The connection between rock music and Romanticism is a longstanding one. Thomas Goldthwaite, reviewing an Elvis concert in Phoenix, Arizona in 1970, compared the rock star (not entirely favourably) to a mixture of Lord Byron and Davy Crocket, and Camille Paglia was to repeat the comparison – sans Davy Crocket – twenty years later in her sprawling Sexual Personae. Byron doesn’t get his own star turn in this latest collection edited by James Rovira, although the artist formerly known as Shelley (as Percy Bysshe has tended to be referred to in recent years) does have a particularly fine chapter dedicated to him. Instead, the essays here largely concentrate on Wordsworth and Blake as influential figures in the field of rock music that runs from the sixties until the present day. This particular review will focus on those chapters dealing with Blake, although this is by no means a comment on the remaining sections that outline Wordsworth’s role in defining contemporary music.
James Rovira’s introduction to Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, explores the relationship between its two defining terms and is very good on the established – but not unproblematic – definition of Romanticism, with Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity being an important text. The most significant element here is Löwy and Sayre’s notion of Romanticism as “opposition to capitalism in the name of pre-capitalist values” (cited p.xiv), which is important in terms of defining the attitudes of both Romanticism and rock music outside of the essentially modernising strands of Marxism. This definition works very clearly in one important aspect in terms of of rock music as not “selling out”, a theme which runs through the Situationist Internationale through punk and into grunge, although plenty of Marxist and left-wing critics have noted the intensely capitalist nature of contemporary popular music, the tensions of which are evident in some of the essays in this collection. Marxist readers of Blake such as Saree Makdisi would probably make much more of this tension, but I have never seen Blake as a proto-Marxist but rather, as with William Godwin, a proto-anarchist – which is one reason why he is such a good role model for rock music and something that could have been pursued more forcefully in one or two of the essays here. Rovira is mildly, and correctly, critical of the privileging of the conceptual over the affective in Löwy and Sayre’s definition of Romanticism, that it tends to ignore the aesthetic qualities of the movement in favour of economic, social and political contextualisations (p.xvi), but at the same time the use of this approach does provide a coherence and direction to the discussion of relations between rock music and Romanticism throughout the collection.
As well as considerations of direct influences of Blake – such as actual settings of his lyrics to music or allusions to his poetry – some of the theoretical discussion in the book revolves around Raymond William’s “structures of feeling”, the observation that artistic movements are rarely acknowledged at the time because “both participants and observers are unable to objectively distance themselves far enough from it to classify it” (p.37). As such, influence may be parallel and affective rather than direct and referential, and Lisa Crafton echoes an approach adopted by myself, Steve Clark and Tristanne Connolly in Blake 2.0 to draw attention to models of reception that emphasise affiliation or resistance as much as concepts of transmission and inheritance (p.67). As a very personal aside, it made me laugh to see my own words used against me as, once or twice as detailed below, I would have really appreciated a few more examples of such “patrilineal concepts”. Nonetheless, on the whole I agree with this approach (I would have to say that, wouldn’t I) as it offers a much more allusive and sophisticated model for discussion Blake’s reception.
The first essay in the collection is a perfect example of just such a sophisticated reading. Luke Walker, whose work on the 1960s counterculture and Blake is a fantastic addition to reception studies of Blake, offers a wonderfully subtle interpretation of Blake, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Noting that there has not been a great deal of academic work on Dylan and Blake despite bold assertions, as in the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, that “Bob Dylan is the spiritual twin of… William Blake” (p.3), Walker provides a delightfully nuanced reading of how much Dylan really knew about Blake – and how little he may have wanted to be influenced by him, at least in the 1960s. Personally, I am perfectly happy with the notion that Dylan didn’t actually know Blake at all well, an argument pursued by Tristanne Connolly with regard to The Doors in her article “How Much Did Jim Morrison Know about William Blake?” – the Romantic could still have been important as the grain of sand (literally in Dylan’s case) to inspire various pearls of his own music. Walker provides a compelling and extremely well-thought through argument regarding Dylan’s struggling anxiety of influence towards Blake but also, in many respects more significantly, towards Ginsberg. Certainly in the later decades of his career Dylan could be much more relaxed in his relationship with Blake’s work, indicating a renewed respect towards the poet in an interview from 1992 and incorporating cut-ups (after William Burroughs) of Blake’s “The Tyger” in “Roll on John”. Again, Dylan’s reading of Blake does not need to be particularly deep to be significant: as Walker indicates, throughout the 1960s Blakean texts operated in a rhizomatic, fragmentary fashion, cropping up as aphorisms and graffiti which seemed entirely appropriate to the inventor of the proverbs of hell (p.9).
The next essay on Blake, Douglas T. Root’s “William Blake: The Romantic Alternative”, is the most frustrating for me and the one where I would have preferred a little less free-form, allusive structures of feelings and a little more rigorous – Urizenic, even – patrilineal heritage. This essay was more frustrating because I essentially agree with Root’s argument that Blake’s attitude towards art, or more accurately the accepted myth of his attitude towards art as someone who once wrote “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s”, is precisely why he does provide an allusional, parallel model for much contemporary music. From the Pre-Raphaelites through the Surrealists to BritArt, Blake has frequently been seen as a “total artist” – one who lived entirely for his art and someone who, unlike many of the other Romantics, never sold out. Actually, the reality of Blake’s personal situation was much more complex than that, and ignores the fact that the editions of Young’s Night Thoughts and Blair’s The Grave were intended as fully capitalist publishing endeavours for which Blake would have happily sold (if not sold out) his skills for a much higher price were he able. Nonetheless, one legacy of Blake’s failure in his life time to be a successful artist – along with his continued faith in his own art and abilities – has been an enduring, and sometimes essential, myth of the Romantic artist alone against the world.
My frustration with Root’s essay is that, by concentrating on Blake’s influence on alternative American rock music and pretty much ignoring entirely the British scene he effectively eviscerates much of his argument. Blake’s influence on figures such as Kurt Cobain is definitely present, but also much refracted: Cobain recorded a soundtrack to Burrough’s “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him”, and Allen Ginsberg (who, according to Sam Kashner, rejected Cobain’s application to the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) was part of the Nirvana front man’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In Gus van Sant’s poetic retelling of his final hours, Last Days, Cobain is renamed Blake, but by ignoring the British connection, Root cuts off a direct line into rock music: Malcolm McLaren studied Blake at art school, Derek Jarman name checks the Romantic constantly throughout his movies, and Jah Wobble (John Wardle), bassist in Public Image Ltd alongside John Lyden, recorded an entire album based on Blake’s works, The Inspiration of William Blake (1995). I am by no means so crass a reader of reception to insist that direct transmission is the basis for meaningful readings of Blake’s afterlife, but the addition of “punk Blake” would have made the argument for “grunge Blake” much more convincing.
By contrast, Nicole Lobdell’s essay “Digging at the Roots: Martha Redbone’s The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake“, is direct, simple and one of the most joyous essays in the collection, although that probably reflects my attitude that this is among the best musical adaptations of Blake’s work ever to be made. Lobdell’s contribution is less theoretically complex than that of Root and Walker, probably because when dealing with such an overt piece of musical reception issues of the anxiety of influence or importance of structures of feeling tend not to apply. Instead, the chapter offers a detailed and comprehensive account of the contexts of Redbone’s album, outlining how her Appalachian ballad is partly an adaptation of older, English forms to create what she terms “Appalachian Romanticism” (pp,51-2). This chapter is probably weaker in terms of theoretical readings of Romanticism – I did cringe at an appeal to “the universality of the poetry and the timelessness of the Romantic ideals that the music embodies” – but it is excellent in terms of exploring the minute particulars of both the Appalachian context of Redbone’s music and close readings of the tracks on the album.
