A short piece on William Blake’s “To Spring” from Poetical Sketches.
There have been many re-interpretations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly its first part, Inferno, since the poet wrote his vision of heaven and hell in the early fourteenth century. As well as influencing writers as diverse as T. S. Eliot, Osip Mandelstam and Jorge Luis Borges, it has inspired classical (Puccini, Liszt) and popular (Nine Circles, Depeche Mode) music, video games – most notably Dante’s Inferno (2010) – and has been illustrated repeatedly by an infernal army of artists, most notably Gustave Doré, Salvador Dali and, of course, William Blake.
The connection between Blake and Dante is explored in a particularly fascinating way in a new comic written by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson and illustrated by Kyle Charles, Dee Cunniffe and Ryan Ferrier. Entitled Her Infernal Descent, the series – the first episode of which, “Denial”, was released this week – charts the journey of a lonely widow into hell to find her family. We find the, as-yet-unnamed, protagonist in her home, void of the life once given to the place by her husband and children but full of the detritus of material that reminds her of them. She herself is ageing, visibly sinking into despondency and unable to rouse herself from the deadening effects of loss, and the opening pages have been noted by several reviewers for the simplicity and beauty of their engagement with an all-too ordinary form of grief.
It is five pages in, after a beautifully illustrated montage of her climbing into an attic to pack away yet more mundane stuff of finished lives, that she encounters the figure who will be the spirit guide on her future journey: William Blake. In a reverse scene of that in Alan Moore’s From Hell, when William Gull (Moore’s Jack the Ripper) appears as a ghost to Blake and inspires the original The Ghost of a Flea, Blake rears up before her in the attic space to tell her that he has spoken to her family in hell and that she now has the opportunity to accompany him there. Sceptical at first, she soon succumbs to his prophetic charms (as so many of us do) and lets him lead her out into the dreamlike streets that soon transform into a portal into the underworld.
All the reviews I’ve read have been extremely positive, and in general I can see why. The artwork is delicate and reminiscent of the work of Dave McKean and Eddie Campbell in particular. While I am less impressed by the writing than some, for reasons I’ll outline below, nonetheless the topic is wonderful in its scope, especially as it combines the descent into hell with such a mundane sense of an ordinary woman’s life. It’s not quite the first graphic novel version: Joseph Lanzara’s Dante’s Inferno (2012) made use of Doré’s art in a frankly derivative fashion while Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory (2004) is a much more original take. Her Infernal Descent is very much in the latter category, and for this reason alone is a worthy example of the inclusion of Blake – as well as Dante – in a long line of comic-book adaptations.
While this version is extremely admirable for so many reasons, however, its depiction of Blake is one with which I can’t quite connect. The initial appearance of Blake bears a resemblance to that of Eddie Campbell’s in From Hell, yet is more gaunt, rather like a spectral Nick Cave. That connection would be admirable enough, but throughout the comic it was a slight irritation to me that this was not my Blake as I so often imagine him based on a series of paintings and drawings of the artist during his lifetime. This, however, was much less of an issue than his tendency to speak in rhyming couplets: William Blake was not necessarily averse to such couplets – they appear, most notably, throughout Auguries of Innocence – but the form is actually a relatively rare one for Blake. After meeting him and before deciding to go along for the ride, the protagonist asks him, “Are you gonna be rhyming the whole time?” and, I’m afraid, I felt her pain, as in such lines as the following:
You should be assured hell is as real as the great human spirit.
This offer only comes once, or be cast aside if thou fear it.
This example (admittedly one of the worst in the issue) appears to be attempting to emulate both Blake’s fourteeners from epic poems such as Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion as well as the heroic couplets of the Augustan age. Frankly, it doesn’t work, not least because the rhythm (something that Blake was a thorough master of at his very best) is all utterly irregular and thus fails to scan effectively.
Somewhat less egregious, but also mildly annoying to me, are some weird decisions – probably factual errors – on the part of the writers of Her Infernal Descent: Blake talks about the loss of his son throughout the issue, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was not a profound if obscure reference to Tristanne Connolly’s work on Catherine Blake’s miscarriage in William Blake and the Body (a hypothesis that was never widely known) as a simple mistake for the death of Blake’s brother, Robert. Likewise, when the pair first descend into hell, Blake greets the classical writers Plato, Aristotle, Ovid and Homer as those figures “from whom the word of power I glean”. While this line strictly refers to a pseudo-occult power that Blake as psychopomp possesses in the comic, the notion that Blake the man would have given such reverence to classical authors – whom he so memorably attacks in the Preface to Milton a Poem – is inaccurate.
And yet, despite these criticisms, Her Infernal Descent is a wonderful book. I am most certainly not the target audience for a graphic novel of this kind and, the occasional very poor poetic couplet aside, most of my criticisms above are nitpicking or subjective responses. Above all else, the fact that the authors decided that William Blake should replace Virgil as the archetypal guide to the underworld is a brilliant conceit, demonstrating a deft understanding of pop culture appropriations of Blake that generally work. I doubt that many readers with at least a passing understanding of the Romantic’s poetry would question his suitability as a spiritual guide, and although this first issue essentially sets the scene for further encounters I wonder how much of Blake’s antinomian visions of hell will percolate through future episodes of the comic.
Her Infernal Descent is published by AfterShock, aftershockcomics.com, RRP $3.99 or £2.49.
Will Franken’s Red White & Blake begins with the rather wonderful warning that “No Blake scholars were consulted in the making of this motion picture”. As an ostensible Blake scholar, that offends me much less than it delights me, especially as Franken – who has made his reputation as a comedian but who studied English literature in the USA before coming to Britain – is clearly familiar with a wide range of Blake scholarship alongside the works of Blake himself. Franken demonstrated this last year when he was the winner of the Blake Society’s 2017 Tithe Grant for a wonderful letter he wrote as though addressed by Blake to Samuel Palmer, and Red White & Blake is Franken’s own personal love letter to the engraver and to the country in which he lived.
