ROBERT BLY on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

from For the Love of Books by Ronald B. Schwarz (Grosset/Putnam 1999)


Robert Bly is a poet, editor,and translator of international reputation, an influential literary figure for more than thirty years. A pioneer of free association and strong imagery in modern American poetry, Bly is best known for his collections The Light Around the Body, which won the National Book Award, Silence in the Snowy Fields, and The Teeth Mother Naked at Last. His work as a founding member of American Poets Against the Vietnam War spurred his interest in developing men's literary discussion groups. In 1990, Bly published the best-selling but controversial Iron John, about ancient rituals of manhood, which reportedly inspired hundreds of thousands of men to explore and redefine the emotional components of masculinity. His two most recent works are Morning Poems and the translation Lorca and Jimenez: Selected Poems.


The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, by William Blake


It was my sophomore year in college. I was about to meet that Heroic Hermes, that passionate Christian Heretic, the Great Overturner, William Blake. No one had seriously rattled my cage before: The major ideas of the Protestant Church seemed to me sensible, and I took angels fairly straight. Blake was not so fond of "angels."


I have alwavs found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the Only Wise. This they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.


"Confident insolence" is very nice. The question becomes, who are the Angels he speaks of? As we read on, we gather that Angels include every person who ascends and gives off a (false) light. A bishop could be an Angel or a Secretary of Defense or a literary critic.

If we accept the idea that certain human beings, including sociologists, are essentially "Angels"-the term "Angels" being used in a negative sense-then we'll need to establish who the corresponding devils are, a word which will be used in a positive sense. All the way we are speaking metaphorically; and the literalists need not be scandalized by the compliment to devils, but rather by their own lack of playfulness. Blake starts listing the ways that Jesus broke the Ten Commandments. Did he not:


mock at the sabbath ... ; turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery; steal the labor of others to support Him; bear false witness when He omitted making a defense before Pilate. . . 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.


This passage is not meant to imply that everyone can or should break the Ten Commandments. The passage puts spiritual intensity foremost; it says a person who has a "spiritual existence" will find himself or herself breaking the Commandments. Reason, Blake says, is the hobble that tries to keep human beings from being excessive; but in spiritual life, excess is good:


Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.


One excessive emotion which spiritual existence includes is wrath what the Buddhists call "fury against evil":


The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.


The aim of human life is not to be perfect little boys and girls but to become a being capable of spiritual genius:


When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!


Excess is related to Exuberance:


Exuberance is Beauiy.


Pride, lust, wrath, and nakedness are all to be admired:


The pride of the peacock is the glory of god.

The lust of the goat is the bounty of god.

The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.


The last sentence will be a surprise to fundamentalists, as will the second sentence that the lust of the goat is the bounty of God. So in Blake's thought, we have on one hand the eagle, the tiger, the lion, the peacock, the stormy sea, moving water, the owl, and nature. On the other passive hand, we have stationary water, the cistern, the crow, the fox, the "horses of instruction," the academics, the goody-goody Episcopalians, the suburbs, the seminaries, the fashionable poet, the unimaginative priest, the fool, the rat, and the rabbit:


The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.


These two classes of human beings-the eagles and the crows, the flowing water people and the cistern people-"are always upon earth, and they should be enemies: whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.


Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.


If you're interested in ecstasy, don't restrict yourself to your five senses, as the literalists do, nor to systematic reason, as the sociologists and academic philosophers do:


How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,

Is an immense World of Delight clos'd by your senses five?



I don't think I would ever have opposed the Vietnam War through poetry and public action if I hadn't read this book. It became obvious to me that Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk were both-in Blake's terms-(negative) Angels, trying to use reason to oppose Energy. McNamara always used statistics to prove that our way was working:


Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.


The emotion which the antiwar poets expressed was wrath, the same emotion the Buddhists express in sculpture and call "fury against evil." It was Blake who gave me permission to express that fury which came out particularly in a long poem called "'The Teeth Mother Naked at Last."

Moreover it was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that led me to trust and later translate the work of the Spanish and South American surrealists. The powerful surrealist images of Garcia Lorca, Vicente Aleixandre, Pablo Neruda, and Cesar Vallejo express the same eagle energy Blake speaks of stormy, excessive, exuberant, tiger-like. My choice of the German tale "Iron John" on which to center thoughts about currently needed men's initiation goes back also to Blake. The Wild Man, as his name suggests, embodies precisely the "moving water" energy that Blake admires, the energy of the lion and the stormy sea which is endangered by industrial life. That energy is opposed by the domesticated energy of the cistern and the grey flannel, the domesticated energy which contemporary men are forced to.