William Blake: the man and the music

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.

Blakespotting: A Daughter of Albion and the Limehouse Golem

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)

“Jerusalem” as a Media Text

Introduction

The following is an edited version of a talk, “Blake and Big Data”, given at the English Literature in the World: From Manuscript to Digital ¦ New Pathways conference at the University of Lisbon, 9 May, 2018. It is very much a work in progress regarding some circumstances in which quantitative approaches to literary data may help us understand aspects of the reception of Blake’s works dealing with the history of references to Blake’s poem, “And did those feet”, which was set to music as “Jerusalem” by Charles Hubert Parry in 1916. Originally, the talk was intended to cover a wider range of data sets I have started to accumulate with reference to William Blake (some of which would have more fully justified the epithet of “big data”, whatever that may be).

The stimulus for both the talk and this post has been the work I’ve undertaken over the past year on the Blake-Parry hymn as a history of that text, stretching back to Blake’s original composition of the stanzas included in the Preface to Milton a Poem until the EU Referendum in 2016, with a focus on the century since Parry set Blake’s words to music. While working on the book, I kept a spreadsheet with references collated from written texts and audio recordings in particular, eventually amassing a dataset comprising some 600 entries. The data collected offers a sufficient series of examples to make me think differently about ways of reading the hymn, and this post is intended as a preliminary working through of some of the theoretical issues surrounding the employment of digital techniques in the field of reception studies and digital humanities.

Any discussion of quantitative methods with regard to Blake’s work carries an intrinsic warning, for Blake himself admonished readers against an over-reliance on what he called “Druidical Mathematical Proportion of Length Bredth Highth” (Milton 4.27, E98). As we shall see later, an important reaction against recent statistical analyses have included what are often loosely dubbed “romantic” oppositions: actually, more often than not this is intended as a derogatory term, but as a Romanticist I believe there are actually some valid criticisms against a reliance on quantitative methods (as opposed to, say, subjective phenomenological readings) that should always be borne in mind. My own use of statistical analyses is intended as a practical method that – in what are actually very limited circumstances – may help us build a picture of some aspects of the reception of Blake’s work. Blake scholars have relied on datasets for the best part of a century now: Geoffrey Keynes’s 1921 A Bibliography of William Blake included a list of Blake publications, which was then supplemented and superseded in 1969 by G. E. Bentley’s Blake Books and its various supplements in book form and as articles in Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly. Recently, I have been writing much more about settings of Blake to music, and Donald Fitch’s 1990 book, Blake Set to Music has become an indispensable reference work.

The subtitle of the talk was “Literary data as a challenge to literary theory”, invoking a text that has long been important to my own reception work, Hans Robert Jauss’s essay “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” (the original German text of which was published in 1970 and then translated into English in 1982). Jauss was writing at a time when periodization of literature was (rightly) falling into decline, but his own approach – which overlapped with elements of what would become fashionably known as New Historicism, as well as the materialist techniques of figures such as Jürgen Habermas – was a significant step in reconsidering how an audience’s reception of literary texts changed as the “horizon of expectations” evolved over time. Jauss offers a particularly compelling example of this with regard to the diverging receptions of Ernest-Aimé Feydeau, who published his literary sensation Fanny in 1857, the same year as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As Jauss observes, Fanny went through thirteen editions in one year while Flaubert’s formal innovations initially found little success. Though Madame Bovary had few admirers at first, however, they were tenacious, passing on their passion for Flaubert to each new generation so that eventually it was Fanny which came to seem the outmoded novel.

Today, we have a fairly simple way to test Jauss’s hypothesis, which certainly seems correct on an intuitive level. Google’s Ngram Viewer, which as of 2015 had scanned more than 5 million texts, allows a rapid search of certain phrases. Entering the search terms Ernest Feydeau and Gustave Flaubert certainly seems to support Jauss’s explanation of audience reception of the two authors:

Figure 1a: Instances of Feydeau and Flaubert in the English corpus.

As can be seen above, during the 1860s and early 1870s, it is Feydeau who is referenced more, and yet from 1875 this situation reverses so that, some twenty years after the publication of Madame Bovary and Fanny, it is Flaubert who eclipses the reputation of his friend as Feydeau lapses into obscurity by the end of the century. It should be noted, however, that Jauss’s hypothesis requires a degree of refinement, particularly when compared to the data from the French corpus:

Figure 1b: Instances of Feydeau and Flaubert in the French corpus.

Jauss’s reading which suggests a transformation of the horizon of expectations, so that the bestseller Feydeau is overtaken by the formal experimenter Flaubert does not seem to apply: almost from the very beginning Flaubert appears to match Feydeau, although as in the English corpus there is an explosion of references from the mid 1870s onwards. It should be noted immediately that the above charts, which indicate references to both authors in various journals and books, are no indication of sales and so this measure of popularity is not included. It is very likely that the trial of Flaubert and the publishers of La Review de Paris which serialised Madame Bovary meant that there were many more references to the author than could be expected from the number of actual readers, but this is a hypothesis that is difficult to test and – something of a running feature throughout this blog post – indicates how cautious we must be when employing quantitative techniques.

An entirely non-cautious (and increasingly notorious) example of the appeal of Big Data came from Chris Anderson in 2008 in an article for Wired entitled, “The End of Theory”. In it he observed that:

At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics. It calls for an entirely different approach, one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality. It forces us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later… Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.”

Anderson, who frequently makes grandiose statements in order to attract attention has been refuted carefully and methodically by scientific researchers such as Sabina Leonelli, who demonstrates how Big Data is almost inevitably a highly selected phenomena with results drawn from social, political and economic factors, and Fulvio Mazzochi, who shows how petabytes of data enhance the testing of hypothesis rather than replaces them.

