Visions of Saint Maud

As with so many other cultural events during 2020, Saint Maud, the directorial debut by Rose Glass, fell victim to the pandemic. Having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, UK and American distribution rights were quickly picked up and the film was meant to have been issued on general release in Spring 2020, after being specially commended at the BFI London Film Festival. It did – eventually – receive a limited release in October 2020 and was issuef on DVD and streaming services in February 2021, but this is an intelligent psychological horror movie that has not received as large an audience it deserves, despite high praise from a number of critics.

This review – unsurprisingly – is concerned with a particular set of Blakean themes that run through the film. The plot is intriguing in its mundane, everyday qualities that hint at the potential terrors of everyday life: we are introduced to Maud (played by Morfydd Clark) in a brief, unexplained incident as she sits, almost comatose, beside a patient who has clearly suffered a violent death. From here, the story segues immediately to her more ascetic existence as a hospice nurse, one who has recently converted to Catholicism and is now caring for a former dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Filmed in Scarborough, the movie depicts the soul-crushing ennui of many English seaside towns with little in the way of relief from bitter existence – places where too many people turn to drugs or fleeting sexual euphoria to try and escape. There are subtle hints that this was the kind of life Maud (who has changed her name from Katie) lived prior to her current position, but she now obsesses over her faith in god – an obsession that all too easily transposes itself onto Amanda. Disapproving of Amanda’s relics of a bohemian lifestyle – in particular her lesbian relationship with Carol (Lily Frazer) who she pays for sex – Maud soon oversteps her boundary and, after a pettily humiliating incident, is banished from her post.

The film is a brilliant three-way relationship between Maud, Amanda and Glass as writer and director, with excellent walk-on parts for other characters such as Frazer and a former friend, Joy (Lily Knight). It is telling that, with very minor exceptions, this is a movie that seeks to explore women’s obsessions and desires more or less entirely through female eyes. Indeed, the only significant man in the movie is one recorded in absentia – William Blake.

Blake is introduced in passing, as a single volume on a bookshelf that is generally more concerned with earthly matters. A number of critics have noted the signficance of Amanda’s gift of the book – a copy of Morton Paley’s 1978 Phaidon edition of Blake’s prints, but this first glimpse of the Romantic is subtly significant: the book is literally off centre, and when Amanda gives it to Maud it is of less significance to her than Maud believes. Instead of being the beginning of some deep bond between the two women, this is a casual – almost careless – offloading of soemthing that means very little to the dancer who is now dying of cancer.

As with so many things, however, Maud completely misreads the importance of this act. Immersed in the shallows of her religious experience, with little to guide her as she heads out towards deeper waters, she pores over Blake’s images. We are given delightful dead ends – not least the fleeting glimpse of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun, which of course intimates another psychological horror, Francis Dolarhyde becoming the Satanic entity in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. It is, however, the colour print of The Good and Evil Angels, one clothed in fire, the other shrouded in blue, fighting over a child who is symbolic of the human soul in this struggle of contraries. Such is this image that, later in the film, we see that Maud has cut it out with several other of the paintings to create a shrine to her religious monomania, and it becomes doubly significant to the terrifying final frame of the movie (which involves a spoiler below).

Blake, then, is a regular pulse throughout the film. An amusing reaction by some commentators is that it is this engagement with Blake which leads Maud into her deep obsession, but in truth Maud doesn’t really understand Blake at all. What she fails to perceive is that she controls the doors of perception, and it becomes clear at an early stage that the terrifying, disturbing elements of the movie are distortions caused by Maud’s own senses: if only she could cleanse them, instead of being trapped inside herself she would perceive the universe as it really is – infinite. This is revealed in a stunning scene in which God talks directly to Maud in Welsh, the language of her own unconscious; instead of recognising that the divine image is inside her, she projects it outwards onto the universe and thus obeys a false, Urizenic deity.