Written and directed by Franken, and produced by Scott Ambrose, Red White & Blake is organised into four sections based on the four zoas, the first segment in this documentary opens with Tharmas as a guiding light to discussion of theology. Franken begins with the typical (although superseded – at least with regard to James Blake) view that the artist’s parents were Dissenters before expressing surprise that they baptised their son in a Church of England service. He does follow this with a concise summary of some aspects of Protestant Christianity on the Continent and in England, and his discussion of the tenets of Christianity is liberally interspersed with readings from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, such as “The Garden of Love” and “The Little Vagabond”, before focussing on the works of Emmanuel Swedenborg, noting the importance of the Swedish mystic’s influence on Blake in such works as “The Divine Image”. More important, however, is Blake’s split from Swedenborg, explored in considerable detail as Franken moves through The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the presenter deserves a huge amount of praise for spending so much time exploring Blake’s religious beliefs in such a sincere fashion.
While I don’t agree with all points that Franken makes, he is generally sophisticated and subtle in his thought, expecting the viewer to keep up with all aspects of his theological speculation and drawing attention, among other things, to the fact that Blake’s voice is to be distinguished from that of the devil in The Marriage. Perhaps his most astute comment is when he points out (in the section on Urizen) that for many contemporary Blake fans a difficulty lies in the fact that the artist was a devout (if idiosyncratic) Christian. The attempt to erase a controversial aspect of Blakean thought demonstrates a failure of vision on the part of many contemporary readers and, by focussing on politics and failing to address religion, we do Blake a great disservice.
In the second section on Urizen (slavery), Franken begins with Blake’s desire to create his own artistic system, as well as his mythological framework. This leads quickly into an explanation of Albion’s division into the Four Zoas as the model for England. Franken interprets Urizen as the devil rather than God the Father (that role being reserved for Tharmas). While facile Blakean criticism tends to observe that Urizen is depicted like traditional images of God in heaven, Franken draws upon The [First] Book of Urizen (among others) to develop his argument, a reading of Blake that shows he really knows the scholarship. As demiurge, Urizen is both the first slave and first slave-master and this sophisticated exegesis is one of my favourite parts of the documentary.
After this, the film moves on to explicit considerations of slavery in the late eighteenth century via “The Little Black Boy” and then America, but the focus is the mental self-enslavement that Britons were mastering in the age of reason, as well as the effects of the growth of urbanisation and industrialisation on England’s green and pleasant lands. As such, the argument is generally very sophisticated for such a documentary, following through mental slavery via British empiricism.
The third section, on Luvah (liberty) is the most explicitly political section of the film, again circling around The Marriage against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Franken follows this with an account of Blake’s arrest and trial for sedition in Felpham, which is generally good on the background, though there is the occasional mistake, such as his assertion that coffee houses at the time of the Civil War contributed to the death of the king, whereas the first ones did not open in London until after the execution of Charles I. Nonetheless, throughout this section – as in the film as a whole – there is some vibrant context for the background of Blake’s thoughts, for example in the writings of Thomas Paine as one of the inspirations for the American War of Independence.
The effects of the American and French Revolutions are fed through to Blake’s mythology, and this is another example of how Franken does not relent with regard to his expectations on the viewer’s concentration. One example is the thread that contrasts a good Satan versus the bad Satan in America (Urizen/God versus Orc/Jesus) – this is only true in part and, since Northrop Frye, many scholars have tended to view the relations between Urizen and Orc as more dialectical than Franken suggests here. Nonetheless, this is a question of emphasis and what cannot be doubted is his extensive knowledge of Blake’s, quoted throughout the documentary with passion. Following the section on America, there is a consideration of the effects of the French Revolution, as reflected in Blake’s poem of the same name – a segment which offers Franken the clearest means to focus on a straight history of the Revolution as well as the reaction of Romantics generally against Napoleon as emperor.
The final section on Urthona as Contrary returns once more to Blake’s death as it had at the very beginning of the film, and focuses on imagination as the Holy Spirit, a pentacostal view of Christianity which is dynamic and constantly changing, an act of prophecy and – in Blake’s hands – of art. This section deals with one of Blake’s most difficult books, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, especially as this leads us on to an understanding of Los, who Franken calls “the bridge between the here and the hereafter”, the prophetic alter-ego of Blake. As with the rest of Franken’s documentary, he emphasises the importance of religion to Blake’s world view (via a fascinating detour through psychology as a means to secularise prophetic vision in a segment that seems to owe a great deal to another fan of Blake’s work, R. D. Laing).
The reading of contemporary psychoanalysis through the lens of Blake’s works is fascinating, but is followed by, for me at least, a considerably more contentious segment that treats social justice as a justification for racial victimisation and views of toxic masculinity that turns into an attack on feminism. Strictly speaking, Franken is determined to specify that his complaint is with “third-wave feminism” (which is never defined with as much care as given, say, to various theories of the Enlightenment). Throughout this section, there are moments when Franken seems to be on the verge of offering a potentially more critical view of Blake’s own views of gender and sexuality, but in the end this is elided rather than fully addressed. While I understand that Franken is concerned to oppose what he sees as liberal forms of totalitarianism – particularly ones which deny freedom of speech in the name of liberality (a clear contradiction) – the reason I feel that he is misusing Blake at this point is because, with regards to race and gender in particular, discrimination is unfortunately not historical but alive and well. At his best, Blake attacks the powerful and while there are plenty of hypocrites who make a living from identifying themselves as victims, there are too many women who are paid less and people of colour who are discriminated against. I was painfully reminded at this point of the documentary of a Blake scholar who told me how much she loves Blake until those moments when he makes such observations as: “In a wife I would desire / What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire” (E474). Blake – rightly – does not desire us to read his words as holy writ, and when he is wrong we should engage him in mental fight just as he fought with Milton.
