself as “a mighty Devil” writing with “corroding fires”, a reference to the technique employed by Blake of etching passages onto metal using acids. This technique in itself is apocalyptic in that it reveals the truth where there appeared nothing, thus achieving his apocalyptic goal “by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” Again he aligns himself with tradition, this time of Dante’s Inferno where the poet, like Blake does here, journeys to Hell. Blake mixes the traditions of Milton and Dante with his own revolutionary aim: to reveal to his readers the repressive nature of institutional religion and conventional morality.
He replaces the biblical Book of Proverbs with his diabolic version entitled “Proverbs of Hell”, a list of provocative and sometimes paradoxical proverbs whose purpose is to energise the mind and induce thought. In one diabolical proverb he issues a call to, presumably revolutionary, action with the proverb “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence”, treating inertia as if it were a highly contagious plague afflicting the world and preventing the necessary revolution. He also recognises that if revolution is to be apocalyptic then there will inevitably be casualties, but “The cut worm forgives the plow”, implying that people will be willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. In biblical terms, those who sacrificed their lives in the name of God would be the first to join Christ in the millennium of Heaven on Earth. Blake states that the world is “finite and corrupt” but through the revelations and regeneration of the Apocalypse it shall be “infinite and holy”. His job as the poet is to open the “doors of perception” so that everything would “appear to man as it is, infinite” through their heightened sensual perception of the world.
Perhaps the most revelatory passage is that entitled Opposition is true Friendship which focuses on exposing and denouncing the preaching of Swedenborg. He claims that Swedenborg is like the Angel whom Blake met on his passage through Hell, as both have “the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.” In the same way “Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; tho’ it is only the Contents or Index of already publish’d books.” Blake is promoting the use of imagination to create novel and revolutionary thoughts which will bring about Heaven on earth. Contrastingly Swedenborg is rooted in the opposite mindset, as Blake elucidates:
“Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth. Now hear another: he has written all the old falshoods.”
The reasoning behind this, according to Blake, is that he “conversed with Angels who are all religious, & conversed not with Devils, who all hate religion, for he was incapable thro’ his conceited notions”, again emphasising the repressive nature of formal, conventional religion. This idea is elaborated upon in the following section where Blake retells a conversation he witnessed between an Angel and a Devil. The conversation centres on a debate over the Ten Commandments, which the Devil sees as repressive, as a representative of orthodox religion, attempting to restrain desire and creativity. Only when the contraries of Reason and Energy are allowed to coexist will humankind flourish, argues Blake.
In terms of apocalyptic imagery the most striking is that of the Leviathan wreaking havoc on the earth in Plate 18, a clear representation of the French Revolution as noted by Paley, who states that the “Leviathan is, as has widely been recognized, a vision of the French Revolution” and even more interestingly by Martin K. Nurmi who points out that the direction of Leviathan “to the east, distant about three degrees” points us in the direction of Paris, the centre of the French Revolution. Paley points out that “it is likely that this part of the episode parodies Swedenborg’s vision of the destruction of Babylon in A Treatise Concerning the Last Judgement and the Destruction of Babylon” whilst it also serves to show how the millennium and the Apocalypse are conterminous. Blake’s “friend the Angel” flees the terrifying scene leaving the narrator in what appears to be part of the millennial world “on a pleasant bank beside a river by moonlight, hearing a harper who sung to the harp”. The Apocalypse and millennium are in fact the same just seen with differing perceptions “owing to your metaphysics”, that is your spiritual beliefs. Thus Blake presents the French Revolution as both apocalyptic and millennial.
