The video below is a lightly edited version of a talk to the Blake Society on February 17, 2021, about some of the ways in which Blake’s theory of religion developed throughout his art and poetry.
The video below is a lightly edited version of a talk to the Blake Society on February 17, 2021, about some of the ways in which Blake’s theory of religion developed throughout his art and poetry.
I shall be making a presentation about my new book, Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, to the Blake Society this Wednesday (17 February). The following is an extract from the book which references some of the paintings I’ll be discussing on Wednesday.
The starting commission [for Thomas Butts] was a series of fifty-three paintings illustrating the Bible, the majority of which were completed in 1799 although some were painted when the Blakes were in Felpham. For these works, Butts paid more than £400. Of the series, only thirty remain of which seven deal with subjects from the Old Testament, and the remainder from the New Testament. The medium for these paintings was tempera, water-based pigments bound with gum or glue, and they were intended as “cabinet paintings”, smaller pieces that could be hung on the walls of the Butts’ residence. When composing his paintings, Blake applied the pigment in multiple layers, often reinforcing outlines with black ink and glazing the finished work with glue. The editors of the Blake Archive say that Blake may have been trying to create “jewel-like paintings”, as he later described them in his Descriptive Catalogue as “enamels” and “precious stones” (E531). A number of the temperas were also painted on copper, further enhancing their jewel-like nature. Unfortunately, the medium was unstable as the different layers expanded and contracted at different rates – leading to cracking – while the carpenters glue used by Blake frequently dulled and browned over time.
Despite these problems with Blake’s medium, some of the paintings in the series that have survived demonstrate his astonishing imagination when dealing with biblical subjects. Naomi Billingsley is correct to point out that we should be careful of ascribing too clear an understanding of the series as earlier critics, such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson have done. While the temptation is to treat these as some kind of narrative journey demonstrating Blake’s understanding of the role of Christ, we simply no longer have the complete sequence of paintings and such a story “may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” Rather, over a period of four years, these were biblical subjects that appealed to both Blake and Butts, although the fact that five of the extant paintings are larger than the rest (around 30 by 50 cm rather than 27 x 38 cm) and all illustrate the life of Christ indicate that these were intended as a series.
The paintings as a whole do not need to be seen as explaining a consistent Christology, but there are clear innovations that mark these out as separate to Blake’s contemporaries. In his depiction of The Nativity, for example, Jesus springs from Mary in an entirely unrealistic but wholly inspirational fashion, a glowing ideal who leaps towards the outstretched hands of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. Likewise, as Billingsley demonstrates with comparisons to contemporary art works such as J. M. W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), Blake’s images renounce any form of naturalism: they are intended to inspire the viewer to consider the nature of Christ rather than to seek out the historical Jesus. Two very striking images are from Old Testament subjects. The first, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, is another image painted on copper, and while it also uses tempera with glue or gum binder as well as pen and ink outlines, the use of gold highlights make this image shine. This would be a technique that Blake would use several times – most notably with the coloured copy of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion – to make his art works shine in a literal act of illumination. Blake’s study of the subject is also unique – and one that he would return to several times throughout his career. Eve, naked, stands full-frontal to the viewer with no shame or modesty, befitting entirely her status before the fall: she is an example of the human form divine that will be lost when mankind seeks to cover up its glorious nakedness. Adam is asleep next to her – the last time that man will sleep in such an innocent state – and the serpent coils alongside her body, for all the world appearing more like a wingless dragon than the typical snake of Christian art. The scene is dark and foreboding, prefiguring the collapse of the world that will take place, yet because Blake is deliberately capturing Eve in her innocence, the overall effect is startling: as she reaches up for the apple, which we cannot see, she seems fully confident. It would be tempting to see her as revelling in the act of taking the forbidden fruit, but I think this is to misinterpret the scene: Eve does not yet know sin – the expression on her face is calm and peaceful, more like representations of the Buddha than the accusatory depictions of the fallen woman who “Brought Death into the World, and all our woe / With loss of Eden” (Paradise Lost, I.1-2). We are presented with mankind at the final moment before the Fall, and this picture for me inspires incredible sadness at what will be lost.