Franken seeks to avoid the worst excesses of his own argument via a very good point regarding negations versus contraries – the former, says Blake, should be destroyed whereas the latter lead to the true heaven of Eden. This is a difficult argument at the best of times, and interestingly the documentary breaks down formally at this point, becoming more than a little incoherent as I suspect that Franken really is struggling with his argument. He attempts to illustrate it via a terrorist who ends the discussion, with it the discussion then being taken up in a pub (hints of “The Little Vagabond”), and his conclusion moves towards the notion that the individual must set up against a contrary against all authoritarian elites, whether religious, fascist or liberal. His model at this point is as much Monty Python’s Flying Circus which was Franken’s entry point into a vision of Albion alongside that of William Blake.
There is much in this documentary that deserves high praise: Franken is clearly enthusiastic about Blake, and his emphasis on Blake’s religion is very well made – contemporary scholars who try to secularise Blake in their own image do the poet and artist a great disservice. He is particularly good when it comes to contextualising Blake in terms of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and there is more than a passing familiarity with the work of figures such as Kant, Leibniz, Spinoza and Locke among others. His final conclusion that Blake is a “radical Christian patriot” is, however, a more ambivalent one for me: as one of those scholars not consulted – rightly – by Franken, I have spent a great many years considering what Blake’s national and (to a lesser degree) what his religious vision mean. There is a potentially dangerous tendency at the end of Franken’s love letter to Albion for him to indulge in what George Orwell identified as the worst elements of nationalism – fear (or at least disdain) of the other – rather than the best aspects of patriotism – love of what we hold dearest. Franken’s exuberance and enthusiasm cannot be doubted, but nor should it ever be forgotten that the radical Christian patriot who is his subject was also the one who wrote:
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.
Without contraries is no progression, but we should never forget – as too many contrarians do – that a negation is not the same thing, seeking only to squash and oppress that it disdains.
Red White & Blake is now available on Amazon Instant Video and is free for Prime subscribers, or costs from £7.99 to purchase.
March ended with something of a bang in terms of Blakespotting, with the public unveiling of the new arrangement of Team England’s theme for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Recorded by Tokio Myers, the current champion of Britain’s Got Talent, and The Voice star and Commonwealth silver medallist, Jazmin Sawyers, their new version of Parry’s “Jerusalem” attracted a huge amount of attention during the month. As well as having a remarkable voice, Sawyers (who won silver in the Glasgow 2014 games) also attended the 2018 events to participate in the long jump. Team England announced the version mid March, and the British newspapers carried a fairly typical series of stories, with plenty of explanations as to why the song is performed instead of “God Save the Queen” and, my personal favourite, The Sun explaining why “This is… the right anthem for England“. If you haven’t heard it already, the link to the new version appears below.
The exhibition at Petworth House, William Blake in Sussex, continued to attract attention in March. There is a straightforward notice in The Argus and I shall note my own review of the exhibition and catalogue. The highest recommendation, however, is for an extremely thoughtful review by Esther Chadwick is available at Apollo Magazine, in which Chadwick also notes how Blake “was drawn to the patron of [his] strange work”, A Vision of the Last Judgement. Certainly the National Trust attracted a great deal of attention for the event, with it being sold out on the day that we attended and showing off Blake to his best effects.
In other news, Eric G. Wilson, a professor at Wake Forest University, published a collection of stories, Polaris Ghost, which offers the intriguing claim to connect “the dots between William Blake and David Lynch”. It’s available on sale now and in the near(ish) there will be a review on Zoamorphosis, along with another book published in January but only recently available in the UK, Jeremy Limn’s The Auguries of Lost Lilacs. The Scoundrel & Scamp stage in Tucson, Arizona, also saw a performance of Mickle Maher’s 2011 comedy, There is a Happiness that Morning Is, in which two lovers and academics give their views of life as based on the work of William Blake. Kathleen Allen of the Arizona Daily Star called it a “stellar production.”
In music, Englabörn & Variations by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, was released on 23 March and includes a version of the poem “Holy Thursday” on its second disc. Jóhannsson was famous for his film work, having composed the score for The Theory of Everything as well as a number of movies by Denis Villeneuve and had tragically died, aged 48, in February. Englabörn had originally been recorded in 2002 as his first solo album, and so the re-release with additional material (including the Blake track) was the first record to be issued after his death. “Holy Thursday” is particularly beautiful and makes his sudden death even more poignant. You can listen to it at Spotify.
The end of the month also saw the announcement of a new exhibition to open in April at the Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, New York State, featuring a local artist, Rockwell Kent. Kent is not an artist I have been familiar with, but apparently studied Blake alongside Nietzsche and his politics and private mores “scandalized family, friends and adversaries” according to a preview in The Post Star. While his work has passed me by so far, one image that has been used to publicise the exhibition – Flame – is so clearly Blakean in its inspiration that my own curiosity has been stimulated to explore his works more fully. The show, the first comprehensive one since 1974 after his death in 1971, opens on Sunday 8 April and runs until July 22.
With The Frankenstein Chronicles available on Netflix, now is an opportunity to catch up with a series that first aired on ITV in 2015 and then followed up with a second series which was filmed in 2017. For those who haven’t seen it yet, the plot follows Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) as he seeks to discover the author of a grisly series of child murders which have resulted in an attempt to create artificial life from the sewn-together body parts. The first series received a considerable amount of critical praise and, while a little foolish in some places, is also clever enough and certainly entertaining enough to deserve a repeat viewing.