That this can only end in tragedy is evidenced by the fatal conclusions of the film. When she witnesses Amanda become a devil, we are not seeing the debate between a Blakean angel and devil but instead Maud’s own hallucinations that cannot distinguish reality from fantasy – and which have, ultimately, nothing to do with the power of imagination. As Glass has indicated in various interviews, the last scene in which Maud, having doused herself in acetone which she then sets alight, witnesses herself as an angel is entirely wish fulfilment and false perception. The film ends with a truly horrific, split second scene in which we see Maud as she truly is – screaming in intense agony as she burns to death, a kind of reversal of the final frames of another fascinating horror movie, Midsommar, in which the tormented heroine finally breaks into a monstrous grimace as she realises she has come home.

This terrible finale is an inverted apotheosis: instead of becoming the heavenly angel, Maud is revealed as the flaming devil she has unconsciously revered throughout the movie. It is clear that Katie – the pleasure-seeking, hedonistic woman who changed her name to Maud – had never disappeared but was, rather, simply repressed. Had Maud been able to come to terms with the devil inside her, rather than simply seeking to crush it with the suffocating presence of a false god, then she would have spared herself the frightening, pitiful immolation of her own, perverted energies. As Blake had written in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.” Incapable of seeing herself as she truly is, Maud has restrained Katie and, inevitably, the return of the repressed is monstrous horror rather than a marriage of the divine and the diabolical.

Blakespotting, February 2021

Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud

The passing of an era was marked at the end of the month by the death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, described by Global Times as “the last great poet of the Beat Generation who helped to establish the counter-culture movement”. Born in 1919, Felinghetti was famous for setting up City Lights bookstore and publisher, through which he issued key books of the Beats – most notably Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 – and he was a key thinker in the political and moral stance of the counter-culture over the coming decades. He was also, with Ginsberg, a keen enthusiast of Blake, becoming involved in Ginsberg’s 1970s project to record a number of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He was recorded in 1972 singing “Ah! Sunflower”, “The Garden of Love” and “The Nurse’s Song” with John Fahey, and in an interview in 2016 he explained the importance of Blake’s poems to Ginsberg’s own works.

While exhibitions have been a rare occurrence in the age of pandemic lockdowns, one such event in February showed the ways in which Blake’s art remain relevant to contemporary practitioners. Richard Ayodeji Ikhide’s Future Past opened on 11 February at V.O Curations, the first of its exhibitions to mark the new gallery in Mayfair. Nigerian-born Ikhide who studied textile design at Central Saint Martins and a postgraduate diploma at the Royal Drawing School, has been artist in residence at V.O and draws on a wide range of inspirations, from prehistoric Japanese culture to European artists such as El Greco and Blake. In an interview with Steve Turner, he recounts how for his postgraduate studies he had to select an artist for his presentation:

I selected William Blake and I am so happy that I did. His emphasis on imagination, spirituality and open-mindedness resonated with me. I love that he railed against slavery in his poems and that he built his own mythology.

Future Past is open until 20 March and selections of his work can be seen in the Steve Turner online solo exhibition, Cosmic Memory.

Another cultural casualty of the COVID has, of course, been the film industry. Saint Maud, a British psychological horror movie that follows a hospice nurse, Maud, and her obsession with a former dancer in her care, received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and was slated for general release in April and May 2020. It was eventually shown on some screens in the UK in October 2020, but only received a limited US release in the USA at the end of January 2021, the same date that it appeared on DVD in Britain. Although it was well-received in the UK, American reviews were more mixed throughout February: the Chicago Tribune that some would appreciate the religious themes in the film “more than others”, while the Boston Globe recommended it even for those fans of horror whose tastes ran in a different direction. The movie’s difference in part stems from the work of writer/director Rose Glass, and performances by Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, and the Blakean connection is a gift of a book of Blake’s drawings made by the dancer Amanda (Ehle) to Maud (Clark). We’ll be following up with a review shortly.

