Posted: September 6th, 2023
Proverbs of Hell
“Proverbs of Hell”
Choose one poem we’ve read and think about it in multiple directions. Your argument should unfold over three paragraphs. In the first paragraph, offer a reading of the poem—an argument the poem seems to suggest. Make sure your reading is based on careful attention to the poem’s language; you should be quoting a lot. In the second paragraph, explore a competing interpretation. Think about how the poem works against the first reading you’ve offered—how it actually seems to present a different and even contradictory argument. Again, your argument should emerge from good close reading. Your third paragraph should make some sense of these two competing readings. You don’t have to reach a tidy resolution, but you should offer some thoughts—exciting ones, ones that make your reader feel like we’re caught up in the momentum of discovery—about what it means that these two seemingly contradictory arguments coexist in the same poem. This is the sort of thinking we did most explicitly when we read some of the poems from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, but you can pull the same sort of moves with other poets’ works, too. Choose one of the following poems to write about using the instructions above: “Proverbs of Hell” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence “Nurse’s Song” from Songs of Innocence “The Divine Image” from Songs of Innocence “The Tyger” from Songs of Experience “Nurse’s Song” from Songs of Experience “The Human Abstract” from Songs of Experience Wordsworth: Preface to the Lyrical Ballads “Expostulation and Reply” “The Tables Turned” “A slumber did my spirit seal” “My Heart Leaps Up” “Tintern Abbey” Smith: “Some Notes on Attunement” Coleridge: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” “Kubla Khan” “Frost at Midnight” Byron: Excerpts from Manfred Shelley: “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” “Ode to the West Wind” A Defense of Poetry Keats: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “To Autumn”
One of the most intriguing poems in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is “Proverbs of Hell.” The poem presents a series of aphorisms that seem to reject traditional religious and moral values in favor of a more subversive and liberating ethos. For example, the poem declares that “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” suggesting that indulgence and exploration are more valuable than self-restraint and obedience. The poem also critiques the idea of sin and guilt, arguing that “Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps,” implying that there is no inherent morality to human emotions.
However, a competing interpretation of “Proverbs of Hell” suggests that the poem is not advocating for a complete rejection of traditional values, but rather a re-evaluation and re-contextualization of them. For instance, when the poem declares that “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” it could be interpreted as an endorsement of passion and intensity over complacency and conformity, rather than a total dismissal of education and discipline. Similarly, when the poem proclaims that “The nakedness of woman is the work of God,” it could be seen as a celebration of the human body and sexuality as divine creations, rather than a rejection of modesty or moral standards.
Ultimately, these two readings of “Proverbs of Hell” highlight the complexity and ambiguity of Blake’s ideas. The poem presents a challenging and often contradictory vision of the world, one that rejects easy moralizing and embraces paradox and contradiction. While the poem’s aphorisms seem to reject traditional values, they also suggest a deeper, more nuanced understanding of morality and spirituality. In this way, “Proverbs of Hell” embodies the dialectical thinking that Blake championed, and invites readers to grapple with the tensions and contradictions of their own beliefs.