The video below is a lightly edited version of a talk to the Blake Society on February 17, 2021, about some of the ways in which Blake’s theory of religion developed throughout his art and poetry.
The video below is a lightly edited version of a talk to the Blake Society on February 17, 2021, about some of the ways in which Blake’s theory of religion developed throughout his art and poetry.
As the tumultuous year that was 2020 comes finally to an end, this is an opportunity to return to a pleasurable task that I had meant to undertake just as the first COVID-related lockdown was taking hold. In April, the art-rock group, Phaze Theory, had released an album and concert video, Live at Balabam, which brought together their love of esoterica, W. B. Yeats and William Blake.
Based in London, the group was founded in 2014 by Christopher Barrett (on tuba), Tal Janes (guitar) and Marco Quarantotto (drums), and released their first album, Phaze Theory, in 2017. While that album owed more to Yeats (with tracks that included “Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Dialogue of Self and Soul”) it also included an astonishing burst of Blakeana in the form of “The Angel”, in which Barrett’s ominous blasts create a disturbing vortex from which bursts Janes’ jazz guitar and Ray Jones wonderful vocals. It was exciting, dynamic and truly beautiful.
A year later, the group – now joined by singer Irini Arabatzi – had gathered at the Balabam music venue in Tottenham, an event which would be recorded as their new album. Again comprising a mixture of occultural-inspired songs, some of which Phaze Theory had already played at other clubs such as the Vortex and Bird’s Nest, this album brings together a wider selection of Blake’s songs, most notably The Little Girl Lost and The Little Girl Found, as well as How Sweet I Roam’d from the Poetical Sketches (and for the inclusion of which I might have been partially responsible…)
The live album begins with a somewhat more laid-back, slightly melancholy feel on “Into the Twilight” which perfectly matches the mournful sense of Yeats’s poem from The Wind Among the Reeds, with Arabatzi’s vocals perfectly complementing the mellow harmonies of the three musicians. By contrast, “The Little Girl Lost” marks a significant transition towards the art-occult forms that the band like to explore, using free jazz forms to break away from tonal chord progressions and instead evoke Blake’s Song of Experience as a mysterious search of the soul among caverns deep and beasts of prey. Its companion piece, “The Little Girl Found”, focusses on Janes’s guitar and Arabatzi’s voice to create a harmonious resolution – Lyra returned to her parents as the soul returns to its home.
“The Little Girl Found” is beautiful, but my personal soft spot remains “How Sweet I Roam’d”. Published in Blake’s first collection, Poetical Sketches, in 1784, it is one of his most perfectly lyrical songs and has been frequently been set to music, beginning with Henry Balfour Gardner in 1895 and most famously by The Fugs on the 1970 album, Golden Filth. Although it has been a popular poem for different musicians and groups, Phaze Theory make the song entirely their own – a mystical, dreamy vision of a lost Spring in which melodious voice and instruments hover within harmonies while lilting away into slight dissonances that match perfectly the underlying discord of Blake’s original poem (and, it must be said, which segue perfectly into the next track, Mohini Chatterjee).
Phaze Theory have been described as a combination of Miles Davies, Led Zeppelin and William Blake (which very much underestimates the importance of Yeats at least). Live at Balabam certainly shows them as inheritors of Blake’s musical mantle – and is a reminder of happier times for live performances and a hope that it will not be too much longer before we can see them again.
Le Petit Prince (1943) is the most famous work of French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Its popularity has largely increased over the years, spawning a shop in Paris (one more item to add to my “next time I am in Paris” list), a theatrical production, an animated film, and even a theme park. The author celebrates his 120th birthday this year.
The tale is often deemed a children’s tale and still seems to stubbornly persist in schools’ or even universities’ syllabus’ as seen by the number of annotated and bilingual editions on the market. A pilot crashes in the desert, facing immediate death if he does not manage to repair his aircraft in time. This part of the tale is biographical. The accompanying photo shows Saint-Exupéry with his broken aircraft in the desert. The thus stranded narrator encounters a little prince, who is a child-like creature, but claims to have come from another planet and to have visited many other planets before. This encounter will change his life.
At a first glance, the parallels between the French tale and Blake’s work are on a superficial level. The tale can be read by adults and children alike, an attribution just as true for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” (1789, 1794) What is more, Saint-Exupéry tells his story by using both text and drawings, so his way of telling stories is very similar to that of the poet painter Blake. In a manner similar to Blake, image and text sometimes complement, sometimes contradict each other. The little prince explains for example to the rose he finds on his planet that there are no tigers on this planet, but the accompanying drawing shows a rose and a tiger, thus contradicting the re-assurrance of the little prince.
Rose and tiger naturally remind further of “The Songs of Innocence and Experience,” both elements being central pieces of Blake’s poem collection. Here, too, the rose is rather a woman than a flower, but in the end, the killer threatening to end her life is not the tiger, but a relative of the lamb. In a fatal oversight, the narrator has forgotten to provide adequate protection for the rose which may provoke the sheep, which is nothing but a drawing, a drawing that is supposed to be alive, to have the rose for supper. The soft and innocent lamb has swapped places with the predator, the tiger, only to threaten the rose who is not sick, but will have to use her thorns to defend herself against the predator in her world, the herbivore (thus taking the place of the worm). Blakean characters appear and intermingle in a new way, thus evoking Blake and rejecting him at the same time. The Blakean references seem to fade in and out. The threesome of rose, sheep, and tiger seems to evoke Blake only to swap the roles of innocent creature and predatory beast.
As mentioned before, the sheep only appears as a drawing. This drawing, however, does not show the actual sheep, but only the box in which the sheep is sitting (a reference to quantum mechanics in its similarity to Schrödinger’s cat). When the narrator and little prince meet for the first time, the prince asks him to please draw him a sheep. The prince is choosy and finds fault with all the animals the narrator can provide, a pilot who has just crashed in the desert and thus has other pressing things occupyping his mind than the drawing of a sheep. He grows impatient and provides the drawing of the aforementioned box instead. Surprisingly, the prince can “see” the sheep inside the box and finds it befitting his expectations. What may be interpretated as the vivid imagination of a child, bears deeper meaning when seen in context of the tale. It is not only that he prince can see the sheep inside the box of the drawing, it is his firm belief that the sheep may eat the rose, a part of the real, materialistic world which wipes out borders between real and unreal, drawing and materialistic world, imagination and material world. The prince does not distinguish between the world that is real and the world that is drawn. Images are supposed to have just as much life as does the world around them; the prince believes that the sheep on his piece of paper is just as real as the rose he can touch. At the end of the tale, the narrator will share this world-view and worry about the rose to be killed by a sheep he has drawn himself. To the prince, imagination, or the painting, is as real as is the material world. He is a character Blake may have had sympathy for. His statement “To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination[.]” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217) is, naturally, much more complex, but surly evokes sympathy for the world-view of the prince.
As may be expected the prince finds it difficult to understand characters who are meant to represent adulthood and who are through and through Urizenic, a business man counting the stars to “own” them, a cartograph who is interested in cartography only without ever leaving his desk, a king who rules without subjects to follow his rules, a night watch who blindly follows a set of rules which has become useless as the conditions of his planet have changed. He concludes: “Les grandes personnes sont décidément bien bizarres. “(“The grown-ups are definitely very bizarre” (my translation)). (33) Adulthood seems to appear identical with everything that is Urizenic were it not for the narrator, whose complaints that he would rather have to focus on things like repairing his engine or finding a source of water are quite justified. Still, the world of the prince in which a drawing of a box can threaten the life of a flower clashes heavily with adults who are preoccupied with measuring, owning, creating rules or following rules. The narrator explains earlier in the text that adults are preoccupied with numbers and will only believe information when given a certain amount of figures in addition. This passage is not directly Blakean, but the very open criticism of science makes me think of Newton measuring the ground in front of him and Urizen doing the very same – both seeking the figures they need to believe in information. The fact that both of them fail to look at the world around them instead of the ground in front of them reminds me of the cartograph who refuses to leave his desk. Or the businessman who counts the stars to own them.
