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 mementomori 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.
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-informeddenigration 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 partthe fruit of his spirituality. By brushing it aside, Frye missed a powerful trick in understanding Blake’s work, however, onethatplaces 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 individualisedspiritual authority.In other words, thisritual paradox of authorship and authorityfacilitated 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 writingssimply 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 Diarythat 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 readingTrue 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 inDivine 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 ofauthorizing spirituality, and with its emphasis on individual praxis and creative output, it subverted the orthodoxy ofsocial 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 thesecircles 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.
“Jerusalem” is mostly known as a hymn written by Hubert Parry (1916), a musical adaptation of the verses found in the introduction to William Blake’s Milton: a Poem (1804-11). There are numerous musical variations and re-recordings which are more or less faithful to the hymn. The version I am to discuss today, however, is radically different. And it was intended to be radically different. British singer and songwriter Bruce Dickinson wanted to show what he describes as the true character of “Jerusalem.” He rejects a patriotic reading in favour of mysticism. Dickinson interprets the verses named “Jerusalem” in his song of the same name (The Chemical Wedding, 1998) as part of the mystic tradition, informed by alchemy. (Dickinson, Autobiography, 269-270)
“Jerusalem” is hereby only a small part of a larger project. The Chemical Wedding is a concept album linking concepts of mysticism and occult, such as tarot cards (“The Tower” – the chorus consists exclusively of archetypes taken from the major arcana), or representations of the occult, such as the three witches in Macbeth (“Book of Thel”), with Blakean characters and thought (“Book of Thel”, “Gates of Urizen”) or even descriptions of Blake paintings (“Book of Thel”). The name derives from the third manifesto of the Rosicrucian Order, Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz Anno 1459 (The Chemical Wedding, 1616), a text heavily rooted in alchemy. But, the overarching theme holding it all together is the opposition of Los and Urizen, which Dickinson identifies as two antagonistic forces fighting for the soul of the artist. In this case Los embodies creativity, while Urizen stands for art industry. (cf. Dickinson, Autobiography, 269)
In case of “Jerusalem” he has partly re-written the stanzas and added his own lyrics to flesh out what he sees as its true character. (l. c. 269-270) Which leads us to the question: What is the true character of “Jerusalem?”
Dickinson indeed presents a rewriting of “Jerusalem” that is in no way patriotic. In a last twist, he questions the possibility of recreating “Jerusalem,” because the spatio-temporal surroundings are far from ideal (and this negative description refers to England). This gives “Jerusalem” a very pessimistic ending. Probably it is too late or impossible to recreate “Jerusalem” after all – a notion which sweeps away all heroic notions from the stanzas with on motion of the hand.
To grasp what might be the “true character” of the stanzas referred to as “Jerusalem,” I want to go back to their origin, to the preceding text in the introduction. Blake calls out to his fellow artists, to “painters,” “sculptures,” and “architects”. For once, they should leave aside the “slave[ry] of the Latin and Greek sword,” meaning the legacy of the ancient classics, Homer, Ovid, Plato, Cicero, in favour of the Bible. Secondly, they should put up a “mental fight” against “ignorant Hirelings.” The “fashionable Fools” try to rule the world of art by payment or advertisement. The artist, however, should ignore “Greek and Roman models” and live by “his true Imagination” of “the World of Eternity in which we shall live forever.” This clearly echoes what Dickinson describes as the never-ending dilemma of the artist, the dichotomy between artistic inspiration and commerce of the world of art. This world view is thus clearly something both artists share. But what does it have to do with “Jerusalem?”
The crucial point, in my eyes, is indeed “Jerusalem.” “Jerusalem” commonly refers to the New Jerusalem, or, Heavenly Jerusalem, as described in the Biblical chapter “Revelation.” It refers to the new city that will emerge after the Apocalypse (Rev. 22 NIV). In this case, however, we have a significant addition: the grail. Dickinson points out that the New Jerusalem will be rebuilt in England, but that it will contain the grail. This is physically impossible. As much as you try to built a Jerusalem in England, it cannot automatically contain the grail.
