Apocalypse: The unveiling of William Blake’s new gravestone

191 years after his death, a new gravestone was unveiled on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.

Blake had been buried at Bunhill Fields after his death on 12 August, 1827 in an unmarked grave, one of eight bodies to occupy the plot, with three corpses below him and another four above him. A gravestone was placed 20 metres away marking that the remains of William and Catherine lay “nearby”. It was Carol and Luis Garrido who discovered the precise location of Blake’s grave in 2006, using records of co-ordinates to find the spot and leading the Blake Society to begin an appeal to gather the funds for another, more accurate marker. The gravestone, carved by Lida Cardozo, was then unveiled on the anniversary of Blake’s death.

The ceremony itself began at 3.00 pm, with a crowd that reports were estimating at between 400 and 800 people and certainly a much larger number than the Blake Society had estimated. Blake Society trustee, Gareth Sturdy, told the BBC that “more and more people are beginning to realise how central Blake is to the national culture”, and certainly the celebrations on Sunday demonstrated the great affection in which Blake is held.

Among those who spoke at the event were the poet, singer-songwriter, priest, and academic Malcolm Guite, who argued forcefully for the church to recognise Blake as a prophet who spoke to the nation’s deepest spiritual concerns, the poet and convener of the William Blake Congregation (and former contributor to Sniffin’ Glue) Stephen Micalef, Lucy Winkett, the rector of St James in Piccadilly, the church where Blake was baptised, and comedian Will Franken, who gave a rousing speech intended to shake the attentive crowd from their slumbers in true Blakean style. The star turn, however, was provided by Bruce Dickinson, who demonstrated that his love of Blake ran much deeper than his 1998 album The Chemical Wedding, offering a vision of how the spirit of the Romantic had touched and transformed his own music. Like most speakers there, when standing before the mortal (or, as Blake would have it, vegetable) remains of the artist, Dickinson refused to accept that he was anything other than very much alive, declaring him “one of the greatest living English poets”. For anyone else, this would have been a mistake, but not for the man who once wrote of himself: “William Blake, one who is very much delighted with being in good Company. Born 28 Nov’ 1757 in London and has died several times since.” Philip Pullman, who had also intended to speak to the assembly, had unfortunately been taken ill the previous night in Edinburgh.

Musical accompaniment was provided by the band Blake, who sang their namesake’s most famous hymn, “Jerusalem”, while a new composition came from Chris Williams: drawing its inspiration from the lines carved on the gravestone – “I give you the end of a golden string; Only wind it into a ball, It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate, Built in Jerusalem’s wall” – the very beautiful piece of music was sung by Sansara, although Williams himself was not able to be there due to visa difficulties.

The end of the ceremony included people laying flowers beside the new stone, along with a further opportunity to pay respects through the placing of 191 candles to represent one of each of the years since Blake’s death. While other inhabitants such as Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan have been commemorated much more visibly at Bunhill than Blake, it is more than fitting that, as Gareth Sturdy has also remarked, his final resting place is now marked in a spot of green grass where children will be able to play in the summer.

 

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, July 2018

July was a fairly quiet month for Blake news, although towards the end a few pieces began to appear about an event that will be covered here soon: the plans to unveil a new gravestone marking the final resting place of William Blake. As Florence Snead reported for iNews, members of the Blake Society discovered the location in 2006 and the new stone will be unveiled in a ceremony on the anniversary of his death on August 12. The Telegraph sought to inject a little drama into the event by suggesting conflict over the choice of quotation to be included, but in truth the new gravestone seems to be one that will bring Blake aficionados together.

One of the most fascinating events for July was the announcement of a new piece of choreography and music inspired by Blake at the Art Centro de Arte UNLP in Buenos Aires. Entitled Apolión and directed by Jerónimo Búffalo, with additional performances by Santiago Culacciati and Esteban Trindade, the piece includes the music of Julia Gala and José Gómez Vega. In an interview with El Dia, Búffalo explained that the link to Blake came from the poet’s depiction of Apollyon, the Fiend, for his illustrations to Bunyan, that showed a world being torn apart by gods who do not give answers to our questions.

The South African carried a review of Wirework, the play by Daleen Kruger that explores the Owl House, Helen Martin’s collection of outsider art in Eastern Cape that includes pieces inspired by Blake, and currently being performed at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London. Michael Popham argued it was well worth seeing despite the good weather and attractions of Wimbledon, although perhaps he was writing from memories of having seen the Afrikaans original. As mentioned last month, performances of William Blake in Hollywood also continued through the month in Utah.

One of the best visual arts pieces for the month was a profile of the internationally acclaimed artist Jaume Plensa in BlouinArtInfo, who has returned to Blake many times. Although not directly addressing pieces such as “One Thought Fills Immensity” or his Blake in Gateshead light installation, he offers the following Proverb of Hell as the ideal model for his own sculptural practice: “in springtime learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” Elsewhere in Vancouver, the Burnaby Art Gallery had a series of illustrations by Jeff Ladouceur, an artist whose sources include Blake and Mad magazine. According to a review in Straight magazine, Ladouceur who was born in New York gives an insight through his show into “the slow path through life”. Similarly, an exhibition in Gratz, Philadelphia, reviewed by the Jewish Exponent, explored the meaning of Job through the ages, including Blake’s famous illustrations.

Something spotted online for July should really have been included much earlier in the year: Isao Yukisada’s River’s Edge was released in February, but I only knew of its existence because of a review in The Real Bits that was published in July. The story details the relations between Haruna and her homosexual friend, Ichiro, who is often beaten and alienated: when they discover a corpse by the river’s edge (hence the title) so things become even darker, but the reason for the Blake connection is that apparently Ichiro demonstrates his life experiences to Haruna by reading her the poetry of William Blake. One that I shall follow up in future.

Finally, there were a number of references to the Romantic poet in relation to the anniversary of the death of Jim Morrison on July 3, such as this one at EuropaFM and this at Il Malilio, most of them noting Blake as the source of The Doors’ name. One of the more interesting to read (though not necessarily with much to say about Blake) is this personal reflection by Sanjin Dumišic.

 

Blakespotting: A Daughter of Albion and the Limehouse Golem

With the release of The Limehouse Golem on Netflix, I’ve had a chance to catch up on the 2016 film directed by Juan Carlos Medina which I missed on its first release. This is by no means a review – I recommend Christopher Pittard’s excellent piece “Sex, secrets and murder most foul” at The Conversation – and also my discussion of Blakean connections involves giving away the ending, so stop reading now if you wish to watch it without my huge spoiler in place.

