The William Blake Channel has been launched on iTunes. This provides free podcasts from the Zoamorphosis | Blake 2.0 Blog direct to subscribers from the iTunes store.
If you are an iTunes user, you can download and listen to podcasts on different aspects of Blake’s reception by artists, musicians, writers and other figures, and these will be updated every week or so.
The William Blake Channel aims to be a definitive guide for anyone interested in how Blake’s work has been adopted and used since the artist’s death. In addition, it will provide readings of individual poems and artworks by Blake.
Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.
1. “The Tyger” is undoubtedly one of the most famous and most loved of Blake’s poems, fragments of which have reverberated through popular culture for at least a century. The phrases “fearful symmetry” and “burning bright” alone, for example, are the titles of more than a dozen books and stories, while “Tiger, Tiger” is the name of anything from coffee bars and restaurants to karaoke booths and retailers of Buddhist charms and pendants. The appropriation of the Blake brand is, of course, frequently little more than opportunistic marketing as inconsequential as the Charles Dickens pubs found around the world from London to Melbourne, or William Shakespeare gift shops, but such Tyger-related paraphernalia is only one of the most evident signs of the diffusion of this much-anthologised poem throughout popular culture.
2. Nor has the popularity of “The Tyger” been solely a twentieth-century phenomenon, as with so much of the reception of Blake’s works. It was one of the few poems to have made some impression on the poet’s contemporaries during his lifetime, being reprinted in Benjamin Heath Malkin’s A Father’s Memoirs (1806), translated by Henry Crabb Robinson for the Vaterländisches Museum (1811) and then appearing in Alan Cunningham’s biography of the artist shortly after Blake’s death; Charles Lamb thought it “glorious” (BR 394) and Dorothy and William Wordsworth copied the poem and several other of Blake’s songs into a commonplace book, although William Beckford made a note in his copy of Malkin that the lines of Blake’s verse were stolen “from the walls of bedlam” (BR 571), while Coleridge’s final judgement was “I am perplexed – and have no opinion.” (Stranger from Paradise, p.353)
3. Perplexity, as G. E. Bentley, Jr. notes, has been a common reaction to this apparently simple poem, one so straightforward in its metre and diction at least that it is more often included in collections of children’s verse such as the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children than adult anthologies. Of critical reception, not a little has focussed on the incongruities between the forceful, even sublime, text and the rather domestic example of Panthera tigris included in the illustration to this Song of Experience, looking for all the world like a stuffed toy.
4. However, in this podcast I wish to concentrate on one particular poem that not only overtly displays the influence of Blake’s poem, but also uses it to create something of power in its own right, John Cotton’s “Tiger Caged”:
5. The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage.
The sun shines through cage bars
On his barred coat the sun,
His tiger sun,
He does not look
At those who look at him.
They are without
The cage he treads within.
From what the bars divide
The side you are depends.
Each has his bars,
His limits and his ends.
The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage.
6. John Cotton was born in 1925 in London and published his first collection of poems, Old Movies and Other Poems, in 1971, followed by Kilroy Was Here in 1975, with other collections appearing in the 1980s when he retired from teaching. He also founded the magazine Priapus with Ted Walker in the 1960s, and was active in various organisations, such as the National Poetry Society, until his death in 2003. “Tiger Caged” was published in the at times inspirational, at times infuriating, anthology Children of Albion: Poetry of the “Underground” in Britain, edited by Michael Horovitz in 1969.
7. The echoes of Blake’s poem extend beyond the mere title. The repetition of first and last verse is, of course, similar to “The Tyger”, but Cotton’s skill is to evoke Blake’s tyger without simply replicating it, either verbally or thematically. Thus, for example, the line “And thwarted purpose rage” evokes the roaring of Rintrah in The Argument to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where “the just man rages in the wilds” (E33), The Argument also beginning and closing with duplicate lines: “Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burdend air; / Hungry clouds swag on the deep” (E33). “Bars” and “limits” are, of course, by no means exclusively Blakean words, but as common tropes throughout his poetry express the desire for liberty, as in the following lines from the epic, Milton:
8. Seek not thy heavenly father then beyond the skies:
There Chaos dwells & ancient Night & Og & Anak old:
For every human heart has gates of brass & bars of adamant,
Which few dare unbar because dread Og & Anak guard the gates
Terrific! (20.32-6, E114)
9. In Cotton’s poem, the bars are Urizenic – restrictions that impose bounds upon the tiger and thwart his purpose. In contrast to the apparent or at least potential energy of Blake’s tyger unbound, Cotton’s tiger is constrained not merely by the bars of his cage, but also those of his body, stripes of light and dark on his skin that, one imagines, ripple with rage as he treads his cage. The condensed physicality of the tiger is indicated powerfully in the single line, “400 lbs of muscle, bone”, a specificity of mass combined with an economical material anatomy that beautifully emphasises a conservation of power with the omission of the conjunction one would typically expect, preserving also the regular iambic metre that it adapts from Blake’s verse (interrupted only by the spondee “Shines through”). The rhythmic and rhyming structure of Cotton’s verse also appears to embody the “fearful symmetry” of the former: rhymes, or more accurately repetitions and pararhymes, become oppressive, replicating the cage in which the tiger finds himself.