The final essay that deals with Blake, Lisa Crafton’s “‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’: U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism”, is considerably more sophisticated – and an essay towards I am ever so slightly more ambivalent. It’s greatest achievement is to inculcate a greater sympathy towards U2, who for me embody a capitalist sellout of rock music that tends towards an ersatz version of Romanticism. Crafton demonstrates that U2’s interest in Blake has existed for a much longer period than I had realised, and offers a much more generous understanding of their political engagement in terms of Löwy and Sayre’s notions of Romanticism which, if I never quite fully agree with, I did come to appreciate much more. The vision of Blake that U2 sees may sometimes be my greatest enemy, but what I cannot doubt – quite clearly from their recent albums Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – is that the group’s appreciation of Blake has been an enduring and honest one. Regarding the link to Leonard Cohen, I was slightly more perplexed: Crafton seems to follow a line that Cohen operates more in terms of a Blakean/Romantic aesthetic – I don’t really have a problem with this, but also Cohen seems to know Blake fairly directly, as when he invoked the poet in a 1988 interview.
This review has focussed on the chapters dealing with the reception of Blake in Rock and Romanticism and, as such, neglects those that deal with Wordsworth or other aspects. That is no comment on their quality – David Hogsette’s chapter on Rush and Romanticism, for example, is an essay in pure, unalloyed joy, and some of the contributions on Wordsworth offer sophisticated readings of musical contexts and influences. The subtitle, relating music to Blake and Wordsworth, doesn’t always work (Lorenzo Sorbo’s final chapter on the Scapigliatura is fascinating but feels as though it belongs to a different collection) and at times I would have preferred either a more comprehensive collection on the influence of Romanticism throughout rock music – Shelley and Byron are spectres that have haunted the dreams of far too many wannabe rock gods – or, alternatively, a collection that dealt more intensely with William Blake. The latter, perhaps, could have extended the boundaries of rock into other genres, such as pop evocations (one of my favourite settings remains Blur’s “Magpie”, the b-side to their single “Girls and Boys”), as well as exploring the English music scene, where William Blake thrives in the work of artists as diverse as Van Morrison (mentioned in passing several times), Julian Cope, The Fall and Pete Doherty. Some of these are dealt with in the follow up volume, that explores post-punk, Goth and Metal, and in any case these desires also reflect my intense enthusiasm for this book: Rovira’s decision to deploy Löwy and Sayre throughout the collection gives it a coherence that is unexpected in an edited volume, creating an extended argument regarding Romanticism’s influence on contemporary music that is frequently compelling and always fascinating.
James Rovira (ed.), Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018.
The following is a brief analysis of data collected on William Blake trends on Twitter and via Google Search/News for May 2018. Tweets were collated via Twitter Archiver and a data miner plug-in for Chrome used to collect Google items. The various data is included in a spreadsheet with “raw” and, where possible, “cleaned” (i.e. references to William Blake that do not reference the Romantic artist/poet removed) versions provided.
During May, 11,236 tweets were posted, the majority of them retweets. The chart below shows the daily number of tweets that included the phrase “William Blake” in reference to the artist/poet.
As the above chart shows, there was considerable variation across the month with regard to how many tweets were posted or retweeted. The spike on day 13 is almost entirely due to the appearance of a tweet by @41Strange of Blake’s paintings of The Great Red Dragon (discussed later). The average number of tweets was 360 per day, with a standard distribution as illustrated below – which also shows the 836 tweets on May 13 to be very much a statistical anomaly.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of popular tweets were either short quotations from Blake or posts of his pictures.
The most surprising thing about this chart for me is that clearly the most popular shared tweet for May 2018 was an image of Oberon, Titania and Puck with dancing fairies. The image appeared on multiples sources, but the most commonly retweeted was a modified version of the painting posted by @ArtPicsChannel at the end of April (the account regularly retweets this image).
The original painting is held at Tate Britain in London and is watercolour and graphite on paper (it is included below for comparison to the Art Pics Channel version). As the Tate catalogue entry indicates, it probably represents an attempt by Blake to capitalise on the popularity of depictions of Shakespeare’s works in the 1780s, in this instance by illustrating Titania’s instructions to her fairy train in the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
What is particularly significant about this illustration to me is that of all the works by Blake I would have expected to see shared among hundred of users, it would not have been this painting.
Newton and the Ancient of Days, for example, were shared, but only 87 times in the case of the former and a mere 36 times in the case of the latter. With over 285k followers, @ArtPicsChannel tweets tend to be disseminated widely, and this has been the only image by Blake posted to the account since March 9 (when an illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy did not appear to gain much traction). The fact that other Blake pictures do not go viral in the same way from the account – including the original version rather than the red-tinged one – indicates that there is something about this particular image that appeals to Twitter users, probably because the dramatic red and black looks effective on a range of devices. @ArtPicsChannel has itself retweeted the image 43 times this year alone (and only once for the original), seeming to return to it every few days as a means of gaining audience.
Less surprising to me was the prevalence of retweets of a series of Blake paintings dealing with the theme of the Great Red Dragon from the Book of Revelation. The original source for this was @41Strange on 13 May and this tweet quickly went viral and continues to be shared. This account has a similar number of followers as @ArtPicsChannel (214k in this instance) and this is a collection of images which attracted a significant number of comments discussing the Hannibal Lecter series of films, novels and television programmes.
Of the remaining tweets above 100, “The Tyger” or variants thereof is (for me unsurprisingly) popular, but I personally didn’t expect to see so many references to “Night” from Songs of Innocence. Nearly all the retweets of “The moon, like a flower…” come from the popular account @ArtLify (37.5k followers). “The Tyger” was also the source for another popular tweet, a tribute by @C3rmenDraws which, frankly, does a better job of capturing tigers than Blake’s original. Most of the remaining popular tweets are fairly unexceptional and largely represent proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a perennial favourite on Twitter. Of the foreign language ones, “Para la abeja laboriosa no hay tiempo de estar triste” is a Spanish translation of “The busy bee has no time for sorrow”, “Vedere un mondo in un granello di sabbia…” is Italian for “To see a world in a grain of sand…”, and Google Translate informs me that “Deneyim dedi?imiz ?ey, yitirdi?imiz masumiyetimizdir” is Turkish for “What we call experience is our innocence”, which strictly speaking doesn’t seem to be verbatim Blake at all. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Spanish “La exuberancia es belleza” (112 tweets) was slightly more popular than the English original, “Exuberance is beauty” (111).
Regarding the point of origin for these and other tweets, where Twitter stores location information the top sources for tweets were as follows:
Unsurprisingly, the USA was by far the largest source of tweets, at nearly 3,000, with the UK in a rather distant second at 1,011. At this stage, it is too early in this project to begin drawing any conclusions regarding other countries: this is simply something I wish to track over the coming year to gain some sense of which countries tend to interact with Blake most in this very general sense. One thing to note is that this list is far from complete, particularly where Twitter provides information in a non-Latin script. The chart below offers another visualisation of the data above:
Using a data miner plug in to scrape Google searches on a regular basis, a data set of some 286 search entries (that is pages indexed by Google during this period) and 210 news stories was collated, which are treated as part of the same data set in the charts below.
Although there was considerable variation from day to day in terms of the number of posts, the standard deviation was considerably less than for Twitter (which was not surprising, considering that there were only slightly fewer than 500 entries compared to more than 11,000 in Twitter. The average number of posts a day for this group was slightly more than 15.5 with a variance of nearly 8.
