Blakespotting: Death metal Blake

There is an amusing skit on Blake that has gone viral in the past few weeks on Twitter and elsewhere on the web entitled “Death Metal Lyric or William Blake Quote?” (thanks also to Mike Goode for drawing my attention to this). The premise of the piece is perfect in its simplicity: ten quotes, of which the reader must decide whether they were written by William Blake or a death metal group, and while “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” could perhaps have been written by Zyklon for their charming track Chaos Deathcult, the final line of that song, “Every man is therefore guilty of all the good he did”, feels as though it should be from Blake. (Actually, it’s a variation of  Voltaire’s “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do” – though I prefer the rewrite).

You can read the original posting at, which thus draws attention to the many appropriations of Blake by metal acts. As the first major poet in western literature to declare himself knowingly of the devil’s party (although Blake’s Christian diabolism is very different to the rather bland Satanism that became popular after the 1960s), it’s hardly surprising that he should have attracted so many metal followers. Eli Petzfold’s post simply follows a common feeling among music fans (goth and punk as well as metal) that the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell would have made a great lyricist for any number of bands that have always been at odds with the mainstream. To paraphrase:

The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity, but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy, according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.
Thus one portion of being is Metal, the other Pop: to Pop it seems as if Metal was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
But Metal would cease to be Metal unless Pop, as a sea, recieved the excess of his delights.
Some will say: ‘Is not God alone Metal?’ I answer: ‘Metal only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.’
These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.

Blake as a metal inspiration is a constant riff (only a month or so ago I came across an interview with Jason Kolkey, lead singer of Deus Absconditus, on Blake as an influence), but here I’ll just concentrate on three.

The first is one of the grand old men of British metal, Bruce Dickinson, most notably on his album The Chemical Wedding (1998), which not only features Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea as its cover but also has several title tracks directly drawn from Blake, including “Jerusalem”, “Book of Thel” and “The Gates of Urizen“. (You can also hear the Dickinson tracks on The Blake Disco.) Dickinson has always had a pomp-rock inclination towards literary appropriations (I remember interminable playings of Iron Maiden’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” while at school), and the Blake-inspired tracks are, “Jerusalem” aside, loose interpretations based on Blakean themes. It seems to work with “The Gates of Urizen”, but “Book of Thel” leaves me very cold. As evidence, I’ll present a few lines from Blake’s and Dickinson’s respective Thels side by side:

Blake Dickinson
The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks.
All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air.
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard:
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.
O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall.
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud.
Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water.
Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face,
Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air;
Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head.
And gentle sleep the sleep of death. and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.
The mark is on you now
The furnace sealed inside your head
Melting from the inside now
Waxy tears run down your face
The whore that never told her tale
Relives it every night with you
Far off stands the lamb and waits
For the wolf to come and end its life
Stand inside the temple as the book of Thel is opening
The priestess stands before you, offering her hand out, she’s rising
Come the dawning of the dead
In famine and in war
Now the harlot womb of death
Spits out its rotten core
Serpent on the altar now
Has wrapped itself around your spine
So you look into its mouth
And you kiss the pearly fangs divine
Happy that your end is swift

All I can say is I think Dickinson was using a very poorly edited copy of Blake’s works.

Much more impressive are the offerings of Ulver and Thelema, for somewhat different reasons. Ulver has, indeed, attracted a fair bit of attention in Blake circles.  A Norwegian trio (their name is Norwegian for “wolves”) in the early part of their career Ulver were associated black metal music but, since their first album release in 1993, have moved in more experimental directions. Influenced by Scandinavian folktales and poetry, in 1998 they changed direction with Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This really is quite an impressive concept album (and even the prog-rock connotations of that term are appropriate in terms of the ambition of this work). You can listen to some samples from Themes on the Zoamorphosis blog.

My current favourite, however, is Thelema – partly, I’m sure, because of that sense of having “discovered” something that as yet has not been widely circulated among Blakeans. Thelema is a progressive death metal/experimental band from Gomel, Belarus, that formed in 2003, and its current lineup consists of four members including Alex Sedin on vocals. As well as two demos, On Heavenly Fields (2003) and Divine Image (2007), the group has released one album inspired by Blake’s poetry, Fearful Symmetry (2008). This is much more than the usual Blake-ripoff, and actually demonstrates something quite unusual: like Ulver, members of Thelema appear actually to have read some of Blake’s poetry (“The Crystal Cabinet”, for example, is hardly one that appears regularly in death metal music), and progressive death metal itself is an interesting spin-off from the multifarious sub-genres of metal, incorporating elements of jazz and funk. You can hear Thelema on the Blake Disco.

Any other bands that deserve a mention? Please leave your comments below.

