Blakespotting: The Frankenstein Chronicles

With The Frankenstein Chronicles available on Netflix, now is an opportunity to catch up with a series that first aired on ITV in 2015 and then followed up with a second series which was filmed in 2017. For those who haven’t seen it yet, the plot follows Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) as he seeks to discover the author of a grisly series of child murders which have resulted in an attempt to create artificial life from the sewn-together body parts. The first series received a considerable amount of critical praise and, while a little foolish in some places, is also clever enough and certainly entertaining enough to deserve a repeat viewing.

Rather than a review of the first series (the only one I’ve been able to watch so far), here I’ll concentrate on three particular ways in which The Frankenstein Chronicles weaves Blake into its story. Set in 1827, the series draws upon a number of historical figures, such as Robert Peel, Ada Byron and, of course, Mary Shelley. Blake makes an appearance in episode 2, “Seeing Things”, when Marlott visits the home of the dying engraver following the discovery of an illuminated poem from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Marlott has found this in the room of a young woman who has been set up as a prostitute by the hardened street criminal, Billy Oates, and sees the name of Blake on the print.

The episode with Blake is the most obvious allusion in the series, although to me the most annoying (this is where knowing too much about your subject really interferes with the willing suspension of disbelief). Steven Berkoff actually gives a fine performance as Blake on his deathbed, avoiding what I call the tendency towards “shouty Blake” which rather dominates television depictions of the poet (all loud declamations because prophets are always, well, loud). Nonetheless, while avoiding the worst excesses of presenting “mad” Blake as well, the wide-eyed staring prophet surrounded by a crowd of gloomy, chanting crowd (presumably intended as either the Shoreham Ancients or members of the millennarian Irvingite sect to which Frederick Tatham and, probably, Catherine Blake later belonged – or a combination of both) is very far from much of what I understand about Blake’s final hours. Certainly the environment at 3 Fountain Court was squalid according to a number of Blake’s friends, for the Blakes were poor, but even in declining health his spirits seem to have been buoyant. As well as working on his illustrations to Dante, he was colouring up a final impression of The Ancient of Days (for which, according to Alexander Gilchrist, Tatham had generously paid him three and a half guineas), announcing before he died: “There! That will do, I cannot mend it.”

Gilchrist records the final hours as follows:

In that plain, back room, so dear to the memory of his friends, and to them beautiful from association with him — with his serene cheerful converse, his high personal influence, so spiritual and rare — he lay chaunting Songs to Melodies, both the inspiration of the moment, but no longer as of old to be noted down. To the pious Songs followed, about six in the summer evening, a calm and painless withdrawal of breath ; the exact moment almost unperceived by his wife, who sat by his side. A humble female neighbour, her only other companion, said afterwards: “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.”

Gilchrist also preserved the record of J. T. Smith:

“On the day of his death,” writes Smith, who had his account from the widow, “he composed and uttered songs to his Maker, so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine, that when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said, ‘My beloved! they are not mine. No – they are not mine!’ He told her they would not be parted; he should always be about her to take care of her.”

The Frankenstein Chronicles, then, misses much of the real affection between Blake and Catherine (although, to be fair, Catherine’s very brief cameo bringing tea to Marlott is nicely done). I also wish that the house of the prophet could capture a little more the humour of an engraver who mocked his friend John Varley while composing visionary heads, the rumbustious laughter of An Island in the Moon, or the laid back account of dinner with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I know that “shouty” Blake certainly existed, but too few people seem to get funny Blake, gentle Blake, which is a great shame to me.

The appearance of Mary Shelley was a laugh out loud moment (stretching Blake’s slender acquaintance with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft to the extreme) but was clearly necessary to the plot and it was pleasant enough to see Blake the man as a crucial turning point in the narrative. More significant, however, are the other ways in which Blake has influenced The Frankenstein Chronicles both within the story and in terms of other formal qualities. The appearance “The Little Girl Lost” is a wonderful addition (especially with two verses read in Sean Bean’s inestimably rich tones), while Lyca’s name serves as another influential plot element. The scene when the missing girl, Alice Evans, is superimposed on Lyca from the poem is a delightful moment of Blakean vision.

Even more fascinating, however, is the use of Blake’s fictional Book of Prometheus, both within the narrative and as a visual background to the show’s opening credits. Prometheus only appears once in all of Blake’s writings, as an annotation to Boyd’s Historical Notes on Dante in which he remarks rather inauspiciously: “the grandest Poetry is Immoral the Grandest characters Wicked. Very Satan. Capanius Othello a murderer. Prometheus. Jupiter. Jehovah, Jesus a wine bibber”. The link is, of course, to connect Blake to Mary Shelley’s “Modern Prometheus” (the subtitle of Frankenstein), and while Blake himself preferred Satan as the arch rebel (in contrast to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who rejected Satan in preference of the Titan as the hero of Prometheus Unbound), it was with absolute fascination that I observed how plates and images from works as diverse as Milton a Poem and The Ghost of a Flea were incorporated into this arcane grimoire. What is particularly fascinating is that Tatham, as Blake’s literary executor, is reputed to have destroyed a number of the engraver’s works that offended his more conventional religious sensibilities. The creators of the programme have almost certainly picked up on this and appropriated Blake’s mythical “Bible of Hell” to their Promethean ends.

The Frankenstein Chronicles is available on Netflix.



