As the month that marked the 260th anniversary of the birth of William Blake, November began with a bang rather than a whimper as U2 announced on the very first day that they would release a new album, Songs of Experience, in December as well as embark on a new North American tour, Innocence + Experience in May 2018. If there remained any doubt as to the source of U2’s inspiration, publicity materials made it quite clear who was being referenced in their work:
Songs of Experience is the companion release to 2014’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, the two titles drawing inspiration from a collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience, by the 18th century English mystic and poet William Blake. Produced by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder, with Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow and Jolyon Thomas, the album features a cover image by Anton Corbijn of band-members’ teenage children Eli Hewson and Sian Evans.
Preceding the album launch in early December, largely positive reviews began to appear. Variety declared it the band’s best since How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Alexis Petridis at The Guardian called it a “fantastic return to form” and Rolling Stone thought it a mature and thoughtful album.
One of the biggest bands releasing an album based on Blake’s 1794 illuminated book would be enough by itself in most months, but the start of November also saw a programme by another major name, the author Philip Pullman whose collection of essays, Daemon Voices, was serialised for Radio 4. The final episode, “Soft Beulah’s Night – William Blake and Vision”, was broadcast at the end of October and was available throughout early November, part of a series of events to celebration of the publication of La Belle Sauvage on October 19, volume one of The Book of Dust, the prequel to the trilogy His Dark Materials.
Aside from U2, November saw a number of other Blakean-themed musical events and releases. CityPages.com included an interview with Thomas Abban (looking for all the world like a young Marc Bolan), who listed William Blake among his influences on his 2017 debut album, A Sheik’s Legacy. Another debut album, Mercy Works by Toronto post-punk band Casper Skulls, also draws upon Blake’s work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for the track “What’s That Good For” and was reviewed at NowToronto.com. Longstanding Blake aficionado, Michael Horovitz, played with the William Blake Klezmatrix Band at the Royal Albert Hall on November 16 in anticipation of a new spoken word album, Lyrical Soulmates. DIY Magazine carried a review of Nabihah Iqbal’s latest tracks, ‘Eternal Passion’ and ‘Zone 1 To 6000’, which are influenced by the poetry of Blake and Matthew Arnold, and the new video by another post-punk band, The Soft Moon, for a track “It Kills” from the forthcoming album Sacred Bones, takes inspiration from Blake’s quote, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained”. Finally in terms of music, Martha Redbone was performing from her album, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, in East Tennessee on November 30.
There were several Blake-related book reviews: Langdon Hammer’s piece on a new edition of Hart Crane’s long poem, The Bridge, drew attention to the considerable influence of Blake on Crane, most notably in his essay on Stieglitz, whereby he saw Stieglitz’s photography as capable of expressing Blake’s notion that “We are led to believe a lie / When we see with not through the eye.” Similarly, The Sydney Morning HeraldMaurice Sendak carried a charming piece on , reminding readers of his significance as a Blake collector. And lest we forget, apparently Dan Brown’s new novel, Origin, includes a Blakean reference as a necessary clue. One of my particular favourites from the month was a piece by Zen Pencils, a reworking of Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ as a tale of school sports envy.
Regarding exhibitions and events, The National Trust announced that it would be holding an exhibition, William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, at Petworth House, Sussex, from 13 January to March 25. From 1800 to 1803, Blake lived in nearby Felpham (where he began work on Milton and Jerusalem, his great, prophetic books), and the exhibition will bring together works from Tate, the British Museum and the V&A to complement works acquired by George Wyndham, third Earl of Egremont, from Blake, most famously the Vision of the Last Judgement. Tickets are currently available at £12 for National Trust members, £18 for the general public. The Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, which opened on November 10, had as its highlights two original etchings from Blake’s Songs of Innocence, provided by the great Blake collector, John Windle, who last year opened a gallery devoted entirely to Blake in San Francisco. There was also a new performance of Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem at the Abbey Theatre, St Albans, starring Marlon Gill.
November also saw a series of events and news coming out of the Block Museum, Northwestern University, Illinois, as a prelude to their exhibition, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius and the accompanying book of the same name, published October 17. The first event in November was a lecture by Michael Philips, ‘Printing in the Infernal Method’: William Blake’s ‘Illuminated Printing’, which took place on November 3 and explained Blake’s invention of relief etching in the contexts of eighteenth-century printmaking. By the end of the month, reviews of the exhibition were beginning to appear, such as this one from The Huffington Post, and others by the Evanston Magazine. and Buzzflash.com.