As “Jerusalem” as described here cannot refer to a material city, it is thus something spiritual, something immaterial. The narrator seeks to be able to lay his eyes upon an unspecified object again, which arguably refers to the New Jerusalem, by the removal of scales from his eyes. This invokes the Biblical story of Saulus who is transformed to Paulus by the falling of scales from his eyes to allow him see again. (Acts, 9 NIV) The scales in the song are supposed to be washed off by blood that rains from the sky, which in turn evokes the first trumpet of the Apocalypse. The first trumpet causes fire, hail, and blood to come from the sky. (Rev, 8:7 NIV) The seven trumpets of the Apocalypse precede the coming of the New Jerusalem. (Rev, 8-9, 11:15 NIV) In short, the first trumpet of the Apocalypse causes blood to fall from the sky which washes away the scales of the eyes of the narrator who can then see again, his surroundings in general and the New Jerusalem in particular. So far we are following a thoroughly Biblical narrative.
Yet, the narrator is not so much passively waiting, as fighting. The line in the third stanza “bring me my spear: the clouds unfold!” is exchanged for the exclamation that the narrator will not sleep until the clouds open and thus make it possible for Jerusalem to descend from the sky or for the narrator to see skyward. This change to an imperative not to rest until the task is accomplished adds urgency. The opening of the sky is something he has to fight for, as illustrated in Blake’s original text: “Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrow of desires, […] bring me my chariot of fire,” and “I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.” I argue, that this is where not only Rosicrucianism comes in, but also Arthurian myth as well as myths about the Knights Templar. It is the Knights Templar who sought the earthly, old Jerusalem. Lore and Mysticism often link them to the quest of quests, the search for the grail, which in turn also evokes the Arthurian knights. Sword, chariot of fire, (mental) fight are all elements which may point to chivalry and so, with addition of the crucial element of the grail, put “Jerusalem” firmly into the context of different discourses of knighthood.
The grail traditionally asks for a true hero, such as Indiana Jones in the rather recent example Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), who must pass several tests or fulfil certain tasks to prove his worthiness of the grail. Whereas these tasks are more like riddles for Jones, they were something as tricky as finding the right behavioural code at court, a question of political correctness, for Percival in the eponymous medieval epic written by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1200-1210). To find the grail is not only a quest in the meaning of physical adventure, it is indeed a process that asks for purification of the mind.
Another seeker who faces such riddles and trials to purify him and improve his wisdom is no other than Christian Rosenkreutz in Chymische Hochzeit. The third manifesto of the Rosicrucian Order is variously seen as an allegory, a text describing a spiritual vision, or a hoax. But, as pointed out above, it is safe to say that this text is heavily rooted in alchemy. Alchemy does not only seek the purification of metal, but also of the mind. Rosenkreutz excels so much in the tasks given that he wins the special favour of the king after the king’s resurrection. I am speculating here, but I assume that this is the king we encounter in the song. Winning the favour and respect of the king is of course another ideal of knighthood, together with carrying king and queen in their hearts.
I think we are thus left with several possible readings of these metaphors of chivalry. In the first reading, the chivalry harks back to the quest of Rosenkreutz and the various knights who seek enlightenment in one way or another. In a second reading, the fight is a fight for Jerusalem. In a third reading, enlightenment and Jerusalem are probably even the same. In the end, we can say that the narrator has adapted the mindset of a knight and is actively fighting to rebuild “Jerusalem”.
I think, that this fight is a metaphor for opposition to conventional ways of thinking and resistance against oppression and suppression of the free development of the mind. The knight-figure must seek his own enlightenment and purification. Here we go back to the beginning to the dichotomy between Los and Urizen as embodiments of inspiration and art industry. If I read “Jerusalem” in its original context, meaning the preceding text of the introduction, these restrictions refer to the aforementioned prescriptions by the art industry. The artist ought to follow the poetic imagination which Blake calls the “Eternal World in which we will live.” This is an accurate description of the New Jerusalem, the city the narrator seeks to see again. This complies with what Dickinson describes as Blake’s “anti-materialistic message.” (Dickinson, Autobiography, 270)
“Jerusalem” is thus the “Eternal World” in the future to come, the paradisiacal city after the Apocalypse, and the poetic imagination alike. (I know, I am claiming here that Jerusalem, the city/person, takes the place of Los, but stay with me.) The last line in Dickinson’s song refers to a destroying of chains – and these chains, in turn, tie indeed the city / person Jerusalem “in the Dens of Babylon” (plate 39). This later quote from Milton follows the recording of the song as a spoken quote, tying the somewhat paratextual verses from the introduction to the body of the work. Now, “Jerusalem” stands for four different objects: poetic imagination, “Eternal World”, city, and person. I argue that these chains are the one thing to be fought; the knight-figure must indeed free Jerusalem. He is to free “Jerusalem” from the chains and thereby recreate it.
