Blake, Albion and the EU, or, don’t use “Jerusalem” to support Brexit

As I get back into the swing of things with all things Blakean, so the following exchange popped up on Twitter:

For the past few days, while searching through various bits and pieces to share with people, inevitably I’ve also come across ones¬†like the following:



There are plenty of these. Ah, as George Orwell nearly wrote, there’s never so fine a sight as¬†old maids¬†cycling to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning, past the placard-waving Little Englanders wishing to keep the foreigners out.

Generally, I simply ignore tweets such as the second, but (as so often happens with invocations of the Blake/Parry hymn) my blood gently simmers when I see “Jerusalem” being so employed. In the interest of a little fact checking, I’d just like to offer the following brief corrective to those who see Blake’s words at least as a support for xenophobic nationalism (and, yes, I do realise that impugns many who have more solid arguments regarding leaving the EU, but – to repeat my title – don’t invoke “Jerusalem” to support Brexit).

First, it should be noted that Blake wrote the famous stanzas from¬†Milton, later set to music by Parry, in 1804, including them in his Preface to that epic poem. On the remote chance that there’s someone who hasn’t heard those words¬†on this side of the planet in the past thirty seconds, here they are again:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

(From David Erdman, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, pages 95-6)

I shall not engage here in a complex and (for me at least) fascinating discussion of what those words could mean, but I simply wish to point out that in the January of the year he wrote those words Blake was tried for sedition at Chichester. You can read a very good account of it on the Blake Society web site, but here I’ll just repeat the charge that was reported by the¬†Sussex Advertiser:

William Blake, an engraver at Felpham, was tried on a charge exhibited against him by two soldiers, for having uttered seditious and treasonable expressions, such as ‘D‚ÄĒn the King, d‚ÄĒn all his subjects, d‚ÄĒn his soldiers, they are all slaves; when Bonaparte comes, it will be cut-throat for cut-throat, and the weakest must go the wall; I will help him; &c. &c.’

Now, Blake was found not guilty of this and other remarks, and it is clear that the soldier involved in the altercation with the engraver at his cottage in Felpham was making things up. However, it has never ceased to amaze me that of all the people in the village that the soldier came up against, the two with the most radical sympathies were William Blake and his wife, Catherine. Statements such as “the weakest must go the wall” are completely antithetical to Blake’s notions, but while he seemed no fan of Napoleon (writing in his commentary on Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, “Let us teach Buonaparte & whomsoever else it may concern That it is not Arts that follow & attend upon Empire[s] but Empire[s] that attends upon & follows [wherever Art leads]”) he remained for all his life profoundly influenced by the promise of the¬†French Revolution. No turncoat he, unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and plenty of others.

If there is a slim possibility that the lines “And did those feet” were written by a shamefaced Blake, cowed into demonstrating his nationalism because he was so nearly caught out, even the most cursory reading of¬†Milton and¬†Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion would show that to be false. In the Preface in which the stanzas appear, he inveighs against those who ¬†would “for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War”. Now, it is worth pointing out that Blake had little time for university academics such as myself (who he saw as warmongers as much as anyone), and the contrarian nature of a man who believed that “without Contraries is no progression” could easily be invoked by UKIP-ers and Brexiters who see themselves as bravely fighting the consensus – and, hell, when banks, foreign premiers, and just about the rest of the world seems to line up against you, it’s hard to suggest that you are doing anything other than fighting the consensus. I should also point out that, while disagreeing with the Brexit position, I really am not a person who believes that something is right because everyone appears to say it is right. All I ask is don’t bloody use Blake to fight your corner.

William Blake, as anyone with more than a passing interest in him knows, wrote a lot about Albion. In¬†Jerusalem he writes that¬†‚ÄúAll things Begin & End in Albions Ancient Druid Rocky Shore”. Actually, at a glance that seems a case for staying out the EU, does it not? And if you’re a druid, there’s probably a lot to go on there if you’re thinking of your constituency (“Those bloody Roman bureaucrats, stopping our human sacrifices and all that. Don’t they know it’s part of our culture?”) But let’s have a look at some of the other things that Blake writes about Albion.

