Review: John Higgs – William Blake Now

During my near thirty years of studying Blake, there have been plenty of books and articles that I have been sent which cross the normal boundaries of academia and publishing and are also given as an act of friendship. I have a strong suspicion that this is something that is more common in Blake studies than elsewhere, but it is something that I felt very strongly upon reading John Higgs’ William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever.

This slender non-fiction title, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is not an academic text at all (and I mean that neither as a slight to William Blake Now, nor as a stab at my own profession). One thing that has always intrigued me about Blake is how he appeals to thoughtful readers outside academia: of course, this is also true of a number of writers and artists – Jane Austen is a contemporary of Blake who has a vibrant afterlife beyond the university – but Blake is one of those who has never been owned by the hirelings such as myself who populate universities. In this short book, Higgs provides nine essays – a series of brief spots of time (or, better, moments in each day that Satan cannot find) that are placed at angles to each other, like the surfaces of a gemstone. They form a wonderfully personal and frequently polemical consideration of Blake’s value to our contemporary times, that future age to which he called in works such as Milton a Poem.

That personal response is evident in the opening chapter, which brilliantly paints the occasion of the unveiling of Blake’s new grave – a stone commissioned by the Blake Society to mark the newly discovered spot where Blake’s body lay. Delighting in the sight of celebrities mingling with the hoi-polloi (as, indeed, it should be), Higgs remarks the Romantic’s unusual ability “to reach across society” (p.3) before focussing on his relationship with the English Beat writer, Brian Barritt, who stimulated his interest in Blake. Standing before Blake’s grave, Higgs has a revelation or vision, that he sees the golden thread that connects the engraver, writer and artist to our own age. For him, it is clear that the Beats form an important strand in that thread, bound through in the next chapter when he discusses the influence of Blake on Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Patti Smith. There has been a huge amount of interest in Blake and the Age of Aquarius in recent years – not least Linda Freedman’s William Blake and the Myth of America and Stephen Eisenman’s edited collection William Blake and the Age of Aquarius. Higgs clearly feels this connection strongly, but this is his entry point, the doorway to Blake’s influence: as he wrily remarks – “The 1960s were a long time ago… We are in a very different world now.” (p.15)

The relevance of Blake to now emerges in the following two essays. In some respects, the first of these – entitled, simply, “London” – is the most important. The Song of Experience is famously one of the most profound poems ever written on the city, and Higgs’s personal reflections on that poem lead him into a discussion of Englishness and national identity in which, amidst the divided Britain of Brexit, both remain and leave may be contraries of a personal character: “if you don’t have love for your home and neighbours, then any proclamation of love for those further away is suspect… if you condemn groups of strangers far away, then how true is your love for your home and neighbours really?” (pp.22-3) It is an optimistic vision of a division too often defined by rancour, but in the end both contraries must learn that opposition is true friendship if this island is ever to be more than a disunited kingdom.

The following chapter, “Blake Now”, is one for my blushes as my own observations on the froth of Blakespotting (a favourite activity of mine) form the basis for a multiplicity of scattered references to the poet and artist in computer games, films and social media. For Higgs, such sightings are rarely more than superficial: for my part, I delight in such superficiality as well as the deep struggles with Blake’s meaning, but this is one of those points where it feels I am reading (and mentally conversing with) an old friend, making the book a very personal delight. The following two chapters, as with so much of the book, are very personal and insightful considerations on the topics of understanding Blake and remembering him. The former returns once more to Blake’s grave, and the words of Bruce Dickinson as an example that “understanding Blake is not knowledge that you possess but an activity that you undertake” (p.34). The notion of a Blakean praxis or activity is one that is not pursued enough: after thirty years of studying Blake, I am never entirely sure that I understand the strange and wonderful visions that he wrote, engraved and painted, but I feel most profoundly that from those studies I have joyfully learned the error that comes when “you see with, not through, the eye”.

“On Being Remembered” dealswith the vagaries of reception and influence, particularly through the works of artists such as Tracey Emin who invoked Blake in her 2017 retrospective. Certainly his influence is much more wide-reaching than that of much more famous contemporaries, perhaps precisely because he is so difficult to possess as knowledge rather than practice. As a primary artist of imagination, the subject of the following essay, Blake has led many writers, artists and filmmakers to pursue their own vision – to create their own systems rather than be enslaved by others – and Higgs ends his collection with a wonderfully idiosyncratic reflection of a visionary experience of his own on Primrose Hill. It is London that perhaps resonates most with him; certainly it is the poem he returns to, tracing the protests of Extinction Rebellion and the opening of the London Olympics to the vision of London that appeared in Songs of Experience. Blake, perhaps more than anyone, with his profound insights into perception, art, spirituality and politics, “has prepared us for the world we find ourselves in.” (69)

John Higgs, William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019. 79pp. £5.99.

 

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