William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion – review

In 1800, William and Catherine Blake left London and moved to the village of Felpham, in Sussex. The previous years in the capital had not been kind to them and as they left the city they were filled with optimistic hopes that a new life on the south coast of England awaited them, near to Blake’s new patron, the liberal poet William Hayley. Three years later, demoralised by his labours for Hayley and regular illnesses that afflicted Catherine in their damp cottage, disaster struck when Blake was caught up in an argument with a soldier, John Scolfield, and was tried for using “seditious and treasonous expressions” against the King. No longer a place of opportunity, the Blakes returned to London much chastened.

And yet Blake’s time in Sussex did mark a series of new beginnings. It was during his three years in Felpham that he composed the beginnings of his most ambitious illuminated books, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, in particular apparently writing the lines that would, a century after his death, become the hymn “Jerusalem”. Likewise, this was an opportunity for new experiments in tempera painting and, via acquaintances with many of Hayley’s friends, including George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, and his mistress and then wife, Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont, Blake came to produce some of his most ambitious works, most notably A Vision of the Last Judgement.

It is works such as these, as well as the influence of the Sussex coast on Blake more generally, that are the subject of an exhibition at Petworth House, the stately home of the Earl and Countess of Egremont, William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion. Housed in the former servant’s quarters, the exhibition itself is not especially large but is extremely rich in terms of the objects collected there, bringing together a selection of Blake’s paintings and prints created during his time in Felpham or, as with the Last Judgement, produced for commission shortly after his return to London. Alongside these are examples of works collected by Egremont and his wife, such as two copies of The Book of Job and an illustration of The Characters in Spencer’s ‘Faerie Queene’, as well as works that drew on the Blakes time in a rural landscape and documents from the trial for sedition.

The exhibition, following on from similar ones for Turner and Constable, has proved to be very popular and, on the day that we visited, was sold out for the day with a steady stream of visitors to view the carefully curated and beautifully presented selection of works. It certainly works as a coherent collection and, in contrast to more typical settings alongside huge works in the “Grand Manner” that comprise the rest of the Petworth collection Blake’s work is not overwhelmed in sheer scale as would happen in more open settings. It is often a surprise when seeing works close up just how small they may appear compared to the vastness of Blake’s imagination: one delightful effect of this was to observe how visitors would lean into certain works, poring over the intricate details that bustle through Blake’s apocalyptic scenes.

While the Last Judgement is undoubtedly the star of the show, two other images particularly struck me because they are so rarely reproduced. The first, a hand-coloured print of Little Tom the Sailor, a ballad composed by Hayley and illustrated by Blake to raise funds for a local widow, is astonishing for a variety of reasons. Hayley’s poetry is, frankly, dreadful, and compares poorly to Blake’s own verse on innocence, and yet the illustrations for this ballad are vivid invocations of the style that the artist will return to in his woodcuts for the edition of The Pastorals of Virgil published by Robert J. Thornton in 1821 (also on display here). Similarly, The Fall of Man, a pen and ink and watercolour composition produced for Thomas Butts in 1807 is presented next to the more famous A Vision of the Last Judgement and is breath taking in its scope. Ostensibly depicting the moment of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden in the final book of Paradise Lost, it not only contains a complete history of that poem within its modestly-sized canvas, but also incorporates a truly radical interpretation of the biblical event. Whereas it is the angels who enact God’s will in barring Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in Milton’s version, Blake has a humane and kindly Christ lead them forth into the world as God the creator mirrors the posture of Satan in hell at the foot of the painting. Motifs of threatening animals prefigure the style that Blake will return to in his later illustrations to The Book of Job, and a particularly compelling detail that I have never noticed before in reproductions of this painting is the head of a king that rears up miserably from a pit beneath Satan’s backside. For all that he may have been cowed by the events of his trial, unlike many other Romantic artists Blake never turned his back on his revolutionary beliefs.

The accompanying catalogue, published by The National Trust and Paul Holberton Publishing with a foreword by the curator of the Petworth exhibition, Andrew Loukes, is an exceptional piece of work that brings together a number of excellent Blake scholars to contextualise Blake’s work in the light of his time in Sussex. I will quickly pass over my one slight gripe at the catalogue which is that its square format, while unusual, cannot do full justice to all of Blake’s images (most notably A Vision of the Last Judgement, although The Sea of Time and Space is the one image in the book that does benefit). Other than that, this is a book that deserves to be read by Blake experts and enthusiasts alike.

For the experts, with one exception this book does not especially present new scholarship. Much of the information contained here draws upon work begun by figures such as G. E. Bentley and continued in more recent years by writers such as Mark Crosby (also a contributor here) and Jonathan Roberts. For the more general reader, this is indicative that the quality of material is rooted in the grand body of Blake scholarship that has been generated in the past sixty years or so, and it is a real pleasure to me to think that a new generation of Blake admirers will have such a solid, clear introduction to the most significant aspects of post-war understanding of how the artist lived and worked.