Every ornament of perfection, and every labour of love,
In all the Garden of Eden, & in all the golden mountains
Was become an envied horror, and a remembrance of jealousy:
And every Act a Crime, and Albion the punisher & judge. (Jerusalem, plate 28)

Or how about this:

Albion groans, he sees the Elements divide before his face.
And England who is Brittannia divided into Jerusalem & Vala…
The Atlantic Continent sunk round Albions cliffy shore
And the Sea poured in amain upon the Giants of Albion (plate 32)

For Blake, Albion’s fall comes when he is¬†separated from the rest of the world – not just Europe but America as well. In contrast, the golden age is described thus:

Thy Sons came to Jerusalem with gifts, she sent them away
With blessings on their hands & on their feet, blessings of gold,
And pearl & diamond: thy Daughters sang in her Courts:
They came up to Jerusalem; they walked before Albion
In the Exchanges of London every Nation walkd
And London walkd in every Nation mutual in love & harmony
Albion coverd the whole Earth, England encompassd the Nations,
Mutual each within others bosom in Visions of Regeneration;
Jerusalem coverd the Atlantic Mountains & the Erythrean,
From bright Japan & China to Hesperia France & England. (plate 24)

Now, there is much, much more that I could bore with in my anger on this subject. Actually, the one thing I won’t suggest here is that Blake would be an advocate for the actual European Union – it is far, far too small for his vision of universal Albion which shares its life with all humanity¬†from China and Japan to France, England and the Americas (and. lest we head off in completely the wrong direction – he was no imperialist, the thought of which filled him with horror). But with that in mind I would ask, as politely as my title allows, for anyone who sings or plays “Jerusalem” thinking that Blake would love to kick out all the foreigners to just stop it now.

Blake as a Mystic

William Blake in youth and age. George Richmond. Yale Center for British Art.
William Blake in youth and age. George Richmond. Yale Center for British Art.

I’ve been invited to contribute to a panel entitled Mysticism in the Works of Blake at the Bradford Literature festival in just over a week’s¬†time, and as such I’ve recently been thinking about Blake as a mystic.

The link to mysticism is a well-established one: W. B. Yeats in “William Blake and the Imagination” (included¬†in Ideas of Good and Evil in 1903) argued that he was influenced by Christian mystics such as Jacob Boehme and the alchemists (the former undoubtedly true, though¬†the latter may¬†more questionable although in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he does reference the ideas of Paracelsus favourably). Yeats concludes: “If ‘Enitharmon’ had been named Freia, or Gwydeon, or Danu, and made live in Ancient Norway, or Ancient Wales, or Ancient Ireland, we would have forgotten that her maker was a mystic”. It’s also worth pointing out that Yeats finds a great deal of mysticism in other poets, such as Shelley, who might have been a little surprised to find themselves in such un-scientific company.

On a popular level, the answer to the question of whether Blake was a mystic is obvious. The BBC called him “An everyman’s mystic“, the poetry site poemhunter.com categorises him as “British poet, painter, mystic” while Wikipedia adds “engraver” to the list, and one of the most popular Facebook sites is similarly entitled “William Blake: Poet, Artist, Mystic“. There are countless other blog posts, tweets and occasional pieces that invoke Blake as a mystic, so¬†why on earth would anyone disagree? This, after all, is the man who saw a world in a grain of sand.

Scholars such as myself like to complicate things, however. Josephine McQuail, in a paper entitled “Passion and Mysticism in William Blake” (2000), offers a good summary of writers who thought Blake was a mystic, including Jacomina Kortelling (1966), who referred to him as a “painter-poet-mystic”, and Kathleen Raine (1968), who placed him in a long line of neoplatonic mystics, as well as those who baulked at the term, such as Robert¬†Zaehner (1961) who preferred to call him a “seer” rather than a mystic and Pierre Berger (1914) who thought of him as a prophet in a book rather confusingly translated as¬†William Blake, poet and mystic. Others such as Adeline Butterworth published a study entitled¬†William Blake, Mystic in 1974, but I must admit that I was profoundly influenced by Northrop Frye’s following comments in a final “General Note: Blake’s Mysticism” in¬†Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947):

