Heaven and Hell; Angels and Demons; God and Satan. In William Blake’s work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” we discover this innate duality of good and evil, while being exposed to the side of “evil” in a different way. Blake argues that “Good is the passive that obeys reason / Evil is the active springing from Energy” [Plate 3, lines 11-12], and further portrays himself and other poets as Devils. I found this particularly interesting, considering the general consensus that doing that which is considered immoral or socially unacceptable [evil] is sometimes easier and more instinctual than doing that which is moral or acceptable [good], and thus requires more energy. [I.e., that humans are naturally sinful and must work in order to be “good.”] Things that are an important part of human nature—emotions, desires, and our actions toward them—are portrayed as a “good” sort of evil, while everything “good” is portrayed as boring, passive, and in contradiction to the “evil” present in men through this dual nature. Whether Blake is really saying that men are evil is up for debate, and he does not dispute that human nature, like good and evil, is at odds with one another, a dichotomous relationship with that which we desire and that which we reason is proper, but rather he challenges our preconceptions of the terms “good” and “evil” and addresses the idea that if men were created with emotions and desires, why is it “evil” to act upon them?
I noticed all these things when I first read the poem. I first read simply the text provided in our course anthology, to gather my first impressions, and then read it in accordance with both of the illuminations.
What I found was fascinating. The version from 1790 depicts exactly what I first gained from the poem; the cool colors [blues, greens] and the gentle stroke of the water-color brush all brought with it a sense of beauty that could not be considered “evil.” Even the images which showed something grotesque—the serpent on plate 20 and the devil on plate 24—seemed somehow serene and calming. Several of the plates, such as plate 20, use the warm color red to depict a kind of scene more conventionally “Hell” seeming, though the water-color gives it a diluted look, and combined with the blue, as in plate 4, reduces the effect of drastic “evil,” and presents it as a different point of view, rather than an unacceptable course of action. It seems to compliment the poem nicely.
The version from 1794, however, doesn’t, at least at first glance. The deep, burning reds and oranges return to the poem a sense of the “evil” Blake is trying to expose as perfectly natural, “good,” even. Some of the images have blurred lines, or the colors run together so that you cannot fully see the details of the image, and it gives the image a mystery that is accompanied with a sense of dread. Particularly plate 24, which, in the 1790 edition, I found to look much like a man with the mask of a devil, which symbolized to me that we hide the true nature of man behind what is deemed “evil” and “unnatural” [which I found to compliment the nature of the work perfectly], though in the 1794 edition, the colors blur the image to the point where it simply looks like a devil rather than a man. At first I thought this ridiculous and out-of-touch with Blake’s intentions, though I realized belatedly that, perhaps, the point of the darker images is to juxtapose our original ideas of “evil” [the images] with Blake’s ideas of evil [the text], making the reader wonder if their ideas of good and evil should truly be so concrete.