Another image in the series continues the theme of the fall in an even more disturbing way: Abraham and Isaac shows the two figures standing between an altar prepared with wood to burn a sacrifice and a thicket where a ram is caught, illustrating Genesis 22.13: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” Blake, however, has done something very disturbing in his rendition of this line – as Billingsley observes, the clothed Abraham is a passive figure looking up towards heaven in sorrow for the act he is about to commit, while it is Isaac, naked and dynamic, who sees the ram that will substitute for him in an act of sacrifice. Abraham in his long robe with arms outstretched, a curved knife held in one hand, is reminiscent of Blake’s depictions of the druids, and his pose makes him similar to Urizen in America a Prophecy. Rather than passive, he may even be seen to be impassive, implacable in the face of the demands of human sacrifice. Isaac, by contrast, is innocent and unafraid: as Billingsley correctly points out, it is his childlike perception that sees more clearly the way to reconcile god and man as opposed to the false religion followed by his father.
The talk will take place at 8pm (UK time) on Zoom. It is free and all are welcome, but the Blake Society asks for visitors to register in advance via this link.
2021 began with a suitable Blakean bang (rather than a whimper) with a New Year’s Eve performance by Patti Smith, streamed at Picadilly Circus as part of a month-long takeover organised by the digital platform CIRCA. Included in her performances throughout the month were recitals of “The Divine Image” and “The Tyger”, as well as 2021: A New Year inspired by her “Blakean Year” poem.
While Smith’s words were a bright spot in what has been a dark beginning to the year, one of the best presents for Blake scholars to begin the new year was the announcement by the Blake Archive that they were making available a digital edition of Poetical Sketches, the collection of juvenilia and early work that Blake produced between c. 1769 and 1777, and which was published with the support of John Flaxman and the circle attached to Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet. While those who supported its publication (along with Blake, it seems) did not appear to hold the volume in especially high regard, it has since the time of Gilchrist at least been recognised as an important contribution to the development of what would become known as Romanticism. The digital edition itself is available at http://www.blakearchive.org/work/bb128, and additional news of the development of that addition (from the copy owned by Charles Tulk) can be found at https://blog.blakearchive.org/2021/01/14/publication-blakes-poetical-sketches/.
January saw the second issue of a new comic launched at the end of 2020. Written by Paul Grist (whose previous work includes Judge Dredd), with art by Grist, Andrea di Vito and R. B. Silva, The Union tells of a team of super heroes gathered from all over the UK and led by Britannia. When disaster strikes in the form of a foreign invasion, that team is pushed to their limits in this satire on Brexit. The Blake connection is, of course – as Bleeding Cool News points out – the inevitable reference to the hymn Jerusalem. Other comic news included a review of G. E. Gallas’s excellent work, The Poet and the Flea (originally published in 2016) in Comicsbeat.
While film references to Blake have taken a hit as the medium (like theatre, concerts and exhibitions) finds a new way to deal with the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, his appeal to writers continues to be in evidence. Thus John Higgs, whose William Blake vs The World is due out in May, spoke to The Quietus about the esoteric history of Eddie the Head, the mascot of Iron Maiden whose lead singer Bruce Dickinson has long been a Blake fan.
In other news, actor, musician, member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and lifelong Blake aficionado, Kris Krostofferson, announced his retirement at the age of 85. As a reminder of his love for the Romantic poet, Best Classic Bands reminded readers of his assertion in the Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music, that Blake’s poetry “is telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”
With the release of Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, published by Reaktion Books on 15 March, 2021, I’m starting to make a number of short videos based on the text of that book.
Titled “Blake Bites”, each of these is a short (3-4) minute video that focuses on a particular poem or art work by Blake. The first two are now live and can be viewed on my YouTube channel, Zoavision. In this case, they deal with “The Ancient of Days” and “The Tyger”, and you can watch them both below.
I intend to make new videos on a weekly or fortnightly basis, so please do consider subscribing to the channel.
As the tumultuous year that was 2020 comes finally to an end, this is an opportunity to return to a pleasurable task that I had meant to undertake just as the first COVID-related lockdown was taking hold. In April, the art-rock group, Phaze Theory, had released an album and concert video, Live at Balabam, which brought together their love of esoterica, W. B. Yeats and William Blake.
