Zoapod 9: Blake’s Poems – Holy Thursday (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 9, which follows from the last one in taking two more of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in this case the two “Holy Thursday” poems. The parallel, contrary visions that Blake offered on many themes and motifs in each of these two books, Innocence and Experience is, of course, well known, and this podcast will explore that contrast in two of his best known lyrics.

2. In the early eighteenth century, a tradition began in which charity school children would attend a special service, this event being held at St Paul’s Cathedral between 1782 and 1871. As [Stanley] Gardner points out, these children were not destitute, nor rescued from “the lowest order of poverty”, but rather came from families of the “deserving poor”, and during the century as many of six thousand of them would attend a thanksgiving service which although it did take place on a Thursday, was never on Holy Thursday during Easter week or Ascension Thursday as is often asserted. The services provided an opportunity to educate these children under the auspices of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but the event was, according to Gardner, more of a festival than a strictly disciplined procession.

3. Having witnessed one of these earliest festivals at St Paul’s, Blake was inspired to write one of his most famous lyrics:

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green

Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

4. While the couplets of this poem are familiar from a great deal of eighteenth century verse, Blake’s long, fourteener lines are unusual for the period, being more typical of Elizabethan poetry. They add to a stately rhythm, slowing and making the pace of the poem gentler and, as Gardner observes, Blake avoids any satirical intent in this poem. Although David Fairer has written, in relation to this particular poem, that “Blake’s texts lose their innocence more easily than most”, and [Andrew] Lincoln feels that “the exuberant tone of the poem is to some extent modified by a sense of anticlimax”, it is a mistake to assume that Blake is here being sarcastic about the “wise guardians” watching over the “flowers of London town”. That the final moral appears somewhat self-evident, even sentimental, to modern, experienced eyes does not mean that it was not heartfelt on the part of Blake who appears to have responded to this event with great devotion and humility, lavishing considerable care and attention on the more than usually elaborate border to the poem.

5. In the poem “Holy Thursday” included in Songs of Experience, Blake moves from a particular occasion in a specific setting to a general accusation against his contemporary society:

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

6. The condemnation of the extremes of wealth and poverty is powerfully made, and it is clear that Blake’s remonstrance against the hypocrisy of his day is as deeply felt as his joy at seeing the children’s service at St Paul’s. Yet in some ways the moral of the final stanza is as bland as that in the final line of the poem from Innocence, and in some ways may even be false and superficial – sunshine and rainfall are, by themselves, no guarantee of protection for poverty. Lincoln, it seems to me, is correct in drawing attention to the suspicion with which we should view the narrator of the poem: while the insistent rhythm of the song may emphasise its moral outrage, the speaker is unwilling to recognise any vitality or joy in his subjects, instead retreating “into generalization, and an emotional hardening, that offers little prospect of escape from the human coldness it condemns.”

Bible illustrations published on Blake Archive

Blasphemer - Blake ArchiveTwenty of Blake’s water colour illustrations to the Bible have been published on theBlake Archive. Produced by Blake between approximately 1800 and 1806, the selected images depict scenes from the Old Testament and indicate the profound and lasting influence that the Bible had on his work.

Blake painted a series of some eighty biblical scenes for Thomas Butts in the early nineteenth century, and some of the images in the series, such as The Blasphemer, Ezekiel’s Wheels and David Delivered Out of Many Waters are among the most famous of Blake’s images.

The Blake Archive will continue to add Blake’s biblical paintings, with plans to include scenes from the New Testament before moving on to images from early in Blake’s career, such as Abraham and Isaac (c. 1780), as well as his final biblical paintings from the 1820s.

For more information visit http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/public/update.html or http://blakearchive.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/publication-announcement-blakes-water-color-illustrations-to-the-bible/.

Zoapod 8: Blake’s Poems – London

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 8. Continuing the irregular series looking at William Blake’s poetry, this podcast will focus on one of his most popular lyrics, “London”, from Songs of Experience.

2. Published in 1794, “London” has become one of Blake’s best-known and most widely-anthologised poems. The simplicity of the ballad form, an extremely popular type of poetic format, is used by Blake to deliver an intensely powerful critique of his contemporary society, one in which sophisticated condemnation of political, religious and sexual mores is presented with remarkable brevity and compression. My own reading of Blake’s Song, is very conventional in terms of following critics such as E. P. Thompson (Witness Against the Beast, 1993) and Edward Larrissy (William Blake, 1988), seeing the poem as one of social critique. Harold Bloom’s comment in David Erdman’s edition of Blake’s Complete Poetry & Prose, which sees the poem as operating as a response to the tradition of biblical prophecy, seems rather obscure to me – something rather typical of Bloom’s criticism.

