Without contraries is no progression.

William Blake

If you had to choose one short text to represent the quintessential spirit of Romanticism, a strong contender would have to be that section of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell provocatively named The Proverbs of Hell. Many of these electric sayings have entered the English language: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, Exuberance is Beauty, The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction. Repetition may have dulled their fire, but their fame testifies to their original voltage.

Although at the time of publication it went largely unnoticed, this fierce book was a child of its time. Blake began to write it in the year of the French Revolution and published the first copy in 1793. The auras of revolution (of emerging citizens) and religious evangelism (of redeemed lives) permeate the work: France rend down thy dungeon … O citizen of London, enlarge thy countenance … Empire is no more! And now the lion and the wolf shall cease. So great was the author’s fear of swift reprisal that the work came out anonymously: not only without his name, but without an identifying address, and even without a date of publication. Mirroring the revolution in Paris, the book was turbulent, even fanatical. It seemed to emerge from fire and be written in blood. One of the proverbs from hell ran: Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. It is as sharp as the edge of a guillotine.

At first glance, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell seems a strange and esoteric work. A fusion of text, image and colour, it is all but a unique document in the story of the self. It is made up of copperplate prints illuminated with water colours, some of the painting being done by Catherine, Blake’s devoted and illiterate wife. The text is written by hand with numerous squiggles and tiny illustrations. Angels, birds, snakes and animals dart above and below the flowing words. Occasionally, the text is broken to allow larger naked figures of men and women to swim through waves of apocalyptic flame. On one page an eagle soars into the sky, a huge serpent in its talons; on another, a sea monster twists sinuously through dark water; on another, the abject figure of Nebuchadnezzar crawls on hands and knees. With its childlike palette of bright colours and its hallucinatory images, The Marriage resembles the private journal of a psychotic patient in a mental asylum. The word ‘mad’ was often applied to Blake by his contemporaries; turning the pages, one can see why.

The book is episodic in form, opening and closing with two revolutionary poems, the last significantly called A Song of Liberty. Placed between the two poems, the narrative moves through a number of ‘memorable fancies’ written in a poetic prose resembling automatic writing and illustrated with startling maxims, mostly dictated by the various devils Blake encounters. A startling automythography, somewhat in the tradition of Dante’s Commedia, the work records his journey through the various chambers of hell into outer space where, accompanied by an angel, he penetrates the core of the sun to reach the planets lying beyond. As in a dream nothing is stable, so in The Marriage things crazily dissolve into other things and moods change quickly. The sublime transmutes into the grotesque and the serious into the farcical. It is the very antithesis of Jane Austen’s classical style. On his return from outer space, Blake encounters the stable of Christ’s birth and then the altar of a church with a Bible which, in turn, becomes a deep pit into which he descends to encounter seven houses of brick. Here baboon-like creatures endlessly copulate and sadistically attack and devour each other. Through his various adventures and his dialogues with Biblical prophets, exuberant devils and erratic angels, the author moves from an initial questioning uncertainty to a final spiritual revelation. Like all automythographies, it is a testing journey of self-discovery.

At the end of his spiritual odyssey, rather like the young Dante in La Vita Nuova, Blake is ready to announce his future work. The last ‘memorable fancy’ concludes with ‘a note’ on a particular angel who, embracing fire, suddenly transforms into the Biblical prophet, Elijah: This angel who has now become a devil is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal and diabolic sense, which the world shall have if they behave well. I have also the Bible of Hell which the world shall have whether they will or no. With this pugilistic declaration, proclaiming his future prophetic books, the long prose passage closes triumphantly with: One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.

Blake is now of ‘the devil’s party’. And he knows it. After a final revolutionary song of liberty, The Marriage closes with yet another resounding maxim: All that lives is holy. As if to reveal the primacy of being – the isness of all things – a small bird soars above the tiny animating verb. The rest of Blake’s long creative life will be a sustained struggle, with scant recognition, to amplify and illuminate his promise to augur in a New Age.

