Blake’s Use of Color in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was innovative during its time due to its unique inclusion of printed, color images alongside the text. The 1790 version of the text employs lighter, pastel colors which are reminiscent of watercolor, while the 1794 version conveys a more threatening tone with darker tones and a heavier use of contrast between the blocks of text and the images themselves. Plate 10 is an excellent example of this difference. Here is the 1790 version:   This image relies heavily on subdued hues of blue, green and yellow, which is characteristic of many of the plates from this version. The words are slightly faded and printed in a greenish ink, which could be from old age or could have been intentional on Blake’s part. These features make the image approachable, in contrast with the somewhat frightening and revolutionary message of the words above.

In contrast, here is the tenth plate from the 1794 version:

Here, the text is printed in a darker, browner ink which provides a starker contrast to the background of the page. The image is much darker; the blue of the sky gives the scene more depth and there is dark shadowing present on the ground as opposed to the more one-dimensional image in the 1790 version. Here, Blake uses the color red, in a very vibrant way, which is characteristic of this collection as a whole. There is also more contrast among the small details surrounding the text. In general, the range of colors is much more varied and the scene displayed is more congruous with the text above. For example, the “Proverb of Hell” on this plate states, “Sooner murder an Infant in its cradle than nurse unact/-ed desires” (10.12-13). The many examples (this included) Blake uses in order to support his assertion that following one’s desires is more important than being pious in the eyes of the Church are obviously controversial and jarring, which is reflected in the darkness and depth portrayed in the 1794 version of the text.

I think that the differences in the types of colors Blake uses in these two versions of the text do have an influence on its message. While the text was meant to be subversive and shocking to Blake’s contemporaries, the 1790 version seems to be intentionally less threatening. While the narrator discusses his walk through Hell, the airy and approachable images are less frightening to the audience; they are somewhat like an introduction to Blake’s message, considering this is the first version of the book. This being said, as time went on and the text became complete in 1793, it would appear that Blake began to create prints that are more reflective of the true message of the text. Perhaps he considered that his contemporaries had had enough time to get used to the incendiary ideas he puts forth. This version is much less reader-friendly and that seems to be intentional on the part of the author.


3 thoughts on “Blake’s Use of Color in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell

  1. This analysis of Blake’s work is especially interesting to me, mainly because I had not taken into account the history of the pieces. While I do think history certainly did play a role in Blake’s color choices, I was under the impression that the difference in color was used specifically to observe how the meaning of the piece changed from a welcoming one to a malicious one. Something else that struck me was that, although this was a very satirical piece, I did not believe that the 1794 Fitzwilliam edition was necessarily intended to represent the true message of the text. Letting go of one’s inhibitions and succumbing to one’s desires are not always evil things to do; they help to open up one’s mind.

  2. This is an interesting interpretation, Elizabeth. I like the suggestion that the pastel colors of the first edition might have been intended to make the poem’s message less threatening and more palatable, while the bolder tones of the later one reflect the actual meaning more closely. Let’s pursue the question of a “PR” strategy from one edition to the next in class.

  3. I would agree that the lighter color palette of the first addition suggests a less threatening and more palatable message however, by incorporating the second edition of a darker color palette you begin to wonder where Blake’s feelings truly lie. I believe he intended to introduce a different perspective through the second edition to make readers rethink their initial reaction. The parallel of rethinking through different perspectives is something Blake may have wanted readers to take from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to the real world and to their lives. I think he intended to provoke the reader to reconsider first impressions.

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