Portrayals of Religion in Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

In William Blake’s poem, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” the idea of religion is dissected and even protested in a manner that seems very appropriate for Romantic thought. It appears as if Blake is calling his readers to challenge their own beliefs—to question things for themselves—as opposed to simply accepting everything they hear or observe from religious officials as absolute truth. This sense of independence can be seen in his proverb that “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” Through this proverb, Blake asserts that wisdom is found through an individual’s own experiences and learning from one’s mistakes as opposed to passively listening to the lecturing of another.

The colorings of the plates in each edition help to support this idea, yet in two completely opposite methods. The darker colors of the 1794 edition provide a sense of dread and bleakness that is perfectly characteristic of Blake’s depiction of religion at the time. For example, in this edition, the figures all seem to be dully illuminated in a background of darkness. This darkness represents ignorance, and the dull illumination of each figure represents the individual’s tendency to simply fade into the darkness around them (http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=mhh.e.illbk.16&java=no).  The 1790 edition, on the other hand, seems to portray the element of passivity that Blake attributes to many religious people. The use of colors such as pink, yellow, light blue, and lavender provide an overly-idealized view of the physical world, heaven, and hell. In other words, the figures seem so complacent in their surroundings, that the surroundings themselves lose all credibility.  For instance, a figure resting in a hell composed of yellow and pink demonstrates how people have no real idea what hell actually is, or heaven for that matter (http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=mhh.c.illbk.21&java=no). Whether it is the idealized “fantasy” hell, or the bleak reality of ignorance, both printings help support Blake’s call to action.



3 thoughts on “Portrayals of Religion in Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

  1. I agree that Blake is hoping his readers will take his poem and rethink their positions on things, but I wouldn’t necessarily claim it a “call to action.” I never thought about the colors implying the attitudes towards beliefs. But, would the warmer more intense colors of the 1794 in a sense, scare away people from religion? Would the lighter colors make them want to join, or stay? Or is that the point? That no one really knows what it looks like, and that we all envision our own beliefs. If that’s the case, would it matter what colors were used, or even what images, since we each have our own idea? Should the colors really make a difference?

  2. I agree with your summation of the colors in the two editions and how they affect the reader, but I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that Blake was ‘protesting’ religion. The other term you used was ‘dissecting,’ which, to me, seems more accurate. I don’t think Blake was suggesting that people should not be religious, but, as you said, that they should think for themselves, instead of being passive in their religion.

  3. Very good discussion from all three of you. I’d like to highlight this in class. Just let me respond: given each of your positions, what do you make of Blake’s comments about Jesus in the last plate?

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