Yet Blake’s book is not only personal and somewhat psychotic, it is also dialectical and intertextual. A highly encrypted work, The Marriage offers a self-conscious recasting of the work of the Swedish scientist and visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg, some of whose books Blake had heavily annotated with a trembling enthusiasm. As without Plato there could be no Aristotle, so without Swedenborg there could be no Blake. Swedenborg was the early theological mentor and prophet who had to be frenetically absorbed – Blake called him a ‘divine teacher’ offering ‘foundational truths’ – and then poetically transformed. Blake’s method was to adopt and adapt, then invert and subvert. He deconstructed in order to recast. For him such a dialectical war lay at the heart of all intellectual and spiritual development. Opposition is true Friendship was another of the aphorisms offered by the devils in The Marriage.

Echoes of Swedenborg resound through the work. Blake’s chapter heading ‘Memorable Fancies’ is adapted from Swedenborg’s ‘Memorable Relations’, while the very title is taken from Heaven and Hell, a work by Swedenborg, written first in Latin and translated into English in 1778. The various meetings in The Marriage with angels and prophets emulate and often parody the Master, while certain technical words like ‘influx’, ‘ratio’ and ‘corporeal’ are stolen without acknowledgement. But the influence is not only stylistic, it involves subject matter too, and is deeply confrontational. The younger prophet is out to destroy the older prophet by dramatically subverting his central argument. At the beginning of The Marriage Blake writes: As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty three years since its advent; the eternal hell revives. The sentence is deeply encoded. Most obviously, it refers to the original revelation of Swedenborg in 1757 when he claimed that his spiritual eyes had been opened and he had witnessed the Last Judgement; but it also refers to Blake’s birth date and to his role as a counter-prophet; one who will claim the eternal truth of the contrary position by announcing the truths of Hell and the eternal value of its rebellion. Nor would anyone aware of the sacred numerology of Dante doubt the symbolism of the threes gathered together in the explosive 33. Blake’s sentence is dynamite. It concentrates intellectual animosities and spiritual immensities. By the end of the book Blake, with the support of the devils, is ready to step out and speak more directly. Swedenborg, he concludes, was a false prophet: Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth. Now hear another: he has written all the old falsehoods.

And why? It was because the Swedish prophet had only ever conversed with angels and had failed to attend to the instinctual and emotional wisdom propounded by the devils. Swedenborg’s unforgivable error had been to divide the angels from the devils, Good from Evil, Heaven from Hell, and to cast them into a future time. His failing was one of severe dissociation and safe projection. But for Blake, the good (and rather dull) angels needed the bad (and more exciting) devils. His mission, announced in the Marriage, was to bring the excluded elements together, to conceive them holistically as a dynamic, complementary whole. Good and Evil were contrapuntal energies within a single composition, always at work in the present tense: the eternal lineaments of human identity. It was revolutionary material, a metaphysical correlative of the political Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

It was as if Blake saw Emanuel Swedenborg as the dutiful ox still ploughing the old furrows of traditional Christianity and himself as the untamed lion, roaring in from the jungle, with a new political and spiritual vision. When the devils coined the adage about oppression, did they have Swedenborg in mind? It is very likely. Blake’s counter-theology was to become extremely complex, giving birth to a huge (somewhat obscure) mythology, with innumerable characters (some with impossible names), facing various (often somewhat inchoate) conflicts; but the succinct proverbs of hell gathered in the Marriage capture the essence of Blake’s understanding. The seventy infernal proverbs also offer a dazzling picture of Romanticism as a movement in sensibility which deepened the notion of selfhood, kindling a new awareness of the place of creativity in ordinary life and a further amplification of what most truly constituted eudaimonia, human well-being, mortal flourishing, a reading which was the antithesis to the original Stoical formulations of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