Seen together, these Urizenic characters form the contrary to the threesome of rose, tiger, and sheep. It is the prince who moves between these two worlds and tries to make somehow sense of them. He is, after all, a traveller of different worlds. He leaves his world to gain understanding, only to end up in worlds he cannot make head or tails of. Yet, he too lives by the principle that there is no progression without contraries and the contrary is something to be encountered in the world of adulthood. This short visit to the world of adulthood and subsequent return makes him a relative of Thel.
The only one who can help him gain understanding during his voyage is his friend the fox. The fox teaches him what must be considered the core teaching and most famous quote of the tale: “[O]n ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (“You can only see rightly with the heart. The essential things are invisible to the eye.” (my translation)). (55) This seems to directly echo Blake’s “The Eye sees more than the heart knows” which precedes Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) although both differ in their meaning.
In fact, both statements complement each other. Blake’s motto foreshadows Oothoon’s desperate attempt to actually talk to Theotormon who rejects her. She tries to communicate her plea to him, but he sits at the sea “conversing with shadows dire,” (P, 11) he closes his mind and heart to her alike. He may actually see what she explains to him, but his heart refuses to accept these truths. She laments: “does his eye behold the beam that brings Expansion to the eye of pity?” ( P, 11) Theotormon does not have an eye of pity. He was “form[ed]” by Urizen, the “mistaken demon of Heaven.” ( P, 8) Similar to the characters in the French tale representing adulthood who cling desperately to their Urizenic system unable to see how futile their activities are, Theotormon clings blindly to his system refusing to see its fault, injustice, and cruelty. The quote hints at a refusal to part with what the heart already knows and a subsequent discarding of information the eye sees but is deemed unfit for the already formed image found in the heart. This is the same mindset Saint-Exupéry’s adults live in. The king for instance does not accept the piece of information that he is alone on his planet and thus lacks subjects to rule over.
Saint-Exupéry’s quote, however, describes the world of the prince. The narrator explains that what makes certain objects and persons special to us cannot be perceived by the eyes. So, although the prince is horrified to find a garden of roses identical to the one on his planet, he learns that this one flower is special to him because he has an emotional bond to it. In a similar matter, Christmas presents gain their meaning through the accompanying festivities, dinner, mass etc. They are more than the actual item retrieved of a box, the whole procedure and idea of Christmas is attached to them and makes them Christmas presents instead of objects bought in the shop next door. All things we perceive carry meaning to us, and although all roses look the same to the eye, as do all foxes, it is one certain rose and one certain fox that have deeper meaning and value for the prince because he loves them. But the eye cannot distinguish between roses and foxes, only the heart can. His parting gift for the narrator is the starry night. Whenever the narrator will see stars, he will remember that the prince lives on one of them and this will be a happy thought for him. The starry night now carries meaning to the narrator it did not carry before because he has an emotional bond to the prince.
It is striking that Blake actually used the same explanation as Saint-Exupéry as to how we perceive things, only in an even more complicated way by pointing out that we all perceive different things because we give different meaning to these things:
I see Every thing I paint In This world, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a Bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way.” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217)
So, we are not only blind because we refuse to see with the heart to distinguish one rose from other roses and to value the beauty of a tree, the meaning we ascribe to things, be it the purse or the tree, is what makes them beautiful to us. There is no universal beauty and no universal truth that can be seen with the heart, because every heart sees something different. Saint-Exupéry’s quote is a simplified and much more positive outlook on this idea than Blake’s. It is exactly because the hearts of some people are hardened (considering that they see beauty in a money bag and regard trees as green hindrances) that they fail to see the essentials (taking that the beauty of nature is the essential). It is not their eyes which cannot see the essentials; their hearts are blind. As blind as Theotormon’s who cannot see the loving devotion of Oothoon. The eye sees indeed more than this hardened heart understands.
While the tale may not strike as explicitly Blakean, it echoes many of Blake’s ideas and topoi. Despite the lack of sexual references the child-prince who finds it difficult to understand the Urizenic and loveless world of adults combines problems of Thel and Ooothoon in his person. He too rejects the world of adulthood and he too criticises the inability to see love. He, however, returns with a better understanding of what love is and thus happily seeks reunion with his rose whom he now knows to be special. His journey is one towards understanding maturity. As mentioned above, while rose, tiger, and lamb are all part of his planet and thus stem from what he knows and loves as signified by his return, the Urizenic characters live on other planets. While his home planet may stands for childhood, imagination, and innocence, the other planets symbolise adulthood, Urizenic thought, and experience. Innocence and Experience thus become different worlds as well as different world-views opposing each other, exceeding the mere ideas of childhood and adulthood, in my eyes. And regarding these two world- views, I cannot help but imagine that the man who told a woman how he observed the funeral of a fairy might easily be friends with the little prince, thus transcending the border of childhood and adulthood all together. After all, the ability to see the essential should not be restricted to childhood. Reducing the tale to a praise of childhood misses out on the Blakean references that lurk underneath its surface. But probably the essential idea that imagination (for example the ability to see the beauty of a rose and a tree) should not be restricted to childhood can only be seen with the heart.
Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. London, Vintage Books, 1999.
Blake, William. Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Copy P. The Blake Archive. http://www.blakearchive.org/copy/vda.p?descId=vda.p.illbk.01 (2020) [14.05.2020]
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. Le Petit Prince, avec les illustrations originales de l’auteur. Weimar, Aionas Verlag, 2017.
The Little Prince. https://www.thelittleprince.com/ (2017) [14.05.2020]
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. https://www.antoinedesaintexupery.com/ (2018) [14.05.2020]
Featured Image taken from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sahara_Crash_-1935-_copyright_free_in_Egypt_3634_StEx_1_-cropped.jpg (14.02.2012) [14.05.2020]
Along with a number of people, I have been extremely saddened to hear the recent news of the death of Dmitri Smirnov, the Russian-born composer whose love for Blake was such that he became a committed Anglophile and spent most of his career creating stunning and innovative compositions that set a multitude of Blake’s works to music.
Having contracted COVID-19, he passed away on Thursday, 9 April, leaving behind his wife – herself a great composer of note – and their children, Alissa and Philip. I had been in correspondence a few times with him because of our shared love for Blake, and there follows a piece I wrote on him as part of a wider essay dealing with the musical reception of Blake in Europe:
When Fitch was compiling his original catalogue in the late eighties, however, he noted that Soviet-bloc nations had yet to discover Blake, with two ‘startling’ exceptions (1989, xxiv). Elena Firsova’s (b. 1950) Proritzanye (Augury) is an impressive large-scale symphony composed in 1987-88, but it is the work of her husband, Dmitrii Smirnov (b. 1948), which demonstrates one of the deepest and most impressive engagements with Blake among the works of any composer. Born in 1948 in Minsk, Smirnov studied with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov and Yury Kholopov at the Moscow Conservatoire, as well as being influenced by Philip Herschkowitz, who introduced him to the serialism of Anton Webern, which Smirnov would combine with Franco-Russian sensualism (Smirnov no date). One of the most important Russian modernist composers, and one of the founders of the Association for Contemporary Music in Moscow in 1990, he and his wife moved to England in 1991.