The various pages indexed by Google could also be broken down into the following categories: art tends to refer to pictorial representations but can include such things as posters and cards, anything with a visual representation of Blake’s work. Poetry, the next biggest category, can include quotations and snippets as well as extended pieces, while Books tends to reference sales/downloads of Blake-related books. The Music category was quite substantial this month because it included a number of posts relating to U2’s Songs of Experience tour. “Essay mill” refers to the rather dispiriting practice of offering essays for sale – these tend to go down very quickly, and I have been in two minds whether to include them for a number of reasons, but in the end they represent part of the exchange of information about Blake online.
Finally, the following two charts give some indication of the sources of origin for posts about Blake. As with Twitter usage, by far and away the largest number of posts come from the United States followed by Britain.
Ode to William Blake, Volume 2 is, as its name suggests, is a follow up to Fernand Péna’s first set of recordings of Blake’s poems. This was released in 2010 and you can read the original review of it here; as with the earlier CD, this one includes a lavishly-illustrated and somewhat idiosyncratic booklet that includes the various Blake poems as well as Péna’s interpretations of Blake’s life and work (many sections of which appear to have been carried over from the original CD).
As with the first collection, there are eighteen tracks although the Dylanesque and Doors-inspired influences feel as though they have been added to here. This is evident on the first song on the album – “Never pain to tell thy love” – which is a strong start and reminded me a lot of late Bowie. Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, was probably released too late to be an immediate influence, but other releases such as The Next Day may have inspired Péna, as on “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found” and “Earth’s Answer”.
Lest this began to imply that the album is a tribute – even to such a great artist as Bowie – what is particularly impressive about Ode to William Blake is the variety of Péna’s styles. Thus “The Land of Dreams” uses classical-style guitar to great effect to create a much more melodic style (and for me was superior to the preceding, rock-oriented track, “Mary”). Elsewhere, Péna’s work is strongly reminiscent of Dylan and Tom Waites, as in the delightful “My Spectre Around Me Night and Day” and “The Ecchoing Green”, or “Fayette”, which is offered as a duet. It’s with some of the straight rock numbers, particularly “Night” and “Long John Brown & Little Mary Bell” that I found myself less inspired, although the guitar on “The Crystal Cabinet” is exceptional and demonstrates Péna’s abilities to a much greater degree.
More unusual contributions include “A Fairy Skip’d Upon My Knee”, an almost psychedelic piece that matches the delightfully strange subject matter, while “When Kloptstock England Defied” is a bluesy number that, once again, suits the humorous content (and also was another which had echoes of Tom Waites for me). Less successful for me was the slight reggae style of “On Another’s Sorrow”, although that tone, with 10cc undercurrents, works very well on “The Fly”, which approaches the subject of death in a joyful fashion rather than despondency and despair. Finally, Péna deserves credit for his version of “The Tyger” – always a tough one because it is so well known. My own personal favourite version of this remains John Tavener’s choral rendition, but the heavily syncopated rhythm of this track – along with prog rock elements that are perhaps reminiscent of Tangerine Dream or even Simon Thaur – make this an unusual, memorable and very listenable adaptation.
While Péna has crafted an entire album devoted to Blake, the other two parts of this review deal with single tracks on other albums. The first of these, “Cradle Song”, is by Grammy-award winner, Shawn Colvin. Colvin’s own influences and career have included folk singer-songwriters such as Pete Seeger and various Broadway musicals, and both feed through into her latest album, The Starlighter, which takes its immediate source of inspiration a children’s book, Lullabies and Night Songs. Colvin’s work has been described as “soothing and sophisticated at once“, which sums up her sound for me. Certainly her melodic skills are superb, and this particular version of Blake’s poem – one of the most popular pieces to be set to music with versions going back to the nineteenth century – is gentle and tender.
The final track to be considered is “Holy Thursday (Ég heyrði allt án þess að hlusta)” by Jóhann Jóhannsson and which was released on the album Englabörn & Variations in March this year. Johansson, who had composed widely for cinema and theatre (most famously working with Denis Villeneuve, although not on Blade Runner 2049) and who died suddenly in the month before Englabörn & Variations was released, was famous for combining traditional orchestration with electronic and ambient influences, and this is very much in evidence on his last album. Bringing together a beautiful harmony of voices via the Theatre of Voices, this is in many respects a simpler piece than some of the other tracks on Englabörn but one that deserves recognition, in my opinion, as one of the finest settings of Blake to have been produced.
At the start of May, U2 began their Innocence + Experience 2018 tour through North America, crossing the continent with the aim of providing a series of performances in New York before heading on to the European leg. Aside from the date, this is the same title as the tour they undertook three years ago (after the release of Songs of Innocence) and offered a very different experience to the “greatest hits” fest that was last year’s Joshua Tree Tour. Reviews of the events were generally positive, with Rolling Stonemagazine calling the band’s opening night performance in Tulsa “more interesting and less predictable” than other recent events, while Barry Egan of the Independent.ie called it “one of the bravest, most powerful and even angriest performances U2 have ever done”.
Among other musical events in May, Pitchforkmagazine carried a profile of Max Clarke, whose debut album Hollow Ground is released as the work of Cut Worms – a reference to Blake’s proverb of hell, “The cut worm forgives the plough”. While the songs themselves may resemble early 60s Beatles as much as Blake, Clarke’s other career as an illustrator also seems to fuel his empathies with Blake. In Iowa, the Chamber Singers presented “Watching and Waiting” at the First Presbyterian Church, which included “Tryptych” by Kevin Dibble, a cantata for strings and chorus written in 2004 that draws on the words of William Blake, as well as Milton, the Bible, and Indian and Islamic texts.
For the visual arts, Peter Parks’s exhibition at the Magpie Gallery in Taos, New Mexico, included a series of watercolours that reference Blake as well as John Singer Sargent, American abstract expressionism and aboriginal art, while “A Guided Tour of Hell” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco includes work by Pema Namdol Thaye, whose hypnotic paintings invoke Dante, Turner and Blake as much as Buddhist art. Hell returned as a theme with the release of the second issue of Her Infernal Descent, in which Blake continues to serve the role of Virgil to Dante as he leads the protagonist, Lynn, deeper into the circle of gluttony. Hell, or rather The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, provided the title for Flights (as in “No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings”) by Olga Tokarczuk, whose nomination for the Man Booker prize was announced in May. As much a lament for “the decimation of her country’s very own ‘green and pleasant land'” according to The Guardian, her work is increasingly being viewed as a challenge to the Law and Justice party in Poland.
The motif of flights made a strange return in May with a recreation of the famous Nike/Michael Jordan poster from the 1990s. The Minnesota Lynx star, Maya Moore, was photographed in exactly the same pose as Jordan two decades previously, catching a great deal of attention in downtown Minneapolis and reminding viewers just how iconic the original was.
Last but by no means least, May ended with the author and president of the Blake Society, Philip Pullman, giving a talk entitled “Daemon Voices”, the Society’s annual lecture. Talking about the importance of stories and the craft of storytelling, and drawing on his recent book Daemon Voices, Pullman gave examples from his latest novel, La Belle Sauvage, interspersed with readings by the actor Olivia Vinall, who appeared in The Woman in White on the BBC as well as Young Chekhov at the National Theatre.