10. Despite the many similarities of Blake’s tyger and Cotton’s tiger caged, then, Cotton’s beast is no mere re-iteration of Blake’s: both are associated with violent imagery, but in Blake’s poem the potential energy of the creature he describes has been condensed at its birth and now breaks free of all bonds that the narrator doubts even mortal hand or eye could frame, while Cotton’s tiger is freeborn but now imprisoned within the cage that mocks not only him but the limited ends and ambitions of the spectators without. For Blake, as recognised for example in Taverner’s setting of “The Tyger”, there is at least the possibility of a divine marriage, but in Cotton’s poem the viewer is divorced from the subject of the gaze, able to recognise the sun that illuminates the bars of his skin but barred out from the energy of the tiger sun that shines from within.
Jacob de Haan, a Dutch composer, produced a marvellous piece of work in 2006 based on Blake’s The Book of Urizen, a performance of which last year at Cantat 2009 in Utrecht has just been brought to my attention.
De Haan’s composition (called The Book of Urizen) is divided into three movements: The Vision (dealing with Urizen’s projected vision of the universe and his rejection by the Eternals), The Creation (that is Urizen’s creation of a fallen world and of mankind), and the Web (by which false religion is spread as a net or web across that world). The clips below shows extracts from the The Book of Urizen.
Following on from my last post, William Blake and Film, now it is time to move from arthouse and indie cinema to the most resolutely populist presentation of Blake at the movies – the Hannibal Lecter trilogy (and, yes, I mean trilogy. Does anyone even remember Hannibal Rising?).
In the first of his novels to introduce the world’s favourite gourmet-sociopath, Red Dragon, Thomas Harris interleaves the influence of Blake throughout the book. The title refers to the early nineteenth-century painting of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun created by Blake for Thomas Butts and now housed at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. (Another painting of the same title is now located at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.)
This image, one of the most powerful ever created by Blake, embodies the diabolical creature that the serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde, wishes to become. While this striking motif is repeated throughout both film and book, notably in Dolarhyde’s tattoo but also when he goes to Brooklyn to eat the painting, it is not the only reference to Blake: in Harris’s novel Dolarhyde’s “copperplate” handwriting is explicitly compared to Blake’s, and he also takes the blind woman he starts dating, Reba McClane, to visit a tiger that is undergoing surgery for toothache at a zoo. As Dolarhyde’s tabloid nickname is “The Tooth Fairy”, it is clear that there is a connection between him, this creature, and Blake’s Tyger.
Two film versions of Red Dragon have been released: Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), starring William Petersen as the detective Will Graham and Tom Noonan as Dolarhyde, with a cameo from Brian Cox as Lecter, is a serious and often low-key affair, one that has rightly attracted critical acclaim although I must admit that occasionally I find myself distracted by the 80s soundtrack. The film was remade by Brett Ratner in 2002 to take advantage of the success of subsequent Hannibal Lecter movies, a version that is closer to the book and restores Blake’s centrality, for example in the marvellous scene where Dolarhyde devours the original painting of the Red Dragon. Edward Norton as Graham and Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde provide fine performances, although Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Lecter was starting to look a little tired.
The next book in Harris’s series, the most famous of the films (and still the best), Silence of the Lambs, appears to be the one of the original trilogy in which Blake has no role to play, an appearance emphasised by Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film version. However, as Michelle Gompf points out in an essay on “The Silence of the Lamb and the Tyger”, Agent Clarice Starling’s decision to try and save a lamb is an important contrast to the tiger/dragon becoming of Dolarhyde in Red Dragon.