Rather than a review of the first series (the only one I’ve been able to watch so far), here I’ll concentrate on three particular ways in which The Frankenstein Chronicles weaves Blake into its story. Set in 1827, the series draws upon a number of historical figures, such as Robert Peel, Ada Byron and, of course, Mary Shelley. Blake makes an appearance in episode 2, “Seeing Things”, when Marlott visits the home of the dying engraver following the discovery of an illuminated poem from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Marlott has found this in the room of a young woman who has been set up as a prostitute by the hardened street criminal, Billy Oates, and sees the name of Blake on the print.
The episode with Blake is the most obvious allusion in the series, although to me the most annoying (this is where knowing too much about your subject really interferes with the willing suspension of disbelief). Steven Berkoff actually gives a fine performance as Blake on his deathbed, avoiding what I call the tendency towards “shouty Blake” which rather dominates television depictions of the poet (all loud declamations because prophets are always, well, loud). Nonetheless, while avoiding the worst excesses of presenting “mad” Blake as well, the wide-eyed staring prophet surrounded by a crowd of gloomy, chanting crowd (presumably intended as either the Shoreham Ancients or members of the millennarian Irvingite sect to which Frederick Tatham and, probably, Catherine Blake later belonged – or a combination of both) is very far from much of what I understand about Blake’s final hours. Certainly the environment at 3 Fountain Court was squalid according to a number of Blake’s friends, for the Blakes were poor, but even in declining health his spirits seem to have been buoyant. As well as working on his illustrations to Dante, he was colouring up a final impression of The Ancient of Days (for which, according to Alexander Gilchrist, Tatham had generously paid him three and a half guineas), announcing before he died: “There! That will do, I cannot mend it.”
Gilchrist records the final hours as follows:
In that plain, back room, so dear to the memory of his friends, and to them beautiful from association with him — with his serene cheerful converse, his high personal influence, so spiritual and rare — he lay chaunting Songs to Melodies, both the inspiration of the moment, but no longer as of old to be noted down. To the pious Songs followed, about six in the summer evening, a calm and painless withdrawal of breath ; the exact moment almost unperceived by his wife, who sat by his side. A humble female neighbour, her only other companion, said afterwards: “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.”
Gilchrist also preserved the record of J. T. Smith:
“On the day of his death,” writes Smith, who had his account from the widow, “he composed and uttered songs to his Maker, so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine, that when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said, ‘My beloved! they are not mine. No – they are not mine!’ He told her they would not be parted; he should always be about her to take care of her.”
The Frankenstein Chronicles, then, misses much of the real affection between Blake and Catherine (although, to be fair, Catherine’s very brief cameo bringing tea to Marlott is nicely done). I also wish that the house of the prophet could capture a little more the humour of an engraver who mocked his friend John Varley while composing visionary heads, the rumbustious laughter of An Island in the Moon, or the laid back account of dinner with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I know that “shouty” Blake certainly existed, but too few people seem to get funny Blake, gentle Blake, which is a great shame to me.
The appearance of Mary Shelley was a laugh out loud moment (stretching Blake’s slender acquaintance with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft to the extreme) but was clearly necessary to the plot and it was pleasant enough to see Blake the man as a crucial turning point in the narrative. More significant, however, are the other ways in which Blake has influenced The Frankenstein Chronicles both within the story and in terms of other formal qualities. The appearance “The Little Girl Lost” is a wonderful addition (especially with two verses read in Sean Bean’s inestimably rich tones), while Lyca’s name serves as another influential plot element. The scene when the missing girl, Alice Evans, is superimposed on Lyca from the poem is a delightful moment of Blakean vision.
Even more fascinating, however, is the use of Blake’s fictional Book of Prometheus, both within the narrative and as a visual background to the show’s opening credits. Prometheus only appears once in all of Blake’s writings, as an annotation to Boyd’s Historical Notes on Dante in which he remarks rather inauspiciously: “the grandest Poetry is Immoral the Grandest characters Wicked. Very Satan. Capanius Othello a murderer. Prometheus. Jupiter. Jehovah, Jesus a wine bibber”. The link is, of course, to connect Blake to Mary Shelley’s “Modern Prometheus” (the subtitle of Frankenstein), and while Blake himself preferred Satan as the arch rebel (in contrast to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who rejected Satan in preference of the Titan as the hero of Prometheus Unbound), it was with absolute fascination that I observed how plates and images from works as diverse as Milton a Poem and The Ghost of a Flea were incorporated into this arcane grimoire. What is particularly fascinating is that Tatham, as Blake’s literary executor, is reputed to have destroyed a number of the engraver’s works that offended his more conventional religious sensibilities. The creators of the programme have almost certainly picked up on this and appropriated Blake’s mythical “Bible of Hell” to their Promethean ends.
The Frankenstein Chronicles is available on Netflix.
In 1800, William and Catherine Blake left London and moved to the village of Felpham, in Sussex. The previous years in the capital had not been kind to them and as they left the city they were filled with optimistic hopes that a new life on the south coast of England awaited them, near to Blake’s new patron, the liberal poet William Hayley. Three years later, demoralised by his labours for Hayley and regular illnesses that afflicted Catherine in their damp cottage, disaster struck when Blake was caught up in an argument with a soldier, John Scolfield, and was tried for using “seditious and treasonous expressions” against the King. No longer a place of opportunity, the Blakes returned to London much chastened.
And yet Blake’s time in Sussex did mark a series of new beginnings. It was during his three years in Felpham that he composed the beginnings of his most ambitious illuminated books, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, in particular apparently writing the lines that would, a century after his death, become the hymn “Jerusalem”. Likewise, this was an opportunity for new experiments in tempera painting and, via acquaintances with many of Hayley’s friends, including George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, and his mistress and then wife, Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont, Blake came to produce some of his most ambitious works, most notably A Vision of the Last Judgement.
