Duality of Human Nature: Good and Evil through the Eyes of William Blake

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.

The Body, the Soul, and the Triumph of Energy and the Imagination in Plate 4

The contrast between the 1790 Morgan edition and the 1794 Fitzwilliam edition is striking. The 1790 edition seems to stress accuracy of detail and clear delineation of the lines that separate the different elements of the background and the scenery. On the contrary, the 1794 edition haphazardly bleeds lines together, focusing on creating a vivid impression of color that it is not always easy to decipher. In fact, I sometimes had trouble determining what some of the 1794 images were supposed to depict until after I had looked at the 1790 ones. Despite this, the vivid, beautiful colors of the 1794 edition give a sense of an inward luminous depth to the figures portrayed not found in the rather bland and benign figures of the 1790 edition, which look almost like drawings in a children’s book by comparison. It is in the 1794 edition that Blake demonstrates his “commitment to imagination and the potency of visionary idealism;” the reader feels as if Blake’s spirit is leaping off the pages (introduction, pg. 163).

This use of more striking colors that bleed into each other, muddling clear outlines, may be an attempt to capture the greater emotion of the imagination, as opposed to the more reasonable and logical mind. Indeed, the desirability of the imagination and the body which it arises from over reason and the mind is stressed throughout the poem. In Plate 4 (http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/comparison.xq?selection=compare&copies=all&bentleynum=B4&copyid=mhh.f&java=yes), Blake clearly outlines this philosophy, when the Devil claims that “Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy (Plate 4).” Furthermore, the devil claims that “Man has no body distinct from the Soul (Plate 4),” a proposition that is illustrated in the two figures on the left side of the page. Here, it appears as if the larger figure is the Body. It has one foot that is placed firmly on the ground and is grasping another figure, the smaller and airier Soul, which is futilely trying to escape its grasp.

The Body is leaning towards a figure who I take to be the Devil, as he is surrounded by flames. This image greatly affected my understanding of this passage because I had not pictured the Devil as actually present in the image; the title is simply “the voice of the Devil.” The Devil and the Body balance each other and lean towards each other, indicating, as Blake was trying to stress, a natural affinity between the healthy Body and the Devil, because Energy has been called Evil, and therefore been relegated to the Devil’s sphere. Yet if “Energy is the only life (Plate 4),” as Blake claims, the Body would naturally yearn towards the Devil, even as the Soul, looking towards the false sun of Reason in the upper left corner, spurns it. This affinity is heightened in the 1794 version, where one of the things surrounding the devil seems to flow into the foot of the smaller figure of the Soul, whereas the 1790 version has a clear delineation between the two.

Blake and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”


The image in the link complicates the poem as a whole. Since the title of it is “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, we are led to believe that the poem will end with the joining of Heaven with Hell. However, this particular page describes the coming of the “cherub with his flaming sword”, and, “when he does, the whole creation will be consumed”. This does not strike me as a happy resolution between Heaven and Hell.

The plate shows two male figures, one hovering above the other, who seems to be dead. To me, it is showing the cherub floating above a man who represents the death of Creation. However, the plate complicates the poem, because this is not clearly the interpretation that Blake wants us to have. The poem mentions fire, and so there is fire in the background of the plate. But if this cherub used to reside in the Garden of Eden, God’s Paradise, then why has it descended to Earth to destroy it with fire? The cause for this is an “improvement of sensual enjoyment”, which I interpret as sin. The complication for me, then, is why the guardian of the Tree of Life is also the one who will destroy the world in 6,000 years. The way this can be resolved, though, is if the cherub is the guardian of all things good, and by destroying a sinful Earth which has indulged in an “improvement of sensual enjoyment”, he is merely keeping preventing the spread of sin in his God’s creation.