Based in London, the group was founded in 2014 by Christopher Barrett (on tuba), Tal Janes (guitar) and Marco Quarantotto (drums), and released their first album, Phaze Theory, in 2017. While that album owed more to Yeats (with tracks that included “Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Dialogue of Self and Soul”) it also included an astonishing burst of Blakeana in the form of “The Angel”, in which Barrett’s ominous blasts create a disturbing vortex from which bursts Janes’ jazz guitar and Ray Jones wonderful vocals. It was exciting, dynamic and truly beautiful.
A year later, the group – now joined by singer Irini Arabatzi – had gathered at the Balabam music venue in Tottenham, an event which would be recorded as their new album. Again comprising a mixture of occultural-inspired songs, some of which Phaze Theory had already played at other clubs such as the Vortex and Bird’s Nest, this album brings together a wider selection of Blake’s songs, most notably The Little Girl Lost and The Little Girl Found, as well as How Sweet I Roam’d from the Poetical Sketches (and for the inclusion of which I might have been partially responsible…)
The live album begins with a somewhat more laid-back, slightly melancholy feel on “Into the Twilight” which perfectly matches the mournful sense of Yeats’s poem from The Wind Among the Reeds, with Arabatzi’s vocals perfectly complementing the mellow harmonies of the three musicians. By contrast, “The Little Girl Lost” marks a significant transition towards the art-occult forms that the band like to explore, using free jazz forms to break away from tonal chord progressions and instead evoke Blake’s Song of Experience as a mysterious search of the soul among caverns deep and beasts of prey. Its companion piece, “The Little Girl Found”, focusses on Janes’s guitar and Arabatzi’s voice to create a harmonious resolution – Lyra returned to her parents as the soul returns to its home.
“The Little Girl Found” is beautiful, but my personal soft spot remains “How Sweet I Roam’d”. Published in Blake’s first collection, Poetical Sketches, in 1784, it is one of his most perfectly lyrical songs and has been frequently been set to music, beginning with Henry Balfour Gardner in 1895 and most famously by The Fugs on the 1970 album, Golden Filth. Although it has been a popular poem for different musicians and groups, Phaze Theory make the song entirely their own – a mystical, dreamy vision of a lost Spring in which melodious voice and instruments hover within harmonies while lilting away into slight dissonances that match perfectly the underlying discord of Blake’s original poem (and, it must be said, which segue perfectly into the next track, Mohini Chatterjee).
Phaze Theory have been described as a combination of Miles Davies, Led Zeppelin and William Blake (which very much underestimates the importance of Yeats at least). Live at Balabam certainly shows them as inheritors of Blake’s musical mantle – and is a reminder of happier times for live performances and a hope that it will not be too much longer before we can see them again.
Le Petit Prince (1943) is the most famous work of French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Its popularity has largely increased over the years, spawning a shop in Paris (one more item to add to my “next time I am in Paris” list), a theatrical production, an animated film, and even a theme park. The author celebrates his 120th birthday this year.
The tale is often deemed a children’s tale and still seems to stubbornly persist in schools’ or even universities’ syllabus’ as seen by the number of annotated and bilingual editions on the market. A pilot crashes in the desert, facing immediate death if he does not manage to repair his aircraft in time. This part of the tale is biographical. The accompanying photo shows Saint-Exupéry with his broken aircraft in the desert. The thus stranded narrator encounters a little prince, who is a child-like creature, but claims to have come from another planet and to have visited many other planets before. This encounter will change his life.
At a first glance, the parallels between the French tale and Blake’s work are on a superficial level. The tale can be read by adults and children alike, an attribution just as true for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” (1789, 1794) What is more, Saint-Exupéry tells his story by using both text and drawings, so his way of telling stories is very similar to that of the poet painter Blake. In a manner similar to Blake, image and text sometimes complement, sometimes contradict each other. The little prince explains for example to the rose he finds on his planet that there are no tigers on this planet, but the accompanying drawing shows a rose and a tiger, thus contradicting the re-assurrance of the little prince.