One thoughtful article to appear during February was Pete Yeo’s ecocritical meditation on an evergreen and pleasant land for Finding Blake. First published by the University of York’s Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, Yeo’s work was adapted to make explicit the ways that he draws on Blake stanzas from Milton a Poem – more famously known as the hymn “Jerusalem” – for an understanding of the changing climate of Britain’s evergreen plant life. The long view of the biodiversity of the British Isles does, of course, show us a land which was not always so green and pleasant, not least when it was covered in ice age glaciers, yet contemplating the deep time of life in this corner of the Atlantic also leads Yeo to reflect on the comparisons between spirituality and unified physics, most aptly caught for him in Blake’s lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Blake’s biblical paintings for Thomas Butts

I shall be making a presentation about my new book,  Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, to the Blake Society this Wednesday (17 February). The following is an extract from the book which references some of the paintings I’ll be discussing on Wednesday.

The starting commission [for Thomas Butts] was a series of fifty-three paintings illustrating the Bible, the majority of which were completed in 1799 although some were painted when the Blakes were in Felpham. For these works, Butts paid more than £400. Of the series, only thirty remain of which seven deal with subjects from the Old Testament, and the remainder from the New Testament. The medium for these paintings was tempera, water-based pigments bound with gum or glue, and they were intended as “cabinet paintings”, smaller pieces that could be hung on the walls of the Butts’ residence. When composing his paintings, Blake applied the pigment in multiple layers, often reinforcing outlines with black ink and glazing the finished work with glue. The editors of the Blake Archive say that Blake may have been trying to create “jewel-like paintings”, as he later described them in his Descriptive Catalogue as “enamels” and “precious stones” (E531). A number of the temperas were also painted on copper, further enhancing their jewel-like nature. Unfortunately, the medium was unstable as the different layers expanded and contracted at different rates – leading to cracking – while the carpenters glue used by Blake frequently dulled and browned over time. 

 

Despite these problems with Blake’s medium, some of the paintings in the series that have survived demonstrate his astonishing imagination when dealing with biblical subjects. Naomi Billingsley is correct to point out that we should be careful of ascribing too clear an understanding of the series as earlier critics, such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson have done. While the temptation is to treat these as some kind of narrative journey demonstrating Blake’s understanding of the role of Christ, we simply no longer have the complete sequence of paintings and such a story “may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” Rather, over a period of four years, these were biblical subjects that appealed to both Blake and Butts, although the fact that five of the extant paintings are larger than the rest (around 30 by 50 cm rather than 27 x 38 cm) and all illustrate the life of Christ indicate that these were intended as a series.  

 

The paintings as a whole do not need to be seen as explaining a consistent Christology, but there are clear innovations that mark these out as separate to Blake’s contemporaries. In his depiction of The Nativity, for example, Jesus springs from Mary in an entirely unrealistic but wholly inspirational fashion, a glowing ideal who leaps towards the outstretched hands of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. Likewise, as Billingsley demonstrates with comparisons to contemporary art works such as J. M. W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), Blake’s images renounce any form of naturalism: they are intended to inspire the viewer to consider the nature of Christ rather than to seek out the historical Jesus. Two very striking images are from Old Testament subjects. The first, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, is another image painted on copper, and while it also uses tempera with glue or gum binder as well as pen and ink outlines, the use of gold highlights make this image shine. This would be a technique that Blake would use several times – most notably with the coloured copy of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion – to make his art works shine in a literal act of illumination. Blake’s study of the subject is also unique – and one that he would return to several times throughout his career. Eve, naked, stands full-frontal to the viewer with no shame or modesty, befitting entirely her status before the fall: she is an example of the human form divine that will be lost when mankind seeks to cover up its glorious nakedness. Adam is asleep next to her – the last time that man will sleep in such an innocent state – and the serpent coils alongside her body, for all the world appearing more like a wingless dragon than the typical snake of Christian art. The scene is dark and foreboding, prefiguring the collapse of the world that will take place, yet because Blake is deliberately capturing Eve in her innocence, the overall effect is startling: as she reaches up for the apple, which we cannot see, she seems fully confident. It would be tempting to see her as revelling in the act of taking the forbidden fruit, but I think this is to misinterpret the scene: Eve does not yet know sin – the expression on her face is calm and peaceful, more like representations of the Buddha than the accusatory depictions of the fallen woman who “Brought Death into the World, and all our woe / With loss of Eden” (Paradise Lost, I.1-2). We are presented with mankind at the final moment before the Fall, and this picture for me inspires incredible sadness at what will be lost. 