The film (which came out at the same time as the opera, Elizabeth Cree, which I haven’t seen), is entertaining enough, and certainly much better than the terrible 2001 movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell, another Jack-the-Ripper inspired tale that has a direct influence on The Limehouse Golem. There are some decent if not spectacular performances by Bill Nighy (inspector John Kildare), Douglas Booth (Dan Leno) and Olivia Cooke (Lizzie Cree), but at times the melodrama on screen made me snigger (or was that just the preposterous beard and accent of Henry Goodman as Karl Marx). In truth, I found the original novel by Peter Ackroyd, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (published in 1994) a little preposterous, dealing with a series of murders from the early 1880s, less so for the actual plot and some truly wonderful details about the criminal underbelly of music hall (which was greatly sanitised going forward into the twentieth century) than Ackroyd’s preponderance for shoehorning everything he knows into somewhat turgid passages of prose. The following, where George Gissing compares William Blake to Charles Babbage is a case in point:

“It is a very ingenious contrivance.” Gissing hardly understood what he was being told but it already seemed to him, as to his contemporaries, some eccentric monstrosity; he had just been reading Swinburne’s study of William Blake for an article he had proposed to the Westminster Review, and the parallel that occurred to him was with Blake’s Prophetic Books. These works – the Analytical Engine and Blake’s mad verses – seemed equally the work of curious and obsessive men who laboured in the production of designs which only they themselves could fully comprehend. (Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1998, p.118)

Ackroyd’s point is clever here, and I think there is some genuine insight into the comparison between Charles Babbage and Blake, but in this instance the author is trying a little too hard to demonstrate his cleverness: I write about Swinburne as an academic happily dealing with texts one or two centuries old (or older as required), but Gissing as a Grub Street hack would have been unlikely to get much mileage from a book that was already twelve years out of date (Swinburne’s William Blake, a Critical Essay, having been published in 1868). I am being pedantic, I know, but I sometimes felt when reading his novel that had Ackroyd tried to be just a little less showy with his knowledge, I’d have enjoyed the truly wonderful details of music hall life much more.

The more important point here, however, is that Blake has a role to play in Ackroyd’s novel. It is a very minor one, but actually in an earlier discussion of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, notorious as the poisoner who was suspected of multiple murders and was transported for fraud and who was friends with Blake at one point, entirely appropriate. The Limehouse Golem strips out such minute particulars but replaces them with an innovation that cannot be ignored: the eponymous Limehouse Golem is no figment of Jewish folklore, but actually William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea.

Before discussing this connection to Blake, I must first note that it commits an atrocity on Ackroyd’s fiction which, although I enjoyed, is completely preposterous. One of the important aspects of Limehouse was its cosmopolitan nature as part of the Jewish East End. This is by no means thoroughly erased in the film – there is one very funny scene in which Lizzie unwittingly insults a Jewish audience – but the legend of the automaton Golem makes no sense if its model is instead the truly horrific, awe-inspiring vision of Blake.

That observation aside, I must admit my thrill when the image of Blake’s painting appeared in the first few minutes of the movie, dominating the backdrop of the stage for a performance telling the fate of Lizzie Cree. Blake’s painting, The Ghost of a Flea, painted in tempera and gold on mahogany in 1819-20 and now on show in Tate Britain, is the kind of spectacular depiction of evil that, once seen, can not be forgotten. Its origins lie in a series of so-called “visionary heads” that Blake drew in the notebooks of fellow artist, John Varley, from 1818 onwards, and according to Blake, “fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess.” When I first wrote about the painting, I remarked that it appeared a diabolical self-portrait, as though of Blake’s druidic spectre, a projection of his own sins as Satan was the projection of Milton’s. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed it in relation to Alan Moore’s From Hell, where the scenario with Varley is transformed into a commentary on Matthew Gull, who Moore portrays as Jack the Ripper.

It is this connection that Medina draws upon for The Limehouse Golem, and it’s not a surprising one – although to me it remains false for a number of reasons, most notably that while the Ghost of a Flea has frequently been used to symbolise serial killers, for me this ignores Blake’s satirical and political point, that the most bloodthirsty souls of any age have always been the kings, popes and ministers who have waged war for their own depraved ends. This aside, my reading may be (in my opinion) more true to Blake but it remains much less effective in the popular imagination which is happier to consider the more self-evident evils of serial killers. Thus the depiction of the Flea serves as an immediate visual metaphor for the Limehouse murderer, a point reinforced by the killer’s written confession in a copy of Thomas de Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” that includes a hand drawn rendition of the Ghost.

The film skips a little over “Lambeth Marsh Lizzie” Cree’s ascent from poverty in the homelands of Blake (due more to the demands of compressing the narrative into its running time than any overt act of violence on the part of the director and screenwriter), but in concluding with her as the figure behind the Golem it does make the Blakean connection more poignant even if, as I suspect, it is unintentional. It is Lizzie who is the Ghost of a Flea, carrying her bowl of blood through Limehouse and as such – and here I am certain it is my reading as an imposition on the text rather than something intended by the film’s makers – she becomes emblematic as a Daughter of Albion. By this, I do not mean that she is one of the weeping figures who surrounds Oothoon in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, rather she is one of the bloodthirsty goddesses of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, invocations of which haunt Moore’s From Hell and the early, psychogeographic poetry of Iain Sinclair.

The film’s strength (as indeed the novel’s) is to build up a considerable degree of sympathy for Lizzie. Born into grinding poverty and raped as a child by a dockworker – for which she is punished with hot iron by her mother while her attacker walks away – the later re-enactment of that primal rape by her husband (whose charade as a knight in white armour has always been that – a charade) leads her into a solipsistic and miserable world of internal anguish. Christopher Pittard observes that the movie draws (anachronistically) on W.T. Stead’s investigative reporting into child prostitution in London in 1885, and this abominable situation is the ultimate driver for the murders which pulsate through the film. As Blake wrote in “London” a century before, it is the “youthful Harlots curse” that “Blasts with tears the Marriage Hearse”. I do draw back a little from too overt a feminist reading of The Limehouse Golem, however: Lizzie suffers atrocities, and yet her response is to cause other prostitutes – other women – to suffer more. Lizzie is both daughter of Albion and Spectre, divided as Los’s Spectre is in Jerusalem.