3. I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

4. A heavily corrected copy of this poem exists in Blake’s Notebook, offering considerable insight into the gestation that “London” underwent. Probably the most famous line from the poem, its reference to the “mind-forg’d manacles”, was originally written by Blake as “german forged links”. The original scans more regularly as iambic verse than his more famous amendment (with “forged” being pronounced on the second syllable), and drew attention, as Thompson observed, to the billeting of Hessian troops in London in the early 1790s in response to fear at social unrest in the capital, as well as the German origins of the Hanoverian dynasty and George III. The modification to “mind-forg’d manacles” forces the reader to slow down slightly with the spondee “mind-forg’d”, and the abstraction of oppression away from a particular incident and situation has led various critics to see in Blake’s phrase a powerful and effective illumination of the effects of ideology.

5. Another change that the poem underwent from Notebook to publication was the modification of “dirty Thames” in the second line to “charter’d”, repeating the word from the first line. Paine, writing in the first part of The Rights of Man (1792), denounced charters as a post-Norman trick to bribe the populace into submission: “William the Conqueror and his descendants parcelled out the country in this manner, and bribed some parts of it by what they call charters to hold the other parts of it the better subjected to their will. This is the reason why so many of those charters abound in Cornwall; the people were averse to the Government established at the Conquest, and the towns were garrisoned and bribed to enslave the country. All the old charters are the badges of this conquest, and it is from this source that the capriciousness of election arises.” The use of the word charter in “London” is literal in the first line, but metaphorical in the second, placing even the free movement of the natural world under the restriction of government.

6. After a period of enthusiasm in Paris following the fall of the Bastille, tensions increased throughout the 1790s, especially following the execution of Louis XVI and the Terror of 1793. Fear of revolution in Britain led the government of William Pitt to a loyalist reaction, first felt in Scotland as a series of sensational trials for seditious libel which took place in 1793, the results of which were draconian sentences against Thomas Muir and Thomas Palmer. In 1794, as members of the London Corresponding Society called for an English Convention, Pitt suspended Habeus Corpus and ordered the arrest of its leading members, as well as those of the Society for Constitutional Information. Thomas Paine had already fled the country at the end of 1793, and although the three men finally brought to trial were acquitted, there could be no doubt that Britain was a dangerous place for anyone with radical sympathies.

7. These are the events alluded to in the third stanza of “London”, in which soldiers’ blood stains the walls of palaces (almost certainly a direct reference to the events of August 1792 when a mob stormed the Tuileries and massacred the Swiss Guard defending the royal family). Amid this political storm, the hypocrisy and degradation of the poor is also dealt with by invoking the conditions of children chimney sweepers, the subject of two other poems in Blake’s Songs, as well as child prostitution in the final stanza. Stanley Gardner (The Tyger, The Lamb and the Terrible Desart, 1998) observes that in Lambeth a group of “noblemen and gentlemen” had converted the old Hercules Inn into the Female Orphan Asylum “to save girls between the age of nine and twelve from ‘the guilt of prostitution’.” The lives of these so-called “chicken prostitutes” was brutal and fatal, with many not surviving into their twenties as they suffered from violence and those sexual diseases such as syphilis that blasted substantial sections of the metropolitan population.

8. Within four, short quatrains, Blake delivers one of the most savage visions of the city ever written, and for this reason alone it is unsurprising that the poem has become so well-known. To read it is to experience the shock of an explosion among the familiar platitudes and hypocrisies of church, priest and king. Yet there may be something even more subtle going on here. Larrissy is correct to point out that it is a misconception – even if a common one – to assume that the voice of the narrator is that of Blake’s. The speaker in “London” marks those all around him: the word “mark” here functions in different ways – as a unit of currency (an old term used to refer to 8 ounces of gold or silver), as a blemish or sign, and as the verb “to mark”, as in to identify or characterise something or someone. The narrator, then, sees these marks and he sees them everywhere: “And mark in every face I meet \ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

9. These spots and stains of weakness and woe are inscribed on these faces by the weight of capitalism and power that emphasise the poverty of those who live in London, but Larrissy draws attention to the fact that it is also the speaker who is marking these faces – observing and characterising them as weak, woeful. That this voice of experience is potent should not blind us to the fact that it is also a single vision: there is no alternative, no innocence, in “London”, and in a scene of such potential violence and depravity it is not hard to see why. And yet, as with Terry Eagleton’s criticisms of Theodore Adorno’s concept of ideology, this is to give the powerful too much power, to assume rather defeatedly that there is no alternative. Sometimes such single, purposeful vision is necessary, to clarify and explain the social conditions in which we find ourselves, but for the possibility of something better, the voice of experience must also be matched by that of innocence, the belief that things can be changed.

New releases and forthcoming events

Just released is Chase the Devil, a new album by Gary Lucas and Dean Bowman, which draws inspiration from Blake, Blind Willie Johnson and Shlomo Carlebach among others. Lucas, who played and recorded with a number of artists including Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley and Lou Reed over the years, has been attracting reviews that describe his guitar-playing as driven by an almost religious fervour on tracks such as “In Christ There Is No East or West” and “Out on the Rolling Sea”. Of particular note for Blake followers is the inclusion of a version of “Jerusalem” that combines Lucas’s bluesy, sliding guitar to good effect with Bowman’s clear voice.

