Proverbs of Hell

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William Blake-The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun 1805-1810
William Blake was possessed by a strange genius. A combination of painter, poet and prophet, no other artist manages to convey such visionary intensity as Blake. All his life Blake experienced visions of angels and apparitions, one of which, The Ghost of a Flea (see below), he was persuaded to paint by his friend the painter-astrologer John Hayley. He also claimed that his writing was directly inspired by outside agencies as the following quote illustrates, Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.

Central to Blake’s work is The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, which contains a distillation of his revolutionary philosophy in the Proverbs of Hell. This work has been subject to numerous studies with many theories advanced as to what exactly its meaning is, however like all truly great works it eludes a final, concrete definition, operating as it does on many different levels, that include. but are not limited to: the alchemical, satirical, religious, artistic, mystical and revolutionary. I have included below the incendiary and paradoxical Proverbs of Hell in full to illustrate the importance that Blake placed upon desire and sexuality

As well as The Ghost of a Flea, I have selected the astonishing, hallucinatory  The Great Red Dragon series of watercolours that Blake painted from 1805-1810 based on the Book of Revelations and Blake’s death mask that adorned the painter Francis Bacon’s study. For more information please refer to my previous post The Marriage of Heaven & Hell.

Proverbs of Hell

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plough.
Dip him in the river who loves water.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.
All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
A dead body revenges not injuries.
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Folly is the cloak of knavery.
Shame is Pride’s cloak.
Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.
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.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself. 53
Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
The selfish, smiling fool, and the sullen, frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
What is now proved was once only imagin’d.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit watch the roots; the lion, the tiger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits.
The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.
One thought fills immensity.
Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
The fox provides for himself; but God provides for the lion.
Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
He who has suffer’d you to impose on him, knows you.
As the plough follows words, so God rewards prayers.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
Listen to the fool’s reproach! it is a kingly title!
The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow; nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.
The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.
If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
The soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d.
When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!
As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
Damn braces. Bless relaxes.
The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
Prayers plough not! Praises reap not!
Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!
The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands and feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d everything was black, the owl that everything was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.
If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.
Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
Where man is not, nature is barren.
Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.
Enough! or Too much.

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William Blake-The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun 1805-1810
Dragon-and-Beast-from-the-Sea-William-Blake-e1455222708115[1]
William Blake-The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea 1805-1810
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William Blake-The Number of the Beast is 666-1805-1810

The Ghost of a Flea c.1819-20 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake-The Ghost of a Flea 1819-1820
NPG 1809; William Blake by James Deville
William Blake’s Death Mask

 

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71 thoughts on “Proverbs of Hell

  1. Quite the dramatic imagery. Seven heads and ten horns, the wild beast, the dragon all of the beasts of Revelation. The proverbs are hard to describe. Some of them seem rather comical -commenting on food and wine, for example. Unless there is some deeper meaning I can’t grasp. I’d ask you questions but I have Blake on my teetering pile to read. I may answer them on my own eventually.

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    1. Well Blake was immersed in the Bible though he was against established religion as the proverbs clearly shows. They do range from straightforward inversions of biblical proverbs to the Sadean desire unacted one. Desire and imagination is everything to Blake. Did you like the post?

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      1. Yes absolutely. It has whet my appetite for further reading. I’m curious as to where he draws lines concerning acting on desires. If at all. Where do one person’s individual rights take precedence over another’s desires? Rhetorical question

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      2. Well some of the proverbs could have been written by Sade who was his contemporary, both were concerned with absolute freedom and were both by nature fiercely individualistic, rebellious and contrarians. After that the similarities end, Blake had the mystical/occult/hermetic tradition to draw on and believed in the divinity inherent in man, whereas Sade thought man was subject to a cruel nature that was both eternal and infernal. Only enough is too much, though to answer you question, the man who can suppress his desires can only do so because his desire is weak.

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      3. Then like Sade, doesn’t that lead to anarchy and eventually annihilation? Let’s suppose my desire is to rape, murder, pillage, etc. it is not really to anyone’s benefit for me to act on those desires. Not even me because at a minimum, revenge/retribution would come into play. How would Blake reconcile that?

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      4. He is a natural, mystic anarchist…do away with institutions and cleanse the doors of perception and humanity will discover the divinity within and we will be heavenly creatures… Blake believes in innocence and a return to a pre-lapsian world.

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      5. Aha. So our desires would naturally meld/blend/fuse with one another’s in that case. I have thought about the fall into sin, however. Actually I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the divine lately. Too much for a comment.

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      6. Exactly, well the hermetic tradition is a lot more optimistic than the gnostic tradition though there is considerable overlap in certain areas, the Belief in a demiurge most notably.