Rose and tiger naturally remind further of “The Songs of Innocence and Experience,” both elements being central pieces of Blake’s poem collection. Here, too, the rose is rather a woman than a flower, but in the end, the killer threatening to end her life is not the tiger, but a relative of the lamb. In a fatal oversight, the narrator has forgotten to provide adequate protection for the rose which may provoke the sheep, which is nothing but a drawing, a drawing that is supposed to be alive, to have the rose for supper. The soft and innocent lamb has swapped places with the predator, the tiger, only to threaten the rose who is not sick, but will have to use her thorns to defend herself against the predator in her world, the herbivore (thus taking the place of the worm). Blakean characters appear and intermingle in a new way, thus evoking Blake and rejecting him at the same time. The Blakean references seem to fade in and out. The threesome of rose, sheep, and tiger seems to evoke Blake only to swap the roles of innocent creature and predatory beast.
As mentioned before, the sheep only appears as a drawing. This drawing, however, does not show the actual sheep, but only the box in which the sheep is sitting (a reference to quantum mechanics in its similarity to Schrödinger’s cat). When the narrator and little prince meet for the first time, the prince asks him to please draw him a sheep. The prince is choosy and finds fault with all the animals the narrator can provide, a pilot who has just crashed in the desert and thus has other pressing things occupyping his mind than the drawing of a sheep. He grows impatient and provides the drawing of the aforementioned box instead. Surprisingly, the prince can “see” the sheep inside the box and finds it befitting his expectations. What may be interpretated as the vivid imagination of a child, bears deeper meaning when seen in context of the tale. It is not only that he prince can see the sheep inside the box of the drawing, it is his firm belief that the sheep may eat the rose, a part of the real, materialistic world which wipes out borders between real and unreal, drawing and materialistic world, imagination and material world. The prince does not distinguish between the world that is real and the world that is drawn. Images are supposed to have just as much life as does the world around them; the prince believes that the sheep on his piece of paper is just as real as the rose he can touch. At the end of the tale, the narrator will share this world-view and worry about the rose to be killed by a sheep he has drawn himself. To the prince, imagination, or the painting, is as real as is the material world. He is a character Blake may have had sympathy for. His statement “To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination[.]” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217) is, naturally, much more complex, but surly evokes sympathy for the world-view of the prince.
As may be expected the prince finds it difficult to understand characters who are meant to represent adulthood and who are through and through Urizenic, a business man counting the stars to “own” them, a cartograph who is interested in cartography only without ever leaving his desk, a king who rules without subjects to follow his rules, a night watch who blindly follows a set of rules which has become useless as the conditions of his planet have changed. He concludes: “Les grandes personnes sont décidément bien bizarres. “(“The grown-ups are definitely very bizarre” (my translation)). (33) Adulthood seems to appear identical with everything that is Urizenic were it not for the narrator, whose complaints that he would rather have to focus on things like repairing his engine or finding a source of water are quite justified. Still, the world of the prince in which a drawing of a box can threaten the life of a flower clashes heavily with adults who are preoccupied with measuring, owning, creating rules or following rules. The narrator explains earlier in the text that adults are preoccupied with numbers and will only believe information when given a certain amount of figures in addition. This passage is not directly Blakean, but the very open criticism of science makes me think of Newton measuring the ground in front of him and Urizen doing the very same – both seeking the figures they need to believe in information. The fact that both of them fail to look at the world around them instead of the ground in front of them reminds me of the cartograph who refuses to leave his desk. Or the businessman who counts the stars to own them.
Seen together, these Urizenic characters form the contrary to the threesome of rose, tiger, and sheep. It is the prince who moves between these two worlds and tries to make somehow sense of them. He is, after all, a traveller of different worlds. He leaves his world to gain understanding, only to end up in worlds he cannot make head or tails of. Yet, he too lives by the principle that there is no progression without contraries and the contrary is something to be encountered in the world of adulthood. This short visit to the world of adulthood and subsequent return makes him a relative of Thel.
The only one who can help him gain understanding during his voyage is his friend the fox. The fox teaches him what must be considered the core teaching and most famous quote of the tale: “[O]n ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (“You can only see rightly with the heart. The essential things are invisible to the eye.” (my translation)). (55) This seems to directly echo Blake’s “The Eye sees more than the heart knows” which precedes Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) although both differ in their meaning.