If Classicism was in love with the geometry of carved stone, then Romanticism loved the flow of water: springs, streams, waves, fountains, sacred rivers measureless to man. On one side, superb clarity; on the other, lyrical fluidity. And as the chiselled marble represented the formal qualities of the ordering mind, so the flowing water represented the elusive and animating life of feeling. One of the dominant themes among the seventy aphorisms from the devils is that feeling should never be repressed. The analogy of water is often used: The cistern contains: the fountain overflows, Expect poison from standing water and Dip him into the river who loves water. At other times, the message is drummed home with an evangelical fervour: He who desires and acts not breeds pestilence. The proverbs mark the very moment when the Renaissance ideal of sincerity espoused by Montaigne was mutating into the existential concept of authenticity. It is the authenticity which Marianne pines for in Sense and Sensibility, but which is outlawed both by her society and her pragmatic creator. It has been said Blake was a man born without a mask. Like the flames that fill his prophetic books, he lived his life with an urgent openness, an existential commitment that brooked no compromise.

In his poems and etchings, authenticity sometimes addresses the reader in the shape of predatory beasts and birds: especially, the tiger, the lion and the eagle. They can symbolise the immediate energy of untamed identity, the pristine self-manifesting itself without concession or apology, emotion, thought and action running seamlessly together. One of the infernal proverbs reads: The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled. A sense of an Edenic harmony at the root of life informs all Blake’s work. The expression of feeling is seen as crucial to psychic wholeness. This is why the devils insist: The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God. But the same conception was formulated more bluntly as a psychological maxim: Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you. What matters for human flourishing is not tight-lipped rational control, but spontaneity, the uninhibited response to the living moment, here, now. The animating force of immediate feeling lies at the very hub of Romanticism. It is caught dramatically in Johann Herder’s expostulation: I am not here to think, but to be, to feel, to live. The best romantic poetry is, for this reason, always lyrical, and – in spite of the ambition to write tragic plays and great sagas – almost never epic or dramatic; and rarely ironic or satirical. From suicidal despair to angelic elation, the intimate voice expresses the labile states of flowing consciousness in lyrics, songs, short journal entries and darting aphorisms – like the proverbs of hell. If there was a narrowing of range and register there was, at the same time, an intensification of mood and an exaltation of language. The words Sturm und Drang caught the urgency. This was longer a mimetic poetry faithfully mirroring the outside world or the collective social order, but a poetry written from secret resources within: personal, expressive, symbolic. Aspects of being, obscured or denied by the rationalist tradition of philosophy and the empirical methods of science, were not only being rescued from oblivion, but amplified in new ways. In historically changed circumstances, it was a reincarnation of the lyrical spirit of Sappho: a language for being.

Like all the Romantics, Blake stood against all the institutional forces that repressed individual desire. One of the infernal proverbs reads: Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion; another concludes: The priest lays his curse on the fairest joys. Christianity is consistently denounced by Blake as anti-Christ, one of the agents for self-alienation and the subjugation of love. In the short lyric The Poison Tree, published in 1794 as part of The Songs of Experience, he exposed the psychological dynamic by which an apparent virtue could become a murderous force:

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

The stifled anger of the grieved person is then inwardly fed until it becomes a bright poisonous apple; when the friend returns, he consumes the shining fruit and immediately dies. In the manuscript version of the poem Blake had called the poem Christian Forbearance. The irony was of the devil’s party. Too much benevolence kills.

With the focus on truth to the life of feeling, the child became elevated to a symbol of wholeness and spontaneity, of quick laughter and sudden tears. One of Blake’s first volumes, Songs of Innocence – published in the year of the French Revolution – was inspired by the figure of a child who, reclining in a floating cloud, urged the author to write. Not an intellectual mentor, not an inspired sponsor, not a traditional female muse, but a child. And the simple joyous lyrics Blake composed were dedicated to children. This was ground-breaking. Although it is impossible to think of two Romantic writers more different than the mystic Blake and the naturalist Rousseau, they both saw childhood though the same keen lens. When Rousseau attacked the habit of swaddling children and hanging the inert bundles on farm doors, when he mocked the constraining clothes they were compelled to wear as if they were no more than miniature adults, and when he condemned schools for making their small pupils sit for hours at huge desks in a state of passive stupor, Blake would have applauded – for he had noted similar cruelties in Songs of Experience, and felt the same revulsion. We know nothing of childhood, Rousseau wrote in Émile, the book he claimed to write in a continuous state of ecstasy and which he regarded as his best: the wisest writers are always looking for the man in the child, without considering what he is before he becomes a man. Both authors were, likewise, committed to releasing the child imprisoned in the grown man, to free the mind from the tyranny of spectral abstractions and constraining conventions. Wordsworth’s masterly poetic evocation of his childhood in the first two book of The Prelude, first completed in 1805, was, perhaps, the unsurpassed climax of this new vision.