This post, then, has no real intention of arguing that the end of theory is nigh after Anderson, although some of my work in recent years has been much more influenced by that of Franco Moretti, who made a particularly forceful argument for rethinking methodologies in the digital humanities nearly twenty years ago now in his spectacularly titled “The Slaughterhouse of Literature”:

But of course there is a problem here. Knowing two hundred novels is already difficult. Twenty thousand? How can we do it, what does knowledge mean in this new scenario? One thing for sure: it cannot mean the very close reading of very few texts – secularized theology, really (‘canon’!) – that has radiated from the cheerful town of New Haven over the whole field of literary studies. A larger literary history requires other skills: sampling; statistics; work with series, titles, concordances, incipits – and perhaps also the ‘trees’ that I discuss in this essay. (Reprinted in Distant Reading, 2013[2000], p.208)

In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti argues that the use of quantitative methods allows us, by viewing “fewer elements” (i.e. individual texts), to have a “sharper sense of their overall interconnection”. Actually, a fairly careful rereading of Graphs, Maps, Trees for this conference led me to have a greater appreciation for what are, actually, quite moderate claims by Moretti: unlike Anderson, he is not attempting to make grandiose claims for the end of literary theory but seeking to demonstrate some noticeable trends within literary history. That said, his use of evolutionary theory as a way “to think about very large systems” has led towards a degree of “scientism”, a false application of scientific method in the humanities where, frankly, it is harder to replicate and generalise data – even more so than in the social sciences. A more extreme version of this is, for me, to be found in the work of Joseph Carroll who, in papers such as “Three Scenarios for Literary Darwinism” (2010) seeks to excise the vagaries of postmodernism from literary theory.

The tendency towards scientism in the work of theorists such as Moretti has been cogently critiqued by Tom Eyers, who argues that the tendency towards neo-positivism in Moretti (and also Stephen Ramsay’s influential Reading Machines) results in an “uncritical positivism at the very moment that [it] affirms an apparently critical historicism.” I particularly like Eyers’ critique because he shows an awareness of many of the advantages of the digital humanities, whether preserving decaying archives or deploying new data mining techniques within scholarship, while distancing himself both from broadly neo-Romantic, uncritically aestheticist objections to digital humanities and the equally uncritical techno-evangelism. I do not necessarily subscribe to his adoption of Althusser as a model for a new “speculative” formalism that can synthesise history and form, but he makes many pertinent observations regarding Moretti’s process that have influenced my own thinking, most notably the warning against assuming a uniform model of literary consumption to generate data from distant reading. Individual subjectivity never disappears, and Moretti’s taboo against close reading has been especially unhelpful to my own analyses of “Jerusalem”, where it is precisely the phenomenological, individual, subjective interpretation of the text that has produced a significant bifurcation in the reception history of the text in terms of political reception by left and right.

Actually, my reservations regarding Moretti’s model stem less from what he does explicitly in works such as Graphs, Maps and Trees and Distant Reading than the reductive tendency that emerges in so-called “literary Darwinism”. While a potentially contentious response towards this would, in my opinion, follow Deleuze’s consideration of empiricism (after Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead) as the conditions for the production of novelty rather than a reflection of the “real” world, untangling that important thread will take this blog post in a much more convoluted direction. Here I shall simply observe a tendency in some of the social sciences, including communication studies, to employ “postpostivist” methodologies. As Allen, Titsworth and Hunt observe in their handbook on Quantitative Research in Communication:

A key component of the scientific method is verification and absolutism – that through replication, theories become “verified” and accepted as universally true. Although application of the scientific method to the study of communication and other social sciences was very popular at one time, more contemporary theory embraces a postpostivist approach that does not rely on absolute truth. From the postpositivist perspective, theories are assumed to be good descriptions of human behaviour, but exceptions are expected because of unique circumstances and the tendency for some unpredictability to be present in any situation. (p.8)

As such, a postpositivist approach to the data I am using to describe some of the reception of the Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem” follows this understanding: the data considered below is far from complete and exceptions are to be expected. It is a tool for a heuristics of understanding rather than any attempt at a complete hermeneutics.

Methods for collecting data

One thing became absolutely clear when preparing for the paper in Lisbon: although I have generally tended not to use quantitative techniques in my own work (one exception being for a chapter in William Blake and the Digital Humanities), I have worked with a considerable number of students in the fields of Journalism and Media Studies, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level; as such, sorting through my data demonstrated a number of flaws in my methods for collecting data. Mainly this was due to the fact that I had not initially intended to produce any form of quantitative analysis, and the desire to do so emerged from the number of references to the Blake-Parry hymn which showed definite patterns in some areas. As such, there are a number of limitations in the method for collecting data which ultimately affect the analysis which follows.

My principle methods of data collection were threefold: serendipity, that is by reading through any number of books/listening to recordings that I knew referenced the hymn; more systematically using Google’s NGram Viewer to examine the digitised collection of some five million texts; finally, by using online music databases such as Allmusic and Discogs, these two including 20 million and 150 million texts. While the number of texts included in the NGram Viewer is considerable, this should be placed against a corpus of 25 million books scanned bas part of Google Books (which itself is only a small portion of an estimated 130 million titles worldwide as of 2010).

While the method of data collection was not planned in as structured way as I would have intended had quantitative analysis been planned for from the very beginning, essentially arising from an extended bibliography, nonetheless it represents the most comprehensive collection of data for this topic ever collated. The work is not yet complete – there are, for example, some suspicious gaps in periods such as the 1940s that make me believe that more works remain to be found. In addition, I would like to collate references in news media to the hymn, although preliminary work I have undertaken here indicates that I will have to do a lot more cleaning of data (when a newspaper refers to “Jerusalem”, it’s usually the city rather than the hymn).

Analysis

Bearing in mind the above limitations, nonetheless the final data set provides some interesting correlations that can be visualised in a number of ways, beginning with a simple scatter plot that shows some the frequency of instances referencing the hymn since Alexander Gilchrist’s publication of the Life of William Blake in 1863.

Figure 2. Frequency of references to “And did those feet” / Jerusalem, 1863-2016.

Unsurprisingly, the chart above shows Blake’s poem/Parry’s hymn being referenced more frequently as time progresses, but we should be wary of rushing to two conclusions that would establish causal relations between the data shown here and the reception of the Blake-Parry hymn.

First of all, the distribution of frequency data would appear to demonstrate an exponential growth which appears to begin some time around the 1990s, but it is perhaps more likely that the eventual shape will be closer to an S-curve, with a saturation of references in the selected media occurring in the twenty-first century. Following from this, the temptation is to discuss the above frequency data in terms of the popularity of “Jerusalem”, but this cannot be demonstrated causally from the data despite the apparent simplicity of a correlation between recorded frequencies over time.