The influence of Blake on Smirnov cannot be understated, beginning with his piece for soprano, flute, viola and harp, The Seasons, based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches, first performed in Moscow in 1980 and then arranged as a symphony, performed by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra in 1981 (F1148, F1144). Thus began a decade during which Smirnov returned to Blake again and again, demonstrating a deep knowledge of Blake’s works (which he often translated into Russian),4 whether occasional pieces such as ‘To the Muses’ (included in the 1982 Ballada for Saxophone and Piano) or much more extensive pieces like the operas, Tiriel (1983-85, F1154), which premiered in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1989, and Lamentations of Thel (1985-86, F1146), performed in the same year at the Almeida Festival in London.
The 1980s represented a particularly intense period for Smirnov’s engagement with Blake (although by no means encompassing all his compositions at that time, which also drew upon writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Pushkin and Pasternak), and after his move to England he continued to draw inspiration from Blake, increasingly drawing upon the paintings which were now more readily available to him, as in his series of four ‘Blake Pictures’ (The Moonlight Story, Jacob’s Ladder, Abel, and The River of Life), composed between 1988 and 1992. His performances in England were enthusiastically received, with Stephen Pettitt praising the premiere of Jacob’s Ladder for The Times in 1991. Although Blake’s influence has been less prevalent on Smirnov’s work in the twenty-first century, he continues to be an important source, for example in the ‘Blake’ Sonata No. 6, performed in London and Cambridge in 2015. A number of Smirnov’s works were also included in the 2011 programme held to celebrate Blake’s birthday at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, as part of the William Blake and British Visionary Art exhibition.
Iron Maiden’s song “If Eternity Should Fail” was written by Blake artist Bruce Dickinson (you can read about his “Blake album” The Chemical Wedding (1998) here and here.) It was actually intended as part of a future solo project, but was then recorded and released as an Iron Maiden song on their most recent album The Book of Souls (2015) instead. (cf. his autobiography What Does This Button Do (361)) So, rather unfortunately, the song was removed from its original context (the intended solo album) and added to a Mayan themed album (concerning the title track and the visuals), which might slightly change its reception. As it is, it fits in neatly with the Mayan themed album and tour. The song begins with a human sacrifice, focuses on various questions of religion, and ends with the appearance of what I call a Blakean character who is linked to death. The Mayans were a civilisation which practised human sacrifices and vanished under mysterious circumstances, thus mirroring the topic of human sacrifice, the aspect of religion, and the embodiment of death in the song. Moreover, the disappearance of their culture demonstrates definitely an eternity that has failed. You can see this Mayan setting in the live recording below (I have seen this live twice and the video does not even do it justice). Here, Dickinson plays a character who seems to be both a shaman and an adventurer. But the Blakean references get a bit lost in the jungle.
I put it here for two reasons. First, the ending features a spoken part which seems to introduce a mythology featuring god-like characters. The idea to write your own mythology is probably one of the most Blakean creations in art I have ever seen. We hear a narrator introducing himself as Nekropolis. Nekropolis is, as his name suggests, linked to death. In a classical understanding, a Nekropolis is a city of the dead. Our narrator Nekropolis is both a person and a city and might thus be the little brother of Jerusalem. He further introduces his sons; sons he has breathed life into himself. We do not only have a mystical figure, but the start of a genealogy. This is why the change of albums may be problematic because it may turn Nekropolis into a Mayan settlement or at least lets me think of jungles, ruins, and bloody knives, associations which overshadow the obvious Blakean nature of this mini mythology.
Secondly, the whole song reminds me of Milton, a Poem, starting out with the title and ending with the introduction of the mentioned new entities which surpass eternity. This interrelation to Milton would shed a new light on the topics of human sacrifice, religion, and the embodiment of death. What is more, I see Blake paintings when I listen to it. I just fail to put my finger on it. This is more of a general feeling than clear-cut intertextuality. As soon as I am able to put my finger on it, I will add an article on it.
So, for the time being, I will leave you to the Mayan ruins and hope you enjoy the live record. (This is indeed the official release of the live record as a video. Iron Maiden refrained from selling the live videos as a DVD, most likely in the knowledge that the DVD would end up in YouTube anyway. In other words: watching this is legal.)
In case you want to (legally) see the flamethrowers John Higgs mentions in his book, click here. This song, “Flight of Icarus” (Piece of Mind, 1983), is actually another of my vague feeling projects which end up somewhere with a question mark. I do not think that it is a coincidence that young Icarus is compared to an eagle before he bursts up into flames. For Blake, an eagle represents genius. (And yes, this is another of Dickinson’s contributions to IM).
Dickinson, Bruce. “If Eternity Should Fail.” Iron Maiden. The Book of Souls. Parlophone, 2015.
Dickinson Bruce. What Does This Button Do: an Autobiography. London: Harper Collins, 2018.
Iron Maiden. “Iron Maiden-If Eternity Should Fail (The Book of Souls: Live Chapter).” YouTube. Uploaded by Iron Maiden. (14.11.2017) [01.03.2020]
Iron Maiden. “Flight of Icarus (Live from Legacy of the Best Tour)”. YouTube. Uploaded by Iron Maiden. (14.05.2019) [01.03.2020]
Dickinson, Bruce. “Flight of Icarus.” Iron Maiden. Piece of Mind. EMI, 1983.
The news today of the death of Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer and artist most famous for experimental novels such as Lanark and Poor Things, is cause for reflection on a trailblazer in Scottish fiction who once described William Blake as his “favourite artist and author”.
Born in Glasgow in 1934, Gray turned to the novels which would make him most famous relatively late in his career, having previously worked on scriptwriting and painting. Lanark: A Life in Four Books, was published in 1981 when Gray was 46, to be followed by his erotic reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the book 1982, Janine, three years later. Lanark, for me still the most striking of his works for very personal and idiosyncratic reasons, won him various awards and led Anthony Burgess to call him the “best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”. Scott’s contemporary, William Blake, was much nearer to Gray’s ambitions not least in that both of them sought to combine image and word in a kind of illuminated book.
Lanark follows the journey of a young man, the eponymous hero of the book, who arrives in a strange version of Glasgow, Unthank, which owes more than a little to Dante’s visions of Inferno (as with Blake, Gray was working on a version of The Divine Comedy at the time of his death). Falling in with a group of young men and women, Lanark begins to feel alienated and to suffer from a disease whcih turns his skin into dragon hide. Between the story of Lanark in Unthank, Gray then tells the tale of a precocious man, Duncan Thaw, born into wartime Glasgow who suffers obsessive visions and eventually commits suicide.
Thaw and Lanark are linked in some way (as Thaw suffers from eczema, so Lanark is covered in dragonhide), and it may be that Unthank is a kind of hell in which Thaw finds himself after his death. While the journey through Unthank owes much to Dante, it is Blake who is perhaps the artist in whom Thaw is most interested, citing him at many instances throughout the novel. At the beginning of Chatpter 19, “Mrs. Thaw Disappears”, for example, we are told:
Thaw opened his diary and wrote:
“Love seeketh not itself to please Nor for itself hath any care But for another gives its ease and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.” So sung a little Clod of Clay trodden by the cattle’s feet, but a Pebble of the brook warbled out these metres meet. “Love seeketh only Self to please, to bind another to Its delight, Joys in another’s loss of ease, and builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”
Blake doesn’t choose, he shows both sorts of love, and life would be easy if women were clods and men were pebbles. Maybe most of them are but I’m a gravelly mixture. My pebble feelings are for June Haig, no, not real June Haig, an imaginary June Haig in a world without sympathy or conscience. My feelings for Kate Caldwell are cloddish, I want to please and delight her, I want her to think me clever and fascinating. (p.190)
Blake runs as rich seam throughout Lanark. Thaw spends a lot of his time at the Mitchell Library, looking at facsimiles of the Romantic’s illuminated books, indicating the influence of Blake and Beardsley – the two most important artists for Thaw – and he tells his father that he wants “to write a modern Divine Comedy with illustrations in the style of William Blake” (p.204). This alone suggests strongly that Unthank is a vision of the underworld after Dante (with a little of Milton and Bunyan thrown in as well), but that it is the Romantic poet rather than Virgil who is the guide to understanding this fantastical novel. Another key are the references to that incredibly Blakean novel, The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary: Gray cites Gulley Jimson, the Blake-quoting artist-protagonist of Cary’s book, in his Epilogue, clearly drawing on the Anglo-Irish writer as a precursor to his own experimental fiction.