Nor is my opening comment in the preceding paragraph regarding experts intended to be at all dismissive. The great task of a catalogue such as this is to ensure that the artist is understood and admired by as a wide an audience as possible, and William Blake in Sussex succeeds completely in this respect. However, even for Blake scholars the catalogue has an incredibly useful purpose, in that it repackages and recontextualises a considerable amount of Blake’s work in the light of his experiences in Sussex. For example, I have for many years written of the importance of Blake’s time at Felpham to his later prophetic works, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and Milton a Poem in particular: Blake’s three-year sojourn beside the sea appeared to fix in his mind the form of the giant Albion in a way that had not been clear to him in London. Alongside this I was aware, of course, of the commercial engravings he undertook for his patron, William Hayley, as well as some other important commissions such as the Last Judgement for Elizabeth Ilive. I had not, however, especially considered those other commissions he continued for his longstanding patron, Thomas Butts, a second series of biblical paintings, some of which were completed at Felpham and which are examined in considerable detail in this catalogue by Naomi Billingsley. Likewise, Mark Crosby’s and Martin Butlin’s reflections on Blake’s artistic development both as a theorist and as a watercolourist (as with his tempura “frescoes” of the poets’ heads that adorned Hayley’s library) was profound during his three years away from the capital. Felpham is a pause in Blake’s otherwise uninterrupted obsession with London, but one that transforms his art in important ways.

The break from London also modifies his practice in a way that is somewhat obliquely alluded to by some of the writers here: Naomi Billingsley observes that his time away from the capital resulted in a greater engagement with Christianity in Blake’s work, and though she does not explicitly make the link here, it is almost certainly the case that his removal from radical associates who lived and worked in London in the 1790s did somewhat soften some of his hardening attitudes to Christianity in particular, an observation that was first made by Jacob Bronowski and further developed by later commentators like David Worrall. Not that Blake could ever be fully de-radicalised: as Mark Crosby discusses at some length, Felpham is also important to Blake as the moment when he comes into clearest conflict with the crown, being arraigned at the Chichester Quarter Sessions in 1804 on charges of sedition, brought against him by Private John Scolfield. Alongside his worsening relations with Hayley, the trial – and eventual acquittal – of Blake marked a bleak ending to a sojourn that had begun with such high hopes.

Elsewhere in the catalogue, alongside reproductions of the works themselves, an essay by Hayley Flynn offers a delightful insight into how the experience of Felpham also bore fruit in Blake’s later pastoral visions, most notably his woodcuts for Thornton’s Virgil. For me the most original contribution (because drawing upon information of which I was not aware rather than because of the quality of its ideas) is Andrew Loukes’s piece on the Petworth collection of Blake’s works. As Loukes observes, the 3rd Earl of Egremont was an unusual collector, so that by “the 1820s it was possible to experience at Petworth a considerable body of works in this vein [the ‘Grand Manner’] by otherwise unfashionable artists, such as the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon and the sculptor John Carew.” (p. 47) It is because of Wyndham’s eclectic tastes that Petworth became the only major country house to hold works by Blake and, as both the catalogue and exhibition make clear, Sussex as a county has been all the better for it.

The exhibition Wiliam Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion continues at Petworth House until 25 March. The accompanying catalogue is now available, RRP £16.50.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, February 2018

Eurynome by Faith Wilding, 1978-9.

Although a relatively quiet month on the Blake front, the arts saw a number of events and exhibitions that were inspired by William Blake in one form of another.

Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries is an exhibition of the artist’s work at Carnegie Mellon University, where Wilding formerly taught, as well as working with the cyberfeminist art collective subRosa. Quotes accompanying her impressive pieces draw upon a range of writers and artists, including Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and, unsurprisingly considering the exhibition’s title, William Blake. Her work, as Bill O’Driscoll points out, is frequently overtly political, and anyone in Pittsburgh will have a chance to see it throughout March before it continues on a national tour.

The artist Siggi Ámundason, whose large-scale pen drawings reference William Blake as well as eighties anime, Goya and Francis Bacon, displayed some of his work at the Kjarvalsstaðir Museum in Iceland: his work, part of a larger exhibition entitled “Tales of the Unseen”, will remain on display until April 22.

An exhibition on works inspired by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land also takes in William Blake as well as Paul Nash and Henry Moore as part of the eclectic mix of Eliot’s themes and inspirations, according to Hannah Luxton. “Journey’s with the Waste Land” is on display at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate until 7 May.

Film, stage and TV also had offered some intriguing snippets during February. While not directly inspired by Blake, the latest drama by Clio Barnard, Dark River, is a reminder that one of her previous short films, Lambeth MarshJoseph Walsh at the Financial Times, was so inspired. Dark River began an adaptation of Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass before evolving into a story of the aftermath of abuse in the English countryside, and indeed according to Blake’s poetry remains a source for the latest film.

Elsewhere on screen, Blake had a cameo from his death bed in the new TV series, The Frankenstein Chronicles: while, as Meghan O’Keefe observes, it is something of a stretch to say that Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft were firm friends, nonetheless his small part is a significant link in this entertaining show set in 1827 London.

A performance of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem at the Crow’s Theatre in Toronto drew enthusiastic reviews, as per this from Kelly Nestruck who declared it “pure theatre of the kind we rarely see”. Kim Coates, the Saskatoon-born actor best known for his work on Sons of Anarchy, plays the role of Rooster Byron and the play continues at the Crow’s Theatre until March 10.

February saw the 40th anniversary of Derek Jarman’s punk tribute, Jubilee: a long-time fan of Blake’s work (he dedicated the film to Blake along with many others of his heroes), Jarman’s nod to the Romantic poet in the movie includes a brilliant version of ‘Jerusalem’ by Amyl Nitrate which, while not as visually compelling as her version of Rule, Britannia, is still striking. As Adam Scovell noted in The Quietus, the film is “a time capsule” of the time when subcultures could afford to grow in England’s capital.