A Vindication of the Daughters of Albion – Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was born in 1759, two years after William Blake, becoming one of the most important writers and thinkers of her day – although the full effects of her ideas were only to be felt a century after her death in 1797.

Wollstonecraft is, of course, most famous for her The Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792 and a follow-up to her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. While there were plenty of other answers to Burke, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man being the most famous, her defence of women’s rights was almost unique in the late eighteenth century.

While the Vindication had an important influence on Blake in the early 1790s, it was not the only link between him and Wollstonecraft. He knew both her and her future husband, William Godwin, through the publisher Joseph Johnson, and when Johnson decided to issue a second edition of her Original Stories from Real Life in 1791, Blake was hired to illustrate the book. Wollstonecraft, like Blake in Songs of Innocence, sought to take advantage of the growing market in children’s literature that existed in the final decades of the eighteenth century; Wollstonecraft’s aim was to demonstrate that women would be rational if educated properly, and while it is hard to imagine Blake agreeing with her emphasis on reason, he nonetheless produced six charming illustrations for the edition.

It was the Vindication, however, that appeared to have a more profound effect, most notably on Visions of the Daughters of Albion which he produced a year after Wollstonecraft’s extremely important tract. Ever since R. M. James’s paper on the reception of the Vindication in 1798, it has been recognised that her book was greeted with favourable rather than horrified reviews – those didn’t follow until Godwin’s ill-advised memoirs were published in 1798. As such, Blake’s positive response to the book was not unique – but it was exceptional for a male writer to devote a substantial work to her ideas. (I welcome corrections and amendments on this point, by the way, from any readers.)

In Visions, Oothoon, travelling to her lover Theotormon, is taken and raped by a rival, Bromion. Theotormon, discovering the pair, binds them together in a fit of jealousy, holding them both responsible for the crime and, at the end of the book, Oothoon responds with a powerful soliloquy denouncing masculine laws:

How can the giver of gifts experience the delights of the merchant?
How the industrious citizen the pains of the husbandman.
How different far the fat fed hireling with hollow drum;
Who buys whole corn fields into wastes, and sings upon the heath:
How different their eye and ear! how different the world to them!
With what sense does the parson claim the labour of the farmer?
What are his nets & gins & traps. & how does he surround him
With cold floods of abstraction, and with forests of solitude,
To build him castles and high spires. where kings & priests may dwell.
Till she who burns with youth. and knows no fixed lot; is bound
In spells of law to one she loaths: and must she drag the chain
Of life, in weary lust! (plate 5:12-23)

There are significant and important differences between Blake’s conception of proto-feminism and Wollstonecraft’s, an emphasis on sexuality rather than reason, for example – while subsequent lines in which Oothoon imagines procuring women for an orgy with Theotormon are troubling (Helen Bruder may be correct in seeing these as an example of just how far Oothoon is compromised by her slavery, rather than an expression of fantasies on Blake’s part). Nonetheless, what is most powerful about these lines and the poem as a whole is the way that Blake can move from the specifics of sexual oppression, for example within marriage, to an understanding of the wider extension of patriarchy and power.

Later Blake, for me, is much more disappointing with regard to his opinions on gender and sexuality: there is too much inveighing against “female will”, and while that brief dismissal does not cover anything like the complexity of his thought, this is one area that I am not willing to let him off the hook and race towards a positive interpretation. He was a great writer who sometimes rose above the conditions of his sex – but not always. One thing that is remarkable about his early work, however (and this is something that appears to have preceded his encounters with Wollstonecraft, or at least publication of the Vindication), is that he was a writer who, for a while at least, had a full and sincere appreciation of women’s conditions, not only their oppression but also what joys of motherhood, learning and general life were available to them in the late eighteenth century – joys that were often dismissed and denigrated by his more powerful contemporaries.

A Japanese Joke – Peter Porter and William Blake

As with a number of people, I was saddened to hear about the death of Peter Porter on Friday, although gladdened that he had reached the marvellous age of 81. Born in Brisbane, Australia, Porter had moved to Britain in 1951 where, aside from a short return to Australia, he was to remain until his death.

There were some tragedies throughout his life but many more successes, including notable awards (the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1988, the Queen’s Gold Medal in 2002, and many more) and nomination for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2004 and election to the Royal Society of Literature in 2009.

Porter’s interest in Blake was sometimes oblique and not necessarily an obvious one, although it was probably as a satiric poet that he responded more to the earlier Romantic. The only poetic allusion I know is that in one of the series of “Japanese Jokes” published in The Last of England (1970):

William Blake, William
Blake, William Blake, William Blake,
say it and feel new!