The word mystic has never brought anything but confusion into the study of William Blake, and, in my anxiety to prevent it from cluttering up this book, I have begun by conceding, as a sort of opening gambit, the conventional mystic’s attitude to the artist as the imperfect mystic who cannot wholly detach himself from the sensible world. But it does not follow that I am willing to let the conventional mystic remain in possession of the field. (415, 1969 edition)

This is not Frye’s final word. His conclusion offers a concession of sorts:

If mysticism means primarily a contemplative quietism, mysticism is something abhorrent to Blake, a Selfhood communing in Ulro; if it means primarily a spiritual illumination expressing itself in a practical and (in spite of its psychological subtlety) unspeculative piety, such as we find in the militant monasticism of the Counter-Reformation, the word still does not fit him. But if mysticism means primarily the vision of the prodigious and unthinkable metamorphosis of the human mind just described [in Fearful Symmetry], then Blake is one of those mystics. (416)

It should also be pointed out that, some of the time at least, Frye was perhaps as much responding to figures such as Madame Blavatsky (of whom he wrote a marginal note that for her the “essence of religion [is] not the Poetic Genius but a doctrine” – cited in Robert Denham’s¬†Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, 327) rather than Boehme, Eckhart or the anonymous author of¬†The Cloud of Unknowing.¬†It’s hard to think of these figures as abhorrent to Blake, for all that he may not have agreed with them all of the time – but then, he often found much to contend with in Milton’s poetry, and in any case Frye offers some skepticism in his General Note whether Eckhart and Boehme can even be considered as mystics.

What, then, of my own thoughts on¬†Blake as a mystic? One problem I have with the term is around it’s origins in muo, the Greek word meaning “to conceal”, which referred to the secret initiations and rites of certain Hellenistic religions, or mysteries. Blake never uses the term mysticism – which by no means disqualifies him from being a mystic. He does, however, use the word mystery several times, whether to refer to the “accursed Tree of MYSTERY” (The Book of Ahania, E87), to “Mystery the Virgin Harlot Mother of War” (Milton, E117), or “Mystery Babylon the Great: the Abomination of Desolation” (Jerusalem, E231). It’s fair to say that Blake is not a fan of mystery. There is¬†one, positive mention of the word in¬†A Vision of the Last Judgement, where he says that Greek fables “originated in Spiritual Mystery & Real Vision” (E555), but aside from this the very idea of mystery seems to make Blake’s blood boil.

Mystery is not the same as mysticism, and yet… and yet… A significant problem for me¬†is the “occult” nature that can pertain to a great deal of mysticism, one that has many of its roots in Platonic philosophies and Hellenistic mystery relgions. Blake could be attracted to these from time to time, and yet there was always something that held him back. His imagination and Poetic Genius allowed him very much to see¬†this world in a grain of sand, rather than the ineffable, unimaginable (and here I disagree with Frye’s use of the word “unthinkable”) transcendental world of forms lying behind that of concrete, minute particulars.

On a personal level, then, I have considerable problems thinking of Blake as a mystic. That is not to say that the popular conception is intrinsically wrong: Frye’s threefold definition of mysticism (contemplative quietist, practical pietist, or prodigious and unthinkable transformer – the last of which he does apply to Blake) is far from the last word on mysticism and I have barely given enough time here to consider all the definitions of it¬†that could apply. Historically, I also think that the term mysticism has been useful to the reception of Blake – it was a means for Yeats and others to overcome the label of “mad” Blake which prevented any meaningful discussion of his poetry and art. By Frye’s time, however, mysticism could be seen as another label that prevented further engagement¬†– Frye wished to point out that Blake is a profound and incisive, if often difficult, thinker, something which mysticism could be used to avoid dealing¬†with. In¬†The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake corrects one of what he sees as common errors of the Bible with the observation that: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age”. It would be easy to portray this as mystical, but in fact it is profoundly (in a wonderfully weird, Blakean way) material, or, if you’re not willing to concede that word to Blake, sensuous: the artist, after all, is the mystic who will not wholly detach himself from the sensible world, because that’s where we find our soul.