His Spectre divides & Los in fury compells it to divide:
To labour in the fire, in the water, in the earth, in the air,
To follow the Daughters of Albion as the hound follows the scent
Of the wild inhabitant of the forest, to drive them from his own  (Jerusalem, 17.1-4)

Reviews: John Yau – The Wild Children of William Blake; Eric G. Wilson – Polaris Ghost

The first of these reviews, John Yau’s The Wild Children of William Blake, brings together a series of essays, articles and reviews, most from the past decade but with a few stretching back much further into the 1980s. Yau is a poet and critic who lives in New York City, whose collections of poetry include Forbidden Entries (1996) and Further Adventures in Monochrome (2012). Wild Children was published at the end of 2017 and comprises a series of pieces on the role of art, with articles that originally appeared mostly in Hyperallergic Weekend, which he co-edits as art critic.

The title of the book is taken from the final essay in the collection, a review of Raymond Foye’s Dark Star: Abstraction and Cosmos that was published in Hyperallergic Weekend in 2016. Foye had brought brought together eight artists – some historical, such as Jordan Belson and Harry Smith – others contemporaries working in a variety of media. The link between them all was a re-examination of “non-objectivism” through the media of mysticism, psychedelics and meditation, and it was “strain of occult thinking” that, according to Yau, made them Blake’s wild children. The contemporary artists, including Tamara Gonzales and Sally Webster, were more immediately linked by their interest in Smith and Belson, and behind those two figures the abstract, non-representational art of painters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian.

The only explicit reference to Blake in the article is contained in the final paragraph:

Harry Smith’s “Untitled Drawing, October 19, 1951” (1951), which was done in ink, watercolor and tempera on a sheet of paper measuring 24 ½ x 18 ¾ inches, reminds me of a map of both earth’s inner core as well as an early version of the solar system. It brought to mind George Baxter’s prints of the cosmos that were specially made for the religious sect, the Muggletonians, of which the poet-artist William Blake was a member. The Muggletonians believed Copernicus, Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton had it all wrong. I don’t think you would be wrong if you get the feeling that some of the artists in this exhibition agree with Blake.

This shows off the strength of Yau’s work (his knowledge of contemporary art) and his weakness (a relative lack of understanding of the historical contexts – Blake was no Muggletonian). Indeed, the book as a whole feels a little like a bait and switch in terms of its title: Blake is often no more than an interesting meme to riff along with. Perhaps the exception is the essay on “William Tillyer’s Clouds”, a revision of the original essay published alongside Tillyer’s work in the catalogue William Tillyer: Against Nature. Although Blake is not directly invoked (unlike Constable), Tillyer did title one of his earlier exhibitions Fearful Symmetries in 1993. Overall, Yau’s book is an excellent read on some of the most interesting contemporary art that strives against easy classification, although it offers little insight into the reception of Blake among those new artists.

The second piece reviewed here, Eric G. Wilson’s Polaris Ghost, is much more profoundly Blakean. Essentially an extended short story or novella, it offers itself as a combination of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Blue Velvet. One of Outpost19’s “Short-ish” series, Wilson’s previous works are non-fiction pieces that include Coleridge’s Melancholia and My Business is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing.  The influence of Blake is strong from the very first page, beginning with an epigraph to James Basire, to whom Blake was presented. The story, told as a series of fragments, deals with Polaris who splits into two entities known as Otto and Ella, echoing Blake’s vision of emanation and spectre. The flat, affectless style of the early chapters in particular evokes Lynch’s work, as with the girl who will become Ella seeing a vision of a grey man threatening her while she bathes which her father later tells her was the smoke from a fire that had threatened to destroy them all.

Throughout most of Polaris Ghost, the pseudo-anonymous characters – husband, girl, boy – function as archetypes dissociated from the backgrounds of the worlds in which they live, and work almost as sinister fairy tales. In the final book (Book VIII), Wilson’s prose almost reads as a retelling of “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Boy Lost” from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. As a husband has night terrors that he is a boar, so it is only by becoming a boy again that he can master those fears:

He heard the sound again. It was a grunting sound. He saw a huge figure in his path. The creature was on all fours. He saw its eyes. They were blue. Under the eyes were two giant tusks. This was a boar. Its head was tilted towards the ground. It made the sound again. This was not a grunting sound. It was a whimpering sound. This boar was sick.

The husband as a boy was no longer afraid. The boar needed help. He stepped towards the boar, and saw that in the boar’s mouth was his doll. The boar reached for the doll. The boar opened its mouth, and the doll fell out and hit the ground. The boy reached down to pick the doll up.

In between such deceptively simple psycho-dramas are meditations on Elvis and Bowie or Godzilla in the nuclear age. The whole is delightful – a kind of adult Maurice Sendak story (which, on one level, would be an apt description for some of David Lynch’s movies). Polaris Ghost was my first encounter with Wilson’s work, but demonstrates a subtle engagement with Blake that provides a series of sometimes troubling reflections on marriage, family relations and growing up that will certainly make me look out for more of his writing.

 

John Yau, The Wild Children of William Blake, Autonomedia, 2017. $15.00
Eric G. Wilson, Polaris Ghost, Outpost19, 2018. $14.00.

 

 

Review: Patti Smith – The New Jerusalem

In 2005, Patti Smith released a well-received book of poetry, Auguries of Innocence, that clearly indicated her affections for the work of William Blake. Some thirteen years later, the influence of Blake is once more evident in her latest collection, a series of seven prose-poems entitled The New Jerusalem, a handsome volume that has been released by the Nexus Institute in a bilingual, English and Dutch edition.

As well as the poems themselves, the book includes a series of illustrations, some of them reproductions of Smith’s own work such as her silkscreen print of South Tower Copper. The Nexus Library series (of which this is a part) has been an eclectic mix, including works by Mario Vargas Llosa and Garry Kasparov as well as Smith’s latest offering, and the images and texts are preceded by an essay written by Rob Riemen, founder of the Nexus Institute and a longtime admirer of Smith’s. It is his introduction that offers the clearest link to Blake as he recounts a meeting the two of them had in New York:

“I’ve just started on a poem that’ll be called The New Jerusalem.”

“The new Jerusalem! Like the prophesy at the end of The Revelation of St. John in the New Testament? Or like the visionary poem Jerusalem by William Blake?” I knew what a passion she had for that eighteenth-century poet and painter.