The following is an edited version of a talk, “Blake and Big Data”, given at the English Literature in the World: From Manuscript to Digital ¦ New Pathways conference at the University of Lisbon, 9 May, 2018. It is very much a work in progress regarding some circumstances in which quantitative approaches to literary data may help us understand aspects of the reception of Blake’s works dealing with the history of references to Blake’s poem, “And did those feet”, which was set to music as “Jerusalem” by Charles Hubert Parry in 1916. Originally, the talk was intended to cover a wider range of data sets I have started to accumulate with reference to William Blake (some of which would have more fully justified the epithet of “big data”, whatever that may be).
The stimulus for both the talk and this post has been the work I’ve undertaken over the past year on the Blake-Parry hymn as a history of that text, stretching back to Blake’s original composition of the stanzas included in the Preface to Milton a Poem until the EU Referendum in 2016, with a focus on the century since Parry set Blake’s words to music. While working on the book, I kept a spreadsheet with references collated from written texts and audio recordings in particular, eventually amassing a dataset comprising some 600 entries. The data collected offers a sufficient series of examples to make me think differently about ways of reading the hymn, and this post is intended as a preliminary working through of some of the theoretical issues surrounding the employment of digital techniques in the field of reception studies and digital humanities.
Any discussion of quantitative methods with regard to Blake’s work carries an intrinsic warning, for Blake himself admonished readers against an over-reliance on what he called “Druidical Mathematical Proportion of Length Bredth Highth” (Milton 4.27, E98). As we shall see later, an important reaction against recent statistical analyses have included what are often loosely dubbed “romantic” oppositions: actually, more often than not this is intended as a derogatory term, but as a Romanticist I believe there are actually some valid criticisms against a reliance on quantitative methods (as opposed to, say, subjective phenomenological readings) that should always be borne in mind. My own use of statistical analyses is intended as a practical method that – in what are actually very limited circumstances – may help us build a picture of some aspects of the reception of Blake’s work. Blake scholars have relied on datasets for the best part of a century now: Geoffrey Keynes’s 1921 A Bibliography of William Blake included a list of Blake publications, which was then supplemented and superseded in 1969 by G. E. Bentley’s Blake Books and its various supplements in book form and as articles in Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly. Recently, I have been writing much more about settings of Blake to music, and Donald Fitch’s 1990 book, Blake Set to Music has become an indispensable reference work.
The subtitle of the talk was “Literary data as a challenge to literary theory”, invoking a text that has long been important to my own reception work, Hans Robert Jauss’s essay “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” (the original German text of which was published in 1970 and then translated into English in 1982). Jauss was writing at a time when periodization of literature was (rightly) falling into decline, but his own approach – which overlapped with elements of what would become fashionably known as New Historicism, as well as the materialist techniques of figures such as Jürgen Habermas – was a significant step in reconsidering how an audience’s reception of literary texts changed as the “horizon of expectations” evolved over time. Jauss offers a particularly compelling example of this with regard to the diverging receptions of Ernest-Aimé Feydeau, who published his literary sensation Fanny in 1857, the same year as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As Jauss observes, Fanny went through thirteen editions in one year while Flaubert’s formal innovations initially found little success. Though Madame Bovary had few admirers at first, however, they were tenacious, passing on their passion for Flaubert to each new generation so that eventually it was Fanny which came to seem the outmoded novel.
Today, we have a fairly simple way to test Jauss’s hypothesis, which certainly seems correct on an intuitive level. Google’s Ngram Viewer, which as of 2015 had scanned more than 5 million texts, allows a rapid search of certain phrases. Entering the search terms Ernest Feydeau and Gustave Flaubert certainly seems to support Jauss’s explanation of audience reception of the two authors:
As can be seen above, during the 1860s and early 1870s, it is Feydeau who is referenced more, and yet from 1875 this situation reverses so that, some twenty years after the publication of Madame Bovary and Fanny, it is Flaubert who eclipses the reputation of his friend as Feydeau lapses into obscurity by the end of the century. It should be noted, however, that Jauss’s hypothesis requires a degree of refinement, particularly when compared to the data from the French corpus:
Jauss’s reading which suggests a transformation of the horizon of expectations, so that the bestseller Feydeau is overtaken by the formal experimenter Flaubert does not seem to apply: almost from the very beginning Flaubert appears to match Feydeau, although as in the English corpus there is an explosion of references from the mid 1870s onwards. It should be noted immediately that the above charts, which indicate references to both authors in various journals and books, are no indication of sales and so this measure of popularity is not included. It is very likely that the trial of Flaubert and the publishers of La Review de Paris which serialised Madame Bovary meant that there were many more references to the author than could be expected from the number of actual readers, but this is a hypothesis that is difficult to test and – something of a running feature throughout this blog post – indicates how cautious we must be when employing quantitative techniques.
An entirely non-cautious (and increasingly notorious) example of the appeal of Big Data came from Chris Anderson in 2008 in an article for Wired entitled, “The End of Theory”. In it he observed that:
At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics. It calls for an entirely different approach, one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality. It forces us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later… Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.”
Anderson, who frequently makes grandiose statements in order to attract attention has been refuted carefully and methodically by scientific researchers such as Sabina Leonelli, who demonstrates how Big Data is almost inevitably a highly selected phenomena with results drawn from social, political and economic factors, and Fulvio Mazzochi, who shows how petabytes of data enhance the testing of hypothesis rather than replaces them.
This post, then, has no real intention of arguing that the end of theory is nigh after Anderson, although some of my work in recent years has been much more influenced by that of Franco Moretti, who made a particularly forceful argument for rethinking methodologies in the digital humanities nearly twenty years ago now in his spectacularly titled “The Slaughterhouse of Literature”:
But of course there is a problem here. Knowing two hundred novels is already difficult. Twenty thousand? How can we do it, what does knowledge mean in this new scenario? One thing for sure: it cannot mean the very close reading of very few texts – secularized theology, really (‘canon’!) – that has radiated from the cheerful town of New Haven over the whole field of literary studies. A larger literary history requires other skills: sampling; statistics; work with series, titles, concordances, incipits – and perhaps also the ‘trees’ that I discuss in this essay. (Reprinted in Distant Reading, 2013, p.208)
In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti argues that the use of quantitative methods allows us, by viewing “fewer elements” (i.e. individual texts), to have a “sharper sense of their overall interconnection”. Actually, a fairly careful rereading of Graphs, Maps, Trees for this conference led me to have a greater appreciation for what are, actually, quite moderate claims by Moretti: unlike Anderson, he is not attempting to make grandiose claims for the end of literary theory but seeking to demonstrate some noticeable trends within literary history. That said, his use of evolutionary theory as a way “to think about very large systems” has led towards a degree of “scientism”, a false application of scientific method in the humanities where, frankly, it is harder to replicate and generalise data – even more so than in the social sciences. A more extreme version of this is, for me, to be found in the work of Joseph Carroll who, in papers such as “Three Scenarios for Literary Darwinism” (2010) seeks to excise the vagaries of postmodernism from literary theory.
The tendency towards scientism in the work of theorists such as Moretti has been cogently critiqued by Tom Eyers, who argues that the tendency towards neo-positivism in Moretti (and also Stephen Ramsay’s influential Reading Machines) results in an “uncritical positivism at the very moment that [it] affirms an apparently critical historicism.” I particularly like Eyers’ critique because he shows an awareness of many of the advantages of the digital humanities, whether preserving decaying archives or deploying new data mining techniques within scholarship, while distancing himself both from broadly neo-Romantic, uncritically aestheticist objections to digital humanities and the equally uncritical techno-evangelism. I do not necessarily subscribe to his adoption of Althusser as a model for a new “speculative” formalism that can synthesise history and form, but he makes many pertinent observations regarding Moretti’s process that have influenced my own thinking, most notably the warning against assuming a uniform model of literary consumption to generate data from distant reading. Individual subjectivity never disappears, and Moretti’s taboo against close reading has been especially unhelpful to my own analyses of “Jerusalem”, where it is precisely the phenomenological, individual, subjective interpretation of the text that has produced a significant bifurcation in the reception history of the text in terms of political reception by left and right.