It is works such as these, as well as the influence of the Sussex coast on Blake more generally, that are the subject of an exhibition at Petworth House, the stately home of the Earl and Countess of Egremont, William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion. Housed in the former servant’s quarters, the exhibition itself is not especially large but is extremely rich in terms of the objects collected there, bringing together a selection of Blake’s paintings and prints created during his time in Felpham or, as with the Last Judgement, produced for commission shortly after his return to London. Alongside these are examples of works collected by Egremont and his wife, such as two copies of The Book of Job and an illustration of The Characters in Spencer’s ‘Faerie Queene’, as well as works that drew on the Blakes time in a rural landscape and documents from the trial for sedition.
The exhibition, following on from similar ones for Turner and Constable, has proved to be very popular and, on the day that we visited, was sold out for the day with a steady stream of visitors to view the carefully curated and beautifully presented selection of works. It certainly works as a coherent collection and, in contrast to more typical settings alongside huge works in the “Grand Manner” that comprise the rest of the Petworth collection Blake’s work is not overwhelmed in sheer scale as would happen in more open settings. It is often a surprise when seeing works close up just how small they may appear compared to the vastness of Blake’s imagination: one delightful effect of this was to observe how visitors would lean into certain works, poring over the intricate details that bustle through Blake’s apocalyptic scenes.
While the Last Judgement is undoubtedly the star of the show, two other images particularly struck me because they are so rarely reproduced. The first, a hand-coloured print of Little Tom the Sailor, a ballad composed by Hayley and illustrated by Blake to raise funds for a local widow, is astonishing for a variety of reasons. Hayley’s poetry is, frankly, dreadful, and compares poorly to Blake’s own verse on innocence, and yet the illustrations for this ballad are vivid invocations of the style that the artist will return to in his woodcuts for the edition of The Pastorals of Virgil published by Robert J. Thornton in 1821 (also on display here). Similarly, The Fall of Man, a pen and ink and watercolour composition produced for Thomas Butts in 1807 is presented next to the more famous A Vision of the Last Judgement and is breath taking in its scope. Ostensibly depicting the moment of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden in the final book of Paradise Lost, it not only contains a complete history of that poem within its modestly-sized canvas, but also incorporates a truly radical interpretation of the biblical event. Whereas it is the angels who enact God’s will in barring Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in Milton’s version, Blake has a humane and kindly Christ lead them forth into the world as God the creator mirrors the posture of Satan in hell at the foot of the painting. Motifs of threatening animals prefigure the style that Blake will return to in his later illustrations to The Book of Job, and a particularly compelling detail that I have never noticed before in reproductions of this painting is the head of a king that rears up miserably from a pit beneath Satan’s backside. For all that he may have been cowed by the events of his trial, unlike many other Romantic artists Blake never turned his back on his revolutionary beliefs.
The accompanying catalogue, published by The National Trust and Paul Holberton Publishing with a foreword by the curator of the Petworth exhibition, Andrew Loukes, is an exceptional piece of work that brings together a number of excellent Blake scholars to contextualise Blake’s work in the light of his time in Sussex. I will quickly pass over my one slight gripe at the catalogue which is that its square format, while unusual, cannot do full justice to all of Blake’s images (most notably A Vision of the Last Judgement, although The Sea of Time and Space is the one image in the book that does benefit). Other than that, this is a book that deserves to be read by Blake experts and enthusiasts alike.
For the experts, with one exception this book does not especially present new scholarship. Much of the information contained here draws upon work begun by figures such as G. E. Bentley and continued in more recent years by writers such as Mark Crosby (also a contributor here) and Jonathan Roberts. For the more general reader, this is indicative that the quality of material is rooted in the grand body of Blake scholarship that has been generated in the past sixty years or so, and it is a real pleasure to me to think that a new generation of Blake admirers will have such a solid, clear introduction to the most significant aspects of post-war understanding of how the artist lived and worked.
Nor is my opening comment in the preceding paragraph regarding experts intended to be at all dismissive. The great task of a catalogue such as this is to ensure that the artist is understood and admired by as a wide an audience as possible, and William Blake in Sussex succeeds completely in this respect. However, even for Blake scholars the catalogue has an incredibly useful purpose, in that it repackages and recontextualises a considerable amount of Blake’s work in the light of his experiences in Sussex. For example, I have for many years written of the importance of Blake’s time at Felpham to his later prophetic works, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and Milton a Poem in particular: Blake’s three-year sojourn beside the sea appeared to fix in his mind the form of the giant Albion in a way that had not been clear to him in London. Alongside this I was aware, of course, of the commercial engravings he undertook for his patron, William Hayley, as well as some other important commissions such as the Last Judgement for Elizabeth Ilive. I had not, however, especially considered those other commissions he continued for his longstanding patron, Thomas Butts, a second series of biblical paintings, some of which were completed at Felpham and which are examined in considerable detail in this catalogue by Naomi Billingsley. Likewise, Mark Crosby’s and Martin Butlin’s reflections on Blake’s artistic development both as a theorist and as a watercolourist (as with his tempura “frescoes” of the poets’ heads that adorned Hayley’s library) was profound during his three years away from the capital. Felpham is a pause in Blake’s otherwise uninterrupted obsession with London, but one that transforms his art in important ways.
The break from London also modifies his practice in a way that is somewhat obliquely alluded to by some of the writers here: Naomi Billingsley observes that his time away from the capital resulted in a greater engagement with Christianity in Blake’s work, and though she does not explicitly make the link here, it is almost certainly the case that his removal from radical associates who lived and worked in London in the 1790s did somewhat soften some of his hardening attitudes to Christianity in particular, an observation that was first made by Jacob Bronowski and further developed by later commentators like David Worrall. Not that Blake could ever be fully de-radicalised: as Mark Crosby discusses at some length, Felpham is also important to Blake as the moment when he comes into clearest conflict with the crown, being arraigned at the Chichester Quarter Sessions in 1804 on charges of sedition, brought against him by Private John Scolfield. Alongside his worsening relations with Hayley, the trial – and eventual acquittal – of Blake marked a bleak ending to a sojourn that had begun with such high hopes.
