72 Proverbs from Hell. (Not the Usual Hell.)

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday:  72 Proverbs from Hell, by William Blake.

I love paradoxes, koans, parables, proverbs, Secrets of Adulthood, and aphorisms. So how have I never come across poet William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell before? When I found it the other day, I couldn’t believe I’d never read it before. Several of the proverbs were familiar to me, from other reading, but I didn’t know their origin in his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Blake’s “Hell,” by the way, is not the traditional Hell, but a place of “unrepressed, somewhat Dionysian energy” (at least that’s what Wikipedia says).

These proverbs are thought-provoking; I don’t agree with all of them, or understand all of them, but I love reading them. I’ve put some of my favorites in bold:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.

Drive your cart and your plow 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 plow.

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 wholsom food is caught without a net or a trap.

Bring out number, weight & 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 cloke of knavery.

Shame is Pride’s cloke.


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.

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, & 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 tyger, 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.

Every thing 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 plow follows words, so God rewards prayers.

The tygers 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 fools 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 plow not! Praises reap not!

Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!


The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands &  feet Proportion.

As the air to a bird of the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.

The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white.

Exuberance is Beauty. [this is my very favorite; I’ve loved this aphorism for a long time]

If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.

Improvement makes strait 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!

Which are your favorites? Or which do you find objectionable?

26 thoughts on “72 Proverbs from Hell. (Not the Usual Hell.)”

  1. “Expect poison from the standing water.” This reminds me of people who have stalled in their life journey and bring others down for trying out new things or simply trying to move forward and become better people. When someone’s eagerness to learn is seen from a point of jealousy. Good wisdom.

  2. Thanks for this list! I like: “What is now proved was once, only imagin’d” and “The soul of sweet delight, can never be defil’d.”

  3. Just got informed I might have to take a step down at the job.Meaning less income etc. Felt lousy, your list of proverbs made my day. Thanks

  4. My favorite: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” It’s so evocative! And makes me think of abandoned projects as fertile ground, as well as reminding me that everything we build in this life is built on top of what has gone before.

    The one I most object to is “Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.” For obvious reasons.

    “To create a little flower is the labour of ages” reminds me of the Carl Sagan line: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

  5. Gretchen — I cannot even believe you posted this today, because, just last night, I was looking through a book and found a quote from Blake, which I was so taken by that I stopped when I read, went downstairs, got a pen and paper and wrote down: “You never know what is good enough unless you know what is more than enough.” I’ve glanced over at it several times today while I was working. I didn’t even know where it came from, though I had intended to find the exact place, and see it highlighted here today! That is quite a coincidence, I think! Wow.

  6. I love these! My favorite: “If others had not been foolish, we should be so.”

    Mankind has made many mistakes and there have been horrible things in our history of existence – wars, slavery, injustices, etc – but had we not made the mistakes (and paid the price for them), we wouldn’t know what we know. It is, to me, a more positive idea than some of the others Blake puts forth. I know we still make so many mistakes as a race, but the hope is that we take the lessons from the past and keep striving for a better world tomorrow.

  7. In another work Blake wrote,
    “He who binds to himself a joy
    Does the winged life destroy,
    But he who kisses the joy as it flies
    Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”

    1. I had just announced those very words to myself, after reading the list of proverbs! Yes, this one struck me, too. :-) —Salt & Light

  8. So many good ones. I like this one: The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
    Not sure I agree with this one, or just don’t understand it: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

    1. Keep in mind that Blake intended these to provoke thought–but also that he intended them to reflect the thinking of Hell, wrongful thinking, misguided thinking, thinking that defies rather than upholds reason. In that way, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” makes more sense. But Blake was fairly brilliant, and few things he wrote are that obvious–it’s also true that the road of excess can lead to the palace of wisdom in the roundabout way of lessons learned from a life wrongly lived. But in that case, the palace would be a simple place of humility and regret, wouldn’t it?

  9. My favorites: Prayers plow not! Praises reap not! – I read it as saying nothing replaces the actual work.
    Joys laugh not; Sorrows weep not – Things happen, it’s my attachment that paints it as joy or sorrow

  10. Gretchen, when I had Romantic Poetry in college I learned to dislike William Blake (except for “Tiger”). The aphorisms he spouts are more a collection of others, most often from the Bible. They are interesting, though.

    Next time, how about Samuel Taylor Coleridge (eschew William Wordsworth, please).

  11. “Expect poison from the standing water.” seems also to convey that critics are often good for nothing people except that they remind us of an old story of “Fox and the sour grapes”

  12. I felt following are objectionable, it does not mean I agree with the rest

    The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

    Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will
    avoid you.

    The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.

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