Actually, my reservations regarding Moretti’s model stem less from what he does explicitly in works such as Graphs, Maps and Trees and Distant Reading than the reductive tendency that emerges in so-called “literary Darwinism”. While a potentially contentious response towards this would, in my opinion, follow Deleuze’s consideration of empiricism (after Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead) as the conditions for the production of novelty rather than a reflection of the “real” world, untangling that important thread will take this blog post in a much more convoluted direction. Here I shall simply observe a tendency in some of the social sciences, including communication studies, to employ “postpostivist” methodologies. As Allen, Titsworth and Hunt observe in their handbook on Quantitative Research in Communication:
A key component of the scientific method is verification and absolutism – that through replication, theories become “verified” and accepted as universally true. Although application of the scientific method to the study of communication and other social sciences was very popular at one time, more contemporary theory embraces a postpostivist approach that does not rely on absolute truth. From the postpositivist perspective, theories are assumed to be good descriptions of human behaviour, but exceptions are expected because of unique circumstances and the tendency for some unpredictability to be present in any situation. (p.8)
As such, a postpositivist approach to the data I am using to describe some of the reception of the Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem” follows this understanding: the data considered below is far from complete and exceptions are to be expected. It is a tool for a heuristics of understanding rather than any attempt at a complete hermeneutics.
Methods for collecting data
One thing became absolutely clear when preparing for the paper in Lisbon: although I have generally tended not to use quantitative techniques in my own work (one exception being for a chapter in William Blake and the Digital Humanities), I have worked with a considerable number of students in the fields of Journalism and Media Studies, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level; as such, sorting through my data demonstrated a number of flaws in my methods for collecting data. Mainly this was due to the fact that I had not initially intended to produce any form of quantitative analysis, and the desire to do so emerged from the number of references to the Blake-Parry hymn which showed definite patterns in some areas. As such, there are a number of limitations in the method for collecting data which ultimately affect the analysis which follows.
My principle methods of data collection were threefold: serendipity, that is by reading through any number of books/listening to recordings that I knew referenced the hymn; more systematically using Google’s NGram Viewer to examine the digitised collection of some five million texts; finally, by using online music databases such as Allmusic and Discogs, these two including 20 million and 150 million texts. While the number of texts included in the NGram Viewer is considerable, this should be placed against a corpus of 25 million books scanned bas part of Google Books (which itself is only a small portion of an estimated 130 million titles worldwide as of 2010).
While the method of data collection was not planned in as structured way as I would have intended had quantitative analysis been planned for from the very beginning, essentially arising from an extended bibliography, nonetheless it represents the most comprehensive collection of data for this topic ever collated. The work is not yet complete – there are, for example, some suspicious gaps in periods such as the 1940s that make me believe that more works remain to be found. In addition, I would like to collate references in news media to the hymn, although preliminary work I have undertaken here indicates that I will have to do a lot more cleaning of data (when a newspaper refers to “Jerusalem”, it’s usually the city rather than the hymn).
Bearing in mind the above limitations, nonetheless the final data set provides some interesting correlations that can be visualised in a number of ways, beginning with a simple scatter plot that shows some the frequency of instances referencing the hymn since Alexander Gilchrist’s publication of the Life of William Blake in 1863.
Unsurprisingly, the chart above shows Blake’s poem/Parry’s hymn being referenced more frequently as time progresses, but we should be wary of rushing to two conclusions that would establish causal relations between the data shown here and the reception of the Blake-Parry hymn.
First of all, the distribution of frequency data would appear to demonstrate an exponential growth which appears to begin some time around the 1990s, but it is perhaps more likely that the eventual shape will be closer to an S-curve, with a saturation of references in the selected media occurring in the twenty-first century. Following from this, the temptation is to discuss the above frequency data in terms of the popularity of “Jerusalem”, but this cannot be demonstrated causally from the data despite the apparent simplicity of a correlation between recorded frequencies over time.
Consider the following graph:
This chart, taken from the Church of England’s Statistics for Mission 2016, shows a fairly familiar trajectory of long-term decline in the Anglican church. Whereas nearly 7 percent of the population defined itself as Anglican in 1960, that figure had dropped to less than 2 percent in 2016, and regular church attendance had dropped from around 3.5 percent to slightly more than 1 percent between 1968 and 2016. Of course, because the population of the UK has increased during that time, it would still be possible for this decline to be matched by a growth in absolute numbers, but by 2016 the actual number of church goers had dropped to below one million. The reason why this is significant to a discussion of “Jerusalem” is that CofE churches use the hymnal Hymns Ancient and Modern, which includes “Jerusalem”: there is no statistical data collected on how often particular hymns are sung at church, but it is not an entirely unreasonable assumption that in one area at least – singing in church – the Blake-Parry hymn is less popular now (or at least performed less often) than it was some fifty years ago.
Because my research on the reception of “Jerusalem” traces its use across certain types of media (books, audio recordings, television and film in particular), it cannot begin to answer whether the hymn is more or less popular in absolute terms, only that it is more prevalent within those media in the twenty-first century than it was during the twentieth century. Certainly the hymn is sung at public events such as cricket matches and Last Night of the Proms, so it may indeed be more popular in absolute terms, but I have not collected the data to verify this. Nonetheless, within the data set I do have some interesting examples of particular points in its reception history are thrown into relief. Thus, for example, while I expected a surge of instances in 1976 during the Queen’s silver jubilee (and there was, indeed, a small rise in occurrences), the greater frequency is actually during 1973, mainly due to a slight flurry in audio recordings including that by Emerson Lake and Palmer on their album Brain Salad Surgery. There is, however, no obvious correlation between this increase and external events, unlike the more dramatic surge in frequency during 2011 (32 instances) and 2012 (29 instances), where “Jerusalem” was clearly recorded and performed more regularly because of the royal wedding of William and Kate Middleton and the Olympic ceremonies/golden jubilee the following year. Similarly, a spike in 2000 was due to the selection of the hymn as the official song for Euro 2000 by Fat Les, with the track being included on a number of compilation albums that year.
There has, then, been a greater media use of “Jerusalem” in the twenty-first century, but this has also been a period of greater deviation between the number of instances each year as the following chart demonstrates:
Each of these three fifteen-year periods demonstrate that the median for instances of “Jerusalem” increases considerably. In the decade and a half when Parry first set Blake’s poem to music, the median was one appearance a year, representing the fact that while occasionally it appeared in some format more than once there were also years when it did not appear at all. By the 1970s, this was no longer the case although the median has only risen slightly to 3 occurrences each year on average. In the first years of the twenty-first century, by contrast, the media is 16 instances a year with a much wider range between the various data points.
The following three charts illustrate similar points in a slightly different fashion, showing the distribution curves for incidents of the lyric “And did those feet”/”Jerusalem” in three different sets. In the first, covering the entire period from 1863 to 2016 (a population where N=150 because in this data set there are a few instances where no data was collected), the mean is 3.84 with a standard deviation of 6.137. What is significant about these numbers is that, across a 153 years, the number of instances in the media of references to the text are very low because, for more than half a century, I was not able to find any reference to the text. If we focus on the century from 1916-2016 (a population where N=98), the mean of instances is higher at 5.69 and the standard deviation or spread of numbers has increased to 7.9. Turning finally to 1970-2016, the first date selected because it is during this decade that we see the first spike in references to the Blake-Parry hymn, the mean has increased substantially to 10.02 and the standard deviation now stands at 7.778. Further concentration on smaller slices of later time periods would intensify this trend – a higher mean and a wider spread of variables from the norm as a greater number of references to the hymn fluctuate greatly.