Musically, February saw the release of Shawn Colvin’s The Starlighter, which includes a version of Blake’s “Cradle Song”. Colvin, an American singer-songwriter best known for her 1997 Grammy-winning song, “Sunny Come Home”, discussed her music as part of the #MeToo movement with Michael Raver at The Huffington Post. We’ll be carrying a review of Starlighter at some not too distant point in the future.

Finally, the bizarrest Blake reference in February came from Ben Shapiro, who made the following, oddly compelling remark about Donald Trump:

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, January 2018


The Blakean new year began with a bang as an important exhibition opened at Petworth House in Sussex. Entitled William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion and organised by the National Trust, the owners of Petworth, this offers a rare opportunity to view some of the works created by Blake during his sojourn at Felpham in 1800-1803 and collected here together for the first time. Petworth itself, home of the 3rd Earl of Egremont when the Blakes were living nearby, has long housed the artist’s remarkable The Last Judgement which was commissioned by the Earl. Having opened on January 13, the exhibition will run until March 25 and opening reviews were exceptionally complimentary. The Guardian described him as “now revered as one of the greatest figures in literary and artistic history”, while The Times called it a “revelatory show”. For more information, including ticket prices, visit the National Trust web site.

For those seeking a more intimate insight into Blake’s life on the Sussex Coast, the National Trust is also offering brief visits to the cottage in Felpham where he and his wife lived. As the cottage is empty and awaiting renovation, there are only a few times that it is open to the public (on February 14, 21 and March 14). Twenty miles from Petworth, the trustees are clearly hoping that a number of visitors will take up this opportunity to explore more fully Blake’s time outside of London.

A less grand but, in many ways, rather wonderful exhibition is also running in Sheffield at the Graves’ Gallery, part of the public library in the city. William Blake: The Book of Job, brings together a later reprinting of his 1826 illustrations to Job, and is on display until March 3. In the United States, the William Blake Gallery, set up by the antiquarian book collector and owner of a huge selection of Blake-related works, John Windle, in San Francisco, also announced at the end of the month a new exhibition, BLAKE BOOKS: The Commercial Engravings of William Blake, A Tribute to Gerald E. Bentley, Jr. Opening on February 2, it will run until April 30.

Another exhibition covered here previously, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius at Northwestern Block Museum of Art, attracted an amusing review of its catalogue by Dominic Green at The SpectatorWhile slightly facetious in typical Spectator fashion, it also demonstrates a fine appreciation of some aspects of Blake’s reception, an artist “whose visionary voice continues to inspire each new generation”. Another contribution to his reception history is John Yau’s The Wild Children of William Blake, which explores ways in which Blake serves as a model for modern visions of the arts rather than necessarily as a direct source of inspiration. Published by Autonomedia, hopefully I’ll be reviewing it here once it becomes available in the UK. Finally, another new announcement for 2018 was that for the forthcoming publication of Her Infernal Descent by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson, illustrated by Kyle Charles. Published by AfterShock, the graphic novel will tell the story of a grieving mother’s descent to hell “guided by the spirits of William Blake and Agatha Christie” and looks to be one of the most original works inspired by Blake for some time.

Review: Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage and Daemon Voices

In 1995, Philip Pullman published the first book in the trilogy, His Dark Materials. Set in an alternate-universe Oxford, Northern Lights told the story of Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry as they fought the machinations of the Magisterium, the equivalent of the Catholic Church in another dimension where there had been no Reformation nor any halt to its two-thousand-year expansion of power. Throughout the trilogy, Blake was quoted repeatedly, particularly with regard to the concept of Dust, and you can find some of my own reactions to his use of Blake in an earlier podcast.

With his new novel, La Belle Sauvage, the first title in a new trilogy called The Book of Dust, we are once more in the Oxford of Lyra, although now she is a young baby merely six months old. The story this time centres on an eleven-year-old boy, Malcolm Polstead, who works in a pub, The Trout, alongside the Thames and comes to learn of Lyra’s existence through a chance meeting with Lord Nugent, the former Lord Chancellor of England. Nugent has sought to place the young girl – daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter (familiar from the previous trilogy) – in the safe keeping of an order of nuns who live in Oxford. Through his work for the sisters, who are portrayed in a warm and generous light by Pullman (for his critique of organised religion is by no means blindly hostile), Malcolm becomes increasingly affectionate to Lyra and her daemon, seeking to protect her from the evil inclinations of those members of the Magisterium who wish to do her harm in order to hurt Lord Asriel. During this time, Malcolm also befriends a scholar, Hannah Relf, who has been inducted by Nugent into the secret society he heads, Oakley Street; Relf reads an alethiometer to discover events for the more liberal groups that Nugent represents. Less happily, at least to begin with, Malcolm’s acquaintances include the kitchen maid, Alice, who will become one of the real stars of the novel.

When the strange villain of the book, Gerard Bonneville, a crazed and sadistic scientist who has some understanding of the real nature of Dust, attempts to abduct Lyra, Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, flee the city along with Alice in his boat, La Belle Sauvage. A huge storm has flooded the Thames and surrounding areas, and when they flee southwards so the most important literary source for the novel – Homer’s Odyssey – comes to the fore, influencing a series of weird, visionary experiences along the way as when Malcolm and Alice encounter an island in the river whose inhabitants ignore them and the grim realities of their former lives that are hidden from view by an unearthly fog. In interviews accompanying the publication of the book, Pullman has also indicated that the unusual happenings along the Thames also take their inspiration from William Blake.