Elsewhere in the catalogue, alongside reproductions of the works themselves, an essay by Hayley Flynn offers a delightful insight into how the experience of Felpham also bore fruit in Blake’s later pastoral visions, most notably his woodcuts for Thornton’s Virgil. For me the most original contribution (because drawing upon information of which I was not aware rather than because of the quality of its ideas) is Andrew Loukes’s piece on the Petworth collection of Blake’s works. As Loukes observes, the 3rd Earl of Egremont was an unusual collector, so that by “the 1820s it was possible to experience at Petworth a considerable body of works in this vein [the ‘Grand Manner’] by otherwise unfashionable artists, such as the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon and the sculptor John Carew.” (p. 47) It is because of Wyndham’s eclectic tastes that Petworth became the only major country house to hold works by Blake and, as both the catalogue and exhibition make clear, Sussex as a county has been all the better for it.
The exhibition Wiliam Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion continues at Petworth House until 25 March. The accompanying catalogue is now available, RRP £16.50.
Although a relatively quiet month on the Blake front, the arts saw a number of events and exhibitions that were inspired by William Blake in one form of another.
Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries is an exhibition of the artist’s work at Carnegie Mellon University, where Wilding formerly taught, as well as working with the cyberfeminist art collective subRosa. Quotes accompanying her impressive pieces draw upon a range of writers and artists, including Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and, unsurprisingly considering the exhibition’s title, William Blake. Her work, as Bill O’Driscoll points out, is frequently overtly political, and anyone in Pittsburgh will have a chance to see it throughout March before it continues on a national tour.
The artist Siggi Ámundason, whose large-scale pen drawings reference William Blake as well as eighties anime, Goya and Francis Bacon, displayed some of his work at the Kjarvalsstaðir Museum in Iceland: his work, part of a larger exhibition entitled “Tales of the Unseen”, will remain on display until April 22.
An exhibition on works inspired by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land also takes in William Blake as well as Paul Nash and Henry Moore as part of the eclectic mix of Eliot’s themes and inspirations, according to Hannah Luxton. “Journey’s with the Waste Land” is on display at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate until 7 May.
Film, stage and TV also had offered some intriguing snippets during February. While not directly inspired by Blake, the latest drama by Clio Barnard, Dark River, is a reminder that one of her previous short films, Lambeth MarshJoseph Walsh at the Financial Times, was so inspired. Dark River began an adaptation of Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass before evolving into a story of the aftermath of abuse in the English countryside, and indeed according to Blake’s poetry remains a source for the latest film.
Elsewhere on screen, Blake had a cameo from his death bed in the new TV series, The Frankenstein Chronicles: while, as Meghan O’Keefe observes, it is something of a stretch to say that Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft were firm friends, nonetheless his small part is a significant link in this entertaining show set in 1827 London.
A performance of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem at the Crow’s Theatre in Toronto drew enthusiastic reviews, as per this from Kelly Nestruck who declared it “pure theatre of the kind we rarely see”. Kim Coates, the Saskatoon-born actor best known for his work on Sons of Anarchy, plays the role of Rooster Byron and the play continues at the Crow’s Theatre until March 10.
February saw the 40th anniversary of Derek Jarman’s punk tribute, Jubilee: a long-time fan of Blake’s work (he dedicated the film to Blake along with many others of his heroes), Jarman’s nod to the Romantic poet in the movie includes a brilliant version of ‘Jerusalem’ by Amyl Nitrate which, while not as visually compelling as her version of Rule, Britannia, is still striking. As Adam Scovell noted in The Quietus, the film is “a time capsule” of the time when subcultures could afford to grow in England’s capital.
Musically, February saw the release of Shawn Colvin’s The Starlighter, which includes a version of Blake’s “Cradle Song”. Colvin, an American singer-songwriter best known for her 1997 Grammy-winning song, “Sunny Come Home”, discussed her music as part of the #MeToo movement with Michael Raver at The Huffington Post. We’ll be carrying a review of Starlighter at some not too distant point in the future.
Finally, the bizarrest Blake reference in February came from Ben Shapiro, who made the following, oddly compelling remark about Donald Trump:
I would buy an album of Trump reading the poetry of William Blake.
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) February 23, 2018
The Blakean new year began with a bang as an important exhibition opened at Petworth House in Sussex. Entitled William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion and organised by the National Trust, the owners of Petworth, this offers a rare opportunity to view some of the works created by Blake during his sojourn at Felpham in 1800-1803 and collected here together for the first time. Petworth itself, home of the 3rd Earl of Egremont when the Blakes were living nearby, has long housed the artist’s remarkable The Last Judgement which was commissioned by the Earl. Having opened on January 13, the exhibition will run until March 25 and opening reviews were exceptionally complimentary. The Guardian described him as “now revered as one of the greatest figures in literary and artistic history”, while The Times called it a “revelatory show”. For more information, including ticket prices, visit the National Trust web site.
For those seeking a more intimate insight into Blake’s life on the Sussex Coast, the National Trust is also offering brief visits to the cottage in Felpham where he and his wife lived. As the cottage is empty and awaiting renovation, there are only a few times that it is open to the public (on February 14, 21 and March 14). Twenty miles from Petworth, the trustees are clearly hoping that a number of visitors will take up this opportunity to explore more fully Blake’s time outside of London.
