I'm never sure how to take the "Proverbs of Hell" from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," by the English poet-genius of the Romantic period William Blake. Does Blake really mean that there are characteristic merits of Heaven, and of Hell, that there is good in both, and that we must find a way to "marry" the two? If so, that at least suggests that Blake thought the "Proverbs of Hell" ought to be tempered by... something.
Anyway, like many others, Proverb 10 is such a white-hot thread of genius that one could unpack worthwhile paragraphs, or even books, from it. It runs:
"Eternity is in love with the productions of time."
Eternity: God, but also the life of the mind if one believes in immortality of the soul; the thought-realm, forever humming, not only with plans and impressions but also with echoes, with memories, during an intensive infinity of moments which-- for why should I believe it ends with the body? certainly not on the basis of either deductive or inductive reasoning!-- stretches out into an extensive infinity of (subjective) time, for good or ill. Is in love with: admires, dwells upon, exalts, shrouds in a web of dreams, regards as an ideal, praises, draws inspiration from, worships. The productions of time: people, places, choices, events, in particular as these are woven into stories.
The past has this odd feature: it is at once irrevocable, immutable, written in stone, eternal, and at the same time plastic, ephemeral, sometimes the present's clay, or thread, which it may sculpt or weave, at other times as elusive as the wind, but always changing, fading into forgetfulness or transforming into agony or glory. The past is eternal because no one can go back in time and change it, to change, that is, a certain outline of "objective" events. And yet does the past even exist except in memory? But memory rarely behaves like a dutiful librarian, cataloguing any and every event and providing predictable access rules; more often it moves by strange labyrinths of association, constantly opening up to the thinking will new avenues of reminiscences that may be lost forever, while too often refusing to divulge the one desperately-needed fact no matter how much it is tortured, then voluntarily yielding up that fact an hour later when it is useless. What we would like to forget, we remember; what we would like to remember, we forget. And that goes for moods as well as facts, except in that case it is still more important, for to fully remember a mood of exalted joy is to recover it; and if that mood is not remembered, what use was it, when it is ephemeral and quickly lost forever?
There are some eternal things: mathematical truths, for example. There is a sense in which objective events seem to be eternal: Abraham Lincoln will always have been assassinated in 1865, but if all men forget this, the mode of existence of this fact seems at best a bit arcane and ghostly, if it would exist at all then. A legend, by contrast, or a song-- an artifact of history which is remembered and rehearsed in the minds of the living, embedded in culture and in consciousness-- certainly has a more robust existence, but can it become one of the eternal things? I have sometimes heard a song and felt it to be a discovery rather than a composition; as if, had the song not been written, it ought to be written; that the song was necessary. In a mystery, this is both an illusion and a truth. The circumstances that gave rise to the song were historically contingent. But some songs, some stories, become so much a part of us that to deprive us of them would make it impossible for us to think as we do, to be who we are. They have become, for us at least, a part of the eternal things, which, if our souls are immortal, and if they are not destined to be degraded and denatured, will always live on in us.
Which raises the question: can we become a part of the eternal things? I am not writing, or not writing chiefly, of worldly fame. A great geometer's name may be attached to a theorem which generation after generation of schoolboys is required to scribble about, without that geometer ever contributing to the essence of any human soul. Rather, I am thinking of how the personality of a friend may imprint itself on my mind such that he may become forever a part of my moral vocabulary, so that in my best moments I always think, among other things, of what he would do. If we can be such friends to men, then we will please God, or, in other words, "eternity [will be] in love with [us,] the productions of time."