So what is indeed Blake’s “true Jerusalem?” I do not think that we can ever truly answer this (as long as we don’t put up a séance), but I say that Dickinsons reading of “Jerusalem” as representing the true artists’ minds is closer to Blake’s original text when compared with the context they originate in than every attempt to use “Jerusalem” as a second national anthem.
See a Live Performance of Bruce Dickinson’s “Jerusalem” featuring Ian Anderson in Canterbury Cathedral:
“Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull with Bruce Dickinson – Jerusalem.” Youtube.com, uploaded by Jethro Tull & Ian Anderson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTgZatpr1L8 (21.12.2011) [09.09.19]
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. ed. by W. J. Craig. London, Henry Pordes, 1984.
Steiner Rudolf. “Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosenkreutz.” Andreae, Johann, Valentin. Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosenkreutz Anno 1459. Translated by Walter Weber. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben, 1957. 135-174.
Whittaker, Jason. “‘Jerusalem’ Set to Music: A Selected Discography.” Blake/an Illustrated Quarterly. Vol. 52, no. 4, 2019, n. p.
Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival: Band 1 und 2, Mittelhochdeutsch /Neuhochdeutsch. Translated by Wolfgang Spiewok. Reclam. 2011.
For anyone who has been involved in Blake studies in the past thirty years or so – particularly in the UK but not restricted to that location – Keri Davies has long been a name to be reckoned with. Former Vice-President of the Blake Society, Keri has transformed our understanding of such elements as the early collectors of Blake’s work and his mother’s involvement with the Moravian Church and how that could have influenced his own views on religion. On a more personal note, Keri is also the person who probably knows most about musical settings of Blake, and whose discoveries have often been a spur and influence on my own work.
He (less regularly than I would like!) provides insights into these discoveries at his blog, Index Rerum, and the following is itself a brief index of musical things that can be found there. While I’m concentrating here on Blake and music, there are plenty of other articles on Blake that always repay the perusal.
The first four pieces – dealing with settings of Blake to music by Benjamin Britten, Cornelius Cardew, Adrian Leverkühn and John Sykes – are adapted from articles first published on Zoamorphosis.com. Each of them are extensive listings of musical adaptations and settings of Blake’s poetry that were missed from or dealt with cursorily in Donald Fitch’s Blake Set to Music (1990). In each post, Keri demonstrates his intimate knowledge of each composer and also draws attention to a tendency which is sometimes evident in scholars dealing with the reception of Blake (and a trap into which I may have fallen more than once): it is not enough to be familiar with Blake’s work when dealing with issues of the poet’s reception, as this work also requires knowledge of and empathy towards the later subjects who adapt Blake. All four pieces (as with any work by Keri) are worth reading, but I would draw special attention to the piece on Leverkühn: this German composer did not actually exist, but in some respects – as the central protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – is the most important figure in the twentieth-century adoption of Blake into European music. Leverkühn, had he actually written, would have been one of the first European composers to set Blake’s poetry to music, and Mann’s extensive work on musicology prior to writing the novel informed his depiction of the diabolical artist brilliantly, a depiction that is wonderfully dissected by Keri here.
Blake set to music in Europe is an excellent list of the primary classical European composers who have set Blake’s poetry to music, with the opportunity to follow up that listing with their works and analysis of their compositions (a little of which I have done). This listing was then followed in 2014 by another excellent account of a single artist, Walter Zimmerman, whose Songs of Innocence and Experience and Ecchoing Green have been influenced by Blake, as Keri writes, in “a profound way”. At the other end of the scale, his blog includes two Blakespotting pieces in popular music recorded by Sting and The Pet Shop Boys.
In 2016, the Index Rerum included two pieces, the first of which – on Ralph Vaughan Williams – I consider an essential read for anyone interested in Blake and music. (As well as being erudite and scholarly, this piece is also great for Keri’s sideswipes at those infatuated by Williams as part of a cult of Englishness.) The second, shorter piece is on a prolific but much less-well known composer, Catherine Adelaide Ranken who was active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing a great deal of material inspired by poets such as Swinburne, Shelley and, of course, Blake.
There are two more musical-related pieces from 2017. The first details Keri’s incredible discovery of the very first poem of Blake to be set to music, an adaptation of “The Chimney Sweeper” by T. L. Hately in 1863. This was followed by an extremely useful biographical and bibliographical note on Donald Fitch, the most important scholar (as yet) to have worked on Blake’s settings and whose 1990 catalogue, Blake Set to Music, remains indispensable. Finally (thus far), 2018 saw two interrelated pieces on The Fugs – the first an account of Blake’s influence on Ed Sanders and The Fugs (a presentation of which I was lucky enough to see in Manchester), the second a discography of their work.
