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Blake And Byron: A Comparative Imagining Of The Afterlife

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Blake and Byron alike delve into the deconstruction of christian conventions utilising the afterlife and the doctrine of good versus evil as their stage upon which to expose the interwoven complexities and hypocrisies of religion. At a time born out of Newtonian thought and philosophical advancement from the likes of Locke & Rousseau an age of revolt burgeoned. Romanticisms fight against the age of reason and rationality sees religion dealt with in a newly found privatised manner, grounded in depictions of the sublime and in the diction of metaphor and symbolism religion became a diverse and dividing subject. Plagued by the antediluvian dichotomy between knowledge and belief, this paradox forms the basis upon which these seminal figures use poetry as the conduit through which to explore the complexities of life and death, good and evil, soul and body. Foremostly, Blake and Byron converge in one key area: they forward the idea of heavenly peace as mythic and advance an image of god as both incompetent and unjust.

United in their treatment of heaven as a speculative, heaven is portrayed as merely a fanciful theory upon which these poets’ agnosticism is truly unrestrained. From Robert South’s 1678 sermons advocating the pleasures of adhering to Christian convention, to Emmanuel Swedenborgs ‘modern’ imagining of heaven as a place for self-realization-heaven has long been imagined as a place of duty, utility and pleasure. Built on these long-established views, Blake and Byron use heaven as the stage upon which they criticise the conventions of the afterlife.

The poets alike expose heaven as merely being a guise for the incompetence of an unjust god. United in their hyperbolic and farcical satire these poets advance their insights with an overwhelming tone of scepticism. The Chimney Sweeper and The Little Black Boy avail a perspective of childhood Innocence from which god is viewed as a benevolent fatherly figure promising divine release from earthly struggles. God “Gives his light away & gives his heat away” (Pls.9-10, 10) so that these children could “have god for a father & never want joy” (PL.12, 20). Blakes utilisation and repetition of the verb “gives” (pls.9-10, 10) in third person present becomes the operative word for creating this benevolent imagery. Only with access to heaven will these children who have known pain and suffering “learn the beams of love” (pls.9-10, 14). The poetic voices development into adulthood experience and insight transforms these poems into a succinct criticism of the existence of pain and suffering. Rather than god as a creator of an unearthly paradise, god is recognised as the creator of an unjust and unholy earth, god is not a saviour but rather the bearer of blame for suffering: “And are gone to praise God & his priest & king / Who make up a heaven of our misery” (PL.37, 11-12). While T.S Elliot claimed that Blake was unique in his writings for putting forward “honesty with which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant.” Many critics fail to see the shared criticisms so eloquently embedded into Byron’s work that makes him so comparable to Blake. Heaven is nowhere alluded to as a paradise of perpetual peace in Byron’s works; instead, its dull and drab environment is drawn to attention: “The angels were singing out of tune, / And hoarse with having little else to do” (9-10). Akin to Blake’s criticism of heaven as a place built on “misery,” Heaven is also a place of earthly injustices. Allowing King George III into heaven when “A worse king never left a realm undone!”(62). is a criticism on the authoritative injustice prevelant in the social hierarchy. While the artistocratic and classicalist Byron crtiques this authoritative injustice, his allusions to people in authority reaching heaven depsite their sins is an interesting insight into the era of social status stagnancy. Thus, heaven is merely an extension of earthly suffering. George III’s role in the poem is recognised in that the “bloody rolls amassed of sin and slaughter” should determine his being destined for eternal damnation. Critiquing Southey’s high tory standpoint, A Vision of Judgement forces its reader to question the injustice of society: when even someone as culpable for violence, murder and failure finds himself at heavens doorstep, can we really believe that heaven is a place of divine peace for the all-loving and obedient? The shared creation between both poets of a monotomous and sin invaded heaven bares the foundation of the poets deconstructions of an unearthly paradise ascribed to by christian doctrines.

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Juxtapositions and contraries are utilised similarly by these poets as a comprehensive insight into the complexities of good and evil, the just and unjust. The shared appreciation between the poets operates as a useful tool for analysing their agnosticism towards heaven and the afterlife. With Blakes Songs the crucial juxtaposition between Innocence and Experience advances an important notion: that with the development of experience comes a unique acknowledgement and awareness of issues such as the injustices of society surrounding the loley artisan. With experience, the poetic voice gains inisght into how religion uses these injustices to create a higher plain of divine peace that still favours the sinful, thus highlighting the hypocracies and inequatabilities of heaven. This appreciation for opposites is comparably shared by Byron. Employing a truth bearing and sympathetic devil in A Vision Of Judgement sets up a stark contrast between good and evil. With each respective part being invertly and unconventionally embodied by god’s angels and the devil, this juxtaposition serves to highlight the running theme of shared injustices on earth and in heaven. In the Preface to his Songs, Blake outlines that “without contraries there is no progression…they are necessary to human existence” and in the case of the works examined in this essay they serve their purpose in facilitating the poets’ shared “willingness to indulge in satire to correct the wrongs perceived in both individuals and institutions.” It is through a nuanced utilisation of these juxtapositions that the reader truly understands the complexities of the poets inisghts. The criticisms they advance don’t serve to discredit religion altogether but rather point out that convention has given them an unrealistic and idealised perception of god and heaven as being all-good in very binary terms. Instead, these poets unearth the interlaced complexities of the estbalished views of good and evil, just and unjust. While Blakes criticism is directed specifically at heaven for being unjust and at god for his incompetence in creating a world where injustcies and sufferings widely exist, Byrons classical background clearly informs the framework of his more muted advancments. Inspired by Southey’s criticism of his works as “satanic”, Byron depicts a salvific voice of the devil that triumphs in its humanitarianism with a callibre of farcical humour unique to Byron. This sympathetic presentation of the devil as “The prince of air” who wishes to “claim [his] subject” recognising that the “bloody rolls amassed of sin and slaughter” entitle George III to eternal damnation rather than divine peace. The inverting of the devik as — “The Prince of Air” is an expertly used phrase, nodding to Esphesians 2:2 and Revelation 12:9. Byron inverts the imagery of a decietful and hostile devil to expose god as the chief deciever. The Devil is the subject speaking with the utmost logic; in turn presenting him as “nobler far” than both the angels and god. Littered with language that paints a court-like picture, with George III under “subpoena” a question of good versus evil is sophisticatedly bound up with the question of earthly justice and injustice. Earthly suffering is elevated to the level of the divine, serving as a critique on the irresolvable injustices of society. Contraries become bound up with one another and neither poet reaches a solution to the contraries which they explore. Instead as Blake acknowledges they are simply “necessary to human existence.” While Blake’s fascination of opposites is sustained throughout his work Byron only seems to use contraries to comment on the administration of earthly justice.