The links to Blake are more explicit in the the third film of the trilogy, Hannibal. In Harris’s book, this is made manifest by the fact that Mason Verger owns a copy of The Ancient of Days, an image that is emblematic of his own, Urizenic morality. Although this copy is not explicit in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film, when Verger wishes to manufacture an apparent contact from Lecter to Starling his choice is the favourite of all psycopath’s, a postcard of Blake’s Ghost of a Flea. In the novel, Lecter’s writing is compared (like Dolarhyde’s), to a fine copperplate, but unlike Dolarhyde he is the contrary rather than the negation of Starling – so much so that they elope together in the novel.
Gompf points out that Harris uses Blake to provide a view of morality outside conventional laws of behaviour (as, indeed, do the films of his novels to a lesser extent), for the union of Lecter and Starling is a marriage of heaven and hell, innocence and experience (although not always in ways that the reader expects). For me, Harris’s vision of Blake is occasionally somewhat trite, but I cannot deny the vicarious thrill of pleasure I experience whenever I witness this Blakean parade through pop culture.
Blake’s strong perceptions as a visual artist have long been influential on twentieth-, and twenty-first-century figures, but his appeal to filmmakers as an artist has been a slightly more peculiar one.
Blake is namechecked now and again in cinema – one of my personal favourites is Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) when the French Formula One racing driver, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), tells Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell): “As William Blake wrote, ‘The cut worm forgives the plough.'” Ricky’s response? “Well, let me just quote the late, great, Colonel Sanders. He said, ‘I’m too drunk to taste this chicken.'” Blake is also a favourite of Susan Sarandon’s character, Annie Savoy, in Bull Durham (1989) when she wishes to inspire each baseball progeny that she has chosen to have an affair with each year.
More substantially, however, Blake has been a much more enduring presence in the work of some American independent cinema since the 1990s. The most important, and well-known, is Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), in which Johnny Depp plays an accountant from Ohio, William Blake, who travels to the western town of Machine for a job that turns out never to have existed. After a fight in which he accidentally kills the son of the town’s main employer, Blake flees into the wilderness where he is befriended by a Native American, Nobody (Gary Farmer), who was taken as a boy by the British and taught the poetry of England’s native son. Nobody spends much of the film citing Blake’s poetry to the bemused accountant, asking him impishly and poignantly why he has “forgotten his poetry”. Shot in beautiful monochrome, although it was commercially unimpressive at the time of its release the film has since gained acclaim as an original and innovative “acid” western.
I tend to be less impressed by another, Blake-inspired movie, Hal Hartley’s The New Math(s) (2000), but in part that’s because I tend to be less impressed by Hartley’s arch, self-parodying style in general. However, for the Blake afficionado this is a must see simply because Blake’s The Book of Thel has such an important role to play in this odd short film, in which two students fight with their teacher over the solution to a complex mathematical equation. The music is by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, and the whimsical nature of the highly choreographed production does seem to delicately balance Blake’s subtle text, with “catches” from the poem including the delightful lines:
Why a Tongue impress’d with honey from every wind?
Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?
The final movie to be considered here, and one that has affected me much more than Hartley’s film, is Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005). This is a considerably more sombre affair, described by Van Sant as “a meditation on isolation, death and loss”, and inspired by the final hours of Kurt Cobain. The central character, Blake, draws on a cynical reading of the last days of a counter-culture where the hippie optimism of a Huxley-inspired personal liberation through LSD has become the despair of heroin-addicted, sold-out grunge. The Blakean allusions are subtle throughout Last Days (including Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Doors of Perception” soundscape), with Blake himself incoherent, virtually mute; at the end of the film, however, having committed suicide, Blake’s soul ascends from his body in a scene that directly references the illustrations to The Grave.
Interestingly, while the occasional visual motif is referenced in movies such as these, more generally it is Blake’s poetry that has the stronger role to play. If Blake were alive today, it appears that Hollywood would have preferred his skills as a scriptwriter rather than set-designer, although I am sure many will be able to contradict me with plenty of references to special-effects-driven science fiction and fantasy films. Likewise, of course, Blake has been an important subject for the Hannibal Lecter movies – more on which in my next post.
Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.
1. Love’s Secret Domain (L.S.D.), released in 1991, was the third album by the group Coil and one which made manifest their interest in Blake, most overtly in the title track but also as an exposition of Blakean energy in various forms throughout the album.
