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 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.


Opposition is True Friendship: Christopher Hitchens and William Blake

Deepak Chopra once argued that Christopher Hitchens, one of the founders of the New Atheist movement, “dismisses every spiritual person out of hand, which means that he dismisses William Blake […] in the same breath that he dismisses Bible belt preachers.” Hitchens died yesterday at the age of 62 after a battle with esophageal cancer. In one of his most polemic works, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Hitchens sketches a grand argument against spiritual faith, suggesting that the loss of faith “can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also ‘man-made” (4).This struggle between religion and literature was well-known by William Blake, although he saw the progression in reverse. Blake was an avid reader of Constantin Volney. Volney argues in The Ruins: or, Meditations on the revolutions of empires: and The law of nature (1789) that priests created religion in order to pervert and control the imaginative work of artisans. Instead of inspiration, for Volney, religion invented laws to secure the power of the priestly caste and drew upon the visions of artists for its authority. While scholars like E.P. Thompson and Jon Mee argue that Blake did not subscribe to Volney’s atheism, it becomes difficult to understand just where atheism ends and Blake’s version of spirituality begins. Take, for example, his statement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “all deities reside in the human breast.” Jason Whittaker, in his introduction to the poem, admits that “Blake’s final statement […] can be read as remarkably close to atheism: however it is more accurate to emphasize that in this and his other works he emphasises again and again the divine nature of humanity.”

Blake’s voice has been used powerfully in tracts by many atheists, several of them Hitchens’s friends. Salman Rushdie refers to Blake briefly in The Satanic Verses to emphasize the spiritual insanity of Gibreel Farishta. Whereas Blake describes seeing God as “seeing the infinite in everything,” again a reference to the divine nature of humanity, Gibreel’s “vision of the Supreme Being was not abstract in the least. He saw, sitting on the bed, a man of about the same age as himself….” More recently, Rushdie uses Blake’s character Nobodaddy (“the silent & invisible/ Father of jealousy”) in Luka and the Fire of Life to represent Luka’s fear of his father dying. Philip Pullman, another famous atheist and president of the William Blake society, turns to the prologue of Blake’s Europe (“will shew you alive/The world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy”) to conceptualize the central concept from His Dark Materials: dust. When interviewed by Donna Frietas about Dust, Pullman says that “Dust is a visual analog of everything that is consciousness: human thought, imagination, love, affection, kindness, good things, and curiosity, intellectual curiosity. All that stuff is pictured in my idea of dust. Our most profound duty, it seems to me, is to increase the presence of dust in the world.”

Pullman calls himself an atheist. And Hitchens celebrated Pullman’s atheism in the review of His Dark Materials in Vanity Fair, highlighting Pullman’s insistence that “I just think the real world is all we have, and that it’s beautiful, and that there ain’t no elsewhere.” Further, Hitchens seems to empathize with, if not support, this form of atheism in his own references to Blake. In Arguably, Hitchens celebrates Blake’s devotion to animals (“William Blake could experience the agony of animals as if they were his own”) and uses him to argue against policies that sentence children as adults (“William Blake […] perhaps excelled all other authors in his rage against cruelty to the young.”). In Love, Poverty, and War Hitchens identifies with Blake’s distaste for stupidity (“If I had to surmise another influence, it would be William Blake […] because, as Blake phrased it: “A Last Judgment is necessary because fools flourish”). In Hitch-22, Hitchens identifies with Blake’s tragic visionary eye by recalling an episode from his childhood. “Once, after staying with a school friend on the Mumbles peninsula of South Wales, I had been as distressed as William Blake by my brief glimpse of the hell-mouth scenes of the steelworks and coal-pits around Port Talbot.” The Blake that emerges in Hitchens’s work is completely stripped of all spiritual trappings, a passionate fighter against oppression.