The comment regarding Blake being Gray’s favourite artist came from an interview with The Scotsman in 2014, given at the time of publication of his collection of essays and occasional pieces, Of Me and Others. In it, Gray tells the interviewer, Susan Mansfield:
William Blake, my favourite artist and author, was used to people admiring his work saying: ‘Ah, it would never have been as great as this if you hadn’t suffered all these tribulations.’ And he said: ‘I’d have produced a lot more if I’d not suffered these tribulations.’
While admiring the strange and extraordinary in Blake’s work, then, Gray had little time for the stereotype of the suffering Romantic artist. Burgess was wrong to compare him to Walter Scott: aside from a shared interest in Scottish nationalism, Gray had little in common with his fellow countryman and mentions him only briefly in passing – as something to be endured in school. Scott was, in the end, too Tory for Gray, and his enduring interest in socialism made William Blake a much better fit.
Gray did indeed have much to say about the issues of Scottish nationalism as well as the ideals of socialism. Throughout Lanark, Thaw and his contemporaries discuss the possibilities of a Scottish parliament as well as ironic asides to the relative failures of the Scottish Arts Council to support an arts proper to the north of the border. Yet this is no appeal to jingoism – indeed, he is critical of the Scottish arts scene in general as well as declaiming against “Scottish chauvinism” more generally. In contrast to the more traditional romanticism of Scott, this seems to have been something that Gray has picked up from Blake: Albion is Blake’s vision of his homeland where he was born, but it is as much a perfidious as glorious country. Like Blake, Gray wished to use novels such as Lanark as a means to restore his country to their greater arts.
Despite the use of almost the same title, I claim that William Blake’s “The Book of Thel” (1789) and British singer and songwriter Bruce Dickinson’s “Book of Thel” (The Chemical Wedding, 1998) are completely different narratives. In fact, I claim that Dickinson has turned the virgin Thel, who fears death or motherhood, depending on the interpretation of Blake’s version, into a male character. As I show in the following, Dickinson’s narrative mirrors the original, but turns the imagery on its head. Exchanging one sex for another (I refer here to sexes instead of gender roles because both texts implicitly talk about reproduction and roles are thus very clear-cut) generates a new narrative as well as a new context. So, what if Thel was male?
“Book of Thel” is part of the album The Chemical Wedding (1998), a concept album linking the occult to Blakean thought, paintings, and characters. I have explained it in more detail here.
Blake’s “The Book of Thel” deals with a variety of female gender roles as well as with questions of a meaningful life and mortality. Different personnel discusses with the young Thel their respective world-views of (heterosexual) relationships, parenthood, the (lack of) love, self-sacrifice, and duty. Malgorzata Luczynska-Holdys points out in her essay “’Life exhal’d in milky fondness’—Becoming a Mother in William Blake’s The Book of Thel” that
the chief question, then, is what it would mean for Thel to enter this world, Blake’s realm of Generation, or Experience. Entering it may be understood as a conscious decision to grow up and to assume the social roles prescribed for a woman in the adult world—primarily the role of mother.
The most prominent role has hereby the Clod of Clay who confronts Thel with the infant – worm and grants her permission to enter her realm with the opportunity to return unscathed. Yet this realm does not only represent the world of adulthood, but also the world of the dead. This world is clearly a graveyard:
She wanderd in the land of clouds thro’ valleys dark, listning
Dolours & lamentations: waiting oft beside a dewy grave
She stood in silence. listning to the voices of the ground,
Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down. (Plate 6)
Thel visits the land of the dead and sits on her own grave. She does not get a glimpse of motherhood, but of death. Yet both readings converge in the image of the infant-worm. When Thel asks if she will become “food of worms,” (Plate 3) this may serve as memento mori as well as a reference to pregnancy. In case of a pregnancy, the infant-worm would feed of Thel, in its role as an embryo and later as an infant by breast-feeding. When confronted with the infant-worm, Thel spreads her arms, driven by sympathy. However, her attempt at motherhood is short-lived and will ultimately fail when confronted with her grave.
In Dickinson’s song we meet a narrator who uses a generalising “you.” I argue that he must be male because he is referring to a family tree which does require two different sexes because there is no progression without contraries. What is more, the narrator uses curse words to describe feminine gender roles. This alienated view on femininity paired with open contempt and hatred hints at a male view.
I also argue that he is Thel because, he, in turn, is courted by females as a partner, namely a priestess, a virgin, a serpent, and the female who betrayed him. Whereas all of them are definitely sexual partners, I think that two roles can be applied to the priestess. The priestess may take the role of the Clod of Clay as a gate keeper. She seems to be responsible for the opening of The Book of Thel, hereby creating a mise en abyme. To open the The Book of Thel hints at evoking the respective narrative. I think the priestess may be the character that invited him to get a glimpse of her realm, holding up her arm up in invitation like Thel does to the infant-worm. But the priestess is way less honest than the Clod of Clay. The priestess has lied about an unharmed return.
The priestess is not only the gate keeper, but also the birth-giver. I argue that all female gender roles are in fact one character that appears in different shapes. We are told that the serpent and priestess are one and the same character. I argue that the remaining roles, the virgin and what he calls a prostitute, are the same character, too. When Blake’s Thel talks to different entities to acquire different viewpoints, male Thel talks to one entity that appears in different (Blakean) shapes.
She appears, rather logically, as a weeping virgin, echoing both Thel and the “fair-eyed dew.” (Plate 3) But this virgin finds sexual fulfilment, implied by a line playing on the double meaning of “cry.” It can be decoded as a sexual reaction when seen in context – it is linked to joy. (Another hint that may have coined my conclusion is Dickinson’s ever ambiguous slogan and trademark “Scream for me.” (cf. http://screamforme.com))
The serpent echoes Genesis and the seduction of Eve. Serpents curled around bodies are a common and recurring motif in Blake’s paintings, as Jared Powells points out in Hell’s Printing Press | The Blog of the Blake Archive and Blake Quarterly, hinting at sex, sin, and seduction. The serpent is also a recurring motif in Dickinson’s work, mostly carrying the same connotations. It is linked to a kissing female in “Revelations” (Iron Maiden, Piece of Mind, 1983), it is kissed in “The Magician” (Accident of Birth, 1997), and becomes a symbol for the immortal evil in the human heart in “Believel” (Tyranny of Souls, 2005). Dickinson uses the serpent almost as frequently as a symbol for sin and seduction as Blake did, with the only difference that at least in the first example the serpent is definitely female (the exception of the rule being “Welcome to the Pit” (Accident of Birth, 1997) in which the viper and the snake are a phallus). This reinterpretation of the serpent as representative of the female sex implies a convergence of the serpent and Eve. In Genesis Eve seduces Adam to eat the forbidden fruit; Eve can thus be seen as victim as well as agent of seduction respectively. As the serpent in “Book of Thel” is female as well (because she is also the priestess), I say that in consequence she is Eve bringing doom on Adam. The weeping virgin who mirrors Blake’s rather hapless or at least harmless Thel has suddenly become Eve seducing Adam, causing the permanent loss of Paradise. This was never meant to end in an unscathed return on side of male Thel. The serpent turns this into a case of Paradise Lost. Male Thel falls to temptation, looses his “innocence,” and is damned.