2. Coil formed in 1982, one of its core members, Peter Christopherson, having previously been involved with the industrial group Throbbing Gristle. Both he and fellow member John Balance also contributed to Psychic TV in the early eighties, and much of the work of Coil only makes sense in the context of their associations with Genesis P. Orridge, the founder of both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, as well as the performance duo Coum Transmissions and the cult Thee Temple of Psychick Youth (T.O.P.Y). Orridge provides a nexus in the secret history of one strand of counter-cultural movements of this period – a history that is secret not because it is oppressed or hidden from the public gaze but rather, as with Poe’s purloined letter, lies in full view if one only knows where to look.
3. Orridge, who changed his name from Neil Megson in 1971, developed an interest in magic after meeting William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the early seventies, initially channelling such interest into performance art with Cosey Fanni Tutti (Christine Newby) as part of Coum Transmissions. Developing a deliberately confrontational style, most notoriously demonstrated in the Prostitution exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1976, following which they were denounced as ‘wreckers of civilisation’ by the then Arts Minister, Harold Lever, Coum mutated into Throbbing Gristle which, through its own label Industrial Records, pioneered industrial music and continued the antagonistic approach of Coum, incorporating pornography and Nazi-style propaganda into performances and releases. These, including D.o.A: The Third and Final Report (1978) and 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979), were deliberately intended to be as uncomfortable listening as possible, and the destructive, nihilistic decomposition of TG’s activities inevitably resulted in the group splitting in 1981 – although not so nihilistic that the group was unable to reform in 2004.
4. The dark and disturbing influences of TG were particularly evident on Coil’s first releases, a single track 12 inch called How to Destroy Angels (1984) and the (slightly) more conventional album, Scatology (1984). How to Destroy Angels included a B side that varied with multiple pressings, sometimes containing music, sometimes noise, sometimes a blank face; Scatology and the follow up, Horse Rotorvator (1986) both dealt with often violent queer themes, as with ‘The Sewage Worker’s Birthday Party’ and ‘Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)’, that reflected their involvement in a queer scene increasingly ravaged by AIDS and homophobia, combined with sensibilities and configurations (‘The Golden Section’ and ‘Solar Lodge’) that drew heavily on the occult practices of figures and groups such as Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare and the Ordo Templi Orientis – all of which had a role to play in the work of Psychic TV and T.O.P.Y.
5. This bare skeleton is hardly an “immense earthmoving device from the collective jawbones”, a Horse Rotorvator that will give any sense of Coil’s activities and, more importantly here, their relation to Blake. It forms merely a few brush strokes in a sketch that draws attention to an alchemical process by which Blake, once adopted, would be adapted and would, in turn, adapt the music of Coil.
6. Separated by a period of five years, there is an incredible transformation that takes place between Horse Rotorvator and Love’s Secret Domain, in which Blake has an important part to play. A similar transformation had taken place in Orridge’s work as he moved from Throbbing Gristle to Psychic TV: the harsh, alienating sounds of D.o.A and other early releases had been replaced by acid house and trance, most notably with the appearance of Psychic TV’s Towards Thee Infinite Beat in 1990, one year before Love’s Secret Domain, and Coil’s own album was re-mastered by Thighpaulsandra, who brought with him a lighter style evident in his work with the solo artist Julian Cope and the group Spiritualized.
7. While much of L.S.D. demonstrates a similar acid house style to Towards Thee Infinite Beat, the title track displays altogether darker influences closer in some respects to Coil’s earlier work.
8. The song mixes together elements of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” with Roy Orbison’s song, “In Dreams”, which almost certainly is included here because of its appearance in David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet. In that movie, it is used as a disturbing backdrop to the psychotic machinations of Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper). John Balance’s menacing vocals on the Coil track particularly transform the listener’s perception of the Orbison song, mutating it from a plaintive and soft lament into an obsessive paean to perverse love.
9. Behind Coil’s lyrics also lie references to Yeats’s mystical “A Vision” and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, with more sinister evocations of Aleister Crowley’s sexual magic with Rose Kelly, one product of which was his notorious The Book of the Law and its edict “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Yet if Balance’s vocals alone can distort and make decadent Orbison’s words, manifesting as mania the fixations that underlie the 1963 original, it is the final verse, invoking Blake’s invisible worm as the corroding passion of desire, that fixes this mutation.
10. Blake’s original illustration to “The Sick Rose”, depicting female forms prostrate on a dying flower, in many ways helps orient at least my reading of what is an ambivalent text. The image elicits the reader’s sympathy, while the words in isolation could be interpreted as a disturbing celebration of rapacious energy. It is this sado-masochistic force that informs Coil’s rendition: this song is not a lament for the madness of love but the lust for its intoxication. If the allusion to Crowley and Rose Kelly is laid to one side, and bearing in mind the homosexual themes of their earlier work, it is possible to view “Love’s Secret Domain” as a fiercely erotic trace of perverse, queer desire.