A less grand but, in many ways, rather wonderful exhibition is also running in Sheffield at the Graves’ Gallery, part of the public library in the city. William Blake: The Book of Job, brings together a later reprinting of his 1826 illustrations to Job, and is on display until March 3. In the United States, the William Blake Gallery, set up by the antiquarian book collector and owner of a huge selection of Blake-related works, John Windle, in San Francisco, also announced at the end of the month a new exhibition, BLAKE BOOKS: The Commercial Engravings of William Blake, A Tribute to Gerald E. Bentley, Jr. Opening on February 2, it will run until April 30.
Another exhibition covered here previously, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius at Northwestern Block Museum of Art, attracted an amusing review of its catalogue by Dominic Green at The Spectator. While slightly facetious in typical Spectator fashion, it also demonstrates a fine appreciation of some aspects of Blake’s reception, an artist “whose visionary voice continues to inspire each new generation”. Another contribution to his reception history is John Yau’s The Wild Children of William Blake, which explores ways in which Blake serves as a model for modern visions of the arts rather than necessarily as a direct source of inspiration. Published by Autonomedia, hopefully I’ll be reviewing it here once it becomes available in the UK. Finally, another new announcement for 2018 was that for the forthcoming publication of Her Infernal Descent by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson, illustrated by Kyle Charles. Published by AfterShock, the graphic novel will tell the story of a grieving mother’s descent to hell “guided by the spirits of William Blake and Agatha Christie” and looks to be one of the most original works inspired by Blake for some time.
In 1995, Philip Pullman published the first book in the trilogy, His Dark Materials. Set in an alternate-universe Oxford, Northern Lights told the story of Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry as they fought the machinations of the Magisterium, the equivalent of the Catholic Church in another dimension where there had been no Reformation nor any halt to its two-thousand-year expansion of power. Throughout the trilogy, Blake was quoted repeatedly, particularly with regard to the concept of Dust, and you can find some of my own reactions to his use of Blake in an earlier podcast.
With his new novel, La Belle Sauvage, the first title in a new trilogy called The Book of Dust, we are once more in the Oxford of Lyra, although now she is a young baby merely six months old. The story this time centres on an eleven-year-old boy, Malcolm Polstead, who works in a pub, The Trout, alongside the Thames and comes to learn of Lyra’s existence through a chance meeting with Lord Nugent, the former Lord Chancellor of England. Nugent has sought to place the young girl – daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter (familiar from the previous trilogy) – in the safe keeping of an order of nuns who live in Oxford. Through his work for the sisters, who are portrayed in a warm and generous light by Pullman (for his critique of organised religion is by no means blindly hostile), Malcolm becomes increasingly affectionate to Lyra and her daemon, seeking to protect her from the evil inclinations of those members of the Magisterium who wish to do her harm in order to hurt Lord Asriel. During this time, Malcolm also befriends a scholar, Hannah Relf, who has been inducted by Nugent into the secret society he heads, Oakley Street; Relf reads an alethiometer to discover events for the more liberal groups that Nugent represents. Less happily, at least to begin with, Malcolm’s acquaintances include the kitchen maid, Alice, who will become one of the real stars of the novel.
When the strange villain of the book, Gerard Bonneville, a crazed and sadistic scientist who has some understanding of the real nature of Dust, attempts to abduct Lyra, Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, flee the city along with Alice in his boat, La Belle Sauvage. A huge storm has flooded the Thames and surrounding areas, and when they flee southwards so the most important literary source for the novel – Homer’s Odyssey – comes to the fore, influencing a series of weird, visionary experiences along the way as when Malcolm and Alice encounter an island in the river whose inhabitants ignore them and the grim realities of their former lives that are hidden from view by an unearthly fog. In interviews accompanying the publication of the book, Pullman has also indicated that the unusual happenings along the Thames also take their inspiration from William Blake.
Before turning to the influence of Blake in more detail, some general observations on the novel are in order. A very simple observation is that for those readers who enjoyed His Dark Materials, on the whole they will almost certainly be pleased with La Belle Sauvage. It is, perhaps, a slower burn than the previous trilogy, and in comparison to Northern Lights it is worth observing that not a great deal happens. Indeed, a few readers on sites such as Goodreads have grumbled, not entirely without grounds, that this is a dull and slow book. That certainly wasn’t my experience of it, although my only criticism would be that it is very much a novel that is setting in place a number of pieces for the remaining trilogy. The end, when Malcolm and Alice finally meet Lord Asriel and hand over Lyra to him, is satisfactory enough but is very obviously not a moment of closure. Partly because of the allusions to The Odyssey, however, as well as the character of Bonneville, who is truly compelling (and disturbing) as a villain I personally found the novel much more entertaining than some other readers.
The critical reception of La Belle Sauvage has generally been very positive, with critics noting his literary influences (including a perceptive comment by Frank Cottrell Boyce regarding his struggles with C. S. Lewis). Sam Leith called it “a rich, dreamlike prequel well worth the wait”, a sentiment echoed by Claire Loughrey, and Stuart Kelly forgives Pullman the literary lectures in Daemon Voices because the first volume of The Book of Dust is so good.
A number – although by no means all – critics mention Blake. The influence throughout the novel is more subtle: with His Dark Materials, the full build-up to the war in heaven and a Blakean re-reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost took some time, but there were quotations and direct references that made Pullman’s debt to Blake very clear. This is not the case in La Belle Sauvage – the influence, rather, is implicit in elements such as Dust (which, as he made clear throughout the earlier trilogy, took direct inspiration from Blake’s poetry) and the resistance to organised religion. Upon first reading, my own assumption was that Blake had been relegated in importance, but repeatedly in interviews Pullman draws attention to Blake. Thus, for example, he told Time magazine “in William Blake’s terms I’m a proponent of two-fold, three-fold and four-fold vision and not single vision,” a notion repeated in his NPR interview. As such, Blake becomes a principle support for Pullman’s metaphysics, one where imagination provides the ability to re-vision the world around us as a matter of course.