In these two early Romantics, the modern concept of childhood as a special and separate state of life had one of its major sources. Each in his own way, both writers unlocked the wisdom buried in Heraclitus’s riddle that time is a child playing draughts and in Jesus’s assertion that children were the inheritors of the kingdom of god. Slowly, childhood came to be seen as a stage of life that had its own distinctive physical needs and psychological rhythms. To understand himself as an adult, Rousseau looked back to his early years to locate formative moments of change, of trauma and dissociation, often touching on the power of early sexuality as well as the gratification of unselfconscious play. If Rousseau’s father had spent his life examining the inner mechanisms of clocks and watches, his son had inspected the hidden workings of the psyche with a similar precision and care. Meanwhile Blake, in a quite different manner, offered his unique symbolic mapping of the psyche to expose its titanic conflicts, surreal phantasmagoria and oblique sublimations. Occupying different philosophical worlds, they were both pioneering psychologists, opening uncharted continents of the mind, prefiguring much that was to follow in the understanding of the inner self with its roots in childhood experience. Much of the devil’s wisdom is psychological in nature. One of the devils proclaims to Blake: The weak in courage is strong in cunning.

Another bright thread running through the seventy proverbs concerns the peculiar powers of genius. The devils urge: When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head. Genius is seen as both unique and quirky: Improvements make strait roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are the roads of genius. This notion of genius was not original. The concept had developed through the course of the eighteenth-century to become a cardinal tenet of Romanticism. For the Romantic the artist was an inspired being, one set apart, a prodigy with incomparable powers of articulation and perception. Previously, ‘genius’ had referred either to a common talent or to a guardian spirit, but never to a particular individual, a virtuoso, someone with exceptional qualities of insight or execution. In its new sense, the word no longer described a common faculty or a transcendental spirit, but an individual, generally an artist or scientist who possessed phenomenal gifts. It is interesting that Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 did not include this particular usage, for it must have been buzzing around the ears of the industrious lexicographer. Was he, who linked Romanticism only to the words ‘wild’ and ‘fanciful’, resistant to the emergent meaning? Most likely. Only a few years before, the novelist Henry Fielding pitched individual genius against cultural training and conscious effort. In Tom Jones he talked of: the wonderful force of genius only without the least assistance of learning. Unnoticed by Doctor Johnson, this was a new and sharp differentiation. The contrast between soaring genius and plodding talent was to be taken up by German Romantic philosophers and then re-imported back into England becoming, by the end of the Romantic period, a dichotomy etched into the language.

As early as 1774, Alexander Gerard in his pioneering essay on the nature of genius called it the grand instrument of all investigation, linking it to the powers of feeling and association. True genius, he declared, had to be an enthusiast. Etymologically, enthusiasm means: (being) in God. It might have been one of the proverbs from hell. Once again, the new reference discloses a dramatic internalisation of meaning. From the Renaissance onwards, the word ‘genius’ had moved from denoting something ‘out there’ to something ‘in here’, from the outer cosmos or tribal collectivity, into a mysterious inner space. All but divine powers of creation were now seen as residing in the very depths of a creative self. It was Coleridge who later named true acts of creativity as the repetition of the finite mind in the infinite I am. Carrying a strong Christian resonance, it still reverberates like a new ontology.