Consider the following graph:

Figure 3. Church of England participation data, 1960-2016

This chart, taken from the Church of England’s Statistics for Mission 2016, shows a fairly familiar trajectory of long-term decline in the Anglican church. Whereas nearly 7 percent of the population defined itself as Anglican in 1960, that figure had dropped to less than 2 percent in 2016, and regular church attendance had dropped from around 3.5 percent to slightly more than 1 percent between 1968 and 2016. Of course, because the population of the UK has increased during that time, it would still be possible for this decline to be matched by a growth in absolute numbers, but by 2016 the actual number of church goers had dropped to below one million. The reason why this is significant to a discussion of “Jerusalem” is that CofE churches use the hymnal Hymns Ancient and Modern, which includes “Jerusalem”: there is no statistical data collected on how often particular hymns are sung at church, but it is not an entirely unreasonable assumption that in one area at least – singing in church – the Blake-Parry hymn is less popular now (or at least performed less often) than it was some fifty years ago.

Because my research on the reception of “Jerusalem” traces its use across certain types of media (books, audio recordings, television and film in particular), it cannot begin to answer whether the hymn is more or less popular in absolute terms, only that it is more prevalent within those media in the twenty-first century than it was during the twentieth century. Certainly the hymn is sung at public events such as cricket matches and Last Night of the Proms, so it may indeed be more popular in absolute terms, but I have not collected the data to verify this. Nonetheless, within the data set I do have some interesting examples of particular points in its reception history are thrown into relief. Thus, for example, while I expected a surge of instances in 1976 during the Queen’s silver jubilee (and there was, indeed, a small rise in occurrences), the greater frequency is actually during 1973, mainly due to a slight flurry in audio recordings including that by Emerson Lake and Palmer on their album Brain Salad Surgery. There is, however, no obvious correlation between this increase and external events, unlike the more dramatic surge in frequency during 2011 (32 instances) and 2012 (29 instances), where “Jerusalem” was clearly recorded and performed more regularly because of the royal wedding of William and Kate Middleton and the Olympic ceremonies/golden jubilee the following year. Similarly, a spike in 2000 was due to the selection of the hymn as the official song for Euro 2000 by Fat Les, with the track being included on a number of compilation albums that year.

There has, then, been a greater media use of “Jerusalem” in the twenty-first century, but this has also been a period of greater deviation between the number of instances each year as the following chart demonstrates:

Figure 4. Median incidents across selected time periods for 100 years of Jerusalem

Each of these three fifteen-year periods demonstrate that the median for instances of “Jerusalem” increases considerably. In the decade and a half when Parry first set Blake’s poem to music, the median was one appearance a year, representing the fact that while occasionally it appeared in some format more than once there were also years when it did not appear at all. By the 1970s, this was no longer the case although the median has only risen slightly to 3 occurrences each year on average. In the first years of the twenty-first century, by contrast, the media is 16 instances a year with a much wider range between the various data points.

The following three charts illustrate similar points in a slightly different fashion, showing the distribution curves for incidents of the lyric “And did those feet”/”Jerusalem” in three different sets. In the first, covering the entire period from 1863 to 2016 (a population where N=150 because in this data set there are a few instances where no data was collected), the mean is 3.84 with a standard deviation of 6.137. What is significant about these numbers is that, across a 153 years, the number of instances in the media of references to the text are very low because, for more than half a century, I was not able to find any reference to the text. If we focus on the century from 1916-2016 (a population where N=98), the mean of instances is higher at 5.69 and the standard deviation or spread of numbers has increased to 7.9. Turning finally to 1970-2016, the first date selected because it is during this decade that we see the first spike in references to the Blake-Parry hymn, the mean has increased substantially to 10.02 and the standard deviation now stands at 7.778. Further concentration on smaller slices of later time periods would intensify this trend – a higher mean and a wider spread of variables from the norm as a greater number of references to the hymn fluctuate greatly.

Figure 5a: Distribution of instances of the lyric, 1863-2016
Figure 5b: Distribution of instances of the lyric, 1916-2016
Figure 5c: Distribution of instances of the lyric, 1970-2016

Again, it is important to read such statistics carefully. “Jerusalem” is more prevalent in certain media instances, but once more this neither proves nor disproves the supposed popularity or otherwise of the hymn. The three histograms above, however, do demonstrate that the data is skewed when viewing the distribution curve for the period 1863-2016 in particular: essentially, there are more years during the nineteenth century when there is no reference to Blake’s poem than when it is alluded to, demonstrating very much that this is a text that comes into its own in the twentieth century.

One thing that does become evident from the data I have collected is that the driving force behind this increased media saturation is audio recording, as the following two charts demonstrate:

Figure 6. Instances of Jerusalem by medium
Figure 7: Instances of print versus music, 1863-2016

The majority of media formats where “Jerusalem” occurs is via audio (whether live performance – only noted rarely in my statistics and not including regular events such as Last Night of the Proms – or, more commonly, audio recordings). While music comprises more than half the instances within my data set, before the 1970s audio recordings at least are rare, and it is during the CD-revolution that takes place during the 1990s that instances of “Jerusalem” appear most often, participating in the wider renaissance of classical music brought about by the innovation of the CD. Indeed, it is possible that a final tailing off of those instances could reflect the decline of CD in recent years, although this correlation cannot be proven and, in any case, could be reasonably expected to have occurred earlier in the preceding decade. In general, however, the data collected does seem to indicate that at least partially the wider media reception of “Jerusalem” corresponded to a transformation in audio recording technologies: the hymn became part of the backing track for the nation because, as with so much other music, innovations in technology meant that it was easier to produce and distribute.

This data, visualised in different ways, does point to a similar conclusion: that “Jerusalem” has been more widely distributed across media formats as the century since Parry set it to music, and that this growth has been driven by audio recordings. I won’t lie, such conclusions are hardly earth-shattering and would have been guessed as “common sense” by any number of commentators, but it is useful to see the evidence demonstrating such a clear trend. Two other examples also demonstrate the value – and the limitation – of such augmented reading, one of which actually shaped my own understanding of the reception of the hymn and another of which indicates the danger of false positivism when employing quantitative methods.

The first set of charts also deals with the categorisation of music as follows:

Figure 8: Musical categories of audio recordings of “Jerusalem”

This first chart – drawing largely on self-identified categories of recordings (whether emphasising a choir, pop music, by a military brass band etc.) is an effective way of seeing immediately some of the ways in which those recordings of the hymn have been categorised. It is an exercise in taxonomy which, while hardly surprising in some respects – the vast majority of instances are orchestral or choral arrangements – does indicate a few interesting examples, one of which I shall follow up below. The one point to make about this visualisation is that it obviously does not help with tracking instances across time: in many cases, this is not especially relevant, but occasionally – as in the categories of sport and music for royal occasions – it disguises the fact that such uses are very recent (largely post-2000) and thus indicate changing attitudes towards/uses of “Jerusalem”.

