This is probably my favorite work by William Blake. It is fairly long (about 15 pages), so it is too long to include in this post, but I am sure you can find digital versions online should you need. The piece is a combination of prose and poetry, so the style and tone changes throughout the text. Essentially, you have a debate between angels and devils about heaven and hell, good and evil, reason and emotion, and so forth. The key concept is that you cannot have one without the other, that contradictions are necessary for existence. As such, Blake is challenging all the established ideas of his time. Coming out of the Age of Reason, he argues the importance of creativity and emotion (embodied by the Romantic movement). Additionally, he challenges the doctrines of the church, which are represented by the passive, and asserts the importance of energy, or the passionate desires and instincts that Christian ideology seeks to suppress.
One of the key things to keep in mind when reading this text is that Hell is not inherently evil, but it is a symbol for energy, passion, emotion, and creativity. The fourth section of the text is subtitled “Proverbs of Hell” and include several pages of short proverbs intended to teach the importance of tapping into creative energy. I will include a few of my favorites to give an idea of the concepts embodied in the proverbs.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
What is now proved was once only imagin’d.
One thought fills immensity.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.
One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the exploration of the subconscious through the use of altered perception. Blake asserts that in our normal state of consciousness, we are unable to perceive the divine. It is only through altered consciousness that we can catch a glimpse of the divine realm.
The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition.
Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”
In his famous quote regarding the doors of perception, Blake acknowledges that the use of hallucinogenic substances, such as those used by indigenous shamanic cultures, can shift one’s consciousness to the point that an individual can perceive the divine. This quote and idea would later go on to inspire Aldous Huxley and later the rock group The Doors.
I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, “The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?”
. . .
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
Blake then goes on to describe a mushroom-induced experience of what it’s like to shift perception and plunge into the subconscious realm of visions and inspiration.
So I remain’d with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak. He was suspended in a fungus, which hung with the head downward into the deep.
By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swum, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; & the air was full of them, and seem’d composed of them—these are Devils, and are called Powers of the Air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? He said: “Between the black & white spiders.”
Toward the end of the text, one of the devils makes an argument about Jesus, essentially asserting that Christ was rebellious and acted from impulse and passion, and did not restrain his desires as is taught by church doctrine. The result of the devil’s argument is that the angel who was listening embraced the flame (symbol of enlightenment and passion) and became one of the devils.
The Devil answer’d: “Bray a fool in a mortar with wheat, yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him. If Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love Him in the greatest degree. Now hear how He has given His sanction to the law of ten commandments. Did He not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God; murder those who were murder’d because of Him; turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery; steal the labour of others to support Him; bear false witness when He omitted making a defence before Pilate; covet when He pray’d for His disciples, and when He bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
The text concludes with a powerful line, asserting the divinity inherent within all things.
For every thing that lives is Holy.
I hear this line echoed in Allen Ginsberg’s great poem “Howl.” And I firmly believe this. Every living thing has a spark of the divine within it, but sometimes our perception is shrouded and we cannot see it. And this is the message of Blake’s text; We must clear away the debris that clouds our vision and seek to perceive the infinite and divine essence that is all around us.
Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspired day.