 

Another image in the series continues ththeme of the fall in an even more disturbing way: Abraham and Isaac shows the two figures standing between an altar prepared with wood to burn a sacrifice and a thicket where a ram is caught, illustrating Genesis 22.13: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” Blake, however, has done something very disturbing in his rendition of this line – as Billingsley observes, the clothed Abraham is a passive figure looking up towards heaven in sorrow for the act he is about to commit, while it is Isaac, naked and dynamic, who sees the ram that will substitute for him in an act of sacrifice. Abraham in his long robe with arms outstretched, a curved knife held in one hand, is reminiscent of Blake’s depictions of the druids, and his pose makes him similar to Urizen in America a Prophecy. Rather than passive, he may even be seen to be impassive, implacable in the face of the demands of human sacrifice. Isaac, by contrast, is innocent and unafraid: as Billingsley correctly points out, it is his childlike perception that sees more clearly the way to reconcile god and man as opposed to the false religion followed by his father.

The talk will take place at 8pm (UK time) on Zoom. It is free and all are welcome, but the Blake Society asks for visitors to register in advance via this link.

Blakespotting, January 2021

2021 began with a suitable Blakean bang (rather than a whimper) with a New Year’s Eve performance by Patti Smith, streamed at Picadilly Circus as part of a month-long takeover organised by the digital platform CIRCA. Included in her performances throughout the month were recitals of “The Divine Image” and “The Tyger”, as well as 2021: A New Year inspired by her “Blakean Year” poem.

While Smith’s words were a bright spot in what has been a dark beginning to the year, one of the best presents for Blake scholars to begin the new year was the announcement by the Blake Archive that they were making available a digital edition of Poetical Sketches, the collection of juvenilia and early work that Blake produced between c. 1769 and 1777, and which was published with the support of John Flaxman and the circle attached to Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet. While those who supported its publication (along with Blake, it seems) did not appear to hold the volume in especially high regard, it has since the time of Gilchrist at least been recognised as an important contribution to the development of what would become known as Romanticism. The digital edition itself is available at http://www.blakearchive.org/work/bb128, and additional news of the development of that addition (from the copy owned by Charles Tulk) can be found at https://blog.blakearchive.org/2021/01/14/publication-blakes-poetical-sketches/.

January saw the second issue of a new comic launched at the end of 2020. Written by Paul Grist (whose previous work includes Judge Dredd), with art by Grist, Andrea di Vito and R. B. Silva, The Union tells of a team of super heroes gathered from all over the UK and led by Britannia. When disaster strikes in the form of a foreign invasion, that team is pushed to their limits in this satire on Brexit. The Blake connection is, of course – as Bleeding Cool News points out – the inevitable reference to the hymn Jerusalem. Other comic news included a review of G. E. Gallas’s excellent work, The Poet and the Flea (originally published in 2016) in Comicsbeat.

While film references to Blake have taken a hit as the medium (like theatre, concerts and exhibitions) finds a new way to deal with the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, his appeal to writers continues to be in evidence. Thus John Higgs, whose William Blake vs The World is due out in May, spoke to The Quietus about the esoteric history of Eddie the Head, the mascot of Iron Maiden whose lead singer Bruce Dickinson has long been a Blake fan.