Again, it is important to read such statistics carefully. “Jerusalem” is more prevalent in certain media instances, but once more this neither proves nor disproves the supposed popularity or otherwise of the hymn. The three histograms above, however, do demonstrate that the data is skewed when viewing the distribution curve for the period 1863-2016 in particular: essentially, there are more years during the nineteenth century when there is no reference to Blake’s poem than when it is alluded to, demonstrating very much that this is a text that comes into its own in the twentieth century.
One thing that does become evident from the data I have collected is that the driving force behind this increased media saturation is audio recording, as the following two charts demonstrate:
The majority of media formats where “Jerusalem” occurs is via audio (whether live performance – only noted rarely in my statistics and not including regular events such as Last Night of the Proms – or, more commonly, audio recordings). While music comprises more than half the instances within my data set, before the 1970s audio recordings at least are rare, and it is during the CD-revolution that takes place during the 1990s that instances of “Jerusalem” appear most often, participating in the wider renaissance of classical music brought about by the innovation of the CD. Indeed, it is possible that a final tailing off of those instances could reflect the decline of CD in recent years, although this correlation cannot be proven and, in any case, could be reasonably expected to have occurred earlier in the preceding decade. In general, however, the data collected does seem to indicate that at least partially the wider media reception of “Jerusalem” corresponded to a transformation in audio recording technologies: the hymn became part of the backing track for the nation because, as with so much other music, innovations in technology meant that it was easier to produce and distribute.
This data, visualised in different ways, does point to a similar conclusion: that “Jerusalem” has been more widely distributed across media formats as the century since Parry set it to music, and that this growth has been driven by audio recordings. I won’t lie, such conclusions are hardly earth-shattering and would have been guessed as “common sense” by any number of commentators, but it is useful to see the evidence demonstrating such a clear trend. Two other examples also demonstrate the value – and the limitation – of such augmented reading, one of which actually shaped my own understanding of the reception of the hymn and another of which indicates the danger of false positivism when employing quantitative methods.
The first set of charts also deals with the categorisation of music as follows:
This first chart – drawing largely on self-identified categories of recordings (whether emphasising a choir, pop music, by a military brass band etc.) is an effective way of seeing immediately some of the ways in which those recordings of the hymn have been categorised. It is an exercise in taxonomy which, while hardly surprising in some respects – the vast majority of instances are orchestral or choral arrangements – does indicate a few interesting examples, one of which I shall follow up below. The one point to make about this visualisation is that it obviously does not help with tracking instances across time: in many cases, this is not especially relevant, but occasionally – as in the categories of sport and music for royal occasions – it disguises the fact that such uses are very recent (largely post-2000) and thus indicate changing attitudes towards/uses of “Jerusalem”.
The interesting example, which for me is illustrative of how such quantitative analysis actually affected my reading of a text, is that of matrimonial recordings.
In and of itself, this doesn’t appear to be an especially interesting chart: between 2004 and 2011 there were fourteen instances of “Jerusalem” being included on wedding compilations. However, this simple data changed one section of my book to a significant degree: there are absolutely no examples of the hymn being included on compilations for this purpose before 2000 that I can find, although I still need to check that there are none after 2011. This is a surprising example of changing uses of the hymn – which personally I trace to the release of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 (“Jerusalem” is sung at the first wedding in the film) with some newspaper references in the late 90s and early 2000s. The spike in 2011 is around the royal wedding of William and Kate Middleton and, if there truly are no further incidents (which I doubt) perhaps represents an oversaturation of the hymn at such services.
The final example deals with one of the most evocative phrases from Blake’s poem – “dark Satanic mills”. The chart below indicates the frequency since 1900 where the phrase has been used separately from the hymn to illustrate some aspect of society or other thought:
For some time, I have been rather adamant that Blake’s phrase has nothing to do with the industrial revolution and, in my opinion, is only tenuously connected with the Albion Flour Mills constructed in Southwark which burned down in 1791. Yet it becomes clear that, after some tentative references in the 1910s (the first instance I can find of the phrase outside of simple repetition within the poem as a whole), the phrase really begins to gain currency from the 1950s onwards. I am not entirely confident of my data to be sure that the dip in the 1970s is entirely satisfactory, but certainly from the 1980s onwards it becomes embedded in popular culture – both in Britain and internationally – as a phrase used to invoke the worst excesses of industrialisation and mechanisation. Of the fewer number of instances where it is used to refer to something else, a significant proportion of these arise from scholars pointing out that it does not refer to the industrial revolution.
This is another example of what Jauss refers to as the changing “horizon of expectations”: as the phrase “dark satanic mills” is used more frequently to refer to industrialisation, so more people refer to it the same way. Admittedly, alternative uses have also increased (some of these directly oppositional) but in the main part this is a case where the meaning of the phrase has definitely chanced since Blake wrote down those words. While I disagree with this usage in many respects as not that which Blake intended, I am also interested in the spread of the term: while it does not represent the author’s original meaning, it has a much more effective use or exchange value as a term describing the industrial revolution. When people use those three words, they call up a period in history extremely effectively and the phrase serves as a microcosm of the ways in which the poem as a whole has been transformed throughout its reception history.
The conclusions of my research at this stage are still fairly tentative. Regarding the value of quantitative analysis, in some cases it demonstrates the obvious (that instances of “Jerusalem” increase as time progresses, and that this really is a twentieth- and twenty-first century text, with its reception doubtlessly driven by Parry’s setting the hymn to music). Even in those cases, it may be of use – for example in terms of showing how prevalent the phrase “dark satanic mills” becomes in the latter part of the twentieth century – and in other circumstance it offered me patterns that I was not expecting, such as the usage of the hymn in wedding services from the early 2000s onwards.
To me it is obvious that more work needs to be done: I consider my data set fairly representative of the hymn, but am not yet fully confident that it offers a suitable population sample throughout the full twentieth century, and as such I cannot say whether certain gaps (most notably in the 1940s) are significant or the result of my flawed methods of collecting data. Nonetheless, some of the evidence that is emerging is compelling to me and this is a project that I wish to continue. The next steps are to ensure that the data set as it currently stands is as complete as possible, while also considering the option to include other media references from news sources.
It should also be noted that the data here has been analysed in a largely descriptive fashion. While I would like to answer certain questions, for example whether a person’s political stance predisposes them to listen to “Jerusalem”, I cannot answer this in anything but an anecdotal way. As Allen, Titsworth and Hunt observe, quantitative analysis is very good at answering questions as to what is happening, but not why. To begin to find solutions to these and other questions would require a mixed methodology incorporating qualitative approaches.
Regardless of certain specific gaps in the data discussed here, there is a more general conclusion that I believe can be drawn upon already, and that is how quantitative analysis compels us to reconsider the text in new ways. Before continuing on this line, it is very much worth remembering the following admonition by Blake taken from his annotations to the works of Joshua Reynolds: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit–General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess” (E641). I have been very cautious in some of my own generalisations, and I am critical of the positivist assumptions in some approaches to digital humanities which assume that data reveals us truth. Likewise, although I can understand why Moretti argues against close reading the majority of my own work on “Jerusalem” consists of some 90,000 words of close reading of four quatrains, what I consider to be one of the most important works in England in recent decades.