In Blake’s illuminated book, the serpent appears in the last illustration in a situation which may well imply that it is a phallus; the serpent is ridden by a young woman and children. If we accept this reading, which implies that Blake offered us two endings and the illustration is an alternative outcome of the narrative, as Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi observe, here too it is the serpent which brings the sexual union and the change of narrative.
In a last step, the virgin who has become the seductress / serpent becomes a mother. The women he calls a prostitute is the one who gives birth, as inclined by the use of vocabulary. But, the mother figure in Blake’s poem is the Clod of Clay, earth itself and the keeper of the dead, her realm a graveyard. Dickinson’s song combines motherhood and death (as they have already been combined in the imagery of the infant-worm in Blake’s poem) and links them to the realm of the Clod of Clay. The motherly character of the Clod of Clay who cares for the infant-worm in Blake’s poem is now giving birth herself. And she gives birth to death, which is, in my eyes, considering that she is mistress over a graveyard, a very logical conclusion. This birthing of evil is announced with a Shakespeare quote taken from Macbeth “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” (IV, I, 44-45)
Up from here, the song is open to two different interpretations. In a first reading, the narrator does actually die. His union with the virgin leads to a quick end, which may be another sexual pun or the indication that he does indeed die. After all he is meant to enter the graveyard world Thel enters. Whereas Thel walks to her own grave and sits on it, male Thel has the “marriage hearse” of Blake’s “London” at his disposal to take him to a funeral (which is most likely his own). This imagery of a pairing in death also harks back to the chorus of the title song “The Chemical Wedding” in which a couple is united in the grave, a union which becomes their wedding (which in turn mirrors the manifest Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz Anno 1459 (The Chemical Wedding, 1616) in which three couples are killed to be reborn as the king and the queen).
In a second reading, I argue that the narrator is doomed. He is talking about a destroyed family tree and that he has to relive his tale. He has been marked, a process that is irreversible. He has been seduced to spawn evil and now he is caught by what he has done. The pairing of lamb and wolf (which echoes The Lamb and The Tyger) may suggest that male Thel, the victim, was targeted from the evil forces right from the beginning.
Be that as it may, the outcome of Dickinson’s “Book of Thel” is the exact opposite of Blake’s The Book of Thel. As the seduction takes place, the whole narrative changes (and it changes for the worse), arguably because Thel was tricked and betrayed by the gatekeeper. The crying Thel has indeed become a very classical femme fatale who brings death.
Dickinson has turned the hapless Thel into a monstrous female, monstrous in the meaning that she is an evil seductress who intends and brings doom, but also in the meaning that she is linked to death and gives birth to evil. This constellation is very befitting for the genre of heavy metal as it tells a horror story. These changes may thus be seen as a logical step considering the target genre Blake’s text was adapted for. But, it also casts a new light on Blake’s text. If we follow the Biblical narrative of Eve having seduced Adam, the consequential punishment is death. The fact that the priestess / serpent / virgin has seduced male Thel, also leads to death. Weeping Thel who refuses motherhood has been exchanged for the first femme fatale, the seductress Eve; the rejection of motherhood has been turned into the birth of evil. What if Thel was male? He might succumb to the seductive power of Eve / the serpent and witness the birth of death (the Fall). In a clever twist, swapping the sexes has turned The Book of Thel into Genesis.
Another song slightly hinting at The Book of Thel is “Accident of Birth,” stemming from the album of the same name which precedes The Chemical Wedding. Here, the narrator points out that dying actually means returning to the womb, a narrative which also turns Blake’s The Book of Thel on its head. Whereas Thel enters the world of death and returns to her world; the dying person in the song returns to the realm of death where he originally came from. Now the world of the living becomes the visiting space. Birth, dying, and the realm of death converge again.
Andreae, Johann, Valentin. Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosenkreutz Anno 1459. Translated by Walter Weber. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben, 1957.
Blake, William. The Book of Thel. The William Blake Archive. http://www.blakearchive.org/work/thel (2019) [15.11.2019]
Blake, William. “London.” William Blake. Songs of Innocence and Experience. The William Blake Archive. Copy AA, 1826 http://www.blakearchive.org/copy/songsie.aa?descId=songsie.aa.illbk.46 (2019) [15.11.2019]
Bruce Dickinson. The Chemical Wedding. Sanctuary, 1998.
Dickinson, Bruce, Z, Roy. “Accident of Birth.” Bruce Dickinson. Accident of Birth. CMC International, Duellist Enterprises, Abril Music, 1997.
Dickinson, Bruce, Z, Roy. “Believel.” Bruce Dickinson. Tyranny of Souls. Sanctuary, 2005.
Dickinson, Bruce, Z, Roy and Eddie Casillas. “Book of Thel.” Bruce Dickinson. The Chemical Wedding. Sanctuary, 1998
Dickinson, Bruce, Z, Roy. “Chemical Wedding.” Bruce Dickinson. The Chemical Wedding. Sanctuary, 1998
Dickinson, Bruce. “Revelations.” Iron Maiden. Piece of Mind. EMI, 1983.
Dickinson Bruce, Z, Roy. “The Magician.” Bruce Dickinson. Accident of Birth. CMC International, Duellist Enterprises, Abril Music, 1997.
Dickinson Bruce, Smith, Adrian. “Welcome to the Pit.” Bruce Dickinson. Accident of Birth. CMC International, Duellist Enterprises, Abril Music, 1997.
Eaves, Morris, Essick, Robert N. and Joseph Viscomi. “Explanatory Notes”. Blake, William. The Early Illuminated Books. ed. by David Bindmann. Vol. 3. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998. Google Books. https://books.google.de/books?id=Z9sXWEQT2-4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=early+illuminated+books&hl=de&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjxk7iy8PHlAhVF-yoKHf-gDdQQ6AEIKzAA#v=onepage&q=early%20illuminated%20books&f=false [17.11.19]
Malgorzata Luczynska-Holdys. “’Life exhal’d in milky fondness’—Becoming a Mother in William Blake’s The Book of Thel” Blake / an Illustrated Quarterly. Vol. 46, no. 4, 2013. http://bq.blakearchive.org/46.4.luczynska?fbclid=IwAR18lSfLDmEGLL5YJHl4OLzRkGexH0NzlhtT4ZM8wrez6DlEYDTME7U9Zlc [15.11.2019]
Powell, Jared. “Exploring Blake’s Satanic Serpents” Hell’s Printing Press | The Blog of the Blake Archive and Blake Quarterly. https://blog.blakearchive.org/2019/08/26/exploring-blakes-satanic-serpents/ (26.08.2019) [15.11.2019]
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. ed. by W. J. Craig. London, Henry Pordes, 1984.
The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye claimed in 1951 that among the most ‘foolish’ ideas that had emerged about the visionary poet and artist William Blake, ‘The notion that he was an automatic writer is perhaps the most absurd.’ This imposition resulted, he argued, from literary students reading Blake’s words stripped from their original home, shorn of their artistic grounding. The dynamic between word and image, Frye believed, told a greater story, one closer to the intention of their creator. The association with occult technique apparently represented an ill-informed denigration of Blake’s creative integrity for the critic.