Before turning to the influence of Blake in more detail, some general observations on the novel are in order. A very simple observation is that for those readers who enjoyed His Dark Materials, on the whole they will almost certainly be pleased with La Belle Sauvage. It is, perhaps, a slower burn than the previous trilogy, and in comparison to Northern Lights it is worth observing that not a great deal happens. Indeed, a few readers on sites such as Goodreads have grumbled, not entirely without grounds, that this is a dull and slow book. That certainly wasn’t my experience of it, although my only criticism would be that it is very much a novel that is setting in place a number of pieces for the remaining trilogy. The end, when Malcolm and Alice finally meet Lord Asriel and hand over Lyra to him, is satisfactory enough but is very obviously not a moment of closure. Partly because of the allusions to The Odyssey, however, as well as the character of Bonneville, who is truly compelling (and disturbing) as a villain I personally found the novel much more entertaining than some other readers.

The critical reception of La Belle Sauvage has generally been very positive, with critics noting his literary influences (including a perceptive comment by Frank Cottrell Boyce regarding his struggles with C. S. Lewis). Sam Leith called it “a rich, dreamlike prequel well worth the wait”, a sentiment echoed by Claire Loughrey, and Stuart Kelly forgives Pullman the literary lectures in Daemon Voices because the first volume of The Book of Dust is so good.

A number – although by no means all – critics mention Blake. The influence throughout the novel is more subtle: with His Dark Materials, the full build-up to the war in heaven and a Blakean re-reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost took some time, but there were quotations and direct references that made Pullman’s debt to Blake very clear. This is not the case in La Belle Sauvage – the influence, rather, is implicit in elements such as Dust (which, as he made clear throughout the earlier trilogy, took direct inspiration from Blake’s poetry) and the resistance to organised religion. Upon first reading, my own assumption was that Blake had been relegated in importance, but repeatedly in interviews Pullman draws attention to Blake. Thus, for example, he told Time magazine “in William Blake’s terms I’m a proponent of two-fold, three-fold and four-fold vision and not single vision,” a notion repeated in his NPR interview. As such, Blake becomes a principle support for Pullman’s metaphysics, one where imagination provides the ability to re-vision the world around us as a matter of course.

The essays collected together in Daemon Voices are, as the editor, Simon Mason observes in his introduction, very varied. Comprising thirty of a hundred and twenty or so that Pullman has written over the years, this collection does contain a substantial insight into his understanding of Blake. The romantic poet and artist is scattered throughout the book, especially in the various discussions of His Dark Materials, but the very best essay in the collection – originally published in The Guardian in 2014 – is Pullman’s discussion of Blake’s influence over a period of fifty years. “Soft Beulah’s Night: William Blake and Vision” begins with a wonderful evocation of Pullman attempting (and failing) to locate copies of Blake’s work in Merionethshire after reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (the fact that he was able to track down Ginsberg in the coastal resort of Barmouth but not Blake speaks volumes). When he finally encountered the Dent Everyman selection of poems edited by Ruthven Todd, thus began a deep affection for the poet which is probably the most significant of all those affecting Pullman:

That was fifty years ago. My opinions about many things have come and gone, changed and changed about, since then; I have believed in God, and then disbelieved; I have thought that certain writers and poets were incomparably great, and gradually found them less and less interesting, and finally commonplace… But those first impulses of certainty about William Blake have never forsaken me, though I may have been untrue to them from time to time. Indeed, they have been joined by others, and I expect to go on reading Blake, and learning more, for as long as I live. (pp. 342-3)

This essay also provides a key to unlock La Belle Sauvage, discussing as it does the profoundly materialist nature of consciousness which Pullman garnered from that visionary materialist, William Blake, whose prologue to Europe a Prophecy includes the line “every particle of dust breathes forth its joy”. Likewise, it is from Blake that the later author draws his own conception of fourfold vision, the ability to view not with single, rational vision but to overlay all the faculties of our empathy and imagination.

The second essay on Blake, “I Must Create A System: A Moth’s-Eye View of William Blake”, is less compelling, mainly because it is a transcript of a talk given to the Blake Society and is one of those pieces that would be infinitely more pleasurable to hear than to read. Nonetheless, again and again Pullman demonstrates his deep and thoughtful relation with Blake, offering keen insights as when he notes that Blake was not a Gnostic, not infected with that religious sect’s despair against the natural world. Indeed, it is through such engagement with Blake that we come towards another important element of Pullman’s relationship with the earlier poet, one evident in the title. Pullman’s conceit of daemons, animal spirits that materialise the psyche of each character in his alternate world, draws much of its power from another text by Blake, one intimately bound up with the animal world and which Pullman refers to repeatedly. Auguries of Innocence, perhaps the first true poem dealing with animal rights and man’s indebtedness to the animal world, at least in the west, becomes the second key that opens the doors onto the world of Philip Pullman’s fiction. It may be, indeed, that he wishes to use Blake’s advice to create a system that will free him from organised religion and repressive science, but it is also important that the system he seeks to create can see a conscious, living world of energy and joy in every particle of dust, in every grain of sand.

La Belle Sauvage and Daemon Voices are both published by David Fickling books and are available for RRP £20.