The immediate cause of the poem is actually the Trump administration’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and thus the political act of recognising the “universal” city as the capital of Israel. Regarding literary influences, Smith herself goes on to list a long line, including Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Andrei Tarkovsky, Allen Ginsberg – and the one that surprises Riemen the most – Jesus Christ. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the introduction is Smith’s insistence of the interlinking of art and religion. She cites Wilde’s De Profundis to argue that Christ was an artist, and though it is a little more oblique she certainly knows of Blake’s repeated references to Christianity as art. This becomes part of Rieman’s argument, that we have replaced concepts such as soul, forgiveness, God and creation with innovation, popularity and consumption, and that all art – not merely that of the sixties and seventies – is an art of counter-culture. He cites the line from Blake’s Laocoön, “Art Degraded, Imagination Denied, War Governed the Nations”, but with regard to Patti Smith’s ideas he could also have quoted: “A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian”.

Riemens links this very Blakean conception of the Christian art of imagination to a counter-culture, operating both against the religious right of contemporary America but also current political trends of Trump’s America, which he mournfully compares to the tribulations of Lincoln, a party linked by name only across the centuries. Despite this somewhat melancholy end to the introductory essay, however, begin with a much more powerful tone: “Matter of Time”, the opening piece, is redolent of Ginsberg and, to my eyes, Yeats as well as Blake, as in the following passage:

The new time slouched then accelerated, visceral, chaotic, yet soon governed with a terrible lucidity. God usurped by Goal. Chemical commerce the prime directive. Cultivators initiated an unremittent engineering of nature. Controllers enforced a neo-naturalization, devoid of charity or human quality. Mercenary priests devised the moral center. Iron and steel rose from the face of the holy city, the earth shuddered, and it was holy no more.

The accompanying image, South Tower Copper, indicates that there is something about this passage that is explicitly imagist, of a tower rising in the literal city of Jerusalem to form the new embassy. At the same time, it is also clearly visionary, and while some of this verse literally sticks in the mouth as I read it (“enforced a neo-naturalization devoid of charity”) this is, perhaps, appropriate to the language of Ulro. Although not quite the howl of Ginsberg’s poem, there is something about this opening passage that is very reminiscent of his accusations against Moloch:

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

The first poem is also a retelling of Blake’s account, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as to the origins of religion. Originally the preserve of ancient poets, who “animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive”, this inspired form of worship was soon abstracted into a system and “thus began Priesthood”. For Smith, modern priests are consumer culture, automation and mechanisation which drives us along as part of alienated modernity.

It is against such mechanisation, the Moloch of Ginsberg or Blake’s Ulro, that she is clearly writing her new Christian art, inspired very much by those two poets as well as the other artists and writers identified by Rieman. Thus in the second piece, “What manner of herald flies over”, offers a visionary account of a Caravaggio, not explicitly identified but probably his “Decapitation of St John the Baptist”, the marking of an end of an epoch of art that is followed by a scene of literal sacrifice of cattle: it is the institution of priesthood, but also – via it’s title, “Triumph and Deceit” – a mocking reference to the politics of the 45th President of the United States, who sacrifices truth in the service of power.

The style of all these and the remaining pieces – “The Alchemical Sovereign”, “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, “The Cup” and “A Time of Gifts” – is highly allusive. That it has its roots in a specific political event is not immediately evident without Rieman’s introduction, and these could be read as a series of narrative images that are frequently hauntingly beautiful in their simplicity:

In a dream, a woman gave me a small object, wrapped in brown tissue. It was a cup, delicate, near transparent, created long ago by one who had aspired to transform mute material into gold… He saw carnage and famine and the bleached arms of power. He saw himself shackled to futile ambition. None shall enlighten, he cried, save a nature I shall never know.

Throughout all the poems, allusions to Blake are frequently as delicate as the porcelain cup that Smith holds, but they are very much in evidence. As “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, drawing both on Blake’s famous declarations of prophecy and his Songs of Innocence, is especially redolent of his aphoristic style in works such as The Marriage and Auguries of Innocence. It is also a key to The New Jerusalem, a series of songs that are intended to revive that lost idea of a soul through the act of prophecy. The collection ends with Smith collecting up her writing tools as a voice inside her tells her that she is (re)born, a voice of “inexhaustible good”.

 

Patti Smith, The New Jerusalem, Amsterdam: Nexus Library, 2018. Bilingual edition, 76pp. €20, available from nexus-instituut.nl/en/publication/the-new-jerusalem.

From the Collection: Blake’s Progress – R. F. Nelson

Quite possibly one of the strangest books that I’ve ever come across – and this from a man who has spent more than half a lifetime poring over Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and The Book of Urizen, R. F. “Ray” Nelson’s Blake’s Progress is a science fiction from 1975 that follows the progress of one William Blake – and, more importantly, his wife Catherine – in their struggle against the time traveller Urizen throughout alternate universes.

While I let that sentence sink in, Radell Faraday Nelson is worthy of attention. Born in 1931 and 86 years young, Nelson began writing and drawing in the 1940s and 1950s. I had jokingly tweeted on first beginning Blake’s Progress that it read like a Philip K. Dick take on Blake – not realising at that point that Nelson’s first novel, The Ganymede Takeover, was written in collaboration with Dick and that he had been with the writer in the last few days before his death in 1982 (which you can read about on his web site). Most famous for the short story that was turned into John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live, Nelson himself considers Blake’s Progress to be his most successful novel.

The book is bizarre but extremely entertaining – and terribly written in parts, which does add to its charm. After a very brief prologue which introduces the League of the Zoa (more on which below), the story proper begins with Catherine Boucher in 1782 as she meets her future husband. It is Kate who is the hero of the novel – not only does it begin and end with her, but Nelson suggests that she was the real talent behind the partnership: as her husband worked on crazy illuminated books that no one wished to read, Catherine produced the more commercially viable prints that kept body and soul together. It is also William who is the husband in distress, saved by his wife when seduced and taken captive by Urizen and Vala.

The relationship between William and Catherine is one of the most fascinating elements of the book – and Bill does not come out of the comparison well. Throughout the novel he is portrayed as sexually repressed, stubborn to the point of stupidity and selfish through and through – a thoroughly Urizenic figure who, it turns out, fathered Urizen on Vala while travelling through time.