Yet, the poets amalgamate in their “willingness to indulge in satire to correct the wrongs perceived in both individuals and institutions.” Ultimately, their works ahcieve a criticism of the unjust structures they perceive around them. Heaven ironically becomes the ultimate stage upon which to crtique religions injustices to those suffering and the favourability of the prestige in society. However, Green here fails to acknowledge that while both poets share this criticism, Blakes is far more sustained. Byrons unwillingness to directly speculate on the nature of heaven speaks to his retention of heaven’s ineffable nature. While A vision Of Judgement can be inferred to be a criticism of heaven, it lacks direct engagement with heaven as a problematic ideal, and instead uses it as the stage upon which he sets his criticisms. This is a crucial difference upon recognition of the startling tone of resentment to the christian convention of heaven found consistently and satirically explored in Blake’s works. While Blakes criticism of an incompetent God is stark, Byrons more muted approach to analysing these issues in the arena of supposed divine peace works to echoe the same message as Blake; ultimately afterlife in heaven is not guranteed to be peaceful or a place of divine justice.

Through the shared context of Genesis, the poets continue their sceptical and satirical deconstruction of christian conventions and the afterlife. Interestingly, both poets coinciding criticisms utilise an exploration of ideals beyond the nineteenth centuries schema of acceptance. In a struggle with language, Byron fails in reconciling a leap into 19thc science whereby Cain’s culminating action of fratricide serves as a reaction to the instability and ignorance of his worldview rather than an action of malicious intent. The iconoclastic Cain problematizes the idea of immortality whereby in an unconventional stroke of phyrronism Byron betrays the nineteenth centuries preoccupations with envisioning mortality and instead focuses on geographical castrastrophism. Incorporating Cuvier’s Theory Of The Earth, geographical castrastrophism champions the limits of mortality. Lucifer provides a moral for the play, claiming: “And this should be the human sum of knowledge, to know mortal nature’s nothingness; Bequeath that science to thy children, and ‘Twill spare them many tortures.” Lucifer’s claim, that mortal life is empty and fleeting, resonates throughout the late Romantic literature of Byron. Challenging the conventional beliefs in good, evil, death and immortality Lucifer urges Cain in Miltonic vein to resist his fate since “Nothing can/ Quench the mind, if the mind will be itself.”

With its Manchiean flourish, this reworking of Genesis and its reimagining of the idea of creation and beginnings to depict an unjust and incompetent God is shared by Blake. Contrary to the Miltonic influence on Cain, Swedenborgs influence on the construction of Blakes The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell aims to overcome Swedenborgs “recapitulation of all superficial opinions and analysis of the more sublime” by questioning the nature of the sublime itself. The Ghost of Abel dedicated and written in direction response “To Lord Byron, In the Wilderness” presents an unjust “Elohim who lives on the sacrifice of men.” The Ghost of Abel in Blakes work is an eponymous figure who reveals himself as a revenge seeking satan whereby the manipulation of mortality and eternity, like Byrons figure, depicts an unjust god. Driving for vengence the revenge seeking Abel “Life for life! Life for life!”, “My soul in fumes of blood cries in vengence” depicts Jehovah and his angels to merely uphold the forgiveness of sin. Thus, justice is once again echoed in these works as absent from the earthly planes and the divine alike. Critics, such as Martin Bidney outline Blakes The Ghost of Abel as a qualified endorsement of Cains theology, however, this is not convincing. Cain is ultimately limited in its deconstruction of convention whereby the first and third acts fail to reconcile the scientific and theological dilemma. Yet, Blake overcomes Byron’s advancements and in a direct and scathing exempla made of Cain the depiction of an unjust and incompetent God is a more explicit and striking deconstruction of religious convention.

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Blake And Byron: A Comparative Imagining Of The Afterlife. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
“Blake And Byron: A Comparative Imagining Of The Afterlife.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
Blake And Byron: A Comparative Imagining Of The Afterlife. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 May 2023].
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