Blakespotting: News about William Blake, December 2017

Although December was a fairly quiet month in comparison to November, it did begin with a significant event around a new exhibition dedicated to Blake’s influence on the 1960s counterculture at the Northwester Block Museum of Art. While there had been related events running from September, December 1 saw the formal opening of the exhibition with a panel discussing Blake’s impact on 1960s artists and pop culture at Northwestern, discussing exhibits that included more than 130 paintings, drawings and photographs by artists for whom Blake was a significant inspiration. The installation has already begun to attract some very favourable reviews, such as these by the Huffington Post and Third Coast Review, while I’ll be including a review of the catalogue for the exhibition some time in the near future.

The critical reception of U2’s Songs of Experience, covered in last month’s Blakespotting, has been more mixed but that’s not entirely surprising for one of the largest bands in the world. Kitty Empire at The Guardian dismissed it as “an insipid try-hard”, and Carl Wilson agreed that the band was “trying hard” – another example of damning with faint praise. Kristopher Smith was somewhat more optimistic, although he seemed more impressed by the fact the “band has stuck together for forty-one years” than by the music itself, though David Fricke at Rolling Stone called it their best album in a long time and Alexis Petridis named it album of the week. The most bruisingly dismissive subheading came from Fiona Shepherd’s review for The Scotsman: “Inoffensive stadium fillers abound as U2 opt for positivity, love and broad-brush political sentiments”. Lacklustre reviews didn’t prevent the album debuting at no. 1 on the Billboard 200. My own review deals more with the references to Blake’s work, although I would also recommend In Search of Rock Gods for a very detailed posting on that subject.

In other musical news, Femmes Vocales performed Blake’s “The Lamb” as set to music by John Tavener at Heemskerkse on December 17 and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin announced a new albumThe Starlighter, with a track based on Blake’s “Cradle Song”, while President Trump’s announcement that he would move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem prompted a rather odd set of reflections on the Blake-Parry hymn by Warwick McFadyen.

Artistic events in December included an exhibition and presentation at the Mullins Library at the University of Arkansas, where Amanda White gave a demonstration of some of the materials used by Blake to prepare his illuminated books. In New York, a solo exhibition by John Davies on The British Landscape opened at L Parker Stephenson Photographs, including retrospective materials from his 1987 collection, Green and Pleasant Land. Back in the UK, prior to the winter solstice three fairies, designed by David Gosling and loosely based on Blake’s dancing figures, made their appearance at the Rollright Stones in Wiltshire.

And last, but by no means least for fans of Sonic Youth guitarist and vocalist Kim Gordon, there was a chance to see the 2015 German horror movie The Nightmare if you were in Seattle – of note because Gordon plays a literature teacher with an affinity for William Blake. There’s no Blakeana, but you can see the trailer below.


The Blake Archive publishes Vala or The Four Zoas

In a major piece of news on Thursday, the Blake Archive announced that it was publishing a digital version of Vala, or The Four Zoas, Blake’s great, unfinished manuscript.

Begun around 1797 when Blake was completing work on the first volume Edward Young’s long poem, The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality, Blake worked on and revised his manuscript copy, frequently using proofs of the Young volume (the only one out of a projected four to be published) to compose his epic poem and drawing on a similar structure of nine nights to tell his narrative. Although The Four Zoas itself was never completed, in it Blake created his most complete version of the complex psychodrama of the zoas, those “four mighty ones” in every man, and it furnished a great deal of material for his later epics, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion. Northrop Frye called The Four Zoas “the greatest abortive masterpiece in English literature”.

As the editors of the Archive observe (echoing plenty of previous editors), the manuscript is “messy” and “complex”. The version available is currently a “preview” version, with full images but, as yet, no transcription of the separate pages, itself an incredibly complex undertaking. The edition is based on fresh digital photography from the British Library and you can find more technical details on the Blake Archive blog.

Review: U2, Songs of Experience

As the biggest band in the world (or, at least according to Rolling Stone, one of the top 100 and the only one to make it through more than three decades without changing their lineup), U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience has been attracting a great deal of attention. So far, so unsurprising. What is more surprising is that the latest addition to their corpus should be named after a William Blake collection – a trick they’ve pulled off not once, but twice, with Songs of Experience the follow-up to their 2014 album, Songs of Innocence.

The reviews are, frankly somewhat mixed: perhaps the most damning has been Kitty Empire’s two-star summation of SoE as “an insipid try-hard” (ouch), while Amanda Petrusich argues that the band has “run out of things to say” and, in one of my favourite reviews, Calum Marsh observes that the band is struggling to make itself relevant in the second decade of the twenty-first century; against these more negative pieces, David Fricke argues that, while flawed in parts, it is their most powerful album in a long while and Alexis Petridis noted it as album of the week.

Of course, what the world has been waiting for is a middle-aged academic to weigh in the subject, so to ensure that no more breath is baited I’ll offer my brief summary of the albu. As a musical addition to a band’s output that has not, frankly, much interested me since their 1987 The Joshua Tree, I was genuinely surprised to actually rather enjoy the album, certainly much more than Songs of Innocence which was the insipid contribution to their back catalogue. There are the inevitable jangly guitars, signature mark of David Howell Evans (because, even thirty years later, I can’t bring myself to call him the Edge, as much as anything because I’m never one hundred percent sure where the capitalisation starts…). Actually, U2, while being far too middle of the road for my tastes deserve much greater respect than any sarcastic knocks from a literary scholar and so I shall simply observe that Songs of Experience, while amusingly pompous at times (this is, after all, U2) is certainly much more listenable than recent work.