Nelson clearly knows a fair amount about both Blake’s works and life, though there are some bizarre gaps (such as his insistence that Blake had to find a new way to print because he didn’t own a printing press). The Four Zoas and The Book of Urizen provide, perhaps, the strongest guides to the plot: Urizen is a member of the League of the Zoa, a group of time travellers, and frustrated with the progress of history he constantly travels backwards in time, attempting to change reality (with Los and the other Zoas constantly seeking to revert the universe to its more usual order). William, through his visions, makes contact with Urizen and passes on the Zoa’s power of time and dimension travel; in one such alternate universe (created when Catherine and Blake sabotage biological weapons that the empire of Albion seeks to use against the Americas – in a twist on the events of America a Prophecy) they encounter Urizen and Vala (who is both Urizen’s mother and William’s lover) leading a race of malevolent serpent people who have replaced humanity.

At its best, the writing has a certain brio but Nelson really can’t do dialogue (William, Catherine and even Urizen converse in an ersatz Mary Poppins-esque “London-ese”), yet the following passage will give a taste of the bizarre settings that, ultimately, could have no other source than in the works of William Blake:

A moment later they turned a corner and came in sight of where they might have expected to look over downtown London. Kate gasped. “Look!”

On the opposite bank of the Thames, towering over the other structures, was William’s giant statue of Urizen, unchanged except that it was no longer stepping on the serpent god of Oothoon.

“He’s done it again,” William groaned, then added, more cheerfully, “But he must have liked my statue to have gone to the trouble of including it in this new reality.”

Blake’s Progress by R. F. Nelson, published by Laser Books, 1975.

 

Blake and Data: William Blake on Twitter and the Web, June 2018

The following is a brief analysis of data collected on William Blake trends on Twitter and via Google Search/News for June 2018. Tweets were collated via Twitter Archiver and a data miner plug-in for Chrome used to collect Google items. For a general explanation of some of the assumptions made in the following stats, please see the post at zoamorphosis.com/2018/06/blake-and-data-searches-and-twitter-may-2018/.

Twitter

There was a great deal of variation in June, caused principally by a spike on 16 July which, as can be seen from the frequency chart below, is an extreme outlier caused by a large number of people retweeting a story from the Spanish news site, El Pais. This anomaly (nearly 1200 tweets) skewed the distribution too far to the right, with a standard deviation of nearly 200 above or below an average of some 400 tweets. As such, the chart below shows the distribution across the other 29 days of June, with a mean of 366 tweets per day and a standard deviation of 120 which is comparable to the previous month. Likewise, the total number of tweets – 11,690 – was comparable to the number in May which was slightly more than 11,000.

In contrast to last month, the most popular tweet by a considerable margin was not a quotation by Blake or one of his images but a story form El Pais.

Published on 16 June, the story in El Pais, entitled “La pesadilla de William Blake” (“The nightmare of William Blake”) and about how our docility towards machines and automation has left us susceptible to such things as fake news, is fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, it is an extremely well-written and thoughtful piece that demonstrates a detailed knowledge of Blake’s work and philosophy: this is far from a mindless invocation of Blake, and while I would not necessarily agree with every aspect of Jordi Soler’s analysis, very much does strike a chord with me and I can appreciated his work. That such a piece was widely shared on Twitter made me optimistic about the demand of a wider audience for more than mere Blake platitudes.

The second observation, however, is that this is a story that largely passed by the English speaking world. It was not translated or offered in English and so (as far as I am able to tell) the vast majority if not all retweets were in the Spanish-speaking world. At this stage (and I doubt this will change much in the future) Blake-related items on Twitter are dominated by the USA and UK, so the fact that this story went viral is interesting in and of itself.

Of the other tweets that topped more than 100 shares, two stand out for different reasons. The first was the announcement by Tate of their upcoming series of exhibitions for 2019, which includes William Blake as well as Van Gogh and Dorothea Tanning. While there were 269 retweets of this specific tweet itself in June, there were many others which repurposed the material in some shape or form.

The final tweet to catch my eye was by @ArtLify. The reason for this was not that there was a particularly huge amount of shares (212) but that it is one of the more esoteric of Blake’s quotes: “Some see nature all ridicule and deformity and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” Taken from a letter to the Revd. Dr Trusler in 1799, this is an unusual Blake quote and almost certainly was widely shared as much because of the associated image by Irene Suchocki as for the words themselves, it demonstrates how more obscure elements of Blake’s works can circulate widely when repackaged.

As with last month, the following numbers are drawn from self-identified locations in Twitter.

Once again, the USA and UK dominate, a pattern that I would fully expect to be consistent across forthcoming months. As such, it is what happens below these two entries that is most interesting. Something that is perhaps consonant with the popularity of the El Pais story is the strong showing of a number of Spanish and South/Central American countries: leaving aside Brazil, this group constitutes some 896 entries (including a number of countries such as Peru and Honduras not listed on the above chart). Again, leaving aside the UK and USA, this distribution can be visualised as follows:

Twitter results (excluding USA/UK) June 2018

As can be seen from this map, there is a significant distribution of tweets from across the continents, with a greater density from Europe, South America and India.

Google Search/News

In terms of more general, non-social media items posted to the web in June, this comprised 238 general items and 200 news stories. Main headline items included the El Pais and Tate stories noted above, although obviously these tend not to aggregate in the same way as Twitter items. Combining both together (not all entries had a date) gives a number of daily posts as follows:

As with the Twitter frequency analysis, one entry (in this case 1 story on 17 June) is very much an outlier. Removing this provides a mean across the month of just over 14 posts a day with a standard deviation of 5.25.

With regard to categories into which the various stories/posts could be classified, Arts (including anything with a visual element and also dramatic performances, but mainly Blake’s images) was clearly the largest, followed by Poetry (mostly self-explanatory, but also including quotations), Culture and Society (a more portmanteau term) and Music.

Finally, where possible all sources for sites posting information about Blake were identified as follows:

As with Twitter, the UK and USA dominate, but activity below these two provides a visually interesting map of stories about Blake below:

Google search/news results (excluding USA/UK) June 2018

Europe dominates (with Italy in the lead in this instance), but there is also a significant showing across South and Central America again, along with a scattering of stories from Asia, Turkey, Canada and Australia.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, June 2018

The big news during June was Tate Britain’s announcement that it will recreate William Blake’s failed 1809 exhibition in 2019. Speaking to Robert Dex at the London Evening Standard, Alex Farquharson said that the main purpose of the exhibition is to shift the perception of Blake as primarily a poet to a visual artist. The show will open next September and will be one of the biggest displays of Blake’s work since the 2000 exhibition that also took place there.