In other news, actor, musician, member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and lifelong Blake aficionado, Kris Krostofferson, announced his retirement at the age of 85. As a reminder of his love for the Romantic poet, Best Classic Bands reminded readers of his assertion in the Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music, that Blake’s poetry “is telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”

 

Blake Bites: short videos on William Blake

With the release of Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, published by Reaktion Books on 15 March, 2021, I’m starting to make a number of short videos based on the text of that book.

Titled “Blake Bites”, each of these is a short (3-4) minute video that focuses on a particular poem or art work by Blake. The first two are now live and can be viewed on my YouTube channel, Zoavision. In this case, they deal with “The Ancient of Days” and “The Tyger”, and you can watch them both below.

I intend to make new videos on a weekly or fortnightly basis, so please do consider subscribing to the channel.

Phaze Theory: Live at Balabam

As the tumultuous year that was 2020 comes finally to an end, this is an opportunity to return to a pleasurable task that I had meant to undertake just as the first COVID-related lockdown was taking hold. In April, the art-rock group, Phaze Theory, had released an album and concert video, Live at Balabam, which brought together their love of esoterica, W. B. Yeats and William Blake.

Based in London, the group was founded in 2014 by Christopher Barrett (on tuba), Tal Janes (guitar) and Marco Quarantotto (drums), and released their first album, Phaze Theory, in 2017. While that album owed more to Yeats (with tracks that included “Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Dialogue of Self and Soul”) it also included an astonishing burst of Blakeana in the form of “The Angel”, in which Barrett’s ominous blasts create a disturbing vortex from which bursts Janes’ jazz guitar and Ray Jones wonderful vocals. It was exciting, dynamic and truly beautiful.

A year later, the group – now joined by singer Irini Arabatzi – had gathered at the Balabam music venue in Tottenham, an event which would be recorded as their new album. Again comprising a mixture of occultural-inspired songs, some of which Phaze Theory had already played at other clubs such as the Vortex and Bird’s Nest, this album brings together a wider selection of Blake’s songs, most notably The Little Girl Lost and The Little Girl Found, as well as How Sweet I Roam’d from the Poetical Sketches (and for the inclusion of which I might have been partially responsible…)

The live album begins with a somewhat more laid-back, slightly melancholy feel on “Into the Twilight” which perfectly matches the mournful sense of Yeats’s poem from The Wind Among the Reeds, with Arabatzi’s vocals perfectly complementing the mellow harmonies of the three musicians. By contrast, “The Little Girl Lost” marks a significant transition towards the art-occult forms that the band like to explore, using free jazz forms to break away from tonal chord progressions and instead evoke Blake’s Song of Experience as a mysterious search of the soul among caverns deep and beasts of prey. Its companion piece, “The Little Girl Found”, focusses on Janes’s guitar and Arabatzi’s voice to create a harmonious resolution – Lyra returned to her parents as the soul returns to its home.

“The Little Girl Found” is beautiful, but my personal soft spot remains “How Sweet I Roam’d”. Published in Blake’s first collection, Poetical Sketches, in 1784, it is one of his most perfectly lyrical songs and has been frequently been set to music, beginning with Henry Balfour Gardner in 1895 and most famously by The Fugs on the 1970 album, Golden Filth. Although it has been a popular poem for different musicians and groups, Phaze Theory make the song entirely their own – a mystical, dreamy vision of a lost Spring in which melodious voice and instruments hover within harmonies while lilting away into slight dissonances that match perfectly the underlying discord of Blake’s original poem (and, it must be said, which segue perfectly into the next track, Mohini Chatterjee).

Phaze Theory have been described as a combination of Miles Davies, Led Zeppelin and William Blake (which very much underestimates the importance of Yeats at least). Live at Balabam certainly shows them as inheritors of Blake’s musical mantle – and is a reminder of happier times for live performances and a hope that it will not be too much longer before we can see them again.

You can hear Live at Balabam on Spotify and support them by downloading from their web site. Some of the live recordings from the concert can be seen on YouTube.