What this review will focus on instead is how significant the title choice is. Songs of Experience, named, of course, after William Blake’s 1794 famous collection of verse, was meant to be released more quickly after Songs of Innocence as a companion piece but apparently, due to the progress of the 2016 election and a near-death experience on the part of Bono (I’m genuinely resisting all the tasteless jokes for a moment). Personally, I suspect the almost-unanimous hostility that greered SoI was another reason to pause: convincing Tim Cook to release the album to every owner of an iOS device was business genius but a bit of a PR disaster – it’s been a long time since Apple was synonymous with the phrase “think different” and the sheer arrogance of assuming a few hundred million iPhone and iPad owners wanted to listen to your Blake-inspired warblings was astonishing.

By contrast, Songs of Experience is genuinely enjoyable at times if somewhat more maudlin and still obviously the work of a band that believes it will change the world. This is clear on tracks such as “Lights of Home” (available in two versions on the album), which is actually one of my favourite tracks but with its final chorus – ominously repeating a motif from SoI‘s “Iris (Hold Me Close)” – enters full on pseudo counter-culture territory as it invites listeners to “free yourself to be yourself”. A proverb of hell this is not. It’s almost as though punk never happened and, at that precise moment, reminds me of Primal Scream’s great song, “Kill All Hippies.” Nevertheless, the album often displays a greater degree of self-knowledge that is genuinely touching, as on “You’re The Best Thing About Me” when Bono sings “Shooting off my mouth / That’s another great thing about me”. How many of his critics have thought that about him?

Petrusich’s review is one of the most thoughtful but, for reasons I’ll come on to later, also one of the most inappropriately academic. A couple of paragraphs in, she endeavours to explain the significance of Blake which, of course, invites all kinds of generalisations and inadvertent falsehoods which is often the case in the format of a music review. As Blake himself wrote, “to generalise is to be an idiot; to particularise is the alone distinction of merit”. Her overall point, however, is correct – if also somewhat obvious: to future generations, it is Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience that will be remarked worthy of the distinction of merit. She also points out that while U2’s Songs of Innocence did seem to capture some of the essence of childhood and adolescence, their Songs of Experience seems to miss much of the point. On the whole, I agree: the experience of U2’s songs is generally a more self-concerned – if sometimes genuinely touching – mark of introspection, the obsession with the authors’ own mortalities, rather than Blake’s genuinely angry cries against social injustice.

This is not to say that U2 have not read Blake. Originally, I had intended to offer a more detailed analysis of many of the individual tracks from the album, but the blog In Search of Rock Gods has already done this and I recommend that you read this for a detailed song-by-song analysis in the post “Hopeful Symmetry: A Blakeian Look at U2’s Songs Of Experience“. I do not completely agree with all of the author’s observations – I think there is a tendency to find similarities where some may be much more tenuous, nonetheless the following is an interesting example:

“Infant Sorrow”: My mother groaned, my father wept: Into the dangerous world I lept, helpless, naked, piping loud.
“Lights of Home”: I was born from a screaming sound.
“The Showman”: Baby’s crying because it’s born to sing.

This demonstrates both a strength and weakness: the line from “Lights of Home” is genuinely compelling and an interesting allusion, but that from “The Showman” is far too generic to be convincing. However, the ultimate argument of “Hopeful Symmetry”, and one which I found illuminating, is that both of U2’s albums work by reflecting and pairing each other. Thus, for example, “Love Is All We Have Left” (SoE) pairs with “Iris” (SoI) and “American Soul” (SoE) with “Volcano” (SoI). This point is intelligently made, and the repetitions of phrases and motifs suggest that this was clearly intended by the band, leading to a more dialectical approach to the two collections that would fit with a Blakean approach to the two contraries of the human soul.

And yet, ultimately it is Songs of Experience itself that fails to convince me that U2 have clearly absorbed the darker energies of Blake’s poetry. Like the earlier collection of poetry, there is a lyric that deals with an iconic place: for Blake, it is London – for U2, it is America. Both are ideas as much as physical locations, and both deal with the darker manifestations of those places – Trump’s USA and the England of William Pitt. First of all, Blake’s “London”:

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

This poem has been known to generations of children (and rightly so) and I know from my experience of teaching those school children when they come to university it is a poem that leaves a lasting impresion on them (even if they are not always sure why). Contrast this to U2’s “American Soul”:

Blessed are the bullies
For one day they will have to stand up to themselves
Blessed are the liars
For the truth can be awkward

It’s not a place
This country is to me a sound
Of drum and bass
You close your eyes to look around

Look around, look around
Look around, it’s a sound
Look around, look around
It’s a sound

It’s not a place
This country is to me a thought
That offers grace
For every welcome that is sought

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

It’s not a place
This is a dream the whole world owns
The pilgrim’s face
It had your heart to call her home

Call her home, Brother John
So every mother’s weepin’
Dream on, Brother John
In your dreams you get me sleepin’

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American, American

Put your hands in the air
Hold on the sky
Could be too late, but we still gotta try
There’s a moment in our life where a soul can die
And the person in a country when you believe the lie
The lie (the lie, the lie)
There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream
It’s a call to action, not to fantasy
The end of a dream, the start of what’s real
Let it be unity, let it be community
For refugees like you and me
A country to receive us
Will you be our sanctuary

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American soul, American soul

I do rather like this track on the album – it has delightfully dirty, soulful backing guitars that give it a raw power – but as a modern counterpoint to Blake’s denunciation of the corruption of a country ruined by war it falls far short. Blake’s poetry is terse, burning with rage against religion, war, child slavery and child prostitution (the latter not abstractions in eighteenth-century London). By contrast, U2’s lyrics are… worthy. I admire the sentiment, but it is sentimental. The heart of Blake’s nameless narrator is filled with wrath, for Blake knew that the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction, yet U2 have hitched themselves up to the latter, preaching to the converted with weak puns (“Refu-Jesus”? Seriously?) rather than denouncing the evils that men do the children they should protect. A liberal piss fit because Trump was elected will never match the Jeremiad of Blake’s righteous wrath. It is one thing I have always loved about him – while the religious right frequently lays claim to the power of the words of the King James Version, it is that radical antinomian who denounces God, priest and king who more accurately captures the violent cadences of the Bible.