The panel discussion, Mysticism in the Works of Blake, will take place at the Bradford Literature Festival on 29 May, 2016, 11.00 am Р12.15 pm.

 

Zoapod 16: The Ancient Poets from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

This podcast is a brief discussion of plate 11 from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Blake offers an Enlightened view of the origins of religion from poetry. The text of the plate is below:

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.

And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country. placing it under its mental deity.

Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood.

Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.

And at length they pronounced that the Gods had orderd such things.

Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast. (E38)

 

Blakespotting – April/May, 2016

O THOU with dewy locks, who lookest down
Through the clear windows of the morning, turn
Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,
Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!
(“To Spring”,¬†Poetical Sketches, 1789)

Blake once wrote that in¬†Jerusalem that after “three years slumber on the banks of the Ocean” he was ready to display his giant forms to the public once more. Zoamorphosis has had a year’s slumber since I left the banks of the Ocean, but my Spring resolution is to start writing about Blake more regularly.

Blake biography coverRegarding recent and upcoming events, for those in London on May 25, the Blake Society and Waterstone’s will be presenting a talk by Tobias Churton on “The Religion of William Blake”. Churton, a composer and writer as well as a lecturer in Freemasonry at the University of Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism, has produced various films and books on the Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, Aleister Crowley and, in 2015, published¬†Jerusalem! The Real Life of William Blake. He will be discussing Blake’s own esotericism at the Picadilly branch of Waterstones.

(As a brief aside, for anyone interested in events taking place in Blake’s very own Jerusalem-Babylon, the¬†Londonist has a wonderful collection of links tagged under William Blake.)

The end of April saw the premiere concerts in Pimlico and Framlingham, performed by Trinity Laban Conservatoire’s¬†a capella ensemble, Rubythroat, of¬†Dark Disputes and Artful Teasing, a song cycle composed by Julian Marshall and based on Blake’s¬†Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Marshall’s notes to the work describe it as somewhere between “American spiritual” and “a more genteel legato”.

For Blake scholars, the¬†William Blake Archive has added searchable editions of the forty issues of¬†Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly¬†that were published between 1980 and 1990.¬†BIQ has long been the leading publication devoted to Blake’s work, and the latest issues are part of the ongoing project at the Archive to make the journal freely available to the public.

On the web, there have been some interesting sightings of Blake in recent weeks.¬†The New Yorker includes a profile of the poet and rapper Kate Tempest, who describes her work as influenced by William Blake and the Wu-Tang Clan and there’s a delightful video published by the Khan Academy and Tate in which Maurice Sendak, author of¬†Where The Wild Things Are (the first book I can remember reading), discusses the inspiration of William Blake and how he loves Blake despite the fact that he often doesn’t know what the Romantic poet and artist was talking about. Meanwhile, while working on a photo shoot for¬†Esquire¬†magazine, the actor Idris Elba took out time to recite Blake’s poem “London”, filmed by Tom Craig and Alex F. Webb.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the phrase “Blakespotting” was taken from an excellent 2006 article by Mike Goode, in which he referred to a feature originally published in¬†Vanity Fair in 2003 on the “library dining room” at Trump Tower. Ben McGrath, the author of the¬†Vanity Fair¬†piece, observed that there were framed proverbs from¬†The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, including “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. I’ve been thinking about that proverb a lot in recent weeks, and really hope that Blake could see something about the presumptive presidential nominee that a whole host of us might be overlooking at the moment…

William Blake’s Birthday Present

Blake-Cottage

On behalf of the Blake Society.

This Friday, 28 November is William Blake’s birthday and we’re organising a surprise present.

To say Happy Birthday to Mr Blake, please ask everyone you know to donate £1 by texting FEET111 to 70070 from a mobile phone (or you can make a more generous donation by selecting any number between 1 and 9 for the last digit, eg FEET117 donates £7 pounds).

The funds will be used to buy Blake’s Cottage on the Sussex coast where he wrote the words for our national anthem Jerusalem : And Did Those Feet …

Blake’s Cottage will become a home for artists, authors, thinkers, and anyone who shares with Blakea belief that Imagination is Britain’s gift and duty to the world.