The interesting example, which for me is illustrative of how such quantitative analysis actually affected my reading of a text, is that of matrimonial recordings.

Figure 9: Instances of recordings of “Jerusalem” for matrimonial occasions

In and of itself, this doesn’t appear to be an especially interesting chart: between 2004 and 2011 there were fourteen instances of “Jerusalem” being included on wedding compilations. However, this simple data changed one section of my book to a significant degree: there are absolutely no examples of the hymn being included on compilations for this purpose before 2000 that I can find, although I still need to check that there are none after 2011. This is a surprising example of changing uses of the hymn – which personally I trace to the release of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 (“Jerusalem” is sung at the first wedding in the film) with some newspaper references in the late 90s and early 2000s. The spike in 2011 is around the royal wedding of William and Kate Middleton and, if there truly are no further incidents (which I doubt) perhaps represents an oversaturation of the hymn at such services.

The final example deals with one of the most evocative phrases from Blake’s poem – “dark Satanic mills”. The chart below indicates the frequency since 1900 where the phrase has been used separately from the hymn to illustrate some aspect of society or other thought:

Figure 10: References to “Dark Satanic Mills” in relation to industrialisation

For some time, I have been rather adamant that Blake’s phrase has nothing to do with the industrial revolution and, in my opinion, is only tenuously connected with the Albion Flour Mills constructed in Southwark which burned down in 1791. Yet it becomes clear that, after some tentative references in the 1910s (the first instance I can find of the phrase outside of simple repetition within the poem as a whole), the phrase really begins to gain currency from the 1950s onwards. I am not entirely confident of my data to be sure that the dip in the 1970s is entirely satisfactory, but certainly from the 1980s onwards it becomes embedded in popular culture – both in Britain and internationally – as a phrase used to invoke the worst excesses of industrialisation and mechanisation. Of the fewer number of instances where it is used to refer to something else, a significant proportion of these arise from scholars pointing out that it does not refer to the industrial revolution.

This is another example of what Jauss refers to as the changing “horizon of expectations”: as the phrase “dark satanic mills” is used more frequently to refer to industrialisation, so more people refer to it the same way. Admittedly, alternative uses have also increased (some of these directly oppositional) but in the main part this is a case where the meaning of the phrase has definitely chanced since Blake wrote down those words. While I disagree with this usage in many respects as not that which Blake intended, I am also interested in the spread of the term: while it does not represent the author’s original meaning, it has a much more effective use or exchange value as a term describing the industrial revolution. When people use those three words, they call up a period in history extremely effectively and the phrase serves as a microcosm of the ways in which the poem as a whole has been transformed throughout its reception history.

Conclusions

The conclusions of my research at this stage are still fairly tentative. Regarding the value of quantitative analysis, in some cases it demonstrates the obvious (that instances of “Jerusalem” increase as time progresses, and that this really is a twentieth- and twenty-first century text, with its reception doubtlessly driven by Parry’s setting the hymn to music). Even in those cases, it may be of use – for example in terms of showing how prevalent the phrase “dark satanic mills” becomes in the latter part of the twentieth century – and in other circumstance it offered me patterns that I was not expecting, such as the usage of the hymn in wedding services from the early 2000s onwards.

To me it is obvious that more work needs to be done: I consider my data set fairly representative of the hymn, but am not yet fully confident that it offers a suitable population sample throughout the full twentieth century, and as such I cannot say whether certain gaps (most notably in the 1940s) are significant or the result of my flawed methods of collecting data. Nonetheless, some of the evidence that is emerging is compelling to me and this is a project that I wish to continue. The next steps are to ensure that the data set as it currently stands is as complete as possible, while also considering the option to include other media references from news sources.

It should also be noted that the data here has been analysed in a largely descriptive fashion. While I would like to answer certain questions, for example whether a person’s political stance predisposes them to listen to “Jerusalem”, I cannot answer this in anything but an anecdotal way. As Allen, Titsworth and Hunt observe, quantitative analysis is very good at answering questions as to what is happening, but not why. To begin to find solutions to these and other questions would require a mixed methodology incorporating qualitative approaches.

Regardless of certain specific gaps in the data discussed here, there is a more general conclusion that I believe can be drawn upon already, and that is how quantitative analysis compels us to reconsider the text in new ways. Before continuing on this line, it is very much worth remembering the following admonition by Blake taken from his annotations to the works of Joshua Reynolds: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit–General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess” (E641). I have been very cautious in some of my own generalisations, and I am critical of the positivist assumptions in some approaches to digital humanities which assume that data reveals us truth. Likewise, although I can understand why Moretti argues against close reading the majority of my own work on “Jerusalem” consists of some 90,000 words of close reading of four quatrains, what I consider to be one of the most important works in England in recent decades.

But when we survey data as a whole, contracting and expanding our senses as Blake describes the Eternals in The [First] Book of Urizen (E71), then we can see different forms, have a sharper sense of the interconnection between those forms as Moretti suggests. For example, while the vast majority of musical recordings are classical, for most of them the significant difference in musical terms is whether they use Elgar’s arrangement or Parry’s: that difference is noticeable, but most other elements of the recording are not. As such, it is the collation of musical settings into different genres and branded formats that becomes important, indicating whether the music is being aimed at a sporting, military, traditional or more easy-listening audience. This is where “distant reading” comes into its own.

In such cases, quantitative analysis of “Jerusalem” does, I would argue, become useful (with such usefulness always being recognised as limited). Alongside the task of hermeneutics, of interpreting the text, it provides a form of literary heuristics, indicating the parameters within which the text operates among a wider audience. It cannot be used to tell us what the hymn means for its various audiences, but it does offer in broad terms some insights into how the text comes to be used in different times and circumstances.

Works cited

Allen, Mike, Titsworth, Scott, and Hunt, Stephen K., Quantitative Methods in Communication, Sage, 2009.

Anderson, Chris, “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete“, Wired, 2008.

Carroll, Joseph, “Three Scenarios for Literary Darwinism”, New Literary History, 41.1, 2010, pp.53-67.

Church of England, The, “Statistics for Mission, 2016“, Research and Statistics, 2016.