But Hitchens also unrelentingly critiqued Blake’s spiritual position, likening it to a loss in faith or a prophetic mass that threatened to overshadow the rest of his work. In his collaboration with Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, Hitchens likens Blake’s relationship to Christianity as a cancer. “[h]e searched his mind for belief in its fraud like a terrified woman feeling her breast for a cancer, he gave himself up to prophetic fury that his mind might find his way back to the undefiled sources of knowledge for goodness.” In his review of Peter Ackroyd’s Albion for The Atlantic, Hitchens also accuses Blake of a sentimentality that is all too British: “William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem,’ celebrated for its line about ‘these dark Satanic mills’ still manages to speak of ‘England’s green and pleasant land. The country that generated the Industrial Revolution and built the largest empire still has a self-image that is somehow bucolic.”

Hitchens’s relationship with Blake is, perhaps, more complicated than Chopra’s characterization of dismisal, and yet it might best capture the opposition that is typical of many writers and their relationship with Blake. If, as Blake argues in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “opposition is true friendship,” perhaps Christopher Hitchens was a true friend of Blake.

‘Can I see anothers woe,/ And not be in sorrow too’: Sentimentalism of Blake and Dickens

Though Dickens has been accused of being pejoratively “sentimental,” (Kaplan 37) we should take into consideration what “sentimental” meant to Dickens and his contemporaries or the philosophical tradition that argues that the sentiments were inherently “moral.”(Kaplan 37)  According to Fred Kaplan, the eighteenth century writers who imposed moral value on “sentiment” were David Hume and Adam Smith.  Hume argues that “the ultimate ends of human actions can never…be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependence on the intellectual faculties….” (Kaplan 37)  Hume’s optimistic definition of human nature is complemented by Adam Smith who created the genial metaphor of the “internal…impartial spectator,” the “man within the breast,” a second self that we all possess, against whose altruistic and benevolent standards we judge our thoughts and actions. (Kaplan 37) Dickens, who inherits this tradition, by describing humiliated children, social outcasts and their cruel fate, provokes sorrow and anger towards social injustice.

This “sentimental” tradition can apply to the case of William Blake who, like Dickens, depicts people at the bottom of the social scale and arouses readers’ grief and wrath upon social evil and hypocrisy.  Blake and Dickens can be said to have the same interest which is not in accurately representing society but in creating a social world within their works that accurately embodies “the moral paradigms.” (Kaplan 59)  To represent their concern and anger, they both unnaturally amplify “the voice of the artist” substituting a personal vision for mimesis. (Kaplan 59)  In other words, they by substituting a secular text for what had once been the mission reserved for scripture, run the risk of compounding “the potential blasphemy and hybris.” (Kaplan 59)

To prove their “moral” sentimentalism, we will examine Dickens’ Bleak House and Blake’s “Chimney Sweeper” which will help us to understand how their sentiments are deeply related to morality.  First, let us turn to Jo, a crossing sweeper in Bleak House.   Next is a citation of a passage in which the state of Jo is described: “It must be a strange state to be like Jo!  To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and the corner of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows!  To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postman deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language – to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb!” (274)  Here Dickens describes Jo’s utter ignorance about reading and writing in a comical yet pathetic way and brings our attention to the result of a lack of education.

This condition also leads Jo to religious ignorance.  Though Jo admires the size of the edifice of “the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts,” he has no idea what it is all about. (274)  Jo’s ignorance symbolizes the fact that the Society, which tries to perform the mission of doing good to people abroad, never extends aid to Jo, however near its building may be to him.  Furthermore, Jo’s ignorance about the religion is also described as “[i]t must be very puzzling to see the good company going to the churches on Sundays, with their books in their hands.” (274)  It is noteworthy that “the great Cross of the summit of St. Paul’s Cathedral” (326) is degraded just as “the crowning of the great, confused city” in the eyes of Jo, which is “so far out of his reach.” (326)  Mark Spilka points out that “Dickens satirizes the senselessness and futility of contemporary faith.”(213)  Dickens’ satire is even more effective as it is mingled with moral compassion and sympathy for Jo.

A sharp attack on the established church is also delivered in “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.  A striking difference with Dickens’ depiction of Jo is that poems are narrated by a sweep so that we can share the same point of view with the victim and feel the same pain and sorrow: “When my mother died I was very young, / And my father sold me while yet my tongue, / Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep. / So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.”  It is likely that Blake’s contemporary readers also “weep” and “cry” in the bottom of their heart, as the sweep does.