11. In an interview with the magazine Mondo 2000, Christopherson said that he believed that Coil had been travelling the “same mystical paths as Blake”, and both he and Balance believed that the entire album was inspired by a Blakean energy. Their reading of this text to me seems a perversion of Blake, just as it is a perversion of the Roy Orbison song. That does not at all prevent it from being one of my favourite, Blake-inspired tracks, for the contrarian spirit that provokes it does, surely, follow the same paths as that author who perverted Satan into Messiah in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Another rather sombre anniversary today: Derek Jarman, artist, writer and film maker, died on February 19, 1994, from an AIDS-related illness aged 52, one of the few openly-gay artists in the UK at the time.
He is most widely known for films such as Jubilee (1977-8) and Caravaggio (1986), and the strongest influences on his style and content were Elizabethan figures such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and the magician, John Dee, yet Jarman also saw himself as a “Blakean leveller” and the leap from Renaissance England to Romantic artist was not such a hard one to make. Contemporaries and early critics of Blake saw his early works such as Poetical Sketches as a revival of Elizabethan poetry in contrast to the then-dominant Augustan style, and Blake himself was immersed in the worlds of Milton and English radicals of the Civil War and Interregnum.
A friend of mine, Mark Douglas, drew my attention to an obituary that appeared in Art Monthly after Jarman’s death, in which Roger Cook wrote:
When I think of Derek I think of William Blake’s fiery youthful giant Albion, incandescent with energy as represented in Blake’s engraving known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion. Like Blake, he identified the ecstasy of human sexuality with freedom and protested its bondage. It was this that made him so passionate and open.
Jarman had a fascination with England that is perhaps the strongest link between his work and that of Blake’s. In The Last of England, the book published from diaries written at the time he was making the film of that name, Jarman lamented how through the film Chariots of Fire reduced Blake’s vision to “some muscular Christianism and jingo, crypto-faggy Cambridge stuff set to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – a minor poet who wrote this popular football hymn”. The sarcasm and bitterness in those words, with their deprecatory reference to Blake as a “minor poet”, are a jaundiced reflection on the success of what he saw as jingoism compared to his own, more complex view of England’s green and pleasant land. His more passionate view about the Romantic artist was summed up in a note to Jubilee:
“all those who secretly work against the tyranny of Marxists fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc… who have conspired together to destroy the diversity and holiness of each life in the name of materialism… For William Blake.”
While preparing some materials for a talk on the Situationists as part of a course I am teaching, I stumbled upon a delightful reference to Blake in the comic Lulu’s Public Secrets, which can be found on the Bureau of Public Secrets site (http://www.bopsecrets.org/comics/lulu1.htm).
The comic, an act of détournement that will be familiar to anyone with some knowledge of the Situationists, takes the text of Ken Knabb’s The Joy of Revolution dealing with the possibilities and problems of global, anti-hierarchical revolution, and splices it with an episode from one of the Little Lulu comics. (Lulu Moppet was a troublemaker popular in American comic strips in the 1950s and 60s. Despite such promising beginnings, of course, Lulu ended up being thoroughly recuperated into the service of advertising and product placements, so this particular act of détournement feels like a return to first principles. Certainly my students liked it.)
Knapp’s text is fairly standard in terms of presenting Situationist ideas to a new generation – an observation rather than a criticism. After making the pertinent point that capitalism and hierarchy will always generate new obstacles as a matter of course should we overcome old ones, he notes that one aim should be to point out these familiar patterns so that people can recognise and avoid them, which is where Blake comes in:
An anti-hierarchical revolution would not solve all our problems, it would simply eliminate some of the unnecessary ones freeing us to tackle more interesting problems. The new society would be far more diverse than any utopian description. Visionaries like Blake or Whitman, childhood memories, moments of love or enthusiastic creativity, only hint at what it could be like. The only thing that stands in the way is people’s unawareness of their own collective power.
As with so many revolutionary ideas, the gesture is romantic as well as radical, and for all Knabb’s dismissal of utopianism there is much that is utopian here. But, of course, that is why it fits Blake so well, rather like the anarchist Herbert Read’s appropriation of Blake in his work (along with Shelley and plenty of other usual suspects). There is always something rather innocent about ideals of revolution, but while that is often the snide excuse to dismiss them with harsh experience, Blake himself argued that “organiz’d innocence” was the most appropriate state for our lives.