Eyers, Tom, “The Perils of the “Digital Humanities”: New Positivisms and the Fate of Literary Theory“, Postmodern Culture, 2015.

Jauss, Hans Robert, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti, University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Leonelli, Sabina, “What difference does quantity make? On the epistemology of Big Data in biology“, Big Data & Society, 2014.

Mazzochi, Fulvio, “Could Big Data be the end of theory in science?“. Science and Society, 2015.

Moretti, Franco, Graphs, Maps, Trees, Verso, 2007.

Moretti, Franco, Distant Reading, Verso, 2013.

Blakespotting: The Frankenstein Chronicles

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

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

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

Gilchrist records the final hours as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Frankenstein Chronicles is available on Netflix.

 

 

William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion – review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need a new Englishness

But Palamabron called down a Great Solemn Assembly,
That he who will not defend Truth, may be compelled to
Defend a Lie, that he may be snared & caught & taken (Milton 8.46-8)

A couple of years ago, my father and I were having a conversation about the EU in which he asked me whether, when I was growing up, I had felt English or British or European. The answer for me was very simple.

When I was young, I was Catholic.

I had very little sense of national identity, to be honest, but an incredibly strong sense of an identity based on Roman Catholicism. I went to a Catholic school, most of the family I saw on a regular basis was Catholic (my mother and myself aside, not especially fervent it must be said), and all my friends were Catholic. At school, nearly everyone had some mixture of Irish, Polish, Italian or Czech – native English Catholics having become a rarity following several centuries of Protestantism.

When, much later, I fully abandoned that Catholicism, the sense of where I belonged only came slowly. I was, however, increasingly fascinated by what this country was, and when I began writing about “English” Blake I rather fell in love with his bizarre visions of the nation state, one in which the giant Albion, populated with bizarre druids and warring demi-gods, attempted to seal himself off from the rest of the world in eternal death but who, eventually, would awake, awake, awake into a new Englishness.

In plate 92 of Jerusalem, Blake writes:

What do I see? The Briton Saxon Roman Norman amalgamating
In my Furnaces into One Nation the English: & taking refuge
In the Loins of Albion. (1-3)

Whatever it is for Blake that defines Englishness, it is nothing to do with race. To be English is to be made up of many things, wave after wave of immigrant communities entering this country (and an island nation should embrace metaphors of the sea), and it would be simplicity itself to see a contemporary Blake adding Irish, Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean, Polish and any other multitude of identities that make up the One Nation. Throughout Blake’s writings, it is when Albion seeks to shut himself off from the world, from his emanation Jerusalem, that disaster strikes.

The hills of Judea are fallen with me into the deepest hell
Away from the Nations of the Earth, & from the Cities of the Nations…
How distant far from Albion! his hills & his valleys no more
Receive the feet of Jerusalem: they have cast me quite away:
And Albion is himself shrunk to a narrow rock in the midst of the sea!
The plains of Sussex & Surrey, their hills of flocks & herds
No more seek to Jerusalem nor to the sound of my Holy-ones.
The Fifty-two Counties of England are hardend against me
As if I was not their Mother, they despise me & cast me out (Jerusalem 79:8-21)

At the moment, the United Kingdom very much feels like a narrow rock shrunk in the middle of the sea. While many people have voted for Brexit for many reasons, it is a lie to believe that the campaign to leave has not been driven by two messages: to give a windfall of cash to the NHS (that’s going to happen in a crashing economy) and to take back control of our borders. To repeat, many voted for many reasons, but the past few days have revealed that racism – particularly Islamophobia and hostility to eastern Europeans – now feels emboldened by the 52% who voted to leave. It is not that half the population is racist, but that those who want Polish “vermin” to get out, call for foreigners to be repatriated, or argue that they aren’t racist because they’re not talking about “pakis”, now believe that 17 million people share their views.

As things fall apart we are slouching towards bigotry, a second coming that hardens us, shrinks our perceptions to a narrow chink. We need a new vision of Englishness. UKIP in all its glory seems to have set us on a stumbling path towards becoming the nation state of England – which may have been the intention of at least some of its members all along, once we’ve got rid of the Scots. However that may be, I’m damned if I’m going to let UKIP, Britain First or the English Defence League define what it is to be English. We need Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, and Humanist to amalgamate in the furnaces of the nation, forged with Heathens, Turks and Jews into the human form to build Jerusalem.

For a while after the referendum vote, I was overcome with anger and a paranoia that I dare not speak to my neighbours (unlike many Remain voters, the plethora of Leave badges and signs made it quite clear that I live in a part of England’s green and pleasant land that wanted no truck with the EU – a pretty fair swathe of the country, as it turned out). There is a sombre mood in the village where I live at the moment, no triumphalism, and I am sure that they are as shocked as I by the lack of common decency among some of those for whom Englishness is a byword for hate and violence. That’s not to excuse myself: anger and paranoia can be another form of xenophobia, a self-righteousness that I am right and you are wrong, and that for that reason alone I should hate you. That is not an England I wish to live in nor should I make it. I’ll fight bloody Brexit every step I can, because I honestly believe it is destroying my country and as a paradoxical Englishman I have a patriotic love for this chip off the old Eurasian block.

This, however, must always be a mental fight, not total war which despises everyone and everything which is other. I have my own fair share of the blame for ignoring those who have been left behind by globalisation in an economy that, for all its claims to be the fifth largest in the world, relies for that status on sheer bulk of numbers (thank you migrants!) as individual prosperity falters, stumbles and falls for the majority. We need to build a better country for all, not fight over an ever-diminishing stew as we kick out the foreigners. Those who do not defend the truth will now be compelled to defend a lie, but as that lie of hatred is clear and raw and ugly before us so it can be snared and caught and taken.

Blake, Albion and the EU, or, don’t use “Jerusalem” to support Brexit

As I get back into the swing of things with all things Blakean, so the following exchange popped up on Twitter:

For the past few days, while searching through various bits and pieces to share with people, inevitably I’ve also come across ones like the following:



There are plenty of these. Ah, as George Orwell nearly wrote, there’s never so fine a sight as old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning, past the placard-waving Little Englanders wishing to keep the foreigners out.

Generally, I simply ignore tweets such as the second, but (as so often happens with invocations of the Blake/Parry hymn) my blood gently simmers when I see “Jerusalem” being so employed. In the interest of a little fact checking, I’d just like to offer the following brief corrective to those who see Blake’s words at least as a support for xenophobic nationalism (and, yes, I do realise that impugns many who have more solid arguments regarding leaving the EU, but – to repeat my title – don’t invoke “Jerusalem” to support Brexit).