An alphabetical list of work on Blake and music is below, but the Index Rerum is always worth visiting for insights on one of the most important scholars to have worked on Blake studies in recent decades.
For the past couple of months I have been recording a series of radio programmes for Siren Radio, the community radio station housed at the University of Lincoln. The first three of these are now online and will be followed up next month by a programme dedicated to David Axelrod, the Los Angeles-based composer whose first two albums were based on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
The aim for each programme is to take either a work by Blake and discuss how it has been adapted to music by various later composers and songwriters, or to concentrate on a single artist who set a number of Blake’s works to music. The first one (on the hymn “Jerusalem”) has a few glitches as I get used to the format, but those are starting to be ironed out by the second (on “The Tyger”) and the third (“Holy Thursday”).
Click on the images below to listen to each episode.
With the release of The Limehouse Golem on Netflix, I’ve had a chance to catch up on the 2016 film directed by Juan Carlos Medina which I missed on its first release. This is by no means a review – I recommend Christopher Pittard’s excellent piece “Sex, secrets and murder most foul” at The Conversation– and also my discussion of Blakean connections involves giving away the ending, so stop reading now if you wish to watch it without my huge spoiler in place.
The film (which came out at the same time as the opera, Elizabeth Cree, which I haven’t seen), is entertaining enough, and certainly much better than the terrible 2001 movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell, another Jack-the-Ripper inspired tale that has a direct influence on The Limehouse Golem. There are some decent if not spectacular performances by Bill Nighy (inspector John Kildare), Douglas Booth (Dan Leno) and Olivia Cooke (Lizzie Cree), but at times the melodrama on screen made me snigger (or was that just the preposterous beard and accent of Henry Goodman as Karl Marx). In truth, I found the original novel by Peter Ackroyd, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (published in 1994) a little preposterous, dealing with a series of murders from the early 1880s, less so for the actual plot and some truly wonderful details about the criminal underbelly of music hall (which was greatly sanitised going forward into the twentieth century) than Ackroyd’s preponderance for shoehorning everything he knows into somewhat turgid passages of prose. The following, where George Gissing compares William Blake to Charles Babbage is a case in point:
“It is a very ingenious contrivance.” Gissing hardly understood what he was being told but it already seemed to him, as to his contemporaries, some eccentric monstrosity; he had just been reading Swinburne’s study of William Blake for an article he had proposed to the Westminster Review, and the parallel that occurred to him was with Blake’s Prophetic Books. These works – the Analytical Engine and Blake’s mad verses – seemed equally the work of curious and obsessive men who laboured in the production of designs which only they themselves could fully comprehend. (Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1998, p.118)
Ackroyd’s point is clever here, and I think there is some genuine insight into the comparison between Charles Babbage and Blake, but in this instance the author is trying a little too hard to demonstrate his cleverness: I write about Swinburne as an academic happily dealing with texts one or two centuries old (or older as required), but Gissing as a Grub Street hack would have been unlikely to get much mileage from a book that was already twelve years out of date (Swinburne’s William Blake, a Critical Essay, having been published in 1868). I am being pedantic, I know, but I sometimes felt when reading his novel that had Ackroyd tried to be just a little less showy with his knowledge, I’d have enjoyed the truly wonderful details of music hall life much more.
The more important point here, however, is that Blake has a role to play in Ackroyd’s novel. It is a very minor one, but actually in an earlier discussion of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, notorious as the poisoner who was suspected of multiple murders and was transported for fraud and who was friends with Blake at one point, entirely appropriate. The Limehouse Golem strips out such minute particulars but replaces them with an innovation that cannot be ignored: the eponymous Limehouse Golem is no figment of Jewish folklore, but actually William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea.
Before discussing this connection to Blake, I must first note that it commits an atrocity on Ackroyd’s fiction which, although I enjoyed, is completely preposterous. One of the important aspects of Limehouse was its cosmopolitan nature as part of the Jewish East End. This is by no means thoroughly erased in the film – there is one very funny scene in which Lizzie unwittingly insults a Jewish audience – but the legend of the automaton Golem makes no sense if its model is instead the truly horrific, awe-inspiring vision of Blake.