Dmitri Smirnov: 1948-2020

Along with a number of people, I have been extremely saddened to hear the recent news of the death of Dmitri Smirnov, the Russian-born composer whose love for Blake was such that he became a committed Anglophile and spent most of his career creating stunning and innovative compositions that set a multitude of Blake’s works to music.

Having contracted COVID-19, he passed away on Thursday, 9 April, leaving behind his wife – herself a great composer of note – and their children, Alissa and Philip. I had been in correspondence a few times with him because of our shared love for Blake, and there follows a piece I wrote on him as part of a wider essay dealing with the musical reception of Blake in Europe:

When Fitch was compiling his original catalogue in the late eighties, however, he noted that Soviet-bloc nations had yet to discover Blake, with two startling exceptions (1989, xxiv). Elena Firsovas (b. 1950) Proritzanye (Augury) is an impressive large-scale symphony composed in 1987-88, but it is the work of her husband, Dmitrii Smirnov (b. 1948), which demonstrates one of the deepest and most impressive engagements with Blake among the works of any composer. Born in 1948 in Minsk, Smirnov studied with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov and Yury Kholopov at the Moscow Conservatoire, as well as being influenced by Philip Herschkowitz, who introduced him to the serialism of Anton Webern, which Smirnov would combine with Franco-Russian sensualism (Smirnov no date). One of the most important Russian modernist composers, and one of the founders of the Association for Contemporary Music in Moscow in 1990, he and his wife moved to England in 1991.

The influence of Blake on Smirnov cannot be understated, beginning with his piece for soprano, flute, viola and harp, The Seasons, based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches,  first performed in Moscow in 1980 and then arranged as a symphony, performed by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra in 1981 (F1148, F1144). Thus began a decade during which Smirnov returned to Blake again and again, demonstrating a deep knowledge of Blakes works (which he often translated into Russian),4 whether occasional pieces such as To the Muses (included in the 1982 Ballada for Saxophone and Piano) or much more extensive pieces like the operas, Tiriel (1983-85, F1154), which premiered in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1989, and Lamentations of Thel (1985-86, F1146), performed in the same year at the Almeida Festival in London.

The 1980s represented a particularly intense period for Smirnov’s engagement with Blake (although by no means encompassing all his compositions at that time, which also drew upon writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Pushkin and Pasternak), and after his move to England he continued to draw inspiration from Blake, increasingly drawing upon the paintings which were now more readily available to him, as in his series of four Blake Pictures (The Moonlight Story, Jacob’s Ladder, Abel, and The River of Life), composed between 1988 and 1992. His performances in England were enthusiastically received, with Stephen Pettitt praising the premiere of JacobLadder for The Times in 1991. Although Blakes influence has been less prevalent on Smirnovs work in the twenty-first century, he continues to be an important source, for example in the Blake Sonata No. 6, performed in London and Cambridge in 2015.  A number of Smirnovs works were also included in the 2011 programme held to celebrate Blakes birthday at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, as part of the William Blake and British Visionary Art exhibition.

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.

 

The Prophet of Lanark: Alasdair Gray and William Blake

The news today of the death of Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer and artist most famous for experimental novels such as Lanark and Poor Things, is cause for reflection on a trailblazer in Scottish fiction who once described William Blake as his “favourite artist and author”.

Born in Glasgow in 1934, Gray turned to the novels which would make him most famous relatively late in his career, having previously worked on scriptwriting and painting. Lanark: A Life in Four Books, was published in 1981 when Gray was 46, to be followed by his erotic reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the book 1982, Janine, three years later. Lanark, for me still the most striking of his works for very personal and idiosyncratic reasons, won him various awards and led Anthony Burgess to call him the “best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”. Scott’s contemporary, William Blake, was much nearer to Gray’s ambitions not least in that both of them sought to combine image and word in a kind of illuminated book.