Although it was actually released at the end of May, Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a prose poem written in response to the Trump Administration’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, became available in the UK in early June. As well as her gnomic, Blake-inspired text, it includes a series of images produced by Smith in recent years. Smith gave a talk at the Festival of Voice in Cardiff and we’ll be carrying a review of the book soon. Other publications in June included Julia Fine’s debut novel, What Should be Wild, with nods to Blake in the form of the characters the Blakeleys and a setting of Urizon, while Hiroshi Unno’s The Art of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Steampunk demonstrates the influence of Blake among other artists on modern fantasy artworks.

A truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art came via the Edinburgh College of Art’s end of year degree show. Jack Handscombe, a student at the ECA, produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, crouched above a keyboard as a palm tree sprouts from its back. Entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”, as Duncan Macmillan, reviewing the show for The Scotsman, observed, the piece is a witty parody of the Paolozzi statue that stands in front of the British Library, suggesting that “digital is all very well, but nature will break out”.

Neko Case released a new album, Hell-On, was released on June 1. At least one reviewer (Ludovic Hunter-Tilney at the Financial Times) noted the Blakean connection to the track “Last Lion of Albion”, as in the chorus:

Last lion of Albion
They’ll use you for centuries to come
Your wound’s the main road into London
You’ll feel extinction
When you see your face on their money

Another musical performance announced during June is Eve Beglarian’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell at, which will be performed at the New York Bang on a Can summer music festival.

Also in the arts, a new show in London was announced, Wirework. Written by Daleen Kruger, the play itself was actually written in Afrikaans in 2009 but has recently been translated, telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas. The pair created an extraordinary environment in the middle of the Karoo in the Easter Cape, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake to fill the museum with wonderful statues. The play will perform at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London from July 3-7. Another performance that carried the spirit of William Blake came from Keith Hennessy’s Sink at The Lab in San Francisco. According to the Bay Area Reporter, Hennessy’s dance and chant invokes both Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Also in theatre, Lynne Kaufman’s one act play, William Blake in Hollywood, will show in Cedar City in Utah. Exhibitions during June included William Blake in Colour at the William Blake Gallery, and the owner of the gallery, John Windle, gave a talk on the artist and poet during Melbourne Rare Books Week.

Finally, during June we were also reminded of the Blakean references in Westworld (“Auguries of Innocence”), as a signifier of English identity according to the BBC’s poll (“Jerusalem”), that the Libertines nearly took a more Blakean name, the Albions, and you could have heard a group of Blake scholars – Michael Phillips, Linda Freedman, Susan Matthews and me – discuss the Life and Works of William Blake on the BBC World Service’s programme The Forum.

Review: Rock and Romanticism, edited by James Rovira

The connection between rock music and Romanticism is a longstanding one. Thomas Goldthwaite, reviewing an Elvis concert in Phoenix, Arizona in 1970, compared the rock star (not entirely favourably) to a mixture of Lord Byron and Davy Crocket, and Camille Paglia was to repeat the comparison – sans Davy Crocket – twenty years later in her sprawling Sexual Personae. Byron doesn’t get his own star turn in this latest collection edited by James Rovira, although the artist formerly known as Shelley (as Percy Bysshe has tended to be referred to in recent years) does have a particularly fine chapter dedicated to him. Instead, the essays here largely concentrate on Wordsworth and Blake as influential figures in the field of rock music that runs from the sixties until the present day. This particular review will focus on those chapters dealing with Blake, although this is by no means a comment on the remaining sections that outline Wordsworth’s role in defining contemporary music.

James Rovira’s introduction to Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, explores the relationship between its two defining terms and is very good on the established – but not unproblematic – definition of Romanticism, with Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity being an important text. The most significant element here is Löwy and Sayre’s notion of Romanticism as “opposition to capitalism in the name of pre-capitalist values” (cited p.xiv), which is important in terms of defining the attitudes of both Romanticism and rock music outside of the essentially modernising strands of Marxism. This definition works very clearly in one important aspect in terms of of rock music as not “selling out”, a theme which runs through the Situationist Internationale through punk and into grunge, although plenty of Marxist and left-wing critics have noted the intensely capitalist nature of contemporary popular music, the tensions of which are evident in some of the essays in this collection. Marxist readers of Blake such as Saree Makdisi would probably make much more of this tension, but I have never seen Blake as a proto-Marxist but rather, as with William Godwin, a proto-anarchist – which is one reason why he is such a good role model for rock music and something that could have been pursued more forcefully in one or two of the essays here. Rovira is mildly, and correctly, critical of the privileging of the conceptual over the affective in Löwy and Sayre’s definition of Romanticism, that it tends to ignore the aesthetic qualities of the movement in favour of economic, social and political contextualisations (p.xvi), but at the same time the use of this approach does provide a coherence and direction to the discussion of relations between rock music and Romanticism throughout the collection.

As well as considerations of direct influences of Blake – such as actual settings of his lyrics to music or allusions to his poetry – some of the theoretical discussion in the book revolves around Raymond William’s “structures of feeling”, the observation that artistic movements are rarely acknowledged at the time because “both participants and observers are unable to objectively distance themselves far enough from it to classify it” (p.37). As such, influence may be parallel and affective rather than direct and referential, and Lisa Crafton echoes an approach adopted by myself, Steve Clark and Tristanne Connolly in Blake 2.0 to draw attention to models of reception that emphasise affiliation or resistance as much as concepts of transmission and inheritance (p.67). As a very personal aside, it made me laugh to see my own words used against me as, once or twice as detailed below, I would have really appreciated a few more examples of such “patrilineal concepts”. Nonetheless, on the whole I agree with this approach (I would have to say that, wouldn’t I) as it offers a much more allusive and sophisticated model for discussion Blake’s reception.