In the end, for me U2’s Songs of Experience is too weak, too well-meaning to fully adopt the mantle of Blake’s poetry. I do actually rather like the album (although much of this week I’ve been listening repeatedly to Martha Redbone’s Garden of Love as a truly wonderful Blakean adaptation), but ultimately the band is concerned with love conquering all. Although Blake frequently observed that experience was not the end, that “organized innocence” provided a fruitful marriage of the two contrary states of the soul, he was also a great enough poet to allow evil to speak with a clear voice, the better that it could be understood and rejected. This is the prophetic voice of the original Songs of Experience, one that contains – in poems such as “The Sick Rose”, “London” and, of course, “The Tyger” – some of the clearest delineations of evil ever to have been written and which Blake allows to stand alone at this point, without the intervention of a loving god to rescue us. Blake’ trusts his readers to understand within their own souls the pathways they must follow. After all, when he asks “Did he who make the lamb make thee?” he does not rush to provide an answer, for the assertion that love conquers all is meaningless for those whose innocence is taken away. In one of the darkest poems of Songs of Experience, Blake grimly observes:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we

Against such clear-sighted vision, Bono’s assertion that “Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”, for all its invocation of near-death experiences, will always remain too simplistic, too glib by comparison.

From the Collection: Martha Redbone Roots Project, The Garden of Love

While the internet and social media are abuzz with chatter about U2’s Songs of Experience (which I do intend to review soon), I thought I would return in the meantime to one of my personal favourites in terms of musical interpretations of Blake, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project.

Born in Kentucky, with roots throughout the Appalachians, Redbone has long explored Native American music alongside other traditions such as soul, gospel and English folk music. Her first albums, Home of the Brave (2001) and Skintalk (2004), attracted very favourable critical reviews, and there is a very good interview with Tom Paul at Soul Tracks which outlines some of her early influences, whether George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Quincy Jones or Icelandic R&B. As Paul observes, while some of her influences are clear the sound is all her own.

The Garden of Love was released in 2012, her fourth studio album and combined these influences to create a truly wonderful musical setting for Blake’s poetry. As with her earlier albums, reviews were rightly enthusiastic and are perhaps best summed up by a headline from National Public Radio: “Blake’s Poems, Reborn As Bluesy Folk Tunes, Burn Bright”. Of the songs on the album, her single, “The Fly”, attracted most attention.

“Bluesy folk tunes” is too broad a phrase. What is particularly remarkable about Redbone’s music is how the Appalachian roots of her music come to the fore, for example “On Another’s Sorrow”, but also how other genres recreate Blake’s poetry, such as the more melancholy English traditions of “I Heard an Angel Singing” or gospel on “I Rose Up At the Dawn of Day”. What is particularly wonderful is that while the words are those of Blake (and thus, of course, immensely appealing to me) the songs really are Redbone’s: not only does Blake serve as an inspiration to her to create in her own image, but – like all great adaptations of Blake – it leads me to reconsider his work in new ways.

A remarkable example of this is “I Rose Up At the Dawn of Day”, in which Redbone is supported by a choir on one of the most joyful recordings of Blake’s poetry ever. To my astonishment, when I first heard it I didn’t even realise that this was William Blake, initially mistaking it for a more traditional gospel source such as Charles Tindley or Andrae Crouch. However, the words are very much those of Blake, taken from his Notebook:

I rose up at the dawn of day
Get thee away get thee away
Prayst thou for Riches away away
This is the Throne of Mammon grey

Said I this sure is very odd
I took it to be the Throne of God
For every Thing besides I have
It is only for Riches that I can crave

I have Mental Joy & Mental Health
And Mental Friends & Mental wealth
Ive a Wife I love & that loves me
Ive all But Riches Bodily

I am in Gods presence night & day
And he never turns his face away
The accuser of sins by my side does stand
And he holds my money bag in his hand

For my worldly things God makes him pay
And hed pay for more if to him I would pray
And so you may do the worst you can do
Be assurd Mr Devil I wont pray to you

Then If for Riches I must not Pray
God knows I little of Prayers need say
So as a Church is known by its Steeple
If I pray it must be for other People

He says if I do not worship him for a God
I shall eat coarser food & go worse shod
So as I dont value such things as these
You must do Mr Devil just as God please (E481)

There is not a single song on this album that is not worth listening to repeatedly and it is, to repeat, one of my favourite albums based on Blake’s work. Selecting one track from the album is invidious and, as such, I will simply end here with the opening title track which is a doorway to the rest of the album:


Martha Redbone Roots Project, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, CD, Blackfeet Productions Ltd., 2012.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, November 2017

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. 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 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