But when we survey data as a whole, contracting and expanding our senses as Blake describes the Eternals in The [First] Book of Urizen (E71), then we can see different forms, have a sharper sense of the interconnection between those forms as Moretti suggests. For example, while the vast majority of musical recordings are classical, for most of them the significant difference in musical terms is whether they use Elgar’s arrangement or Parry’s: that difference is noticeable, but most other elements of the recording are not. As such, it is the collation of musical settings into different genres and branded formats that becomes important, indicating whether the music is being aimed at a sporting, military, traditional or more easy-listening audience. This is where “distant reading” comes into its own.
In such cases, quantitative analysis of “Jerusalem” does, I would argue, become useful (with such usefulness always being recognised as limited). Alongside the task of hermeneutics, of interpreting the text, it provides a form of literary heuristics, indicating the parameters within which the text operates among a wider audience. It cannot be used to tell us what the hymn means for its various audiences, but it does offer in broad terms some insights into how the text comes to be used in different times and circumstances.
Allen, Mike, Titsworth, Scott, and Hunt, Stephen K., Quantitative Methods in Communication, Sage, 2009.
Among new releases in April, the first part of the graphic novel series, Her Infernal Descent, appeared. Written by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson, with art by Kyle Charles, it offers an update on Dante’s journey through the underworld as a woman is taken in search of her family with William Blake as her guide. I reviewed the first issue and the next installment is due in May. Another major event was the premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Songs of Illumination at the Leeds Lieder festival on April 22, and again you can read the review of that performance on Zoamorphosis.com.
The end of the month saw the publication of Blake’s A Descriptive Catalogue on the Blake Archive. Printed in a small run, the Catalogue was written to accompany his one-man show of 1809-10 and the one review, by Robert Hunt, branded the exhibition the work of a lunatic. You can read about the history of the Catalogue on the Blake Archive blog and view the work itself under Manuscripts and Typographic Works on the Archive.
Sadder news was the death of Alice Provensen, at the age of 99, on 23 April. For some forty years she had worked with her husband, Martin, on illustrations until his death in 1987, before continuing a solo career into her nineties. During the period that she worked with Martin they produced illustrations for a number of children’s books, including the wonderful A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard. She is survived by her daughter, Karen, and you can read her obituary at The New York Times.
In other news, the Glasgow International this year included Mark Leckey’s Nobodaddy, described by The Guardian correctly, I think, as a “deeply troubled figure” and obviously based on Blake’s character of the same name. Meanwhile, a show by Alec Lewis at Tenby Art Gallery, West Wales, called The Painted Word demonstrates the influence of William Blake’s art and poetry – as well as that of Dylan Thomas and Leonard Cohen – and runs until June 10. At Union College in Schenectady, NY State, the exhibition “Blake@Union: From Print to Digital” is on display in the Lally Reading Room. Curated by Caitlin Williams, it shows the College’s collection of Blake works and will run throughout the summer.
A number of reviews of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, started popping up – such as this one at Slant Magazine, due to the release of the film on Blu Ray. If you haven’t had chance to catch up with this classic, which is a great surreal western as well as an homage to William Blake, then now is your chance. There was also some musical news with a new album, Hollow Ground, by the group Cut Worm (named after Blake’s proverb, “The cut worm forgives the plough”), although the other event was another death, this time of Bob Dorough, who wrote “Conjunction Junction” and worked with Allen Ginsberg on that poet’s album of Blake songs set to music.
And finally, Blake provided another pop culture reference in the form of HBO’s new season for Westworld, its dystopian vision of a future world of slavery and violence. In a reddit Ask Me Anything, director Jonathan Nolan cited a line from Auguries of Innocence, “A Robin Red breast in a Cage Puts all Heaven in a Rage”. As Cindy Davis remarked in a review of the new season, “if that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what would.”
First of all, a quick confession. Frank Castle is probably my favourite Marvel… character. I nearly wrote hero, which seems intentionally the wrong word, and yet also anti-hero is never quite right for me. The Punisher has been more frequently reviled as praised for being a series that glorifies violence. Yet for me, reviews such as Matt Kamen’s take on the recent Netflix series as an example of toxic masculinity are not quite correct (although to be fair to Kamen, his review is much more subtle than a one-phrase comment does justice to). Frank Castle occupies a position for me somewhere closer to Don Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy (which does, after all, deal with the events of the Duke of Castile and his son) and, as in all good Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, there will be blood. Lots of it. Articles discussing the gruesome nature of violence in the series also seem to miss the mark: the violence is gut-wrenchingly unpleasant, and this is as it should be – if we enjoy violence, then there is, simply, something wrong with us (one of my fundamental problems with the Deadpool franchise). Frank Castle is as much punished as punisher and in the end I think he is a hero more for what he could have been, what he wants to be – a husband, a father – than what he is.
I’m also a sucker for the fact that Frank (born Frank Castiglione) had originally intended to become a priest before joining the marines. As with that other lesson in the dark morality of comics, Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, it seems that one ex-Catholic can’t quite get enough of his heroes always being willing to fall a little further while yet somehow never quite reaching the bottom of the abyss. This post, however, deals with an exceptional edition of The Punisher, published in February 2006 as part of the Max Comics imprint aimed at adult audiences. Entitled The Tyger, it is an origin story that also contains one of the most extensive expositions on Blake that I believe exists anywhere in the comic universe, but Garth Ennis, the writer alongside John Severin, who did the art for this issue, have attracted considerably less attention that other figures such as Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman.
The issue begins with Frank on a rooftop in the 1970s, waiting to commit an assassination and pondering on how his violent actions will be explained away as a convenient narrative based on the post-traumatic stress of combat in Vietnam. Yet the real cause of his transformation took place in 1960 when he was ten years old, and its origins lie in two figures – Lauren Buvoli and Vincent Rosa (a son of a local mafia boss) – as well as, we are told very explicitly, “the tyger”. The scene cuts to Frank as a young boy witnessing a man on fire, running through a navy yard, like a terrible parody of Orc. We will later discover that the man on fire has been set on fire by the others at the navy yard for being a strike breaker and complicit in an accident which left one of the men permanently injured. This brutal example of lex talionis is apparently justified by Frank’s father, but his mother decries such mindless violence.
It is Frank’s mother, we learn, who at this point influences him more than his father, inspiring in him a love of poetry that Catiglione senior cannot understand and dismisses as queer and unmanly. Ten-year old Frank, however, is very much his own boy, and a boy in love at that: Lauren Buvoli is beautiful and kind, a song of innocence in Frank’s neighbourhood and one of several indications throughout the series of the very different life that he could have led before he was forced to embrace experience. We also briefly encounter Lauren’s brother, Sal, a marine who will occupy a very important place in the story. It is partly to get closer to Lauren, but more to encourage his own sense of imagination, that Frank visits Father David who teaches poetry to kids in the neighbourhood. Father David introduces the class to Blake’s “The Tyger” and, as Frank observes, the priest and Blake “had me from the get-go”.
The follows, after the reading of the entire poem, an original and (the first time I read it) entirely unexpected disposition on reader response theory. Having let his imagination loose to conceive the tyger in his mind’s eye, a “force made flesh” that knows neither remorse nor mercy, Frank, Lauren and Father David discuss who it was that made this creature. It seems entirely credible to me that Ennis is familiar at this point with Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class?, in particular Fish’s discussion of how critics answer the question in Blake’s poem according to their own preconceptions as to the nature of good and evil. Frank believes that the tyger must be made by something other than God, while Father David – responding to Lauren’s wonderfully liberal assertion that “can’t Frank read the poem the way he likes?” with a fatal assertion: “In this instance he really can’t.”