In some respects, Frye is right about automatic writing. The term itself was not in use during Blake’s time, emerging in the mid-nineteenth century in response to the practices of Modern Spiritualists. I also imagine that if Blake had been accused of being an automatic writer, he would have rejected it outright, the implication that he was simply an automaton unpalatable to him. Divine discourse, after all, was centred on spiritual empowerment, and Blake’s work was in part the fruit of his spirituality. By brushing it aside, Frye missed a powerful trick in understanding Blake’s work, however, one that places his creativity in a deeply ritual light.
Blake was an important practitioner in a trajectory of people who undertook mark-making in a ritual context; a liminography in which a chasm is temporarily created by rupturing the functions of writer and author. By relinquishing authorship, writers and artists used a ritual mechanism through which to manifest and articulate an individualised spiritual authority. In other words, this ritual paradox of authorship and authority facilitated an ability to democratise access to a power usually tied up in the hierarchies of Church and State. The creative work of practitioners was a personal sacrament to the divine communication.
Blake may not have been down with the discourse of automatism, but as will be shown he intimately understood the spiritual practice of writing and drawing, and would have recognised it in spiritualists and occultists, whatever terminology was employed. Indeed, liminography stretched from the late eighteenth century right through to the automatic writers of the fin de siècle, and beyond, and Blake’s role in this emergent tradition was vital. Placing him in this tradition is the intention here.
The scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had several encounters with Jesus Christ, including one when JC gave some unsolicited dietary advice to him in a pub in Clerkenwell. Thereafter he dedicated his life to elucidating the spiritual meaning of the Bible and paving the way for the New Jerusalem Church of Revelations, peppered of course with regular visits to the spiritual spheres to chinwag with their inhabitants. While he preferred to write up with a straight and rational head, he observed several forms of spiritual writing when journeying through the spheres, and experimented with relinquishing authorship.
Occasionally writings simply manifested, ‘There have sometimes been sent to me papers covered in writing; some of which are exactly like papers written by hand, and others like papers that had been printed in the world.’ Modern Spiritualists call this ‘psychography’. He also noted in his Spiritual Diary that spirits of the dead ‘could communicate their thoughts by words through another man, and even by letters […] and if they were permitted, they could write in their own peculiar style’. Ever the empiricist, he gave it a whirl:
I was ignorant of the series of things until after they were written; but this only in very rare instances, and only for the sake of informing us that revelations are made in this manner. Those paper [thus written] were therefore destroyed, because God Messiah was unwilling that it should be so done.
What emerged from his writings was a spiritual worldview that included the dispensation of a divine discourse inaugurating a new spiritual age, but which was centred around the question of permission and authority. His experiences became a blueprint for liminographers.
In the years after the mystic’s death, Swedenborgianism began to take shape in the religious landscape of Britain. On the one hand, there was those like Robert Hindmarsh (1759-1835) who took the mystic’s pronouncement of a New Church literally, and established a sect. For them, Swedenborg’s spiritual authority lay in his writings and the litany of the sect. On the other, however, were the mystically-inclined readers of his works. They believed the New Church would emerge from individuals and gradually transform existing institutions. Divine discourse, exemplified by Swedenborg’s experiences, was evidence of this progression. As such, they saw themselves as the medium of spiritual authority, not any sect or church.
Among the latter group was John Clowes (1734-1831), the Anglican rector of St John’s Church, Manchester, who was first introduced to Swedenborg’s work in 1773. According to his biographer, several days after reading True Christian Religion (1771) he was ‘powerfully drawn into a state of inward recollection’ and, ‘whilst he lay musing on this strange, and to him most delightful harmony in the interiors of his mind, instantly there was made manifest, in the same recesses of his spirit, what he can call by no other name than a divine glory’. He thereafter took up Swedenborgianism, but remained an Anglican.
Clowes argued vehemently against the establishment of the sect. After all, his own experience apparently proved the progressive nature of the mystic’s New Church, with himself an example of how the old Church would be transformed. He existed in a liminal space between the sect and Church, inferring both but being neither. In 1799, he wrote a letter to Robert Hindmarsh:
there was observed during almost the whole time of writing a sensible dictate from Spirits at my first waking in the morning, attended with inexpressible delight, and exciting by their presence such a holy awe […] This I have frequently expressed in the writing of sermons, many of which have thus been dictated throughout by spirits.
One of the first recorded examples of Swedenborgian liminography, Clowes’s ritual was attuned to the progressive New Church, so far as through the writing of sermons he was inaugurating an inner transformation within the Anglican church itself. As such, it subverted the institutional medium of spiritual authority, in favour of the power of direct Authorship.
Blake’s relationship with Swedenborgianism has been a continuing debate. A couple of points, however, are clear. Firstly, he owned and annotated several of Swedenborg’s works. Secondly, he and his wife Catherine attended the inaugural conference of the New Church sect. He later told his friend Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) that he regarded Swedenborg as a ‘divine teacher’, but as his first biographer noted, ‘he hardly became a proselyte or “Swedenborgian” proper.’ At the very least though, he apparently did agree with Clowes. A clue to his feelings about the sect can be gleaned from an annotation in Divine Love of Angels, ‘the Whole of the New Church is in the Active Life & not in Ceremonies at all,’ and elsewhere he disapprovingly underlined a person who ‘adheres to a sect.’
One aspect that Blake and Swedenborg did share was divine discourse. Robinson recorded a conversation in which the poet stated that he wrote, ‘when commanded by the spirits, and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published and the spirits can read. My MS. is of no further use.’ In a letter sent in 1803 to Thomas Butts about Milton:
I have written this poem from immediate Dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without Premeditation & even against my Will; the Time it has taken in writing was thus render’d Non Existent, & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life, all produc’d without Labour or Study.
It’s a remarkably similar description of the practice when compared to Clowes and Swedenborg. For Blake, it simultaneously lent a spiritual authority to his work, and in doing so subverted the traditional avenues of established churches, with their litanies and ceremonies. Relinquishing authorship underscored his own personal spiritual heterodoxy.
Swedenborg, Clowes and Blake all utilized the idea of ritual writing as a way of deterritorializing spiritual authority. As Kathleen Lundeen has noted, ‘Spiritualism, for Blake, is more than a metaphor for verbal mediumship, however; it is a prerequisite for writing with a freer tongue.’ Indeed, it was no metaphor, it was ritual. As liminography, writing and drawing was a process of authorizing spirituality, and with its emphasis on individual praxis and creative output, it subverted the orthodoxy of social and institutional religious hierarchy.
Interestingly, it was precisely in non-sect Swedenborgian circles that Blake was cherished after his death, particularly by the politician Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849). Unsurprisingly, therefore, when Modern Spiritualism began to emerge in Britain during the 1850s, it is precisely in these circles that it had the largest impact. Early writing mediums Garth and William Wilkinson, for instance, had reissued Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1839, and were friends with Tulk. Over time, a variety of terms proliferated to describe the practice, including ‘automatic writing’, ‘passive writing’, and ‘writing by impression’. Yet the ritual of relinquishing authorship and establishing personal spiritual authority remained its defining feature, and continued to subvert the religious landscape well into the twentieth century—through occultism, spiritualism, mind sciences and of course art.
Following up Cannibalising Blake, which discusses Blakean references in the Hannibal Lecter novel series and the respective filmic adaptations, I would like to add the NBC series Hannibal (2013-2015) which is based on characters stemming from Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon (1982). The novel was named after the eponymous Blake painting and features a man who becomes so possessed by the painting that it turns him into a serial killer. The series, in turn, does not disappoint when it comes to the Dragon and his menacing influence. If you have ever wanted to see a Blakean character walk around on screen, it is Hannibal you go for. The Dragon appears as an animated character on screen. But the series has more to offer than an animated Blake character.
