72 Lines to Jump-Start Your Brain.

I love paradoxes, koans, parables, proverbs, Secrets of Adulthood, and aphorisms. Last night, I started to think about poet William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, from his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, so I went to re-read it.

I’d forgotten how much I loved it, so I’m re-posting it today.

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. When I read them, I feel like I’ve had a jump-start to my brain — new, unexpected thoughts come to me.

I don’t agree with all of these proverbs, and I certainly don’t 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. [Agree, disagree?]

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. [I love this but not sure exactly what it means]

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. [This one has a lot of significance for habits.]

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. [I looked it up: “cistern” is a tank for storing water]

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 do you passionately disagree with some?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here. You can ignore that RSS business.

  • Sandra Pawula

    These are very thought-provoking! As you point out, some are indeed difficult to understand. What does he mean: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” I would think it’s just the opposite! Or perhaps the middle way.

    • Maybe after experiencing excess you gain the wisdom to find balance.

      • Sandra Pawula

        That’s an interesting take on it! Thanks.

      • Gillian

        That’s the way I think it is meant. Anything else doesn’t make sense.

      • marie

        That was my thought. I was thinking of times I have eaten too much dessert, or spent too many hours on internet chat rooms (back in the day), or stayed up much too late obsessing over a project. On each occasion, I enjoyed something until it was suddenly Too Much, which inspired me to find a moderate way to engage with something. I’m still finding things that are sometimes Too Much, and trying to notice earlier when I need to dial back.

    • Grandma Honey

      I was wondering the same thing Sandra. I’m not sure we ever learn much from excess.

      • Sandra Pawula

        Gramdma Honey, It seems like we could learn from excess when we realize that it doesn’t bring happiness. But, conversely, we could just drown in it. But, it depends on what he actually means by “excess.” If it’s excess kindness, then maybe so!

        • Grandma Honey

          Good point Sandra. I was just thinking of children these days and how many are given way more than they need….and I watch them grow and become adults and often they are STILL drowning in excess….like they are so use to having whatever they want, they don’t even realize what the problem is. Certainly that is not always the case, but more so with this generation than ever before. I suppose I should think beyond materially…excess of kindness, excess of mothering, excess of good education, excess of challenges. Those could certainly bring on the wisdom!

          • Sandra Pawula

            I agree, kids are often spoiled by excess these days. But these other kinds of excesses you mention sound beautiful!

  • I like “The weak in courage is strong in cunning.” Sometimes those who seem the weakest are actually strategically making their way closer to their goals.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    “Dip him in the river who loves water” reminds me of the ‘wise’ words of Stein in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim: “In the destructive element you must immerse”. In the novel, the ‘destructive element’ is Jim’s need to demonstrate the courage (and foolhardiness) that once eluded him, to his shame. He has been fretting his life out because he failed to do something heroic on the steamer Patna. So in the end, he does something heroic, and his self-immersion in that obsession with courageous action proves to be his destruction. For many years, I took Stein’s aphorism as a kind of direction–to dive more deeply into any available emotion, but particularly into the darker ones. Later, I took some mindfulness training aiming to learn how to deal better with my tendency to ‘dive in’ where perhaps I should be more wary. The new aphorism I learned in that training was to ‘take the opposite-to-the-emotion action’ when the pit opened before me. It may not be very ‘Blakean’ to do that, but it sure helps to keep me on a more even keel. And even so, perhaps that is “Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!’

  • Gillian

    Some interesting ideas. I can’t say that any of them resonate very strongly with me – maybe because I don’t have a very literary mind. The best is perhaps “To create a little flower is the labour of ages.”

    The one I like least is “Where man is not nature is barren.” How arrogant! Nature can get along quite nicely without man; the reverse is definitely not true. Unless he means that if no-one is there to see the beauty, it doesn’t really exist. But I still don’t agree.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love the “little flower” one too – and as I write this, I note the double meaning for those fans of St. Therese of Lisieux who are out there!

      There’s a quotation that I’ve been trying to find for the last thirty minutes…which says in different words something like – “where man is not there to bring emotion, even the most striking landscape lacks drama” – but in very beautiful words. I think it was Antoine de St.-Exupery (sp?) but I CANNOT FIND IT. Driving me nuts.

  • Michele Kearns

    I passionately disagree with “The busy bee has no time for sorrow.” God created us with the ability to feel sorrow, so we need to feel and learn from it. However, we are not to stay stuck in sorrow but work our way out of it. We gain a better appreciation for happiness once we’ve known sorrow.

  • Randee Bulla

    Dip him in the river who loves water resonates very deeply. To me it very clearly means that when someone loves something, provide it for them (or yourself). At work, I absolutely love to bring people together, fix and organize things, and make processes better for my managers. I do not love the maintaining part of business. So we’re working on my next steps to allow me to keep growing at work in a win/win where work benefits and I benefit in something I love and am passionate about. It makes no sense to keep me in a role where I will not flourish and they have need of my skills and passions somewhere else. At home, I love the beach, my garden, running trails, cheese and wine with friends, and our sunroom with a cat in my lap. I immerse myself in these places when I can, and my husband and friends know that when I’m not myself that all they need to do is “dip me in the river” and I’m refreshed.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    P.S. I think that of all Blake’s aphorisms, the ones like “The cistern contains; the fountain overflows,” are the wisest. Repression does nothing but curdle the soul, and he says that a lot of different ways. You may need to redirect or discipline your energy and your passion (remember Blake was writing at a time when much was forbidden and regarded as sinful that we now accept) but you had better find a way to express and use those feelings. We have learned some things since Blake’s time: ‘the busy bee has no time for sorrow,’ for example, does not mean we should blot out or deny our sorrow, but rather we should keep on living. Sometimes even those bees have to alight, and sometimes we have to take time to grieve, but we can learn to live again and enjoy the present moment even though we may have other moments we must give to our sorrows.

  • Catherine

    I actually think the road of excess one can be read more literally–there are special kinds of wisdom that come from overdoing it, from going all-in, saving nothing. In a really simplistic example, Olympic athletes often grow up on the road of excess. These are the proverbs of a hell defined by unfettered vigor, after all. I don’t think the path of moderation has to be for everyone, anyway.

  • Marie Seitz

    I love the “the fox condemns the trap, not himself”…that’s been a huge issue for me, and I definitely see it in my students who struggle with the problems they have set for themselves….

  • Monica Leonelle

    A few thoughts:

    I agree with, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” if only because that’s how I’ve learned my limits! It’s easier to understand moderation by giving yourself a taste of your full appetite for the indulgence. (I’m a questioner, if that seems relevant—I think it might be in this case!)

    I also love “The cut worm forgives the plow” — it’s my favorite one! It’s so… morally questionable.

    “Dip him in the river who loves water” is much easier to understand when phrased as “Dip him who loves water in the river” — then the meaning becomes pretty obvious: Indulge in what you like.

    “A dead body, revenges not injuries.” – sooooo morbid, and not at all a good lesson IMO!

  • GDUB

    The great Cynthia Heimel said it best: “It is true that William Blake said that “The Road to excess leads to
    the palace of wisdom,” but they didn’t have angel dust back then.”

  • Sean Hanson

    “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” -Agree

    I believe that in Blake’s time “excess” would not have to be as extreme as it is today. Travelling to another country, reading different books, learning another language would all be excessive in a culture of relatively uneducated, provincial farmers.

    That thought blends well with “Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.” Those same farmers who prudently mind their own business and limitations are incapable of realizing ambitions that Blake deems greater.