By Alex Andy Phuong
A prevalent theme in literature and poetry is the idea of opposites. Famous examples include Marianne and Elinor Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and various character foils in novels like Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Because it is such an effective technique, contrasting ideas have the ability to reveal universal truths about abstract ideas, like life and religion. In William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” such contrasts prove to be essential to human nature; however, religion uses such opposites in a manner so significantly that those contrasting characteristics classify beings as stereotypes rather than as multi-faceted characters.
Blake argues that contrasts leads to positive change. Such usefulness draws a parallel to the idea of the Id and the Superego developed by Sigmund Freud. In both cases, the right combination of these opposing traits, whether they be good and evil or the Id and the Superego, creates a compromise that leads to progress. Therefore, despite being opposite, contrasts, such as good and evil, must coexist harmoniously in order to create improvements for those that exist.
Since Blake believes that contrasts are essential to all that exists, he uses animal imagery, basic biology, and alludes to the Bible, to further enhance this idea. In the section “Proverbs of
Hell,” he utilizes animals that are naturally different to reveal how such diversity is necessary. Very different animals, in reality, have similar actions because they actually have more in common than meets the eye. Such descriptions exhibit the idea that contrasts are necessary because even though all of these animals are very different, they are all common in the way they behave. Also, even though they may be of different species or colors or types, some animals truly do have the capacity to have similar lifestyles. In terms of biology in the poem, Blake describes predators hunting prey; however, if the predators completely wipe out the prey, then the predators would go extinct as well. Therefore, there must be a symbiotic relationship between such animals in order for both of them to survive. Lastly, the usage of male and female animals recalls the story of Noah’s Ark; it presents the importance of male and female reproduction in order for animals to live. In another sense, it also reveals the importance of love and relationships between males and females in the animal world because love can result in sex, leading to a prosperous population. Since such loving and sexual relationships are necessary to the very existence and continuation of these animals, Blake’s usage of animals in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” exhibits how relationships of all sorts, whether they are natural or not, are necessary for humanity itself.
To emphasize the idea that religious opposition establishes stereotypes, Blake employs a unique combination of paradoxes and Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime. According to Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime, something that is sublime creates a sense of awe, even if the thing that is sublime creates a sense of terror and is not conventionally beautiful. The actual paradoxes used in the poem are the descriptions of Heaven and Hell; Blake describes Hell almost as if it was a form of Paradise, while the beings up in Heaven feel miserable and go through their own living hell. He describes the Devils of Hell as high-spirited and vivacious, while the Angels up in Heaven are dry and dull. Because of this eccentric description that defies the normal perceptions of Heaven and Hell by mankind, it develops an eerie feeling of Heaven and Hell as being sublime. Furthermore, it creates a satirical portrayal of what really is heavenly bliss, and what is utter misery. Because of this contrast to what humans normally perceive to be peaceful and nightmarish, it establishes an uncanny tone; such a type of tone explains the theme of how stereotypes are not always correct. Blake’s contradictory vision of the contrasting places of Heaven and Hell ultimately delivers the idea that differences should not define who or what something is; instead, differences can add a sense of diversity to various beings while simultaneously giving them depth to their personal character.
“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is a special poem because of both its style and the ideas it presents. It is also important to note the specific word “marriage” in the title. Such important diction implies that Heaven and Hell must be united as one. The title, Blake’s techniques in the poem, like imagery, stereotypes, satire, and the usage of the sublime, ultimately establish these two themes: Differences should create more complexity in the description of one’s character. Finally, in spite of all of the differences presented in the poem, these differences prove to be of great importance because they establish both diversity as well as a common ground for all that lives and exists.
Alex Andy Phuong earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University-Los Angeles in 2015. He was a former Statement Magazine editor who currently writes about literature, film, and culture. He has written film reviews for more than one hundred motion pictures for MovieBoozer, and his writing has appeared both online and in print. Alex is a writer who dares to support the ones who pursue their dreams.