First, it should be noted that Blake wrote the famous stanzas from Milton, later set to music by Parry, in 1804, including them in his Preface to that epic poem. On the remote chance that there’s someone who hasn’t heard those words on this side of the planet in the past thirty seconds, here they are again:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

(From David Erdman, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, pages 95-6)

I shall not engage here in a complex and (for me at least) fascinating discussion of what those words could mean, but I simply wish to point out that in the January of the year he wrote those words Blake was tried for sedition at Chichester. You can read a very good account of it on the Blake Society web site, but here I’ll just repeat the charge that was reported by the Sussex Advertiser:

William Blake, an engraver at Felpham, was tried on a charge exhibited against him by two soldiers, for having uttered seditious and treasonable expressions, such as ‘D—n the King, d—n all his subjects, d—n his soldiers, they are all slaves; when Bonaparte comes, it will be cut-throat for cut-throat, and the weakest must go the wall; I will help him; &c. &c.’

Now, Blake was found not guilty of this and other remarks, and it is clear that the soldier involved in the altercation with the engraver at his cottage in Felpham was making things up. However, it has never ceased to amaze me that of all the people in the village that the soldier came up against, the two with the most radical sympathies were William Blake and his wife, Catherine. Statements such as “the weakest must go the wall” are completely antithetical to Blake’s notions, but while he seemed no fan of Napoleon (writing in his commentary on Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, “Let us teach Buonaparte & whomsoever else it may concern That it is not Arts that follow & attend upon Empire[s] but Empire[s] that attends upon & follows [wherever Art leads]”) he remained for all his life profoundly influenced by the promise of the French Revolution. No turncoat he, unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and plenty of others.

If there is a slim possibility that the lines “And did those feet” were written by a shamefaced Blake, cowed into demonstrating his nationalism because he was so nearly caught out, even the most cursory reading of Milton and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion would show that to be false. In the Preface in which the stanzas appear, he inveighs against those who  would “for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War”. Now, it is worth pointing out that Blake had little time for university academics such as myself (who he saw as warmongers as much as anyone), and the contrarian nature of a man who believed that “without Contraries is no progression” could easily be invoked by UKIP-ers and Brexiters who see themselves as bravely fighting the consensus – and, hell, when banks, foreign premiers, and just about the rest of the world seems to line up against you, it’s hard to suggest that you are doing anything other than fighting the consensus. I should also point out that, while disagreeing with the Brexit position, I really am not a person who believes that something is right because everyone appears to say it is right. All I ask is don’t bloody use Blake to fight your corner.

William Blake, as anyone with more than a passing interest in him knows, wrote a lot about Albion. In Jerusalem he writes that “All things Begin & End in Albions Ancient Druid Rocky Shore”. Actually, at a glance that seems a case for staying out the EU, does it not? And if you’re a druid, there’s probably a lot to go on there if you’re thinking of your constituency (“Those bloody Roman bureaucrats, stopping our human sacrifices and all that. Don’t they know it’s part of our culture?”) But let’s have a look at some of the other things that Blake writes about Albion.

Every ornament of perfection, and every labour of love,
In all the Garden of Eden, & in all the golden mountains
Was become an envied horror, and a remembrance of jealousy:
And every Act a Crime, and Albion the punisher & judge. (Jerusalem, plate 28)

Or how about this:

Albion groans, he sees the Elements divide before his face.
And England who is Brittannia divided into Jerusalem & Vala…
The Atlantic Continent sunk round Albions cliffy shore
And the Sea poured in amain upon the Giants of Albion (plate 32)

For Blake, Albion’s fall comes when he is separated from the rest of the world – not just Europe but America as well. In contrast, the golden age is described thus:

Thy Sons came to Jerusalem with gifts, she sent them away
With blessings on their hands & on their feet, blessings of gold,
And pearl & diamond: thy Daughters sang in her Courts:
They came up to Jerusalem; they walked before Albion
In the Exchanges of London every Nation walkd
And London walkd in every Nation mutual in love & harmony
Albion coverd the whole Earth, England encompassd the Nations,
Mutual each within others bosom in Visions of Regeneration;
Jerusalem coverd the Atlantic Mountains & the Erythrean,
From bright Japan & China to Hesperia France & England. (plate 24)

Now, there is much, much more that I could bore with in my anger on this subject. Actually, the one thing I won’t suggest here is that Blake would be an advocate for the actual European Union – it is far, far too small for his vision of universal Albion which shares its life with all humanity from China and Japan to France, England and the Americas (and. lest we head off in completely the wrong direction – he was no imperialist, the thought of which filled him with horror). But with that in mind I would ask, as politely as my title allows, for anyone who sings or plays “Jerusalem” thinking that Blake would love to kick out all the foreigners to just stop it now.

Blake as a Mystic

William Blake in youth and age. George Richmond. Yale Center for British Art.
William Blake in youth and age. George Richmond. Yale Center for British Art.

I’ve been invited to contribute to a panel entitled Mysticism in the Works of Blake at the Bradford Literature festival in just over a week’s time, and as such I’ve recently been thinking about Blake as a mystic.

The link to mysticism is a well-established one: W. B. Yeats in “William Blake and the Imagination” (included in Ideas of Good and Evil in 1903) argued that he was influenced by Christian mystics such as Jacob Boehme and the alchemists (the former undoubtedly true, though the latter may more questionable although in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he does reference the ideas of Paracelsus favourably). Yeats concludes: “If ‘Enitharmon’ had been named Freia, or Gwydeon, or Danu, and made live in Ancient Norway, or Ancient Wales, or Ancient Ireland, we would have forgotten that her maker was a mystic”. It’s also worth pointing out that Yeats finds a great deal of mysticism in other poets, such as Shelley, who might have been a little surprised to find themselves in such un-scientific company.

On a popular level, the answer to the question of whether Blake was a mystic is obvious. The BBC called him “An everyman’s mystic“, the poetry site poemhunter.com categorises him as “British poet, painter, mystic” while Wikipedia adds “engraver” to the list, and one of the most popular Facebook sites is similarly entitled “William Blake: Poet, Artist, Mystic“. There are countless other blog posts, tweets and occasional pieces that invoke Blake as a mystic, so why on earth would anyone disagree? This, after all, is the man who saw a world in a grain of sand.