Blake depicts not only the sweeps’ miserable lives but also a false picture of the promised afterlife in Tom’s dream of an angel.  In Tom’s dream, the sweeps begin “lock’d up in coffins of black.” Then “And by came an Angel who had a bright key,/ And he open’d the coffins & set them all free./ Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run/ And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.”  The angel of this poem is “unable or unwilling to alter the harsh facts of life of this world, only active in an idealistic afterlife.”(Marsh 111)  Thus we are faced by scandalous cruelty and injustice, and the religious propaganda that sustains injustice.  Blake urges us to change things and help the sweeps gain their freedom, to attack their father, employers, and the “angel”-Church.  When we pay attention to the ironic tone of the last line “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” our wrath towards the social injustice is aroused.

Next, let us turn to “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience.  Here is a citation of the first stanza: “A little black thing among the snow: / Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe! / Where are thy father & mother?  say? / They are both gone up to the church to pray.”  Blake attacks the hypocrisy of the Church and also the parents’ collusion with it.  The parents don’t have to feel guilty because they are persuaded that their son will go to heaven.  They are grateful to the whole establishment, Church and state.  It is clear that Church, state and parents collude in “a hypocritical lie.”(Marsh 115)

Blake also concentrates on problems of understanding, which is crucial in social reform and improvement: “And because I am happy, & dance & sing, / They think they have done me no injury: / And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King / Who make up a heaven of our misery.”  The sweeps are ignorant because of a lack of education, therefore they can believe they are “happy” and can “dance & sing.”  In spite of this cruel fact, employers and parents “think they have done” them “no injury” thanks to the false system of religion and faith.  As Karl Marx identifies education as a crucial stage in a society’s progress towards equality, Blake brings our attention to the importance of education.

The sweeps’ lack of education is reminiscent of Jo in Bleak House.  Let us look at the scene in which Jo is compared with a drover’s dog: “He [A dog ] and Jo listen to the music, probably with much the same amount of animal satisfaction; likewise, as to awakened association, aspiration or regret, melancholy or joyful reference to things beyond the senses, they are probably upon a par.  But, otherwise, how far above the human listener is the brute!  Turn that dog’s descendants wild, like Jo, and in a very few years they will so degenerate that they will lose even their bark – but not their bite.” ( 275)  Here Dickens suggests as dogs will lose their “bark,” Jo lacks the ability to utter words loudly to resist the social evil.  However, it is also implied that Jo should have the potential for violence against social injustice by the word “bite,” though Jo himself never show any revolutionary power to the end.

In conclusion, both Blake and Dickens are sentimental in that “sentiment” means a radically “moral” feeling and they both try to arouse feelings such as anger, sorrow, and sympathy in readers and incite them to reform society.  This sentimentalism we can also find in their depiction of the deaths of victims.  Just after Jo’s death the narration continues: “Dead, your Majesty.  Dead, my lords and gentlemen.  Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order.  Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts.  And dying thus around us every day.”(705)  Dickens is attempting purposely to arouse his readers’ innate moral sentiments, reminding them that “the more emotionally sensitive they are to death the more morally attentive they will be to the values of life.” (Kaplan 50)  This is exactly the case with Jo.  It goes without saying that Blake’s depiction of the deaths of the sweeps has the same effect.


Works Cited

Dickens, Charles.  Bleak House (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971)

Kaplan, Fred.  Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature (Penguin: Princeton University Press, 1987)

Marsh, Nicolas.  William Blake: The Poems  (Houndmills: Palgrave: 2001)

Spilka, Mark.  Dickens and Kafka: a mutual interpretation (Gloucester: Indiana University Press, 1963)

Blake set to music – Adrian Leverkühn

Thomas Mann’s novel, Doktor Faustus, is a re-shaping of the Faust legend through the life of a composer, Adrian Leverkühn, supposedly narrated by his childhood friend Serenus Zeitblom, and set in the context of the first half of the twentieth century and the turmoil of Germany in that period. The novel was written between 1943 and 1947 while Mann was living in exile in America. German culture precedes the existence of the nation, which lends cultural life in Germany an extraordinarily definitive significance. Leverkühn is caught in the vortex of an entire culture’s self-destruction as Germany rushes towards the catastrophe of World War II.

