Blakespotting: August 2016

Unless you’re part of the Donald Trump race relations team, August was probably a quiet month for you. Certainly in the world of Blake news that was the case, even though this is the month that marks Blake’s death in 1827. Despite that fact, any major events seem to be waiting for a much bigger release in September – so much so that the beginning of August was dominated by actor Kit Harington, more famous for his role of “you know nothing” Jon Snow, promoting a new car – the Infiniti Q60 – with words from Blake’s “The Tyger”. You’ll have to wait until 2017 to see whether the Q60 really rivals the BMW 4 Series, but in the meantime you can enjoy Harington’s transfer of poetic appeal to the 400 hp machine in the clip below (and the full version does have nearly the entire poem, which is kind of impressive).

The 12 August marked the anniversary of Blake’s death and, as is traditional, the Blake Society marked his life at the memorial in Bunhill Fields. There will probably be a much more ecstatic celebration of his life in September as part of the Big Blake Project. I’ll be covering the forthcoming “Blakefest” in Sussex in more detail next month which – fingers crossed – will be a major event (and, hopefully, a recurring one). In August, however, it looked as though it was running into some difficulties as the ticketed event – which hopes to attract at least 5,000 visitors – failed to get financial backing from the local council. Another big event which I’ll be returning to in October, but which began to attract a lot of attention online, is the prospective opening of what has been billed as the “world’s largest William Blake gallery“, to be launched by John Windle in San Francisco. What that will actually mean remains to be determined, but Windle’s enthusiasm for Blake is certainly not in doubt.

Rick Pushinsky published his response to Blake’s eighteenth-century collection of poems in August. Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Study Guide, is a series of beautiful photographs of found and fabricated sculptures, interpreted through the prism of Blake’s imagination. Several of them can be seen at www.pushinsky.com/project/songs-of-innocence/. Another very promising release was Michael Hughes’ novel, The Countenance Divine which, according to Paraic O’Donnell in The Guardian, “is a debut of high ambition that marks the arrival of a considerable talent” in its interweaving of narratives involving a blind Milton in 1666, Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders of 1888, and Blake labouring over his illuminated books in 1790.

Musically, the artist P.J. Sauerteig (aka Slow Dakota) gave a fascinating interview in which he indicated the considerable influence of Blake on his work – not surprising for an album where the opening track deals with a man who submits his song to an angel, only to see it not selected in a contest organised by God. With that lead in, The Ascension of Slow Dakota is now firmly on my must-hear list. U2 has confirmed that the follow up to Songs of Innocence (perhaps one of the most disliked albums of all time because Apple forced iOS users to download it to their devices) will be Songs of Experience. There are few details as yet, other than the new album will be accompanied by a world tour in 2017.

Blakespotting: July 2016

Ronald Searle: image from A Grain of Sand, 1964.
Ronald Searle: image from A Grain of Sand, 1964.

The monthly roundup of sightings of William Blake in the media.

July began with a delightful tribute to drawings created by Ronald Searle for a movie for UNICEF, entitled A Grain of Sand. The first part of the film includes a narration of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence over Searle’s animation, while the second part features live footage depicting the day in the life of a Tunisian boy. The film doesn’t seem to be available (at least in any easily accessible format) but was made, according to the BFI database, by the UN in 1960 to illustrate the problems of overpopulation and the care of children throughout the world.

In Derry, Northern Ireland, award-winning artist Aislinn Cassidy staged an exhibition of her work, “The Sick Rose“, at the Playhouse Theatre. A science graduate and teacher, Cassidy draws parallels between the diffusion of colour in various substances – including the living form of roses – and draws on the religious, political and social symbolism of Blake’s poem. The exhibition was shown in mid-July at the Playhouse and is due to go on to the North West Regional College in September. Another artist showing work inspired by Blake was Emre Namyeter, whose various lightboxes on display in Istanbul drew upon the famous quotation from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

One of my favourite snippets from July was that the half brother of Barack Obama, Mark Obama Ndesandjo, has released an album entitled Reflections on William Blake. Ndesandjo, who lives in Shenzen, China, and is an accomplished pianist, has made two other albums as well as written a more famous memoir in which he accused Obama Snr of abuse. On his web site, he describes the source of inspiration for his album on Blake as a visit to the Tate, but I have yet to track copies of it down.

Staying with the musical theme, a concert at Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, included a performance of Louis Andriessen’s Ahania Weeping as part of an evening of music devoted to Jeffrey Dinsmore, a musician who worked with Andriessen and others before his unexpected death in 2014. Meanwhile, in preparation for the Blakefest due to take place in Sussex in September, the music critic Chris Roberts traced some of Blake’s influences on popular music, while U2 confirmed a new 2017 tour and album entitled Songs of Experience.