Lanark follows the journey of a young man, the eponymous hero of the book, who arrives in a strange version of Glasgow, Unthank, which owes more than a little to Dante’s visions of Inferno (as with Blake, Gray was working on a version of The Divine Comedy at the time of his death). Falling in with a group of young men and women, Lanark begins to feel alienated and to suffer from a disease whcih turns his skin into dragon hide. Between the story of Lanark in Unthank, Gray then tells the tale of a precocious man, Duncan Thaw, born into wartime Glasgow who suffers obsessive visions and eventually commits suicide.

Thaw and Lanark are linked in some way (as Thaw suffers from eczema, so Lanark is covered in dragonhide), and it may be that Unthank is a kind of hell in which Thaw finds himself after his death. While the journey through Unthank owes much to Dante, it is Blake who is perhaps the artist in whom Thaw is most interested, citing him at many instances throughout the novel. At the beginning of Chatpter 19, “Mrs. Thaw Disappears”, for example, we are told:

Thaw opened his diary and wrote:

“Love seeketh not itself to please Nor for itself hath any care But for another gives its ease and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.” So sung a little Clod of Clay trodden by the cattle’s feet, but a Pebble of the brook warbled out these metres meet. “Love seeketh only Self to please, to bind another to Its delight, Joys in another’s loss of ease, and builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Blake doesn’t choose, he shows both sorts of love, and life would be easy if women were clods and men were pebbles. Maybe most of them are but I’m a gravelly mixture. My pebble feelings are for June Haig, no, not real June Haig, an imaginary June Haig in a world without sympathy or conscience. My feelings for Kate Caldwell are cloddish, I want to please and delight her, I want her to think me clever and fascinating. (p.190)

Blake runs as rich seam throughout Lanark. Thaw spends a lot of his time at the Mitchell Library, looking at facsimiles of the Romantic’s illuminated books, indicating the influence of Blake and Beardsley – the two most important artists for Thaw – and he tells his father that he wants “to write a modern Divine Comedy with illustrations in the style of William Blake” (p.204). This alone suggests strongly that Unthank is a vision of the underworld after Dante (with a little of Milton and Bunyan thrown in as well), but that it is the Romantic poet rather than Virgil who is the guide to understanding this fantastical novel. Another key are the references to that incredibly Blakean novel, The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary: Gray cites Gulley Jimson, the Blake-quoting artist-protagonist of Cary’s book, in his Epilogue, clearly drawing on the Anglo-Irish writer as a precursor to his own experimental fiction.

The comment regarding Blake being Gray’s favourite artist came from an interview with The Scotsman in 2014, given at the time of publication of his collection of essays and occasional pieces, Of Me and Others. In it, Gray tells the interviewer, Susan Mansfield:

William Blake, my favourite artist and author, was used to people admiring his work saying: ‘Ah, it would never have been as great as this if you hadn’t suffered all these tribulations.’ And he said: ‘I’d have produced a lot more if I’d not suffered these tribulations.’

While admiring the strange and extraordinary in Blake’s work, then, Gray had little time for the stereotype of the suffering Romantic artist. Burgess was wrong to compare him to Walter Scott: aside from a shared interest in Scottish nationalism, Gray had little in common with his fellow countryman and mentions him only briefly in passing – as something to be endured in school. Scott was, in the end, too Tory for Gray, and his enduring interest in socialism made William Blake a much better fit.

Gray did indeed have much to say about the issues of Scottish nationalism as well as the ideals of socialism. Throughout Lanark, Thaw and his contemporaries discuss the possibilities of a Scottish parliament as well as ironic asides to the relative failures of the Scottish Arts Council to support an arts proper to the north of the border. Yet this is no appeal to jingoism – indeed, he is critical of the Scottish arts scene in general as well as declaiming against “Scottish chauvinism” more generally. In contrast to the more traditional romanticism of Scott, this seems to have been something that Gray has picked up from Blake: Albion is Blake’s vision of his homeland where he was born, but it is as much a perfidious as glorious country. Like Blake, Gray wished to use novels such as Lanark as a means to restore his country to their greater arts.