In fact, both statements complement each other. Blake’s motto foreshadows Oothoon’s desperate attempt to actually talk to Theotormon who rejects her. She tries to communicate her plea to him, but he sits at the sea “conversing with shadows dire,” (P, 11) he closes his mind and heart to her alike. He may actually see what she explains to him, but his heart refuses to accept these truths. She laments: “does his eye behold the beam that brings Expansion to the eye of pity?” ( P, 11) Theotormon does not have an eye of pity. He was “form[ed]” by Urizen, the “mistaken demon of Heaven.” ( P, 8) Similar to the characters in the French tale representing adulthood who cling desperately to their Urizenic system unable to see how futile their activities are, Theotormon clings blindly to his system refusing to see its fault, injustice, and cruelty. The quote hints at a refusal to part with what the heart already knows and a subsequent discarding of information the eye sees but is deemed unfit for the already formed image found in the heart. This is the same mindset Saint-Exupéry’s adults live in. The king for instance does not accept the piece of information that he is alone on his planet and thus lacks subjects to rule over.
Saint-Exupéry’s quote, however, describes the world of the prince. The narrator explains that what makes certain objects and persons special to us cannot be perceived by the eyes. So, although the prince is horrified to find a garden of roses identical to the one on his planet, he learns that this one flower is special to him because he has an emotional bond to it. In a similar matter, Christmas presents gain their meaning through the accompanying festivities, dinner, mass etc. They are more than the actual item retrieved of a box, the whole procedure and idea of Christmas is attached to them and makes them Christmas presents instead of objects bought in the shop next door. All things we perceive carry meaning to us, and although all roses look the same to the eye, as do all foxes, it is one certain rose and one certain fox that have deeper meaning and value for the prince because he loves them. But the eye cannot distinguish between roses and foxes, only the heart can. His parting gift for the narrator is the starry night. Whenever the narrator will see stars, he will remember that the prince lives on one of them and this will be a happy thought for him. The starry night now carries meaning to the narrator it did not carry before because he has an emotional bond to the prince.
It is striking that Blake actually used the same explanation as Saint-Exupéry as to how we perceive things, only in an even more complicated way by pointing out that we all perceive different things because we give different meaning to these things:
I see Every thing I paint In This world, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a Bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way.” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217)
So, we are not only blind because we refuse to see with the heart to distinguish one rose from other roses and to value the beauty of a tree, the meaning we ascribe to things, be it the purse or the tree, is what makes them beautiful to us. There is no universal beauty and no universal truth that can be seen with the heart, because every heart sees something different. Saint-Exupéry’s quote is a simplified and much more positive outlook on this idea than Blake’s. It is exactly because the hearts of some people are hardened (considering that they see beauty in a money bag and regard trees as green hindrances) that they fail to see the essentials (taking that the beauty of nature is the essential). It is not their eyes which cannot see the essentials; their hearts are blind. As blind as Theotormon’s who cannot see the loving devotion of Oothoon. The eye sees indeed more than this hardened heart understands.
While the tale may not strike as explicitly Blakean, it echoes many of Blake’s ideas and topoi. Despite the lack of sexual references the child-prince who finds it difficult to understand the Urizenic and loveless world of adults combines problems of Thel and Ooothoon in his person. He too rejects the world of adulthood and he too criticises the inability to see love. He, however, returns with a better understanding of what love is and thus happily seeks reunion with his rose whom he now knows to be special. His journey is one towards understanding maturity. As mentioned above, while rose, tiger, and lamb are all part of his planet and thus stem from what he knows and loves as signified by his return, the Urizenic characters live on other planets. While his home planet may stands for childhood, imagination, and innocence, the other planets symbolise adulthood, Urizenic thought, and experience. Innocence and Experience thus become different worlds as well as different world-views opposing each other, exceeding the mere ideas of childhood and adulthood, in my eyes. And regarding these two world- views, I cannot help but imagine that the man who told a woman how he observed the funeral of a fairy might easily be friends with the little prince, thus transcending the border of childhood and adulthood all together. After all, the ability to see the essential should not be restricted to childhood. Reducing the tale to a praise of childhood misses out on the Blakean references that lurk underneath its surface. But probably the essential idea that imagination (for example the ability to see the beauty of a rose and a tree) should not be restricted to childhood can only be seen with the heart.
Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. London, Vintage Books, 1999.