That observation aside, I must admit my thrill when the image of Blake’s painting appeared in the first few minutes of the movie, dominating the backdrop of the stage for a performance telling the fate of Lizzie Cree. Blake’s painting, The Ghost of a Flea, painted in tempera and gold on mahogany in 1819-20 and now on show in Tate Britain, is the kind of spectacular depiction of evil that, once seen, can not be forgotten. Its origins lie in a series of so-called “visionary heads” that Blake drew in the notebooks of fellow artist, John Varley, from 1818 onwards, and according to Blake, “fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess.” When I first wrote about the painting, I remarked that it appeared a diabolical self-portrait, as though of Blake’s druidic spectre, a projection of his own sins as Satan was the projection of Milton’s. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed it in relation to Alan Moore’s From Hell, where the scenario with Varley is transformed into a commentary on Matthew Gull, who Moore portrays as Jack the Ripper.
It is this connection that Medina draws upon for The Limehouse Golem, and it’s not a surprising one – although to me it remains false for a number of reasons, most notably that while the Ghost of a Flea has frequently been used to symbolise serial killers, for me this ignores Blake’s satirical and political point, that the most bloodthirsty souls of any age have always been the kings, popes and ministers who have waged war for their own depraved ends. This aside, my reading may be (in my opinion) more true to Blake but it remains much less effective in the popular imagination which is happier to consider the more self-evident evils of serial killers. Thus the depiction of the Flea serves as an immediate visual metaphor for the Limehouse murderer, a point reinforced by the killer’s written confession in a copy of Thomas de Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” that includes a hand drawn rendition of the Ghost.
The film skips a little over “Lambeth Marsh Lizzie” Cree’s ascent from poverty in the homelands of Blake (due more to the demands of compressing the narrative into its running time than any overt act of violence on the part of the director and screenwriter), but in concluding with her as the figure behind the Golem it does make the Blakean connection more poignant even if, as I suspect, it is unintentional. It is Lizzie who is the Ghost of a Flea, carrying her bowl of blood through Limehouse and as such – and here I am certain it is my reading as an imposition on the text rather than something intended by the film’s makers – she becomes emblematic as a Daughter of Albion. By this, I do not mean that she is one of the weeping figures who surrounds Oothoon in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, rather she is one of the bloodthirsty goddesses of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, invocations of which haunt Moore’s From Hell and the early, psychogeographic poetry of Iain Sinclair.
The film’s strength (as indeed the novel’s) is to build up a considerable degree of sympathy for Lizzie. Born into grinding poverty and raped as a child by a dockworker – for which she is punished with hot iron by her mother while her attacker walks away – the later re-enactment of that primal rape by her husband (whose charade as a knight in white armour has always been that – a charade) leads her into a solipsistic and miserable world of internal anguish. Christopher Pittard observes that the movie draws (anachronistically) on W.T. Stead’s investigative reporting into child prostitution in London in 1885, and this abominable situation is the ultimate driver for the murders which pulsate through the film. As Blake wrote in “London” a century before, it is the “youthful Harlots curse” that “Blasts with tears the Marriage Hearse”. I do draw back a little from too overt a feminist reading of The Limehouse Golem, however: Lizzie suffers atrocities, and yet her response is to cause other prostitutes – other women – to suffer more. Lizzie is both daughter of Albion and Spectre, divided as Los’s Spectre is in Jerusalem.
His Spectre divides & Los in fury compells it to divide:
To labour in the fire, in the water, in the earth, in the air,
To follow the Daughters of Albion as the hound follows the scent
Of the wild inhabitant of the forest, to drive them from his own (Jerusalem, 17.1-4)
With The Frankenstein Chronicles available on Netflix, now is an opportunity to catch up with a series that first aired on ITV in 2015 and then followed up with a second series which was filmed in 2017. For those who haven’t seen it yet, the plot follows Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) as he seeks to discover the author of a grisly series of child murders which have resulted in an attempt to create artificial life from the sewn-together body parts. The first series received a considerable amount of critical praise and, while a little foolish in some places, is also clever enough and certainly entertaining enough to deserve a repeat viewing.
Rather than a review of the first series (the only one I’ve been able to watch so far), here I’ll concentrate on three particular ways in which The Frankenstein Chronicles weaves Blake into its story. Set in 1827, the series draws upon a number of historical figures, such as Robert Peel, Ada Byron and, of course, Mary Shelley. Blake makes an appearance in episode 2, “Seeing Things”, when Marlott visits the home of the dying engraver following the discovery of an illuminated poem from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Marlott has found this in the room of a young woman who has been set up as a prostitute by the hardened street criminal, Billy Oates, and sees the name of Blake on the print.