And around the emerging conception of ‘genius’ lay a cluster of related words which further articulated and extended the romantic concept of art and identity: ‘organic’, ‘original’, ‘expressive’, ‘vital’, ‘symbolic’, ‘spiritual’, ‘numinous’. But the most resounding word in the budding semantic of Romanticism was, surely, ‘imagination’. Keats wrote to inform Shelley: My imagination is a Monastery and I am its monk. And it is one of Blake’s most emphatic words. He constantly defined the true self as Imagination, the ground of all being. Annotating Wordsworth’s poems, he scribbled in the margins of the book: One power alone makes the Poet – Imagination The Divine Vision. In the proverbs he quoted the devil’s adage: What is now proved was once only imagined. Once again, the historical development of the word relays a seismic shift towards a greater subjectivity. With one exception, there would seem to be no counterpart to the Blakean concept of imagination before the middle of the eighteenth century; before then, the word carried the sense of a mental image or reflection, often with the connotations of a pleasing delusion, a figment of experience closer to magic than reality. The stunning exception is found in Shakespeare. Around 1596, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the playwright conceived of an inner faculty capable of discovery and recreation:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

It took nearly two centuries for Shakespeare’s linguistic invention to find its cultural home and its apotheosis.

By the time Blake was writing and etching, imagination had become for many the modus operandi of the mind, or what later Coleridge, hugely influenced by Kant, named the living power and prime agent of all human perception. Metaphorically, imagination was often pictured as the fountain, the source, the bubbling well-head or, alternatively, as the inner lamp, spark or light which illuminated the outer world. Conceptually, it was related to Kant’s analysis of the mind. For Kant, all human experience was shaped through certain a priori categories, like those of space and time; but the Romantics sought to extend this account by including a priori images. A complex set of categories and archetypes worked mysteriously together to weave the common fabric of our human world. The imagination was inherently active and dynamic. It knitted together feeling, sensing and thinking in a continuous struggle to create unity out of the larger flux of life. In 1794 Friedrich Schiller published his seminal work On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters in which the continuous struggle (and joy) of creativity was extolled as a liberating force in the life of humanity. The aesthetic play of the mind could augment a new world, what Blake would have christened as the eternal Jerusalem of the Imagination.

One of the devil’s proverbs reads: Where man is not, nature is barren. And why was this? Because the imagination lit up the objects it beheld, bestowing a radiance on the universe, casting a light that never was on sea or land.

The romantic conception of imagination may unlock one of the more enigmatic proverbs of the devils: Every thing possible to be believed is an image of truth. It is as if the mind possessed a storehouse of cognitive possibilities only waiting to be recognized and enumerated, as if the forms of things unknown lay stacked away in the secret larder of the mind. Of course, this view largely derived from Plato and Plotinus, two ancient philosophers who had a seminal influence on romantic thinking, keeping open subterranean movements of mystical thinking and checking the supreme rationalism of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

Closely related to imagination was the idea of the sublime. It is another of the words Blake’s devils relish. In the proverbs the head is seen as the sublime part of the human body, while (unexpectedly for devils) the same word is used to mark acts of moral goodness: The most sublime act is to set another before you. During the eighteenth-century this word, too, had taken on a new sense; it began to refer not so much to grand works of literature and eloquent speeches, but more to wild landscapes, towering mountains, the immensities of open space. Petrarch, who climbed Mount Ventoux in the Spring of 1336 may have been the first to climb a mountain to gaze at the view, but by the middle of the eighteenth-century many, following the European Tour, were scaling mountains, not only to experience the vistas, but also to feel an overwhelming experience of dread and awe. Mountain ranges like the Alps were no longer seen as frustrating impediments to human communication, but natural cathedrals inviting solitary acts of transcendental worship. In 1757 Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of The Sublime and The Beautiful differentiated the sublime from the beautiful. He related the sublime to a shattering experience of unbounded space and time. Whereas the forms of beauty bestowed a calming pleasure, the sublime brought pain and unease. Terror, he wrote, is in all cases…the ruling principle of the sublime. It elicited the darkest and loneliest emotions of which the mind was capable. Yet, paradoxically, these same emotions could be accompanied by tremors of elation. In the experience of the sublime, polar emotions fused into one ecstatic sensation. The concept was irresistible – and seemed to belong to the devil’s party.