Blake, William. Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Copy P. The Blake Archive. http://www.blakearchive.org/copy/vda.p?descId=vda.p.illbk.01 (2020) [14.05.2020]
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. Le Petit Prince, avec les illustrations originales de l’auteur. Weimar, Aionas Verlag, 2017.
The Little Prince. https://www.thelittleprince.com/ (2017) [14.05.2020]
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. https://www.antoinedesaintexupery.com/ (2018) [14.05.2020]
Featured Image taken from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sahara_Crash_-1935-_copyright_free_in_Egypt_3634_StEx_1_-cropped.jpg (14.02.2012) [14.05.2020]
Along with a number of people, I have been extremely saddened to hear the recent news of the death of Dmitri Smirnov, the Russian-born composer whose love for Blake was such that he became a committed Anglophile and spent most of his career creating stunning and innovative compositions that set a multitude of Blake’s works to music.
Having contracted COVID-19, he passed away on Thursday, 9 April, leaving behind his wife – herself a great composer of note – and their children, Alissa and Philip. I had been in correspondence a few times with him because of our shared love for Blake, and there follows a piece I wrote on him as part of a wider essay dealing with the musical reception of Blake in Europe:
When Fitch was compiling his original catalogue in the late eighties, however, he noted that Soviet-bloc nations had yet to discover Blake, with two ‘startling’ exceptions (1989, xxiv). Elena Firsova’s (b. 1950) Proritzanye (Augury) is an impressive large-scale symphony composed in 1987-88, but it is the work of her husband, Dmitrii Smirnov (b. 1948), which demonstrates one of the deepest and most impressive engagements with Blake among the works of any composer. Born in 1948 in Minsk, Smirnov studied with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov and Yury Kholopov at the Moscow Conservatoire, as well as being influenced by Philip Herschkowitz, who introduced him to the serialism of Anton Webern, which Smirnov would combine with Franco-Russian sensualism (Smirnov no date). One of the most important Russian modernist composers, and one of the founders of the Association for Contemporary Music in Moscow in 1990, he and his wife moved to England in 1991.
The influence of Blake on Smirnov cannot be understated, beginning with his piece for soprano, flute, viola and harp, The Seasons, based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches, first performed in Moscow in 1980 and then arranged as a symphony, performed by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra in 1981 (F1148, F1144). Thus began a decade during which Smirnov returned to Blake again and again, demonstrating a deep knowledge of Blake’s works (which he often translated into Russian),4 whether occasional pieces such as ‘To the Muses’ (included in the 1982 Ballada for Saxophone and Piano) or much more extensive pieces like the operas, Tiriel (1983-85, F1154), which premiered in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1989, and Lamentations of Thel (1985-86, F1146), performed in the same year at the Almeida Festival in London.
The 1980s represented a particularly intense period for Smirnov’s engagement with Blake (although by no means encompassing all his compositions at that time, which also drew upon writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Pushkin and Pasternak), and after his move to England he continued to draw inspiration from Blake, increasingly drawing upon the paintings which were now more readily available to him, as in his series of four ‘Blake Pictures’ (The Moonlight Story, Jacob’s Ladder, Abel, and The River of Life), composed between 1988 and 1992. His performances in England were enthusiastically received, with Stephen Pettitt praising the premiere of Jacob’s Ladder for The Times in 1991. Although Blake’s influence has been less prevalent on Smirnov’s work in the twenty-first century, he continues to be an important source, for example in the ‘Blake’ Sonata No. 6, performed in London and Cambridge in 2015. A number of Smirnov’s works were also included in the 2011 programme held to celebrate Blake’s birthday at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, as part of the William Blake and British Visionary Art exhibition.
Iron Maiden’s song “If Eternity Should Fail” was written by Blake artist Bruce Dickinson (you can read about his “Blake album” The Chemical Wedding (1998) here and here.) It was actually intended as part of a future solo project, but was then recorded and released as an Iron Maiden song on their most recent album The Book of Souls (2015) instead. (cf. his autobiography What Does This Button Do (361)) So, rather unfortunately, the song was removed from its original context (the intended solo album) and added to a Mayan themed album (concerning the title track and the visuals), which might slightly change its reception. As it is, it fits in neatly with the Mayan themed album and tour. The song begins with a human sacrifice, focuses on various questions of religion, and ends with the appearance of what I call a Blakean character who is linked to death. The Mayans were a civilisation which practised human sacrifices and vanished under mysterious circumstances, thus mirroring the topic of human sacrifice, the aspect of religion, and the embodiment of death in the song. Moreover, the disappearance of their culture demonstrates definitely an eternity that has failed. You can see this Mayan setting in the live recording below (I have seen this live twice and the video does not even do it justice). Here, Dickinson plays a character who seems to be both a shaman and an adventurer. But the Blakean references get a bit lost in the jungle.