As an appendix to The Marriage, Blake wrote A Song of Liberty which celebrates the toppling of a tyrant, with strong echoes of Revelations XII in the characters of the mother, the divine baby and the threatening beast. It mixes images of factual history, such as “France, rend down thy dungeon” in reference to the French Revolution’s storming and demolition of The Bastille prison, with biblical images of the Apocalypse. He employs a list of imperatives which culminate in a plea for man to “Look up! Look up!” and “enlarge thy countenance” whether you are in England (Oh citizen of London), the middle-east (Oh Jew) or Africa (Oh African! Black African!) in order that revolution, apocalypse and subsequently millennium be achieved worldwide. This would result in “the son of fire” wreaking apocalyptic doom upon the world then “loosing the eternal horses from the dens of night, crying, ‘Empire is no more! And now the lion and wolf shall cease.’” This echoes the prophecy in Isaiah LXV which reads “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” in the post-apocalyptic Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Blake, in choosing the to make the theme of this work a marriage, is part of the tradition amongst first generation Romantic poets which Kelvin Everest describes as the “frequent deployment of images of marriage… [which] draws on the biblical imagery of the millennium as a wedding” , as shown in Revelations when the holy city, the New Jerusalem is seen “coming down from God out of Heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelations, XXI) in order to constitute a marriage between the new Kingdom of Heaven and Christ. Blake aligns himself with this tradition whilst suggesting the most revolutionary marriage of Heaven and Hell. However, as a sceptic of orthodox religion and its sanctioned practices, Blake desires a marriage where neither of the contraries submits to the other, like a woman would submit to her husband. While orthodox religion maintains that the ultimate goal is a reconciliation of contraries that results in the destruction of evil by good, Blake states that such a reconciliation would destroy existence, as “without Contraries there is no progression” and that “opposition is true friendship”. He does not state that evil is superior to good, nor that Energy is better than Reason. His point is that if an individual combines the two in matrimony he will reach the desired millennium, but allow one to dominate the other and you will produce the opposite to what you intended. This, it appears, is what the leaders of the French Revolution did, not letting their Reason check their Energy, leading to an increasingly violent uprising which alienated many of their English sympathisers.
In the early years of the French Revolution the expectation was that it would fulfill the millennial prophecy of Revelations. Coleridge appeared to have utter faith in this, succinctly summarising in his Religious Musings:
“The French Revolution. Millennium. Universal Redemption. Conclusion”
In the summer of 1793 the idealism of the French Revolution seemed under threat from foreign European monarchies, which feared the sort of universal apocalypse that Blake wrote would replace these absolutist seats of power with the more democratic popular sovereignty, as well as the former French nobility and the Roman Catholic Church. The former nobility had an obvious stake in the downfall of the Revolution as they had been displaced resulting in the loss of their inherited privileges and many of their counter-revolutionary friends and family had been victims of the horrendous September Massacres in 1792. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed in July 1790, subordinated the Roman Catholic Church to the French Government and confiscated lands in order that King Louis XVI could pay for armies to defend himself against the revolutionary armies. These imminent threats to the French Revolution resulted in perhaps the most shocking period of the Revolution, known simply in French as la Terreur which essentially resulted in systematic and lethal repression of perceived enemies within the country. Led and enforced by Maximilien Robespierre, “the Incorruptible”, the Reign of Terror reduced the democratic idealism of the Revolution to an increasingly dictatorial absolutism, associated with brutal violence. Thousands fell victim to the guillotine or mob violence for dissenting the Revolution and its leaders. However the Reign of Terror was successful in defeating the foreign armies from England, Austria, Prussia and Spain as the Jacobin Committee had raised a formidable army from its supporters through intimidation and fear of violent reprisal, as Robespierre stated:
La terreur n’est autre chose que la justice prompte, sÃ©vÃ¨re, inflexible.
(“Terror is nothing other than prompt, severe, inflexible justice.”)
When he too was overthrown by the Thermidorian Reaction and guillotined just like King Louis XVI had been the previous year, the Reign of Terror was brought to an end. Now however, as Thomas Noon Talfourd, and eminent jurist, poet and playwright, noted:
“On a sudden…the sublime expectations were swept away in the terrible changes of this August spectacle [The Reign of Terror]”
This caused a definite shift in the poetic mood of the Romantics from that of revolutionary exultation to despair and disenchantment. Coleridge apparently sympathised with Robespierre’s grand vision in a lecture he gave in Bristol in 1795 entitled Conciones ad Populum, where he argues:
“I rather think, that the distant prospect, to which he was traveling, appeared to him grand and beautiful; but that he fixed his eye on it with such intense eagerness as to neglect the foulness of the road.”
He also argues, in a statement which appears to echo Blake’s marriage of the Contraries of Reason and Energy that “the ardour of undisciplined benevolence seduces us into malignity” . As a result, the idea of an apocalyptic political revolution, as presented by Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, was replaced in Romantic poetry with faith in an inner transformation of consciousness and morals so that through imagination humanity could perhaps make a Heaven of the Hell they lived in.
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