During July, the photographer Rick Pushinsky published a collectionSongs of Innocence, inspired by the illuminated book of the same name, interweaving photos of found objects with fragments of Blake’s verse. The end of the month saw a one-off performance of Luke Welch’s play, Waiting for Robert, in Bournemouth as a follow up to the Big Blake project that took place this year. This is another one to track down, though according to the synopsis it centres around the struggles of Catherine Blake and William’s patron John [sic] Hayley, chasing the artist for a commission as William is haunted by the spectre of his Ghost of a Flea, which he believes only his dead brother can banish.

Blakespotting: June 2016

death_stranding111The monthly roundup of Blake sightings in the media.

June began as such an innocent month for Blake spotters. The Guardian reminded us that Blake, along with Yeats, Joyce and Eliot, was a primary inspiration for the brilliant Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison, paying homage to the Romantic artist and poet in “Summertime in England”, while Vice magazine included an interview with King’s Cross poet Aidan Dun, an often neglected writer who I first encountered in the mid-nineties following  Iain Sinclair’s comparison of Dun’s Vale Royal with the works of Blake.

The anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s birth on June 3 saw a number of paeans to the celebrated Beat poet, many of which noted Blake as one of his most important sources of inspiration, such as the post on Rubber Tramp Artist and Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s AlmanacA few days later, the Blake Society invited anyone in Felpham to join them at the cottage where William and Catherine had once lived for tea and conversation, celebrating the fact that their home had been purchased by a charitable trust at the end of 2015, saving the place where Blake wrote the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ for the nation.

One of the most delightful Blake sightings for me was the trailer for a new game on the PlayStation, Death Stranding, by Hideo Kojima, one of the greatest game designers of all time. Opening with lines from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, “To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower,/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour”, the three-minute clip invited a series of obsessive close-readings worthy of the finest biblical scholars as publications such as PC GamerArs Technica and PSLS tried to work out what the hell it all meant – introducing a new audience to the words of Blake in the process.

On June 16, Jennifer Davis Michael published a very neat piece of journalistic work puncturing a myth which has long been a favourite of mine: that Donald Trump has copies of the Proverbs of Hell on the wall of his library in Trump Tower. I first encountered this urban legend in Mike Goode’s article on “Blakespotting” (a title I have shamelessly exploited since I read it in 2006), and Michael shows how the original piece in the New Yorker could not have referred to Trump Tower. I shall – shamefacedly this time – add my own small correction to Michael’s excellent piece. She observes that Roger Whitson used the Trump anecdote in a blog post he published for an MLA panel – Roger actually got the story from me which I included in a book we wrote together in 2013.

Blake was the subject of a typically superb episode of Radio 4’s In Our Time, presented by Melvyn Bragg with guests Jon Mee, Sarah Haggarty and Jonathan Bate, which I heartily recommend any Blake fans listen to. If your curiosity is piqued still further, you can also take the quiz to see which pop groups Blake has inspired.

Some other beautiful, Blakean bits and pieces included a limited edition of plates from Songs of Innocence and of Experience printed by Michael Phillips, a trance version of “The Tyger” by Tiger Tooth, a new album by singer-songwriter John Paul White entitled Beulah, two fascinating articles on Blake as biological visionary and his influence on the great collector Paul Mellon,and a review of Bob Rodgers’ new book, The Devil’s Party: Who Killed The Sixties?which takes as its subject the two celebrated University of Toronto professors, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan.

If June began as a song of innocence, however, it ended as one of experience. The UK referendum on whether to leave the European Union revealed a nation deeply divided, and – inevitably perhaps – the Blake/Parry hymn ‘Jerusalem’ was often invoked, usually on the side of those who believed that it was right to vote leave and take back control of Britain’s borders. The blog On an overgrown path, republished a post from the 2012 London Olympics as to why the hymn’s origins in 1916 were not necessarily as Blake would have wished them, while Fintan O’Toole argued in The Irish Times that many who invoked both ‘Jerusalem’ and Shakespeare’s famous speech on ‘This scepter’d isle’ frequently misunderstand the meanings of both texts. The culture wars for ‘Jerusalem’ and what it means are likely to continue for a very long time.

 

We need a new Englishness

But Palamabron called down a Great Solemn Assembly,
That he who will not defend Truth, may be compelled to
Defend a Lie, that he may be snared & caught & taken (Milton 8.46-8)

A couple of years ago, my father and I were having a conversation about the EU in which he asked me whether, when I was growing up, I had felt English or British or European. The answer for me was very simple.

When I was young, I was Catholic.

