Proverbs of Hell; photography by James Abbott/text by William Blake

Blake’s Proverbs of Hell

a reflection by photographer James Abbott

Despite the fact that its author died unsung and underappreciated almost two centuries ago, William Blake’s prophetic work has survived to present an alternate view of morality. Untethered to any conventional system of political, religious or social beliefs, Blake’s Proverbs of Hell were published as part of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in 1794.  The seventy short phrases are like 18th century memes: tautly phrased summaries of Blake’s anti-religious, anti-establishment views.  They represent a darker wisdom, but are ironically structured much like the Christian Bible’s Book of Proverbs and seem titled intentionally to draw attention to the contrast.

Blake’s thinking is still quite relevant, as demonstrated by the six representative proverbs shown here.  My contribution has been to illustrate each cryptic proverb with an image reflecting my personal response to the proverb.  These images were constructed with digital technology that Blake could only imagine, and thus are a 21st century update to Blake’s own fantastical illustrations.  The numbers refer to each proverb’s place in Blake’s original sequence.

Turning biblical strictures on their head, Blake counsels against repression of the human body and mind, whether the constraints are self-imposed or ordained by a ”higher” authority — especially in the realm of creative energy and sexual desire. Blake lived and worked long before modern western social revolutions, and so could only imagine a world with significant new individual freedoms.   In 1794, the American experiment in democracy had only just begun, the church was powerful, and ideas such as gender fluidity or the freedom to love whom you wish were not expressed widely, if conceived at all.  Yet Blake’s words remain relevant, exhorting self-direction and growth.

Blake’s proverbs will mean different things to different viewers.  Novelist Ann Patchett, recently commenting on the currency of W.B. Yeats’s 100-year-old poem, “The Second Coming, ” noted that ”If we applied today’s morals to dead artists, then history would be fairly scrubbed of art. The question to ask is, ‘Does this poem still speak to people?’ Yeats passes the test. It continually means something new because that’s what great art does – it is reinvented, re-energized, by the person who reads it.”  My personal responses to Blake shown here reflect my 21st century experiences, and because they are the product of my singular personal obsessions, the viewer may be learning as much about my mind as about Blake’s.  I am confident Blake not only would appreciate my joining the centuries-old discussion he started, but also would love to see the individual visions conjured by his words in the mind of each reader.  I know I would.


William Blake

If you would like to read all 70 of Blake’s proverbs with images, please visit, where James Abbott has published them with 70 of his images.


James Abbott

James Abbott has been a teacher, a game inventor, a lawyer, an internet entrepreneur, and for the last two decades, a photographer and sculptor.  His studio is located in mid-coast Maine, where he lives with his partner, photographer Joyce Tenneson./

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