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      7. The demiurge is a fake God… he is only an emanation of a emanation that has forgot the fact. In Blake he is called Nobodaddy and is equated to Jehovah of the Old Testament. Redemption comes through Christ, though in an idiosyncratic way. All this is pure Gnosticism, the hermeticism comes in the belief in imagination and desire to cleanse the doors and reveal the Infinite. Anyway who thinks Blake is an atheist is totally misreading him.

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      8. So Blake would say that there is an even higher being than the god of the Bible? That if the demiurge is an emanation of an emanation, there is a source somewhere from which these came? Is there a perfect divine being in Blake’s universe?

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      9. Yes, the true God who is beyond creation. He saw the creation of the base material world and sent down Christ so that we could achieve gnosis and find our way to the light. That is the gnostic line and Blake is pretty consistent with that, how he came to that knowledge I am not sure and I am simplifying obviously.

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      10. He is an anarchist as was Sade…they believed only the craven submit to repressive rules that go against nature (Sade) and inherent divinity (Blake). Is this now the philosophy lesson Cake style?

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      11. Teaching philosophy is not the right terminology, I think. History of philosophy maybe. Philosophizing is personal and subjective. Everyone will have a completely unique interpretation of a line of reasoning. You can train in critical thinking, in the art and ‘science’ of coming to a conclusion, the conclusion however is every individual’s alone.

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      12. You know… I think there are as many giants as there ever were. The world is too consumed with consumption to even pay attention. The great thinkers are reduced to obscurity in academia. Who has time in the modern world to really ponder, to pick it all apart, tie and untie the threads that bind the fabric together? “Alright, don’t get started on Swift,” she says with a grin.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Where to start? Each to their own, but, for me, I think that a lot of commentators have misunderstood the religious aspect of his work. I believe that when he talks about ‘heavenly’ or ‘holy’ things he is referring to creativity: the spirit that drives and creates is the aspect of humanity that perhaps stands us apart. This is not an externally religious thing rather an aspect of us all which, when brought to fruition, allows us to truly live.
        You’ve got me started, but I will leave my thoughts there as this is a subject which goes far deeper than a brief comment. Perhaps my thoughts concur with yours?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sorry for the delay in replying Chris, I have been thinking about my position on Blake’s religion. I think he was a very strange mixture of Non-Conformist, Dissenting Christianity and the
        Gnostic/Hermetic. He suggests a third way, against established religion but equally against science.I think Blake was theistic, his vision is definitely occult, with all the apparitions and angels. He was a humanist but not the humanism of the enlightenment, his was the Hermetic humanism of the Early Renaissance where the aim is to become divine, because the Real God created us that way, our divinity has become obscured by its descent into base matter. Paradoxically one way to achieve this inherent divinity is through sensuality. To reach Heaven you must first go through Hell. As above, so below. The deeper into hell you are the higher you are in Heaven, and at the very depths the Marriage is achieved.
        The two biggest early boosters of Blake were Swinburne and Yeats. I would come down on Yeats side in my reading of Blake.
        Thanks for the food for thought, I await your demolition of my view.

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  2. WHOA! Just stumbled upon this, late at night. Too much reality. I’ll be back tomorrow for a long, slow read. I’ll have my Northrop Frye in hand, just in case. Fantastic paintings, though … out of this world … thank you .. . I’ll need to read and re-read the “poetry”.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I meant to tell you that I was reading Young’s Night Dreams tonight, with illustrations by Blake. I needed an antidote for those paintings you posted. I also restarted Monsignor Quixote … hilarious.

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      2. Sorry Roger, I didn’t mean to give you the fear. They are great watercolours though and along with all the Cake I post I have to feature the dark stuff occasionally. Blake was a bona fire genius. Roger reading Don Quixote, knock me down with a feather. It almost like a surrealist on my site.

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      3. It’s the Graham Green Monsignor Quixote. A lovely book and much underestimated, I fear. Cadalso (Spain) imitated Night Dreams in Noches lugubres. I think the Spanish may be spookier than the English: no great drawings though. I love the way Blake links each drawing to a line of the text, as illustration.

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      4. It took me a long time to accept it, but I have read it five or six times now, and it gets batter and better with each reading. There was a film, I think, with Alec Guinness and the guy who played Rumpole.

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  3. I agree with Blake’s belief. “They key to liberty is through our imagination.” I enjoyed your previous post on this subject. So much so I intend on reading it a few times.

    This current post leaves me..with less of an assurance. I believe it’s in his poem where I become lost within his ideas, knowing the length and the word pictures he provides is the cause.

    The images you provide stir a primitive emotion within me, which is fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Always loved Blake but haven’t read him in any great detail for many years. What comes through rereading the proverbs is how many I remember. I could feel myself finishing them almost even before I read them.

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