I had very little sense of national identity, to be honest, but an incredibly strong sense of an identity based on Roman Catholicism. I went to a Catholic school, most of the family I saw on a regular basis was Catholic (my mother and myself aside, not especially fervent it must be said), and all my friends were Catholic. At school, nearly everyone had some mixture of Irish, Polish, Italian or Czech – native English Catholics having become a rarity following several centuries of Protestantism.

When, much later, I fully abandoned that Catholicism, the sense of where I belonged only came slowly. I was, however, increasingly fascinated by what this country was, and when I began writing about “English” Blake I rather fell in love with his bizarre visions of the nation state, one in which the giant Albion, populated with bizarre druids and warring demi-gods, attempted to seal himself off from the rest of the world in eternal death but who, eventually, would awake, awake, awake into a new Englishness.

In plate 92 of Jerusalem, Blake writes:

What do I see? The Briton Saxon Roman Norman amalgamating
In my Furnaces into One Nation the English: & taking refuge
In the Loins of Albion. (1-3)

Whatever it is for Blake that defines Englishness, it is nothing to do with race. To be English is to be made up of many things, wave after wave of immigrant communities entering this country (and an island nation should embrace metaphors of the sea), and it would be simplicity itself to see a contemporary Blake adding Irish, Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean, Polish and any other multitude of identities that make up the One Nation. Throughout Blake’s writings, it is when Albion seeks to shut himself off from the world, from his emanation Jerusalem, that disaster strikes.

The hills of Judea are fallen with me into the deepest hell
Away from the Nations of the Earth, & from the Cities of the Nations…
How distant far from Albion! his hills & his valleys no more
Receive the feet of Jerusalem: they have cast me quite away:
And Albion is himself shrunk to a narrow rock in the midst of the sea!
The plains of Sussex & Surrey, their hills of flocks & herds
No more seek to Jerusalem nor to the sound of my Holy-ones.
The Fifty-two Counties of England are hardend against me
As if I was not their Mother, they despise me & cast me out (Jerusalem 79:8-21)

At the moment, the United Kingdom very much feels like a narrow rock shrunk in the middle of the sea. While many people have voted for Brexit for many reasons, it is a lie to believe that the campaign to leave has not been driven by two messages: to give a windfall of cash to the NHS (that’s going to happen in a crashing economy) and to take back control of our borders. To repeat, many voted for many reasons, but the past few days have revealed that racism – particularly Islamophobia and hostility to eastern Europeans – now feels emboldened by the 52% who voted to leave. It is not that half the population is racist, but that those who want Polish “vermin” to get out, call for foreigners to be repatriated, or argue that they aren’t racist because they’re not talking about “pakis”, now believe that 17 million people share their views.

As things fall apart we are slouching towards bigotry, a second coming that hardens us, shrinks our perceptions to a narrow chink. We need a new vision of Englishness. UKIP in all its glory seems to have set us on a stumbling path towards becoming the nation state of England – which may have been the intention of at least some of its members all along, once we’ve got rid of the Scots. However that may be, I’m damned if I’m going to let UKIP, Britain First or the English Defence League define what it is to be English. We need Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, and Humanist to amalgamate in the furnaces of the nation, forged with Heathens, Turks and Jews into the human form to build Jerusalem.

For a while after the referendum vote, I was overcome with anger and a paranoia that I dare not speak to my neighbours (unlike many Remain voters, the plethora of Leave badges and signs made it quite clear that I live in a part of England’s green and pleasant land that wanted no truck with the EU – a pretty fair swathe of the country, as it turned out). There is a sombre mood in the village where I live at the moment, no triumphalism, and I am sure that they are as shocked as I by the lack of common decency among some of those for whom Englishness is a byword for hate and violence. That’s not to excuse myself: anger and paranoia can be another form of xenophobia, a self-righteousness that I am right and you are wrong, and that for that reason alone I should hate you. That is not an England I wish to live in nor should I make it. I’ll fight bloody Brexit every step I can, because I honestly believe it is destroying my country and as a paradoxical Englishman I have a patriotic love for this chip off the old Eurasian block.

This, however, must always be a mental fight, not total war which despises everyone and everything which is other. I have my own fair share of the blame for ignoring those who have been left behind by globalisation in an economy that, for all its claims to be the fifth largest in the world, relies for that status on sheer bulk of numbers (thank you migrants!) as individual prosperity falters, stumbles and falls for the majority. We need to build a better country for all, not fight over an ever-diminishing stew as we kick out the foreigners. Those who do not defend the truth will now be compelled to defend a lie, but as that lie of hatred is clear and raw and ugly before us so it can be snared and caught and taken.

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—n the King, d—n all his subjects, d—n 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 “All 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 – 12.15 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 ‘green and pleasant land’.

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