The first essay in the collection is a perfect example of just such a sophisticated reading. Luke Walker, whose work on the 1960s counterculture and Blake is a fantastic addition to reception studies of Blake, offers a wonderfully subtle interpretation of Blake, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Noting that there has not been a great deal of academic work on Dylan and Blake despite bold assertions, as in the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, that “Bob Dylan is the spiritual twin of… William Blake” (p.3), Walker provides a delightfully nuanced reading of how much Dylan really knew about Blake – and how little he may have wanted to be influenced by him, at least in the 1960s. Personally, I am perfectly happy with the notion that Dylan didn’t actually know Blake at all well, an argument pursued by Tristanne Connolly with regard to The Doors in her article “How Much Did Jim Morrison Know about William Blake?” – the Romantic could still have been important as the grain of sand (literally in Dylan’s case) to inspire various pearls of his own music. Walker provides a compelling and extremely well-thought through argument regarding Dylan’s struggling anxiety of influence towards Blake but also, in many respects more significantly, towards Ginsberg. Certainly in the later decades of his career Dylan could be much more relaxed in his relationship with Blake’s work, indicating a renewed respect towards the poet in an interview from 1992 and incorporating cut-ups (after William Burroughs) of Blake’s “The Tyger” in “Roll on John”. Again, Dylan’s reading of Blake does not need to be particularly deep to be significant: as Walker indicates, throughout the 1960s Blakean texts operated in a rhizomatic, fragmentary fashion, cropping up as aphorisms and graffiti which seemed entirely appropriate to the inventor of the proverbs of hell (p.9).

The next essay on Blake, Douglas T. Root’s “William Blake: The Romantic Alternative”, is the most frustrating for me and the one where I would have preferred a little less free-form, allusive structures of feelings and a little more rigorous – Urizenic, even – patrilineal heritage. This essay was more frustrating because I essentially agree with Root’s argument that Blake’s attitude towards art, or more accurately the accepted myth of his attitude towards art as someone who once wrote “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s”, is precisely why he does provide an allusional, parallel model for much contemporary music. From the Pre-Raphaelites through the Surrealists to BritArt, Blake has frequently been seen as a “total artist” – one who lived entirely for his art and someone who, unlike many of the other Romantics, never sold out. Actually, the reality of Blake’s personal situation was much more complex than that, and ignores the fact that the editions of Young’s Night Thoughts and Blair’s The Grave were intended as fully capitalist publishing endeavours for which Blake would have happily sold (if not sold out) his skills for a much higher price were he able. Nonetheless, one legacy of Blake’s failure in his life time to be a successful artist – along with his continued faith in his own art and abilities – has been an enduring, and sometimes essential, myth of the Romantic artist alone against the world.

My frustration with Root’s essay is that, by concentrating on Blake’s influence on alternative American rock music and pretty much ignoring entirely the British scene he effectively eviscerates much of his argument. Blake’s influence on figures such as Kurt Cobain is definitely present, but also much refracted: Cobain recorded a soundtrack to Burrough’s “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him”, and Allen Ginsberg (who, according to Sam Kashner, rejected Cobain’s application to the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) was part of the Nirvana front man’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In Gus van Sant’s poetic retelling of his final hours, Last Days, Cobain is renamed Blake, but by ignoring the British connection, Root cuts off a direct line into rock music: Malcolm McLaren studied Blake at art school, Derek Jarman name checks the Romantic constantly throughout his movies, and Jah Wobble (John Wardle), bassist in Public Image Ltd alongside John Lyden, recorded an entire album based on Blake’s works, The Inspiration of William Blake (1995). I am by no means so crass a reader of reception to insist that direct transmission is the basis for meaningful readings of Blake’s afterlife, but the addition of “punk Blake” would have made the argument for “grunge Blake” much more convincing.

By contrast, Nicole Lobdell’s essay “Digging at the Roots: Martha Redbone’s The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake“, is direct, simple and one of the most joyous essays in the collection, although that probably reflects my attitude that this is among the best musical adaptations of Blake’s work ever to be made. Lobdell’s contribution is less theoretically complex than that of Root and Walker, probably because when dealing with such an overt piece of musical reception issues of the anxiety of influence or importance of structures of feeling tend not to apply. Instead, the chapter offers a detailed and comprehensive account of the contexts of Redbone’s album, outlining how her Appalachian ballad is partly an adaptation of older, English forms to create what she terms “Appalachian Romanticism” (pp,51-2). This chapter is probably weaker in terms of theoretical readings of Romanticism – I did cringe at an appeal to “the universality of the poetry and the timelessness of the Romantic ideals that the music embodies” – but it is excellent in terms of exploring the minute particulars of both the Appalachian context of Redbone’s music and close readings of the tracks on the album.

The final essay that deals with Blake, Lisa Crafton’s “‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’: U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism”, is considerably more sophisticated – and an essay towards I am ever so slightly more ambivalent. It’s greatest achievement is to inculcate a greater sympathy towards U2, who for me embody a capitalist sellout of rock music that tends towards an ersatz version of Romanticism. Crafton demonstrates that U2’s interest in Blake has existed for a much longer period than I had realised, and offers a much more generous understanding of their political engagement in terms of Löwy and Sayre’s notions of Romanticism which, if I never quite fully agree with, I did come to appreciate much more. The vision of Blake that U2 sees may sometimes be my greatest enemy, but what I cannot doubt – quite clearly from their recent albums Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – is that the group’s appreciation of Blake has been an enduring and honest one. Regarding the link to Leonard Cohen, I was slightly more perplexed: Crafton seems to follow a line that Cohen operates more in terms of a Blakean/Romantic aesthetic – I don’t really have a problem with this, but also Cohen seems to know Blake fairly directly, as when he invoked the poet in a 1988 interview.

This review has focussed on the chapters dealing with the reception of Blake in Rock and Romanticism and, as such, neglects those that deal with Wordsworth or other aspects. That is no comment on their quality – David Hogsette’s chapter on Rush and Romanticism, for example, is an essay in pure, unalloyed joy, and some of the contributions on Wordsworth offer sophisticated readings of musical contexts and influences. The subtitle, relating music to Blake and Wordsworth, doesn’t always work (Lorenzo Sorbo’s final chapter on the Scapigliatura is fascinating but feels as though it belongs to a different collection) and at times I would have preferred either a more comprehensive collection on the influence of Romanticism throughout rock music – Shelley and Byron are spectres that have haunted the dreams of far too many wannabe rock gods – or, alternatively, a collection that dealt more intensely with William Blake. The latter, perhaps, could have extended the boundaries of rock into other genres, such as pop evocations (one of my favourite settings remains Blur’s “Magpie”, the b-side to their single “Girls and Boys”), as well as exploring the English music scene, where William Blake thrives in the work of artists as diverse as Van Morrison (mentioned in passing several times), Julian Cope, The Fall and Pete Doherty. Some of these are dealt with in the follow up volume, that explores post-punk, Goth and Metal, and in any case these desires also reflect my intense enthusiasm for this book: Rovira’s decision to deploy Löwy and Sayre throughout the collection gives it a coherence that is unexpected in an edited volume, creating an extended argument regarding Romanticism’s influence on contemporary music that is frequently compelling and always fascinating.