Blake is our genius whose influence on the arts, poetry and creativity reverberates around the globe today. Yet 257 years after his birth, he still does not have a home in this ‚Äėgreen and pleasant land‚Äô.

Cottage-in-MiltonWe will change that, creating a home for Blake, for visitors young & old, for everyone in the world who believes in the primacy of the Imagination – The Only Nation Is The Imagination!

So what better way to celebrate Blake’s birthday than to push ajar the door to his Cottage? We have already raised £92,000, so kick open the door a little more with your FEET111 The phone operators generously give on the whole amount of your gift to our registered charity without deduction.

So on Blake’s birthday help us open a Visionary Home where we can look forward to the pitter patter of feet and the fire of chariots for generations to come.

www.BlakeCottage.org

 

Golgonooza in Felpham

Blakes' cottage
The Blakes’ cottage at Felpham, image from The Blake Society

This weekend, the Golgonooza Festival will be taking place in Felpham, running from 18-20 September. The aim of the festival is to celebrate our cultural heritage, old and new, in the village where Blake lived from 1800-1803. It was during this time that he began work on his epic poem, Milton, and he described the village as a place where “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates”.

The Festival is part of the Big Blake Project, an umbrella project that brings together the Big Blake trail, Big Blake arts, Blake’s Cottage and the Golgonooza Festival itself. Set up by Rachel Searle, the project celebrates Blake’s life and work, regenerating culture and arts with a particular focus on public spaces around Felpham and Bognor Regis.

Among those participating in the Festival are the punk poet Attila the Stockbroker, the children’s writer K.M. Lockwood, and the storyteller Abbie Palanche. You can find out more details about the event at http://thebigblakeproject.org.uk/golgoonoza/.

As part of its efforts to emphasise Blake’s connections to the village, the Big Blake Project is also involved with the Blake Society¬†in a plan to raise ¬£520,000 via crowdfunding to purchase the cottage where Blake lived with his wife Catherine. The cottage came onto the market last year, the first time it has been available since 1928.

The Blake Society has until October 31st to raise the money needed and, if successful, will place the cottage in a charitable trust to be held in perpetuity for the benefit of the nation. The campaign is endorsed by Sir Andrew Motion, Philip Pullman, Stephen Fry, Tracy Chevalier, Russell Brand, Alan Moore, Cosmo Sheldrake and Jeremy Reed. You can find more details, as well as how to donate, at http://www.blakesociety.org/blakecottage/.

Apple, Blake and Songs of Innocence

U2's Songs of Innocence at the iPhone 6 launch. Image from 9to5Mac
U2’s Songs of Innocence at the iPhone 6 launch. Image from 9to5Mac

It’s not often that a writer on Blake gets an excuse to link to the biggest technology event of the year. In case you haven’t heard, Apple yesterday announced the launch of the new iPhone 6 (“bigger than bigger” according to their site) and Apple Watch. And the connection to William Blake, who died a couple of centuries before he could get his hands on either device? The release of U2’s new album,¬†Songs of Innocence, free to iTunes users.

The link to Blake is not entirely out of the blue. Steve Jobs was once described as having an “inexhaustible interest” in the works of Blake, while U2 have more than a passing interest in the Romantic poet: the lyrics of “Beautiful Ghost” from the album are Blake’s “Introduction” to¬†Songs of Experience. Obviously that link has remained engrained somewhere, leading to the latest album being made available exclusively via Apple this week.

Not everyone has been impressed by U2’s invocation of Blake, however¬†(and John Doran’s opinion piece at http://thequietus.com/articles/16217-bono-u2-songs-of-experience is particularly worth reading).

As the equivalent of a graphic designer of his day, it’s pretty clear to me that Blake would have been a Mac user today (for all that I secretly desire him to have been a Linux hacker) – at least when he could have afforded any kind of computer.¬†I’ll follow with a review on the U2 album shortly, but in the meantime you can listen to it at¬†https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/songs-of-innocence/id915794155.