I put it here for two reasons. First, the ending features a spoken part which seems to introduce a mythology featuring god-like characters. The idea to write your own mythology is probably one of the most Blakean creations in art I have ever seen. We hear a narrator introducing himself as Nekropolis. Nekropolis is, as his name suggests, linked to death. In a classical understanding, a Nekropolis is a city of the dead. Our narrator Nekropolis is both a person and a city and might thus be the little brother of Jerusalem. He further introduces his sons; sons he has breathed life into himself. We do not only have a mystical figure, but the start of a genealogy. This is why the change of albums may be problematic because it may turn Nekropolis into a Mayan settlement or at least lets me think of jungles, ruins, and bloody knives, associations which overshadow the obvious Blakean nature of this mini mythology.
Secondly, the whole song reminds me of Milton, a Poem, starting out with the title and ending with the introduction of the mentioned new entities which surpass eternity. This interrelation to Milton would shed a new light on the topics of human sacrifice, religion, and the embodiment of death. What is more, I see Blake paintings when I listen to it. I just fail to put my finger on it. This is more of a general feeling than clear-cut intertextuality. As soon as I am able to put my finger on it, I will add an article on it.
So, for the time being, I will leave you to the Mayan ruins and hope you enjoy the live record. (This is indeed the official release of the live record as a video. Iron Maiden refrained from selling the live videos as a DVD, most likely in the knowledge that the DVD would end up in YouTube anyway. In other words: watching this is legal.)
In case you want to (legally) see the flamethrowers John Higgs mentions in his book, click here. This song, “Flight of Icarus” (Piece of Mind, 1983), is actually another of my vague feeling projects which end up somewhere with a question mark. I do not think that it is a coincidence that young Icarus is compared to an eagle before he bursts up into flames. For Blake, an eagle represents genius. (And yes, this is another of Dickinson’s contributions to IM).
Dickinson, Bruce. “If Eternity Should Fail.” Iron Maiden. The Book of Souls. Parlophone, 2015.
Dickinson Bruce. What Does This Button Do: an Autobiography. London: Harper Collins, 2018.
Iron Maiden. “Iron Maiden-If Eternity Should Fail (The Book of Souls: Live Chapter).” YouTube. Uploaded by Iron Maiden. (14.11.2017) [01.03.2020]
Iron Maiden. “Flight of Icarus (Live from Legacy of the Best Tour)”. YouTube. Uploaded by Iron Maiden. (14.05.2019) [01.03.2020]
Dickinson, Bruce. “Flight of Icarus.” Iron Maiden. Piece of Mind. EMI, 1983.
This song contains Blake’s Prologue, Intended for a Dramatic Piece of King Edward the Fourth.
Although I own the one or other record of Loreena McKennitt, I am sorry to say that I owe this find to the Wikipedia Page Blake in Popular Culture.
You can listen to it here on YouTube, uploaded by Loreena McKennitt.
Text taken from:
Blake, William. “Prologue, Intended for a Dramatic Piece of King Edward the Fourth.” In The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. ed. by David V. Erdmann. The Blake Archive. http://erdman.blakearchive.org/#439
During my near thirty years of studying Blake, there have been plenty of books and articles that I have been sent which cross the normal boundaries of academia and publishing and are also given as an act of friendship. I have a strong suspicion that this is something that is more common in Blake studies than elsewhere, but it is something that I felt very strongly upon reading John Higgs’ William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever.