Scholars such as myself like to complicate things, however. Josephine McQuail, in a paper entitled “Passion and Mysticism in William Blake” (2000), offers a good summary of writers who thought Blake was a mystic, including Jacomina Kortelling (1966), who referred to him as a “painter-poet-mystic”, and Kathleen Raine (1968), who placed him in a long line of neoplatonic mystics, as well as those who baulked at the term, such as Robert Zaehner (1961) who preferred to call him a “seer” rather than a mystic and Pierre Berger (1914) who thought of him as a prophet in a book rather confusingly translated as William Blake, poet and mystic. Others such as Adeline Butterworth published a study entitled William Blake, Mystic in 1974, but I must admit that I was profoundly influenced by Northrop Frye’s following comments in a final “General Note: Blake’s Mysticism” in Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947):

The word mystic has never brought anything but confusion into the study of William Blake, and, in my anxiety to prevent it from cluttering up this book, I have begun by conceding, as a sort of opening gambit, the conventional mystic’s attitude to the artist as the imperfect mystic who cannot wholly detach himself from the sensible world. But it does not follow that I am willing to let the conventional mystic remain in possession of the field. (415, 1969 edition)

This is not Frye’s final word. His conclusion offers a concession of sorts:

If mysticism means primarily a contemplative quietism, mysticism is something abhorrent to Blake, a Selfhood communing in Ulro; if it means primarily a spiritual illumination expressing itself in a practical and (in spite of its psychological subtlety) unspeculative piety, such as we find in the militant monasticism of the Counter-Reformation, the word still does not fit him. But if mysticism means primarily the vision of the prodigious and unthinkable metamorphosis of the human mind just described [in Fearful Symmetry], then Blake is one of those mystics. (416)

It should also be pointed out that, some of the time at least, Frye was perhaps as much responding to figures such as Madame Blavatsky (of whom he wrote a marginal note that for her the “essence of religion [is] not the Poetic Genius but a doctrine” – cited in Robert Denham’s Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, 327) rather than Boehme, Eckhart or the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s hard to think of these figures as abhorrent to Blake, for all that he may not have agreed with them all of the time – but then, he often found much to contend with in Milton’s poetry, and in any case Frye offers some skepticism in his General Note whether Eckhart and Boehme can even be considered as mystics.

What, then, of my own thoughts on Blake as a mystic? One problem I have with the term is around it’s origins in muo, the Greek word meaning “to conceal”, which referred to the secret initiations and rites of certain Hellenistic religions, or mysteries. Blake never uses the term mysticism – which by no means disqualifies him from being a mystic. He does, however, use the word mystery several times, whether to refer to the “accursed Tree of MYSTERY” (The Book of Ahania, E87), to “Mystery the Virgin Harlot Mother of War” (Milton, E117), or “Mystery Babylon the Great: the Abomination of Desolation” (Jerusalem, E231). It’s fair to say that Blake is not a fan of mystery. There is one, positive mention of the word in A Vision of the Last Judgement, where he says that Greek fables “originated in Spiritual Mystery & Real Vision” (E555), but aside from this the very idea of mystery seems to make Blake’s blood boil.

Mystery is not the same as mysticism, and yet… and yet… A significant problem for me is the “occult” nature that can pertain to a great deal of mysticism, one that has many of its roots in Platonic philosophies and Hellenistic mystery relgions. Blake could be attracted to these from time to time, and yet there was always something that held him back. His imagination and Poetic Genius allowed him very much to see this world in a grain of sand, rather than the ineffable, unimaginable (and here I disagree with Frye’s use of the word “unthinkable”) transcendental world of forms lying behind that of concrete, minute particulars.

On a personal level, then, I have considerable problems thinking of Blake as a mystic. That is not to say that the popular conception is intrinsically wrong: Frye’s threefold definition of mysticism (contemplative quietist, practical pietist, or prodigious and unthinkable transformer – the last of which he does apply to Blake) is far from the last word on mysticism and I have barely given enough time here to consider all the definitions of it that could apply. Historically, I also think that the term mysticism has been useful to the reception of Blake – it was a means for Yeats and others to overcome the label of “mad” Blake which prevented any meaningful discussion of his poetry and art. By Frye’s time, however, mysticism could be seen as another label that prevented further engagement – Frye wished to point out that Blake is a profound and incisive, if often difficult, thinker, something which mysticism could be used to avoid dealing with. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake corrects one of what he sees as common errors of the Bible with the observation that: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age”. It would be easy to portray this as mystical, but in fact it is profoundly (in a wonderfully weird, Blakean way) material, or, if you’re not willing to concede that word to Blake, sensuous: the artist, after all, is the mystic who will not wholly detach himself from the sensible world, because that’s where we find our soul.

The panel discussion, Mysticism in the Works of Blake, will take place at the Bradford Literature Festival on 29 May, 2016, 11.00 am – 12.15 pm.

 

William Blake’s Manuscripts: A One-Day Symposium

BlakesManuscriptsSymposiumThe schedule has now been set and registration is open for William Blake’s Manuscripts: A One-Day Symposium. This symposium will be held at the Huntington Library on June 7th, 2013, and the list of Blake luminaries speaking include (in alphabetical order) Luisa Calé, Mark Crosby, Morris Eaves, Alexander Gourlay, Steve Hindle, Rachel Lee, Joseph Viscomi, Angus Whitehead, and John Windle. Attendance costs $31.50 and includes lunch, introductory remarks, two plenary sessions, two panels, and closing remarks by Mark Crosby (lunch is optional: conference registration alone is $15.00 and free for students). I would encourage anyone interested in Blake and able to travel to San Marino, California in June to take advantage of this opportunity.

Blakespotting – Olympic Jerusalem

Along with an estimated 27 million viewers in the UK and, according to Reuters, almost one billion people around the world, I sat down with my wife last night to watch the opening ceremony of the London Olympics 2012. After an interminable period waiting for the damn torch to finally make its way through what felt like every hamlet in the country, the initial ceremony was quite a spectacle. Putting to one side the temptation to engage in Debordesque observations on the role of such spectacle, I had to admit that I also enjoyed it greatly, and was particularly intrigued by the fact that the setting of the Olympic Stadium converted into a meadow complete with Tor, cottage and idyllic participants was entitled “Green and Pleasant Land”. Although the subsequent transformation into and industrial landscape was actually called the Age of Industry, it is inevitable that commentators this morning have not been able to resist another Blakean allusion to “dark, Satanic mills”.