The series of haiku of which this is part forms a mocking response to writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Michael Horovitz’s collection, Children of Albion, published the previous year. Porter’s membership of The Group was hardly likely to make him amenable to the hippie re-appropriation of Blake taking place in the late sixties and early seventies and, among other things, The Last of England offered a different type of anger at the old country of England compared to the giddiness of Horovitz’s Blakean “Afterwords”.

However, while Porter could cite Blake mockingly, this was as much because of what he considered to be a misappropriation of the poet. In 1986 he wrote an introduction to a selection of Blake’s verse that was published by Oxford, with illustrations from Blake’s art. As one of the Illustrated Poets series, I remember owning a copy of this in my early twenties (now sadly lost as a search of book shelves revealed last night). It was a very compact book, which I would sometimes carry around and read. As such, Porter’s death is doubly sad for me: he wasn’t the writer who introduced me to Blake, but he did ensure that the Romantic was a companion for me in a very literal sense.

Peter Porter: February 16, 1929 – April 23, 2010.

Forthcoming conferences and events

A number of conferences and symposia dealing with aspects of Blake’s work are to be held over the coming months.

The first of these, a two-day conference on Digital Romanticisms on May 22-23 at the University of Tokyo, is not devoted exclusively to Blake but will include a large contingent of international scholars exploring changes in the definition and rationale of romantic studies that have occurred due to recent technological innovations. While exploring romantic studies generally can accommodate such issues as reproducibility, transfer, ownership, access, and dissemination, several papers are devoted to exploring the impact of such elements as the Blake Archive and the challenges posed by Web 2.0 technologies. For further information, see the HASTAC listing.

St Aldgate’s Church, Oxford will host a two-day conference on Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century, on July 15-16. The conference will explore present and future directions opened up since publication of Irene Taylor’s “The Woman Scaly”, exploring how critics have wrestled and struggled with, delighted in and savoured, Blake’s provocative and abundant sexual visions. The event will celebrate and build upon past knowledge as it reaches toward likely concerns of the future. It will also be preceded by a workshop at Tate Britain focussing on the new Blake acquisitions by the gallery.

On August 28, there will be a symposium on Blake In Our Time at Victoria University, part of the University of Toronto. This celebrates the legacy of G. E. Bentley and looks to the future of Blake studies, with We encourage papers exploring new directions and approaches to the study of Blake using manuscript archives, new online resources, forgeries and oddities, Blake’s commercial engravings, and variations in Blake’s illuminated books, as well as studies of the major collections amassed by private scholar-collectors.

For any other events that you would like to see promoted on, please use the Contact link in the top menu and enter “Events” in the line underneath Subject.

The new Blakes at the Tate

On Monday, during a visit to Tate Britain, I had a chance to see the William Blake prints that have recently been acquired by Tate and are currently undergoing restoration.

Tate purchased the eight prints at the beginning of this year, with funds largely raised by members and patrons (you can read the original news story here). A certain romanticism has already started to accrue to the prints – most notably their discovery inside a railway timetable (a small myth that caused at least one of the conservationists to roll his eyes in disdain). In any case, the collection is undoubtedly beautiful, consisting of eight prints from an original series of ten according to the numbers on the pages. Six of these are taken from The Book of Urizen, with the other two being drawn from The Book of Thel and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The works had apparently been loaned for a 2007 exhibition at Tate, but this was my first chance to see them in detail.

One of the most fascinating features of the prints, beyond the immediate, vivid colouring of dark blues and turquoise, bold, fiery orange-golds and reds and, of course, Blake’s powerful designs, was the patina of dirt and mild abuse that had built up in the intervening two centuries, traces of the material history of the prints subsequent to Blake’s composition and execution. The starkest example of this was the print taken from the final plate of The Book of Thel, which has thick fold lines in the paper where someone had probably wrapped its corners to fit it into an oval frame. As David Worrall remarked, the chances were that an owner of these prints identified this single image as the only one really suitable for public display, the others being shuffled away somewhere into a private portfolio. Similarly, the stab holes alongside each image indicate that at some point all were bound together, but the absence of creases indicates that they were not viewed as a book, instead simply being gathered together for safe keeping.

All the images found here were originally produced as part of Blake’s composite art, combining text and image to convey the prophetic messages of Blake’s illuminated books. As with his Small Book of Designs, however, it is quite clear that the original collector, while interested in Blake’s visual art, had little time for the artist’s idiosyncratic poetry. As such, the relief etchings were masked off so that no text was displayed and then worked up as painted copies, with hand drawn borders surrounding the printed area.

The prints are due to go on display at Tate Britain in July 2010 before being included as part of a major exhibition at the Pushkin Gallery in 2011.