It was not long before such moments of intensity became the dramatic theme of thousands of paintings and sketches. Painters were no longer content to depict the aristocratic smugness of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews posing in their best attire as they surveyed their cultivated parklands. They wanted something with the shudder of the primordial. An emotion of terror, laced with bliss, animates many of the supernatural images of Fuseli and Blake, the storm paintings of Turner, the apocalyptic canvases of John Martin and the historical spectaculars of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. One painting stands out above all the others as the archetype of the romantic sublime: Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. It was painted around 1817 at the height of the Romantic movement. A solitary figure stands, fiercely upright, on a mound of bare boulders; like a pastor he contemplates the horizon before him, endless mountain peaks emerging through wisps of drifting fog and cloud. He has his back to the viewer. What matters here is not the intimate, reassuring, human engagement, but the contemplation of unbounded eternity, an eternity which is echoed in the very depths of the noble one who gazes. Subjectivity and Cosmos coalesce. One of the proverbs of hell captures the rapture of the painting: One thought fills immensity.

Of course, the many aphorisms of the devils are not intended to culminate in a single system of meaning. That was not the dominant romantic aspiration. Rather, they are sudden darts of insight or, at times, of correction and elaboration, even fun and mischievousness. They exist to rattle the life of alienated consciousness, to lift the mind out of the dark cavern of tribal culture. The voices are polyphonic, and the infernal wisdom is dialectical in nature. Contradictions abound. The devil who near the beginning of the sequence claims: The way of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom is later countered by another devil who offers the final aphorism of the sequence: Enough or too much. Yet, taken as a whole, they catch the prevailing elan of high Romanticism, the spiritual and political fermentation that erupted as the eighteenth century came to an end with millenarian fears and impossible hopes.

What are the implications for the story of the self?

The devils urge human beings to live with gusto, to open their lives to the influx of feeling and the sovereignty of the imagination. As in Pico della Miradola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, so in Blake’s Marriage, each person has the freedom to become the poet and architect of his or her life. For Blake, one achieves this by living the life of the artist. The life of the art-maker becomes a model for existence. In one of his letters, Blake wrote: Inspiration and Vision was then & now is & I hope will always Remain my Element my Eternal Dwelling Place. What matters is endless self-transformation though endless symbolic expression. As we will see, the good life is achieved through continuous acts of creativity, the cultivation of elected friendships (Hölderlin and Hegel, Blake and Catherine, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Keats and Fanny Brawne, Shelley and Byron), daily acts of contemplation and recollection, the writing of journals, autobiography and letters, and always the sustained labour of making art.

The revolutionary freedom celebrated has two aspects, one negative, the other positive. The negative was to do with active resistance, with what Blake called ‘mental fight’, opposition to all the collective forces working to establish ‘Universal Empire’, that bleak world of technical mastery without spiritual mystery which the poet saw emerging all around him. One of the devils whispers into Blake’s ear: Bring out number, weight & measure in a year of dearth. A world of quantity was eclipsing a world of quality; an age of having was ending an age of being; a time of instrumental reason was taking over from an age of faith. In this matter of articulate resistance, Blake can be seen as the Isaiah of the Industrial Revolution railing against its political injustice and spiritual blindness.

The positive side – not freedom from, but freedom for – resided in a passionate commitment to the life of sensibility and imagination, the constant enhancing of a common humanitas, the personal aspiration towards wholeness. Another devil proclaims: No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings. This is not eclectic liberalism, but focussed radicalism. It is what Blake called the making of the Divine Body, informed by the infernal wisdom of the devils. It is a very specific form of romantic Bildung and, perhaps, the most idealistic agenda ever proposed in the long story of the self.

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