The novel Red Dragon is centred on serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, a creature tortured by physical deformity and childhood trauma. Unable to speak properly, his appearance more or less an insult to eyesight, and neglected by all of his kin, one might be inclined to feel sympathy for Dolarhyde were it not for the fact that he kills entire families. Dolarhyde has an epiphany which will change his life: he sees the Dragon for the first time, as depicted in The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (ca. 1803-05). Drawn to an article about a Blake exhibition Dolarhyde encounters the creature which will rule his entire life (which means that PR managers and journalists should be very careful at the moment not to create the next serial killer by accident). The following plot-line which is devoted to Dolarhyde’s gradual change into the Dragon seems to be a case of schizophrenia. The Dragon has a will of his own and must thus be seen as an own persona. At one point Dolarhyde and the Dragon disagree about the choice of victim and start fighting. In contrast to Dolarhyde who is unable to pronounce “s” phonemes, however, the Dragon can speak properly and loudly, indicated by capital letters and confused people asking who was in the room with Dolarhyde. This is an odd and somewhat supernatural element as Dolarhyde’s language error is partly caused by his deformations and these physical limitations have obviously no effect on the Dragon. The Dragon can thus be seen as a real creature that can posses Dolarhyde, depending on how one wants to interpret this phenomenon. Dolarhyde’s solution to their argument, eating the painting, only results in a stronger bond between the two. Dolarhyde can now digest the Dragon; he has internalised him. I personally find the idea of a Blake painting having a life of its own as a demonic creature very charming. This turns the idea behind “The Ghost of a Flea” (ca. 1819) on its head; banning a chimera on canvas becomes now the release of a chimera from canvas.
The more was I charmed by Hannibal which does indeed release the chimera from the canvas. The series more or less narrates the events which precede the plot-line of the novel, so that the narrative of the novel takes up the last half of the last season, albeit in a changed form. This is not a faithful word-to-screen adaptation and as far as I see it, it was never intended to be one.
As mentioned before, the Dragon appears within the series as an animated character who can physically fight with Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage). A cut reveals that Dolarhyde is in fact beating his fist into his own face. But the merging of vision and reality is a narrative strategy frequently used in Hannibal. The recipient is often deceived as to what is real and what is illusionary. Both main characters, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) are prone to visions. Graham suffers from a mental condition which enables him to reconstruct how a crime happened when visiting a crime scene, a talent so gruesome that it brings him at the brink of losing his mind, causing loss of memory and hallucinations. Lecter, in turn, has an extensive memory palace. Lecter is often shown wearing a suit in his favourite church or his office while it is clear that he is already imprisoned in his cell. A sudden cut will often reveal this truth: Lecter has never left his cell, yet imagines himself to be in his memory palace when talking to others. Sometimes Lecter and Graham meet in this memory palace. I argue that this merging of vision and reality makes the series more Blakean than any animated red monster ever could. Especially when the merging becomes so confusing that the recipient cannot tell vision and reality apart anymore. All characters, Graham, Lecter, and Dolarhyde have minds which are somehow extraordinary and prone to leave the “normal,” Urizenic realm. This makes for a perfect paving of way to introduce Blake later on.
Another strategy to pave the way for Blake is the extensive use of art within the series, be it paintings, classical music or poetry. Lecter, evil genius that he is, is constantly surrounded by art. Most prominent here is his role as a serial killer who recreates mostly Botticelli paintings with dead bodies. Yet Lecter is not alone with this combination of art and murder. The series features another serial killer who creates a gigantic picture of an eye with dead bodies and a musician who uses human vocal chords for a cello. Bodies become the necessary tools to create art. This recurring motif precedes the introduction of the Blake painting which makes a man a murderer. Art has become deadly.
The second preoccupation of the series is, as is well-known, cannibalism. Lecter is a chef who uses exotic and exquisite recipes for his dishes. But this eating and being eaten is not only about exquisite cuisine, it is also explicitly linked to Darwinism. When Mason Verger plans on eating Lecter, he plans on being at the top of the food chain. I am just mentioning this because Dolarhyde’s eating of Blake’s painting is a very logical consequence and climax in this context. Eating the Dragon should definitely put Dolarhyde at the top of the food chain. What is more, Dolarhyde hopes that the destruction of the painting avoids more dead bodies, echoing the former murderers who in turn need bodies to create art. When bodies are needed to create art, the destruction of art may avoid dead bodies. Art, bodies, and eating are three topics intertwining and constantly mirroring each other.
In a last twist of the Blakean references, the screenwriters have introduced a new opponent for the Dragon, the Lamb. The antagonistic pair of Lamb and Tyger has been exchanged for Lamb and Dragon. When Lecter sees the Dragon for the first time while talking to Dolarhyde on the phone, he only comments “Did he who made the Lamb make thee,” describing the Dragon with a line which originally refers to the Tyger. As Lecter later reveals that he sees Graham as the Lamb, misused and manipulated by him and the police force alike, Lecter probably refers to himself as the creator figure. Lecter is constantly influencing others, mostly turning them into murderers, and he has played a part in the creation of the Lamb and the Dragon respectively. Lecter has created two murderers who are Blakean characters; he has found a new way to create art with dead bodies. As for Lecter, his business is less to reason and compare, as it should be for a psychiatrist, it is to create.
As a side-note, introducing the Lamb as well as the revenge of the Lamb also harks back to the most famous title of the series The Silence of the Lambs (1988). Now that Lecter speaks of the revenge of the Lamb, and considering that the Lamb defeats the Dragon, the Lamb is not silent any more.
In my eyes, the series embeds the Blake painting better into its respective storyline than the novel does. Now the Dragon is much more than a creature from an arbitrary painting. The Dragon is the first embodiment of imagination to appear on screen. Whereas all other hallucinations are still rooted in the real world, mirroring, repeating and twisting it, the Dragon is a fully imaginary construct, a mere product of the human mind (be it Blake’s, Dolarhyde’s or Lecter’s – they all share the Dragon somehow). And it is more than befitting that the physical embodiment of a creature born of the human imagination should be a Blake character.
In a response to a question on his fan site, The Red Hand Files, earlier this year, Nick Cave listed Blake as one of his favourite poets – alongside Stevie Smith, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson and a dozen others, describing them as the “poets whose company I consistently enjoy” (a phrase that may, either consciously or unconsciously, echo Blake’s comment in the album of the antiquary William Upcott as “one who is very much delighted with being in good Company”).
The connection between the two visionaries is hardly a new one. Indeed, by the early 2000s comparisons between Cave and Blake had become something of a stereotype. The Guardian called him “Ted Bundy with a William Blake obsession” (not, as it transpires, intended as a compliment in a fairly snippy review of the album Nocturama – admittedly not his best work), while Eric Carr, writing for Pitchfork, could throw away a smart jibe that until 1997 “the Nick Cave Songbook read like a set of William Blake Mad Libs filled in by undertakers, jilted lovers and John Wayne Gacy, with a few American folk covers thrown in for variety”. The psycho Blake/Cave comparison was a lazy, edgy meme for journalists who wished to portray themselves as literate without too much effort, although there were others who realised that the front man of the Bad Seeds was becoming a very different kind of person to the heroin-addicted figure who had destroyed his relationship with P. J. Harvey in the 90s. In a very good article for Salon in 2004, Thomas Bartlett only invoked Blake tangentially – to portray Cave as “A true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” – but the article overall treated the singer’s religious beliefs with much greater respect than was usually the case. A thoughtful tone was likewise struck by Russell Porter in The Beat Happening magazine (2008), who described Cave as writing with “a lyrical tone that owes as much to the visions of William Blake as it does to the street savvy tempo of William Chandler and Dashiel Hammet”.
