Reconstructing William Blake's Bible of Hell: Diabolical Inversion and Biblical Revision in the 1790-95 Illuminated Books
Smith, Jordan Rendell
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What did William Blake mean when he threatened the world with a “Bible of Hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)? A critical survey of the history of scholarship on the topic reveals a variety of unsupported Bible of Hell canon theories among 180 critics. The most plausible theory (though not the most popular) among them is that the Bible of Hell comprises Blake’s eight core 1790-95 Illuminated Books—The Marriage, the Continental Prophecies (1793-95), and the Urizen Books (1794-95). My thesis supports this theory from several angles. Part I examines how The Marriage establishes a Bible of Hell program with four inclusion criteria by which the works of 1793-95 abide: (1) a rhetoric of diabolical revision, which reclaims the Devil as a Christological redeemer and exposes Yahweh as the Antichrist; (2) organization by contraries; (3) mock-biblical revision; and (4) illumination. Chapters 3-6 examine these criteria in their literary-historical contexts, first by tracing the genealogy of diabolical revision in satirical diabologies and mundus inversus literature and art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Chapters 4-5 examine aspects of biblical revision in the context of early Christian heresies, modern sects, Enlightenment biblical scholarship, speculative mythography, and biblical parodies. Chapter 6 considers Blake’s Bible of Hell in the context of the illustrated Bible market of the 1790s. Part II (Chs. 7-10) assesses Blake's works of 1788-95 according to these criteria, showing that the works of 1788-89 develop Bible of Hell features that culminate in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and continue in the 1793-95 mock-biblical prophecies. Here the dissertation’s focus shifts to the conceptual evolution of the Bible of Hell in response to the failure of the French Revolution and its authoritarian backlash in England. Whereas The Marriage prophesied apocalypse as the righting of the upside-down world by a revolutionary, antinomian Christ, its 1793-95 sequels lose faith in revolution but critique biblical monotheism as the basis of historical tyranny. The final chapter examines conceptual tensions within the works of 1793-95 to hypothesize why Blake abandoned the Bible of Hell.