Ennis’s use of Blake is not as subtle and allusive as Alan Moore’s in part V of Watchmen, nor indeed Grant Morrison’s playful rejoinder in Zenith (more on both of these soon), but this discussion is an exceptionally intelligent series of observations on the role of interpretive communities in reading Blake and follows with another remarkable example of the role of the reader in interpreting the text. While on his second tour in Vietnam and out searching for a pilot lost behind enemy lines, Frank encounters a tiger. Rather than shooting in fear – for by this point, Frank Castle really doesn’t do fear – he and the tiger (or is it a tyger) reflect each other’s dangerous, stoic stare. As Frank remarks: “To this day, I have no idea if it was real. Or imagination filling in the gaps.”
The remainder of the grim roots of the origins of the Punisher involve rape, suicide and a dreadful, burning revenge by Sal who is, we realise, the “tyger” invoked by Frank at the beginning. In contrast to Frank’s father, who operates a kind of vigilante law of revenge that does, in the end, know fear and pity, Sal is remorseless and without mercy. He is also, as Frank discovers very quickly in Vietnam, walking towards his own death wish. The scene in which Sal takes his revenge on Vincent Rosa, burning him alive, is another demonstration of how Blake’s poem is used throughout the issue, being an act of fearful symmetry. By the end of the issue Frank reveals that he has made his choice, fixed his reading of “The Tyger” to become one who shows “the world a face not made by God”.
Ennis and Severin’s reading of Blake via the eyes of ten-year old Frank Castle is, quite simply, remarkable. I do not actually agree with Frank’s interpretation, and that is ultimately (for me) his loss, of innocence for experience. Yet Frank himself, throughout the various issues of The Punisher, knows this, and that is why – for me – he is such an interesting character. When The Punisher: The Tyger was published, Blake’s poem had already entered popular culture as one of the images – alongside the Great Red Dragon – in the Hannibal Lecter series. Yet unlike Francis Dolarhyde, with whom we are invited to at least empathise, if not sympathise, Frank stands apart from us: ultimately, his actions require a different kind of judgement. The invocation of the tyger is particularly interesting because this is not, in Ennis’s words and Severin’s art, a creature of Dionysian joy but, rather, a figure of stoicism – and, as in the works of that other famous stoic, Seneca, violence and pain are a punishment to be endured in a brutal, uncaring universe.
As I’ve been preparing for a talk in Manchester on Blake and comics, entitled “Here be Tygers”, I thought I’d share this little oddity from Marvel Comics. Part of the Marvel Team-Up series, Spider-Man and Tigra: At Kraven’s Command! is probably the oldest comic I have with a Blake connection as it was published in 1978.
Written by Chris Claremont with art by Dave Hunt and John Byrne among others, the Blake connection is pretty slender, to be honest. On the inside cover, Peter Parker is shown spinning his flight between buildings, worrying that he should really be studying but enjoying the freedom that his spidey-skills bring. Above him in bold letters reads the heading: “Tigra Tigra Burning Bright!”
It’s the oldest direct comic book reference I’ve found so far (and I’d be very happy to be contradicted/enlightened/educated in the comments below!) The story itself is usual Marvel fare from the seventies: Spider-Man, seeking to capture his foe Kraven the Hunter is himself caught and taken to Kraven’s lair. There the hunter sets Tigra – formerly an ally of the Fantastic Four but now controlled by an electronic collar that makes her Kraven’s slave – on Parker, an act that will result in his or her death that is (of course) averted when he uses his strength to destroy the collar.
As far as Blakeana goes, it is an extremely superficial link, more useful in many respects as an indication of just how prevalent the poem “The Tyger” was in post-war pop culture that Marvel could reference it in a pun with absolutely no further reference and expect its audience to get the joke. I’ll follow with a couple more from the collection at a later date.
Each year, the Leeds Lieder Festival brings together a number of composers and performers to celebrate a variety of songs and poetry in many languages. This year’s festival ran from 19-22 April and on Sunday 22 I had the opportunity to hear the world premiere of Songs of Illumination, three of Blake’s poems set to music by Daniel Kidane.
Kidane, who describes himself as a British composer of mixed heritage (his mother is Russian, his father Eritrean), has attracted considerable attention as one of four young composers who was selected last year to represent the UK in Portugal as part of the Year of British Music. Having previously studied at the Royal College of Music, London, and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, as well as studying violin and composition privately in Saint Petersburg, he is currently reading for a doctoral degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has indicated a strong interest in developing multicultural aspects within British classical composition (including, for example, bringing elements of grime and jungle into his music), and his previous engagements have involved working with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (for Sirens, in April 2018) and Dream Song, performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall this year.
For the Leeds Lieder Festival, his premiere was one of a three-part series performed by Ian Tindale on piano and the wonderful tenor, Nick Pritchard, who I’ve previously seen perform at Southwell Minster. As well as Kidane’s Songs of Illumination, Tindale and Pritchard offered a collection of songs by Robert Schumann, Liederkreis, and Benjamin Britten’s Winter Words, settings by Britten of Thomas Hardy’s final collection of poetry.
As Schumann was the first selection to be performed, this did lead my expectations in a slightly different direction, as I began to wonder whether Kidane was included in this selection as someone deciding to dabble with Romanticism in musical styles as well as choice of lyrics. The main piece of music I’d heard before by Kidane – Sirens, which takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s Sonnets – was not necessarily a clear guide in this respect, mixing contemporary dance rhythms with more obvious contemporary classical inspiration. In the end, it was Schumann who was the odd person out in this concert, with Britten’s powerful dissonances offering a closer guide to the Kidane’s three pieces.
Although there was no indication in the programme, it seemed more than possible to me that Kidane was invoking at some level Britten’s 1965 Songs & Proverbs of William Blake. Another collection of pieces for piano and voice (admittedly baritone rather than tenor), the deep, rumbling tensions of Britten’s opening proverb found its echo in the first of Kidane’s songs, Blake’s “A Dream”. Likewise, in “The Little Black Boy” (a song rarely set to music by classical – as opposed to popular – composers), Pritchard thrillingly expressed Kidane’s rhythms in a fashion that brought to mind songs such as Britten’s setting of “The Tyger”, creating an underlying anxiety and sombre tone that seems to be (from reviews I’ve read of Dream Song) a theme elsewhere in his work at the moment.
The biggest surprise for me was “The Land of Dreams”. Taken from the Pickering Manuscript, this is not a poem that is widely anthologised, although Donald Fitch’s Blake Set to Music indicates that it has been used by more than half a dozen composers, including Nigel Butterley and Alec Rowley. What was particularly exceptional for me in this choice was that it demonstrated a deeper appreciation of Blake’s work than I had expected: while “The Land of Dreams” is not unknown to British composers in particular, it is hardly a common source of inspiration.
In contrast to Dream Song, which draws upon fragments of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” accompanied by an orchestra and choir, Songs of Illumination demonstrates Kidane’s use of more intimate musical forms and settings. The three songs performed at Leeds were thoughtful, intellectual pieces that reflect the potential for a much more thorough engagement with Blake, should Kidane wish to explore more of the poet’s works (and I for one hope that he does). Without emphasising too much his Russian heritage and experiences in Saint Petersburg, his work was reminiscent in part of Dmitri Smirnov, who has dedicated a great deal of his output to exploring Blake’s music since the 1970s and 1980s. Like Smirnov (and Britten before him), Kidane challenges us to listen to Blake as the intellectual precursor of Modernism rather than a simpler voice of Romanticism.