In preparation for the work, Mann read widely in musicology and in biographies of composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Franz Schreker and Alban Berg. The fatal illnesses of Frederick Delius and Hugo Wolf are also relevant here, and in the death of the child Nepomuk there is perhaps an acknowledgment of the death of Gustav Mahler’s daughter, Maria, after he had (in Alma Mahler’s opinion) tempted fate by setting the Kindertotenlieder. Mann also communicated with living composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Hanns Eisler. The most important and direct contribution came from the philosopher and music critic Theodor W. Adorno, who acted as Mann’s adviser and encouraged him to rewrite large sections of the book. Mann was heavily indebted to Adorno’s analysis of Schoenberg’s music (later published in Philosophie der neuen Musik, 1949) for his depiction of Leverkühn’s aesthetic education and experiments in composition. Adorno analyses aesthetic form as a carrier of ideological implications; his readings of musical form are consequently also critiques of broader socio-cultural discourses.

Leverkühn strikes a Faustian bargain for creative genius: the would-be composer is led to a brothel and falls under the spell of a prostitute, contracting syphilis, the venereal disease that will later deepen his artistic inspiration through madness. At the exact centre of Mann’s novel, Leverkühn is visited by the Devil. Shivering in the cold, the fictional composer finds himself face to face with a figure who says, in effect, “That you can only see me because you are mad, does not mean that I do not really exist”. Adrian Leverkühn makes a pact with the Devil for twenty-four years of creative ability. Leverkühn’s own moods and ideology mimic the change from humanism to irrational nihilism found in Germany’s intellectual life in the 1920s as he becomes increasingly corrupt of body and of mind, ridden by syphilis and insanity. The parallel between the opinions of proto-Nazi intellectuals, whom Leverkühn had encountered earlier in the novel, and his own aesthetic experiments can now be clearly situated in the mythic domain of the demonic.

Early in 1790, William Blake himself spoke with a Devil. Their conversation is recorded in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In 1935 W.H. Auden presented Mann (his father-in-law) with Geoffrey Keynes’s one-volume edition of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. The book carries Auden’s dedication on the fly-leaf (“an Thomas Mann / im freundlichsten Andenken / von / Wystan Auden / Oct 1935”), and is now in the Thomas Mann-Archiv in Zürich. Appended to Auden’s dedication is a specific reference to Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Auden directs Mann to “p. 190-198”). In the margins there are numerous pencil marks of the kind Mann frequently made when reading books that particularly interested him. Two sections of The Marriage have a large number of marginal pencil marks, the “Proverbs of Hell” and “The Voice of the Devil”. In the latter – to single out only one example – the following passage is marked: “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”. The voice of Blake’s Devil would certainly have been appropriate Stärkungslektüre (not the easiest of words to translate; literally “strengthening reading matter”) for Mann when planning Leverkühn’s dialogue with Mephistopheles, and the words quoted seem to echo the tragedy of the German composer, whose soul and artistic achievements are inextricably bound up with – and indeed destroyed by – the physical disease brought about by his contact with a “harlot coy”. Blake weds heaven and hell; but Mann’s Devil works havoc with beauty, and what he does to the individual is writ large in what he does to the culture and the nation.