The episode with Blake is the most obvious allusion in the series, although to me the most annoying (this is where knowing too much about your subject really interferes with the willing suspension of disbelief). Steven Berkoff actually gives a fine performance as Blake on his deathbed, avoiding what I call the tendency towards “shouty Blake” which rather dominates television depictions of the poet (all loud declamations because prophets are always, well, loud). Nonetheless, while avoiding the worst excesses of presenting “mad” Blake as well, the wide-eyed staring prophet surrounded by a crowd of gloomy, chanting crowd (presumably intended as either the Shoreham Ancients or members of the millennarian Irvingite sect to which Frederick Tatham and, probably, Catherine Blake later belonged – or a combination of both) is very far from much of what I understand about Blake’s final hours. Certainly the environment at 3 Fountain Court was squalid according to a number of Blake’s friends, for the Blakes were poor, but even in declining health his spirits seem to have been buoyant. As well as working on his illustrations to Dante, he was colouring up a final impression of The Ancient of Days (for which, according to Alexander Gilchrist, Tatham had generously paid him three and a half guineas), announcing before he died: “There! That will do, I cannot mend it.”
Gilchrist records the final hours as follows:
In that plain, back room, so dear to the memory of his friends, and to them beautiful from association with him — with his serene cheerful converse, his high personal influence, so spiritual and rare — he lay chaunting Songs to Melodies, both the inspiration of the moment, but no longer as of old to be noted down. To the pious Songs followed, about six in the summer evening, a calm and painless withdrawal of breath ; the exact moment almost unperceived by his wife, who sat by his side. A humble female neighbour, her only other companion, said afterwards: “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.”
Gilchrist also preserved the record of J. T. Smith:
“On the day of his death,” writes Smith, who had his account from the widow, “he composed and uttered songs to his Maker, so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine, that when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said, ‘My beloved! they are not mine. No – they are not mine!’ He told her they would not be parted; he should always be about her to take care of her.”
The Frankenstein Chronicles, then, misses much of the real affection between Blake and Catherine (although, to be fair, Catherine’s very brief cameo bringing tea to Marlott is nicely done). I also wish that the house of the prophet could capture a little more the humour of an engraver who mocked his friend John Varley while composing visionary heads, the rumbustious laughter of An Island in the Moon, or the laid back account of dinner with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I know that “shouty” Blake certainly existed, but too few people seem to get funny Blake, gentle Blake, which is a great shame to me.
The appearance of Mary Shelley was a laugh out loud moment (stretching Blake’s slender acquaintance with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft to the extreme) but was clearly necessary to the plot and it was pleasant enough to see Blake the man as a crucial turning point in the narrative. More significant, however, are the other ways in which Blake has influenced The Frankenstein Chronicles both within the story and in terms of other formal qualities. The appearance “The Little Girl Lost” is a wonderful addition (especially with two verses read in Sean Bean’s inestimably rich tones), while Lyca’s name serves as another influential plot element. The scene when the missing girl, Alice Evans, is superimposed on Lyca from the poem is a delightful moment of Blakean vision.
Even more fascinating, however, is the use of Blake’s fictional Book of Prometheus, both within the narrative and as a visual background to the show’s opening credits. Prometheus only appears once in all of Blake’s writings, as an annotation to Boyd’s Historical Notes on Dante in which he remarks rather inauspiciously: “the grandest Poetry is Immoral the Grandest characters Wicked. Very Satan. Capanius Othello a murderer. Prometheus. Jupiter. Jehovah, Jesus a wine bibber”. The link is, of course, to connect Blake to Mary Shelley’s “Modern Prometheus” (the subtitle of Frankenstein), and while Blake himself preferred Satan as the arch rebel (in contrast to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who rejected Satan in preference of the Titan as the hero of Prometheus Unbound), it was with absolute fascination that I observed how plates and images from works as diverse as Milton a Poem and The Ghost of a Flea were incorporated into this arcane grimoire. What is particularly fascinating is that Tatham, as Blake’s literary executor, is reputed to have destroyed a number of the engraver’s works that offended his more conventional religious sensibilities. The creators of the programme have almost certainly picked up on this and appropriated Blake’s mythical “Bible of Hell” to their Promethean ends.
The Frankenstein Chronicles is available on Netflix.