This slender non-fiction title, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is not an academic text at all (and I mean that neither as a slight to William Blake Now, nor as a stab at my own profession). One thing that has always intrigued me about Blake is how he appeals to thoughtful readers outside academia: of course, this is also true of a number of writers and artists – Jane Austen is a contemporary of Blake who has a vibrant afterlife beyond the university – but Blake is one of those who has never been owned by the hirelings such as myself who populate universities. In this short book, Higgs provides nine essays – a series of brief spots of time (or, better, moments in each day that Satan cannot find) that are placed at angles to each other, like the surfaces of a gemstone. They form a wonderfully personal and frequently polemical consideration of Blake’s value to our contemporary times, that future age to which he called in works such as Milton a Poem.
That personal response is evident in the opening chapter, which brilliantly paints the occasion of the unveiling of Blake’s new grave – a stone commissioned by the Blake Society to mark the newly discovered spot where Blake’s body lay. Delighting in the sight of celebrities mingling with the hoi-polloi (as, indeed, it should be), Higgs remarks the Romantic’s unusual ability “to reach across society” (p.3) before focussing on his relationship with the English Beat writer, Brian Barritt, who stimulated his interest in Blake. Standing before Blake’s grave, Higgs has a revelation or vision, that he sees the golden thread that connects the engraver, writer and artist to our own age. For him, it is clear that the Beats form an important strand in that thread, bound through in the next chapter when he discusses the influence of Blake on Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Patti Smith. There has been a huge amount of interest in Blake and the Age of Aquarius in recent years – not least Linda Freedman’s William Blake and the Myth of America and Stephen Eisenman’s edited collection William Blake and the Age of Aquarius. Higgs clearly feels this connection strongly, but this is his entry point, the doorway to Blake’s influence: as he wrily remarks – “The 1960s were a long time ago… We are in a very different world now.” (p.15)
The relevance of Blake to now emerges in the following two essays. In some respects, the first of these – entitled, simply, “London” – is the most important. The Song of Experience is famously one of the most profound poems ever written on the city, and Higgs’s personal reflections on that poem lead him into a discussion of Englishness and national identity in which, amidst the divided Britain of Brexit, both remain and leave may be contraries of a personal character: “if you don’t have love for your home and neighbours, then any proclamation of love for those further away is suspect… if you condemn groups of strangers far away, then how true is your love for your home and neighbours really?” (pp.22-3) It is an optimistic vision of a division too often defined by rancour, but in the end both contraries must learn that opposition is true friendship if this island is ever to be more than a disunited kingdom.
The following chapter, “Blake Now”, is one for my blushes as my own observations on the froth of Blakespotting (a favourite activity of mine) form the basis for a multiplicity of scattered references to the poet and artist in computer games, films and social media. For Higgs, such sightings are rarely more than superficial: for my part, I delight in such superficiality as well as the deep struggles with Blake’s meaning, but this is one of those points where it feels I am reading (and mentally conversing with) an old friend, making the book a very personal delight. The following two chapters, as with so much of the book, are very personal and insightful considerations on the topics of understanding Blake and remembering him. The former returns once more to Blake’s grave, and the words of Bruce Dickinson as an example that “understanding Blake is not knowledge that you possess but an activity that you undertake” (p.34). The notion of a Blakean praxis or activity is one that is not pursued enough: after thirty years of studying Blake, I am never entirely sure that I understand the strange and wonderful visions that he wrote, engraved and painted, but I feel most profoundly that from those studies I have joyfully learned the error that comes when “you see with, not through, the eye”.
“On Being Remembered” dealswith the vagaries of reception and influence, particularly through the works of artists such as Tracey Emin who invoked Blake in her 2017 retrospective. Certainly his influence is much more wide-reaching than that of much more famous contemporaries, perhaps precisely because he is so difficult to possess as knowledge rather than practice. As a primary artist of imagination, the subject of the following essay, Blake has led many writers, artists and filmmakers to pursue their own vision – to create their own systems rather than be enslaved by others – and Higgs ends his collection with a wonderfully idiosyncratic reflection of a visionary experience of his own on Primrose Hill. It is London that perhaps resonates most with him; certainly it is the poem he returns to, tracing the protests of Extinction Rebellion and the opening of the London Olympics to the vision of London that appeared in Songs of Experience. Blake, perhaps more than anyone, with his profound insights into perception, art, spirituality and politics, “has prepared us for the world we find ourselves in.” (69)
John Higgs, William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019. 79pp. £5.99.