 

James Rovira (ed.), Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018.

Blake and Data – searches and Twitter, May 2018

The following is a brief analysis of data collected on William Blake trends on Twitter and via Google Search/News for May 2018. Tweets were collated via Twitter Archiver and a data miner plug-in for Chrome used to collect Google items. The various data is included in a spreadsheet with “raw” and, where possible, “cleaned” (i.e. references to William Blake that do not reference the Romantic artist/poet removed) versions provided.

Twitter

During May, 11,236 tweets were posted, the majority of them retweets. The chart below shows the daily number of tweets that included the phrase “William Blake” in reference to the artist/poet.

As the above chart shows, there was considerable variation across the month with regard to how many tweets were posted or retweeted. The spike on day 13 is almost entirely due to the appearance of a tweet by @41Strange of Blake’s paintings of The Great Red Dragon (discussed later). The average number of tweets was 360 per day, with a standard distribution as illustrated below – which also shows the 836 tweets on May 13 to be very much a statistical anomaly.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of popular tweets were either short quotations from Blake or posts of his pictures.

The most surprising thing about this chart for me is that clearly the most popular shared tweet for May 2018 was an image of Oberon, Titania and Puck with dancing fairies. The image appeared on multiples sources, but the most commonly retweeted was a modified version of the painting posted by @ArtPicsChannel at the end of April (the account regularly retweets this image).

The original painting is held at Tate Britain in London and is watercolour and graphite on paper (it is included below for comparison to the Art Pics Channel version). As the Tate catalogue entry indicates, it probably represents an attempt by Blake to capitalise on the popularity of depictions of Shakespeare’s works in the 1780s, in this instance by illustrating Titania’s instructions to her fairy train in the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

What is particularly significant about this illustration to me is that of all the works by Blake I would have expected to see shared among hundred of users, it would not have been this painting.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686

Newton and the Ancient of Days, for example, were shared, but only 87 times in the case of the former and a mere 36 times in the case of the latter. With over 285k followers, @ArtPicsChannel tweets tend to be disseminated widely, and this has been the only image by Blake posted to the account since March 9 (when an illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy did not appear to gain much traction). The fact that other Blake pictures do not go viral in the same way from the account – including the original version rather than the red-tinged one – indicates that there is something about this particular image that appeals to Twitter users, probably because the dramatic red and black looks effective on a range of devices. @ArtPicsChannel has itself retweeted the image 43 times this year alone (and only once for the original), seeming to return to it every few days as a means of gaining audience.

Less surprising to me was the prevalence of retweets of a series of Blake paintings dealing with the theme of the Great Red Dragon from the Book of Revelation. The original source for this was @41Strange on 13 May and this tweet quickly went viral and continues to be shared. This account has a similar number of followers as @ArtPicsChannel (214k in this instance) and this is a collection of images which attracted a significant number of comments discussing the Hannibal Lecter series of films, novels and television programmes.

Of the remaining tweets above 100, “The Tyger” or variants thereof is (for me unsurprisingly) popular, but I personally didn’t expect to see so many references to “Night” from Songs of Innocence. Nearly all the retweets of “The moon, like a flower…” come from the popular account @ArtLify (37.5k followers). “The Tyger” was also the source for another popular tweet, a tribute by @C3rmenDraws which, frankly, does a better job of capturing tigers than Blake’s original. Most of the remaining popular tweets are fairly unexceptional and largely represent proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a perennial favourite on Twitter. Of the foreign language ones, “Para la abeja laboriosa no hay tiempo de estar triste” is a Spanish translation of “The busy bee has no time for sorrow”, “Vedere un mondo in un granello di sabbia…” is Italian for “To see a world in a grain of sand…”, and Google Translate informs me that “Deneyim dedi?imiz ?ey, yitirdi?imiz masumiyetimizdir” is Turkish for “What we call experience is our innocence”, which strictly speaking doesn’t seem to be verbatim Blake at all. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Spanish “La exuberancia es belleza” (112 tweets) was slightly more popular than the English original, “Exuberance is beauty” (111).

Regarding the point of origin for these and other tweets, where Twitter stores location information the top sources for tweets were as follows:

Unsurprisingly, the USA was by far the largest source of tweets, at nearly 3,000, with the UK in a rather distant second at 1,011. At this stage, it is too early in this project to begin drawing any conclusions regarding other countries: this is simply something I wish to track over the coming year to gain some sense of which countries tend to interact with Blake most in this very general sense. One thing to note is that this list is far from complete, particularly where Twitter provides information in a non-Latin script. The chart below offers another visualisation of the data above:

Tweets on William Blake, May 2018, by country of origin

Google Search/News

Using a data miner plug in to scrape Google searches on a regular basis, a data set of some 286 search entries (that is pages indexed by Google during this period) and 210 news stories was collated, which are treated as part of the same data set in the charts below.

Google searches (general search and news) May 2018

Although there was considerable variation from day to day in terms of the number of posts, the standard deviation was considerably less than for Twitter (which was not surprising, considering that there were only slightly fewer than 500 entries compared to more than 11,000 in Twitter. The average number of posts a day for this group was slightly more than 15.5 with a variance of nearly 8.

The various pages indexed by Google could also be broken down into the following categories: art tends to refer to pictorial representations but can include such things as posters and cards, anything with a visual representation of Blake’s work. Poetry, the next biggest category, can include quotations and snippets as well as extended pieces, while Books tends to reference sales/downloads of Blake-related books. The Music category was quite substantial this month because it included a number of posts relating to U2’s Songs of Experience tour. “Essay mill” refers to the rather dispiriting practice of offering essays for sale – these tend to go down very quickly, and I have been in two minds whether to include them for a number of reasons, but in the end they represent part of the exchange of information about Blake online.

Google search and news items by category

Finally, the following two charts give some indication of the sources of origin for posts about Blake. As with Twitter usage, by far and away the largest number of posts come from the United States followed by Britain.