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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IX. Blake

§ 6. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and the earlier “Prophecies”

But this early spirit of revolt is most notably expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), the only considerable prose work engraved by Blake. It is a well-sustained piece of iconoclastic writing, full of verve and abounding in quite successful paradox. Critically regarded, Blake’s position as the devil’s disciple, maintaining the “great half-truth Liberty” against “the great half-truth Law,” is not unassailable; yet the abiding impression is one of exuberant satirical power, of youthful freshness and buoyancy and of unflagging energy. Blake shows himself the master of firmly-knit, straight-hitting phrase, entirely without artifice, and he displays a wonderful fertility of apt illustration, in aphorism, in ironic apologue and in skilful reinterpretations of familiar episodes, chiefly biblical. The vivid scene wherein Blake and the angel contemplate their “eternal lots” is in the spirit of Swift’s early work, though its imagery has greater breadth and shows an artist’s sense of colour.

Of the tangled strands of opinion in this work, the two chief would seem to be Blake’s theory of reality and his denial of authority. Here, as before, he lays stress on the identity of the universal and the particular spirit, the oneness of God and man; though now, and in the contemporary No Natural Religion plates, he calls this prime essence the “Poetic Genius,” or the soul, of which latter, body is but a partial and modified percept, due to narrowed physical senses. From this, it follows, first, that there cannot be any valid law external to man, and, secondly, that the phenomenon of absolute matter is an illusion, due to empirical reasoning. For, since all forms of being are coextensive with the “Universal Poetic Genius,” it must be that all knowledge is intuitive. So, it comes to pass that Blake runs tilt against all civil, moral and religious codes and all exercise of reason, while, on the positive side, he affirms the sufficiency and sanctity of natural impulse and desire, of “firm persuasions” and “the voice of honest indignation.” Energy is exalted; to attempt to limit or divert it is to threaten man’s spiritual integrity. The strong man resists such tyranny, the weak succumb; yet, unable wholly to repress natural instincts, they veil their inevitable gratification under legal sanction, by their hypocrisy generating all forms of moral, spiritual and physical corruption. By cunning, the weak come to power in this world, and, setting up their slave-moralities as the measure of truth, call themselves the righteous, the elect, the angels and heirs of heaven, while those whose clearer vision refuses obedience are cast out as of the devil’s party: they are the rebels in Hell. Angels repress joy as sin; devils hold it to be the justification of all action.

The original purpose of The Marriage was to expose Swedenborg’s inconsistency, in that, while pretending to expose the fallacy of the normal religious acceptance of moral distinctions, he was himself infected with the same error. But, this particular intention is soon absorbed in the general onslaught upon the legalist positions, though the earlier purpose is recalled from time to time, particularly in the remarkably virile satire of Memorable Fancies, written in mockery of the Swedish mystic’s Memorable Relations.

It is strange that, having thus proved his power as a writer of clean-limbed muscular prose, he should have returned almost immediately to the fourteener, and developed therein what is too often the windy rhetoric of the “prophetic” books. He seems to have aimed at creating a body of quasi-epic poetry, dealing with the origin, progress and ultimate purpose of mortality. To this end, he invented his mythology, wherein the passions and aspirations of man, and the influences that made for or against vision, appear in human form, but magnified to daemonic proportions. It is clear that he was largely influenced by Milton, whom he regarded as the great heresiarch, and whose theological opinions he felt himself called upon to confute. This is explicit in The Marriage and in the book called Milton, as well as in recorded passages of Blake’s conversation, while much of his imagery, and occasionally his rhythm and diction, are reminiscent of the older poet. But there are also evidences of Biblical, Ossianic and Swedenborgian influences in works written between the years 1793 and 1800, the period of his residence in Lambeth.