An exhibition around Carl Jung’s “Red Book” at the Library of Congress shows how Blake was one of his influences. The 205-page manuscript had been locked away after his death until a facsimile was published by Norton last year, and demonstrates his technique of what he calls “active imagination”, elaborating the stream of his unconscious. Prints of Blake, alongside Tibetan mandalas and books of alchemy, are part of the exhibition that will run from June 17 till August 18. Another exhibition, “Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s” at the San Antonio Museum of Arts, draws on Blake and Hieronymous Bosch as precursors, and runs till August 1.

Of forthcoming talks, lectures and conferences, Victoria University is holding a Symposium, “Blake In Our Time”, celebrating the life and work of renowned Blake scholar, G. E. Bentley, Jr., on August 28. On July 15-16, “Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century”, organised by Helen Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, will be running at the Christopher Room, Aldgate Church, Oxford, and the “Digital Romanticisms” conference at the University of Tokyo on May 22-23 will include a number of speakers discussing Blake’s work in the digital age.

Finally, The Blake Society also recently posted a reminder that it will be running its annual celebration of Blake’s life and work at his grave in Bunhill Fields. Anyone can come and participate, and this year Robin Hatton-Gore, the gardener in charge of the cemetary for many years, will talk about the topography of the site. The event takes place at noon on Sunday, August 15.

Hardcase Crime – John Blake’s lost innocence

Once in a while I encounter some Blakeana that floors me. Mike Goode, in an article from 2006 entitled “Blakespotting”, remarked on the frequently bizarre places that Blake occurs, whether Donald Trump’s library or cookery books, and the novels of the poorly aliased Richard Aleas are a mixture of joy and terror. Part of the Hardcase Crime series, Aleas has written two novels featuring the hardboiled P.I. John Blake.

Blake brings with him all the clichés of a Raymond Chandler novel – or rather, all the imitations of Chandler that are the stock and trade of Hardcase books.  There is plenty of sex and violence, but I haven’t worked out yet, beyond the detective’s name and titles of the book, what exactly these have to do with William Blake. Should I decide to indulge in the pleasures of Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence, then I may be enlightened – though I’m not holding my breath just yet.

The first of the two novels, Little Girl Lost, published in 2004, has Blake on the trail of the murderer of Miranda Sugarman, shot to death on the roof of a strip club when she was meant to be working as an eye doctor. The opening paragraphs are, as they say, a doozy:

Visiting a strip club in the middle of the day is like visiting a well-lit haunted house. The magic, such as it is, is gone. At night, the Sin Factory was probably decked out like a casino, with a flashing marquee and a tuxedoed bouncer checking IDs at the door. Maybe even a velvet rope to make the patrons feel special when they were let in. But at three in the afternoon there was no one at the door, the neon was turned off, and even the beat of the music leaking out into the street sounded sluggish and half-hearted.

Under glass in a frame on the door were photos of this week’s featured performers, Mandy Mountains and Rachel Firestone. In her photo, Mandy was cradling breasts some mad doctor had built for her out of equal measures of silicone and cruelty. Rachel’s photo showed a thin brunette straddling a chair backwards, her bare breasts peeking out between the slats. Judging by their shape, hers had gone under the knife as well, but next to Mandy’s, Rachel’s breasts looked almost modest. Either to keep the cops from complaining or to keep passers-by from getting too much of the show for free, management had stuck tiny silver stars over each woman’s nipples. Along the top of the frame, a printed card announced the dates on which each woman would be appearing. Rachel had more than a week left, but tonight was Mandy’s last night.

In the sequel, Songs of Innocence (2007), Blake is investigating a suicide in New York of Dorothy Louise Burke, an investigation that threatens to blow open the sex trade in New York.

Blake (William, rather than John) is not exactly a new fixture in genre crime writing – indeed, Michael Dibdin’s 1995 novel Dark Spectre has achieved a degree of respect among a few Blake critics, handling as it does some of his literary ideas with considerable aplomb and also dealing with the kind of casual misogyny that appears to exist in Aleas’s novels with much more intelligence. (I say appears because I must be honest and reveal that I’ve only read the sample chapters available from the Hardcase web site.)

While, from the little I’ve seen, Aleas doesn’t exactly give “Chandler a run for his money” as Paramour magazine claims, Kevin Burton Smith’s description of the novel as “classic pulp” is a fair one. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino should convert it into a script and mix it up with some good one liners from The Book of Thel

The Doors – Break on Through

Named after a line from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, transmitted via Aldous Huxley and The Doors of Perception, this is a particular favourite of mine that captures some of Blake’s own visionary perception.

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William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.