Bartlett had made an astute observation that very few music journalists commented on Cave and religion. Almost certainly, this was due to supposedly secular reputation of pop music, which was commonly assumed to be fully of the devil’s party despite the well-known beliefs of figures as diverse as Prince, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As well as regularly invoking biblical motifs in his songs and his 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave spoke explicitly about his relationship to Christianity in a programme for BBC 3 Religious Services in 1996. Entitled “The Flesh Made Word”, the transcript and Cave’s recording is available at NickCave.it.
The piece, lasting some seventeen minutes, provides a fairly detailed, autobiographical account of Cave’s relationship not merely with his Anglican upbringing but, more pointedly, how his father’s desire to inculcate a love of literature in his son was also a kind of spiritual ecstasy, an elevation from the mundane to the “divine essence of things”: “although he would have laughed at this notion, what my father was finding in his beloved literature was God.” Unlike his father, this pursuit of God was something that Cave began to pursue explicitly, taking an interest in relgious art against the desires of his instructors who thought he should be interested in more contemporary forms. The deity that first appealed to the young singer was the retributive creator and destroyer of the Old Testament, making him “a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke.” While he was happy with this for a while, it was eventually through the gospels – lovingly evoked by Cave as “four wonderful prose poems” – that Cave returned to the Jesus of his childhood. This was around the period that, in Berlin, he began to write And the Ass Saw the Angel: Jesus still spoke all too often in the language of the father to the singer at this point, but Cave also began to recognise the importance of an imagination that was explicitly Christian:
What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. Clearly what Jesus most despised, what he really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolized by the scribes and Pharisees, those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law. What was Christ’s great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian church ever since, was the Pharisees’ preoccupation with the law in preference to the logos. Said St. Paul to the Corinthians: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” So how can one be elevated spiritually, if they are loaded up with the chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration, or for that matter God, be moral?
Cave only invokes Blake once in this piece: “To loosely paraphrase William Blake: I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.” This is, indeed, a very loose paraphrase, taking its inspiration from plate 3 of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion: “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves, every thing is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.” (E145) Cave invokes Shakespeare, Nabokov and Dostoevsky, but aside from the Bible it is only Blake he cites, and his chosen source is, frankly, astonishing: while various critics have noted the singer’s allusions to Blake’s lyrics – entirely understandable in a song writer – none have, to my knowledge, drawn attention to his familiarity with the difficult, late prophetic books. For me, the fact that Cave does not merely invoke Jerusalem but does so playfully suggests a possible familiarity that goes far beyond that of almost any other popular musician.
It is in the later prophetic books, I would argue, that Cave would discover ideas from Blake, most notably around the rejection of the Moral Law, that seem to have shaped his attitudes to the creative imagination. For Blake, “The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself” (E132), and against this very existence itself the poet placed the dead letter of the law, which Albion recognises in his fallen state:
O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law:
There Babylon is builded in the Waste, founded in Human desolation. (E169)
Zoe Alderton has written about this programme in “Nick Cave: A Journey from the Anglican God to the Creative Christ“, observing the profoundly literary route through which the singer approaches spirituality. While noting the paraphrase of Blake, she fails to recognise the significance of it however: that Cave appears to believe so profoundly that faith is bound up with imagination owes much, I would argue, to the earlier poet who wrote in All Religions are One that spirituality is itself the Poetic Genius. What is more, as the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a Bible of hell that retold an infernal account of Genesis via The Book of Urizen, Blake is a profoundly appealing artist to anyone seeking to understand a post-secular world while also avoiding the gins and traps of religion. Blake was a prophet and, like most prophets, he was without honour in his own country which worshipped instead the God of this world.
Of those writers who have noted Cave’s lyric indebtedness to Blake, Karen Welberry in an essay “Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter” (in the collection Cultural Seeds, edited by Tanya Dalziell and Karen Welberry) pointed out that “The Hammer Song” emulates Blake’s “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience, echoing the line “My mother groand! My father wept / Into the dangerous world I leapt” in the opening stanza which ends: “My father raged and raged / And my mother wept”. She also observed that Blake read the poem on a BBC TV programme, Poetry Nation, in 1994 (p.54). John H. Baker offers some excellent insights into the use of Blake in Cave’s verse, whether echoes in the Bad Seeds’ debut album, From Her to Eternity, to the revelation that Christ was an artist which was Blake’s vision of Jesus (in his edited collection, The Art of Nick Cave). The most profound lyrical connection to the earlier poet is to be found in the 1990 track, “A Weeping Song”. It was David Fallon, in his “Blakean Notes in 1990s Pop Music”, who first pointed out that the song, included on the album The Good Son, was a contrary from Songs of Experience to match “Laughing Song” in Innocence, going on to repeat Wellberry’s observations on “The Hammer Song” and adding further allusions in Murder Ballads. Certainly in the 1990s, William Blake seems to have been very much on Nick Cave’s mind. (In Blake 2.0, edited by Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly and Jason Whittaker, p.250.)
I would go further than Fallon to consider just how important the connection between “A Weeping Song” and Blake is. Cave does not merely allude to the earlier Romantic – which, as has been demonstrated here, is a repeated feature of the singer’s work. No: nearly 200 years after the publication of the original, Nick Cave decided to write another song of experience. This, for me, represents one of the most astonishing acts of imagination in the field of musical reception of Blake. Again and again the poet is set to music or even adapted more allusively by various performers, but to extend one of Blake’s most popular collections demonstrates a level of love and admiration that goes far beyond anything else encountered musically. The connection is also one that demonstrates Cave’s understanding of the deceptive simplicity of the earlier writer, whereby simple repetitions operate both musically and thematically to create a doorway to eternity via the simplest language of children.
Where Blake writes:
When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He. (E11)
This is a weeping song
A song in which to weep
While all the men and women sleep
This is a weeping song
But I won’t be weeping long
As with Blake’s Songs, the spare economy of these words is allusive rather than diminutive, part of two different worlds – innocence and experience – where the simplicity of childhood vision sees a world beyond everyday normality. This is one of the means by which poetry can elevate us into visions of eternity.
Which leads, ultimately, to Cave’s most recent album, Ghosteen. I am fully aware that, like a witchfinder general, I am often keen to sniff out Blake wherever I can find him. This article is not intended as a review of Ghosteen, which I am still very much slowly coming to understand, but as I have demonstrated the singer-songwriter’s interest in William Blake is both very longstanding and far from superficial. At least one reviewer, Elizabeth Aubrey for the NME, has drawn attention to the echoes of William Blake in lines such as “It isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be / With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief / and everybody hanging from a tree” from the song “Sun Forest”. Such echoes are certainly there, and the musical style of the album continues that of its haunting predecessor, Skeleton Tree, the first album released after the tragic death of his son. The song that electrified me was “Fireflies”, which opens:
Jesus lying in his mother’s arms
Is a photon released from a dying star
We move through the forest at night
The sky is full of momentary light
And everything we need is just too far
We are photons released from a dying star
We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar
And everything is distant as the stars
I am here and you are where you are
The image invoked here – Jesus as photon from a dying star – is perhaps something closer to a piece that John Berryman (another of Cave’s favourite poems) might write, and yet in the line “We are the fireflies a child has trapped in a jar” I cannot help but hear another lyric by William Blake, “The Fly”:
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
In the hands of another poet, this would be nihilism, and in the hands of another singer “Fireflies” would be an equally empty vision of death. Yet for Cave – guided by, I would argue, William Blake as much as those “wonderful prose poems” of the New Testament – what we come to in Ghosteen is that post-secular quest for a world of eternity, one that owes nothing to the religion of stocks and stones and everything to the creative imagination.