The essays collected together in Daemon Voices are, as the editor, Simon Mason observes in his introduction, very varied. Comprising thirty of a hundred and twenty or so that Pullman has written over the years, this collection does contain a substantial insight into his understanding of Blake. The romantic poet and artist is scattered throughout the book, especially in the various discussions of His Dark Materials, but the very best essay in the collection – originally published in The Guardian in 2014 – is Pullman’s discussion of Blake’s influence over a period of fifty years. “Soft Beulah’s Night: William Blake and Vision” begins with a wonderful evocation of Pullman attempting (and failing) to locate copies of Blake’s work in Merionethshire after reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (the fact that he was able to track down Ginsberg in the coastal resort of Barmouth but not Blake speaks volumes). When he finally encountered the Dent Everyman selection of poems edited by Ruthven Todd, thus began a deep affection for the poet which is probably the most significant of all those affecting Pullman:
That was fifty years ago. My opinions about many things have come and gone, changed and changed about, since then; I have believed in God, and then disbelieved; I have thought that certain writers and poets were incomparably great, and gradually found them less and less interesting, and finally commonplace… But those first impulses of certainty about William Blake have never forsaken me, though I may have been untrue to them from time to time. Indeed, they have been joined by others, and I expect to go on reading Blake, and learning more, for as long as I live. (pp. 342-3)
This essay also provides a key to unlock La Belle Sauvage, discussing as it does the profoundly materialist nature of consciousness which Pullman garnered from that visionary materialist, William Blake, whose prologue to Europe a Prophecy includes the line “every particle of dust breathes forth its joy”. Likewise, it is from Blake that the later author draws his own conception of fourfold vision, the ability to view not with single, rational vision but to overlay all the faculties of our empathy and imagination.
The second essay on Blake, “I Must Create A System: A Moth’s-Eye View of William Blake”, is less compelling, mainly because it is a transcript of a talk given to the Blake Society and is one of those pieces that would be infinitely more pleasurable to hear than to read. Nonetheless, again and again Pullman demonstrates his deep and thoughtful relation with Blake, offering keen insights as when he notes that Blake was not a Gnostic, not infected with that religious sect’s despair against the natural world. Indeed, it is through such engagement with Blake that we come towards another important element of Pullman’s relationship with the earlier poet, one evident in the title. Pullman’s conceit of daemons, animal spirits that materialise the psyche of each character in his alternate world, draws much of its power from another text by Blake, one intimately bound up with the animal world and which Pullman refers to repeatedly. Auguries of Innocence, perhaps the first true poem dealing with animal rights and man’s indebtedness to the animal world, at least in the west, becomes the second key that opens the doors onto the world of Philip Pullman’s fiction. It may be, indeed, that he wishes to use Blake’s advice to create a system that will free him from organised religion and repressive science, but it is also important that the system he seeks to create can see a conscious, living world of energy and joy in every particle of dust, in every grain of sand.
La Belle Sauvage and Daemon Voices are both published by David Fickling books and are available for RRP £20.
Although December was a fairly quiet month in comparison to November, it did begin with a significant event around a new exhibition dedicated to Blake’s influence on the 1960s counterculture at the Northwester Block Museum of Art. While there had been related events running from September, December 1 saw the formal opening of the exhibition with a panel discussing Blake’s impact on 1960s artists and pop culture at Northwestern, discussing exhibits that included more than 130 paintings, drawings and photographs by artists for whom Blake was a significant inspiration. The installation has already begun to attract some very favourable reviews, such as these by the Huffington Post and Third Coast Review, while I’ll be including a review of the catalogue for the exhibition some time in the near future.
The critical reception of U2’s Songs of Experience, covered in last month’s Blakespotting, has been more mixed but that’s not entirely surprising for one of the largest bands in the world. Kitty Empire at The Guardian dismissed it as “an insipid try-hard”, and Carl Wilson agreed that the band was “trying hard” – another example of damning with faint praise. Kristopher Smith was somewhat more optimistic, although he seemed more impressed by the fact the “band has stuck together for forty-one years” than by the music itself, though David Fricke at Rolling Stone called it their best album in a long time and Alexis Petridis named it album of the week. The most bruisingly dismissive subheading came from Fiona Shepherd’s review for The Scotsman: “Inoffensive stadium fillers abound as U2 opt for positivity, love and broad-brush political sentiments”. Lacklustre reviews didn’t prevent the album debuting at no. 1 on the Billboard 200. My own review deals more with the references to Blake’s work, although I would also recommend In Search of Rock Gods for a very detailed posting on that subject.
In other musical news, Femmes Vocales performed Blake’s “The Lamb” as set to music by John Tavener at Heemskerkse on December 17 and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin announced a new album, The Starlighter, with a track based on Blake’s “Cradle Song”, while President Trump’s announcement that he would move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem prompted a rather odd set of reflections on the Blake-Parry hymn by Warwick McFadyen.
Artistic events in December included an exhibition and presentation at the Mullins Library at the University of Arkansas, where Amanda White gave a demonstration of some of the materials used by Blake to prepare his illuminated books. In New York, a solo exhibition by John Davies on The British Landscape opened at L Parker Stephenson Photographs, including retrospective materials from his 1987 collection, Green and Pleasant Land. Back in the UK, prior to the winter solstice three fairies, designed by David Gosling and loosely based on Blake’s dancing figures, made their appearance at the Rollright Stones in Wiltshire.
And last, but by no means least for fans of Sonic Youth guitarist and vocalist Kim Gordon, there was a chance to see the 2015 German horror movie The Nightmare if you were in Seattle – of note because Gordon plays a literature teacher with an affinity for William Blake. There’s no Blakeana, but you can see the trailer below.