Unsurprisingly, this morning the British media abounds with reflections on what it means to be British and the nature of patriotism, with the Daily Mail headlining that “Britain fires up the world” and the BBC remarking, somewhat ambiguously, that this was “A Britain as never seen before”, though I had to agree with the comment: “What no-one expected was that it would be quite so gloriously daft, so cynicism-squashingly charming and – well, so much pinch-yourself fun.” Frankly, after the interrogations of ministers over the GS4 debacle and the chilling stories of surface-to-air missiles being sited on a tower block in Leytonestone, as well as the fear that the UK would be washed away in the worst July flooding for years before a single athlete arrived, I was simply relieved to be British. The opening ceremony was a hotch-potch of frequently kitsch, sometimes bizarre, and often amusing references – whether NHS nurses, James Bond or Mister Bean – but it was also executed flawlessly. (Wasn’t charming incompetence meant to be a particularly British – well, at least, English – national characteristic?)

And of course, what is significant here is that within the hotch-potch of national characteristics a particular vision of Blake is now considered to be part of the British – or is that the English? – DNA. Having written considerably on the Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem” over the past two years, frequently in relation to the appropriation of the song by the far right, it was refreshing and entirely expected to hear it within the context of a sporting event, it having attained the status of the unofficial national anthem over the past decade and a half. Of course, it is usually the English national anthem: whatever the faults of the rather dirge-like “God Save the Queen”, at least that has the political nous not to restrict itself to England’s green and pleasant land. But then the schizophrenia that underlies an event where Team GB is also allowed to divide up into its constituent four nations is evidence of an entity that, 800 years after the first forcible act of union between England and Wales, still cannot decide what it really is. (I am deliberately ignoring the amused disgust expressed by some that Cornwall was not identified as a fifth nation at the event.)

It is particularly fascinating to me that in a global arena such as this, there are two writers who stand out as offering something quintessentially English (or should that be British?) in contrast to music, which was extremely well-represented by an array of diverse talent from Paul McCartney to Dizzee Rascal that, in the words of an MSN article, reminded the world “how brilliant we are at music“. Blake featured twice musically – via “Jerusalem”, of course, in a beautiful solo performance, but also indirectly as part of Vangelis’s “Chariots of Fire”. “Chariots of fire”, “green and pleasant land”, “dark Satanic mills” – only Shakespeare (whose line, “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises”, fromThe Tempest was inscribed on the bell that opened the ceremony) took a greater pride of place. The Warwickshire playwright who was frequently neglected (or at least rewritten) in his own country until the German Romantics rediscovered him is, of course, a pinnacle of that other great cultural export alongside British music: English literature.

If Shakespeare is frequently caricatured as the epitome of English conservatism (or a British act of union when it suits us), so the ghost of Blake may be an equally caricatured appeal to the radical roots of the this isle full of noises. In an interesting blog post by the triathlete Helen Russell, who is competing for Great Britain, she asks whether the opening ceremony was social allegory or just sentimentalism. Of course it is both, and she employs the time-honoured get-out clause that the ceremony, ” just like The Tempest and Jerusalem is open to a number of different interpretations”. Actually the ceremony is sentimental social allegory, and the dichotomy is ultimately a false one. Nonetheless, just for an evening, I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle because, in Debord’s words, “the spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification.”

According to the Situationists, everything can be recuperated (although there is also the endless possibility of détournement – just don’t expect it to last). And so Blake has very definitely been made part of a British Establishment that his writings satirise, revolt against and castigate repeatedly. And yet this statement misses the mark: it is a spectacle of Blake, as real as his ghost of a flea, an image of him that however “once directly lived has moved away into representation” (to impishly cite Debord again). Actually, I have a very strong suspicion that he would have been punching the air in sheer joy at the recognition of his work, but of course the “Jerusalem” that lives on is but a spectre of his work, as it is a spectre of Hubert Parry’s musical career, and the caricature of Shakespeare sketched out above is the shallowest portrayal of the dramatist.

If my Blakespotting notes here betray a sour undercurrent, it is for one particular reason which has affected me about the Olympics as a whole. And no, I am not simply against the Olympics in order to be contrarian: the rivalry between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett in Moscow in 1980 gripped me and even inspired me to run as an athlete for a while (a fact that generally tickles those who now know me as one of the least sporting people on the planet). However, while searching for a link to a video of the version of “Jerusalem” sung last night, I encounter again and again messages that it has been removed from sites such as YouTube or DailyMotion. This is the iron fist in the green, velvet glove that is London 2012 – whether it is the logo (parodied time and time again – and those parodies efficiently removed, I also note this morning) or the interminable rules surrounding the sponsors of the games who ensure that only MacDonalds French fries can be served in the Olympic grounds. The IOC may claim its Olympic values to consist of excellence, respect and friendship, but as has been well noted enforcement of its corporate franchise has been particularly ruthless and often bizarre.

And so, while I enjoy the spectacle, and feel relieved if not proud to be British – or is that English? – there is still much that resists this particular recuperation of Blake into the modern Olympic spirit. While most commentators always believe the “dark Satanic mills” must be the factories of the industrial revolution, in Milton and Jerusalem, Satan the Miller is a much more enigmatic figure. As Blake writes in Jerusalem:

The English are scatterd over the face of the Nations: are these
Jerusalems children? Hark! hear the Giants of Albion cry at night
We smell the blood of the English! we delight in their blood on our Altars!
The living & the dead shall be ground in our rumbling Mills
For bread of the Sons of Albion: of the Giants Hand & Scofield
Scofeld & Kox are let loose upon my Saxons! they accumulate
A World in which Man is by his Nature the Enemy of Man,
In pride of Selfhood unwieldy stretching out into Non Entity
Generalizing Art & Science till Art & Science is lost. (Jerusalem 38.46-54, E185)

The Blake brand, as I have observed elsewhere, may be used by marketers and advertisers the world over, but – bless him – if there is one thing I love about Blake it is that as a writer he is just so difficult to assimilate to a corporate view. When I hear someone singing of England’s green and pleasant land, it is lines such as the above – troubling, provocative, disturbing – that are as likely to be called to my mind. The Sons and Daughters of Albion may be running for gold, but Blake would have surely been angered by the grinding down of Jerusalem’s children into the bread of a sponsorship burger.