Blake features in the novel as a poet of great significance to Leverkühn. During the summer of 1944 Mann worked on his Chapter XX, which describes the first compositions Adrian completed after making his pact with the Devil. Among them were settings of Blake [Fitch 751] – and the choice of Blakean texts is significant; it is not the sublime and childlike Songs of Innocence which appeal to him, but two of the deeply pessimistic Songs of Experience (“The Sick Rose,” “A Poison Tree”) and two other poems not published during Blake’s lifetime: “I saw a chapel all of gold” (which poem almost definitively evokes Leverkühn’s own growing terror, his horror of pollution, and his eventual renunciation of humanity) and “Silent, Silent Night” (with its harlot reference). In the case of the last two poems, Mann’s annotations include translations of various words and phrases. In “I saw a chapel…,” alongside “hinges” and “slimy” Mann writes Türangel and schleimig. And in “Silent, Silent Night” Mann translates inter alia the words “harlot” and “coy” as Dirne, and blode, scheu, sprode. Zeitblom notes that Leverkühn chose to set the “darkly shocking” verses of Blake’s “Silent, Silent Night”:

But an honest joy
Does itself destroy
For a harlot coy

to “very simple harmonies, which in relation to the tone-language of the whole had a ‘falser’, more heart-rent, uncanny effect than the most daring harmonic tensions, and made one actually experience the common chord growing monstrous”.

Zeitblom describes the Blake settings in some detail:

As for Blake’s extraordinary poesy, he set to music the stanzas about the rose, whose life was destroyed by the dark secret love of the worm which found its way into her crimson bed. Then the uncanny sixteen lines of “A Poison Tree,” where the poet waters his wrath with his tears, suns it with smiles and soft deceitful wiles, so that an alluring apple ripens, with which the thievish friend poisons himself: to the hater’s joy he lies dead in the morning beneath the tree. The evil simplicity of the verse was completely reproduced in the music. But I was even more profoundly impressed at the first hearing by a song to words by Blake, a dream of a chapel all of gold before which stand people weeping, mourning, worshipping, not daring to enter in. There rises the figure of a serpent who knows how by force and force and force to make an entry into the shrine; the slimy length of its body it drags along the costly floor and gains the altar, where it vomits its poison out on the bread and on the wine. “So,” ends the poet, with desperate logic, therefore and thereupon, “I turn’d into a sty / And laid me down among the swine.” The dream anguish of the vision, the growing terror, the horror of pollution, finally the wild renunciation of a humanity dishonoured by the sight – all this was reproduced with astonishing power in Adrian’s setting.

Leverkühn’s decision to set Blake (and Keats and Shakespeare) in their original language is a break with the prevalent practice of German composers. Of course, Haydn and Beethoven set English words in their folksong arrangements, and the woman composer Nina d’Aubigny von Engelbrunner set French, Italian, and English texts, including poems by John Fletcher and Robert Bloomfield. But Nina d’Aubigny’s contemporary, Schubert, set Ossian in German translation, as Schumann did Thomas Moore (“Das Paradies und die Peri”).  Among early twentieth-century composers, Arnold Schoenberg set Albert Giraud’s French poems in German translation for Pierrot Lunaire; Alexander Zemlinsky used a German translation of Rabindranath Tagore for his Lyric Symphony; Alban Berg added a stave for soprano voice to the last movement of his Lyric Suite, setting Baudelaire’s “De profundis clamavi” but in Stefan George’s translation. Only in exile did German composers begin setting English texts: Schoenberg with Byron in his Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op. 41, and Paul Hindemith [Fitch 589, 590], Ernst Krenek [722], Ernst Toch [1264] setting Blake.

In 1977, the BBC commissioned the poet and novelist Robert Nye to write The Devil’s Jig, not a dramatisation of Doktor Faustus, which would have been more or less impossible, but a radio feature exploring its principal ideas, in the form of a narration interspersed with quotations from Leverkühn’s biographer in the novel, the egregious Serenus Zeitblom, from the Devil, and from Leverkühn himself. Humphrey Searle was commissioned to “realise” the works attributed to Leverkühn, following Mann’s indications as far as possible. The two Blake songs included were “Silent, Silent Night” and “The Sick Rose”, for voice and piano [Fitch 1101]. Searle finished the music in November 1977, but it was some time before the BBC was able to arrange for it to be recorded for broadcast. Finally recorded two days after the end of the Promenade season in 1979, it was transmitted on BBC Radio 3, on 9 March 1980; repeated on 26 June 1983.

Another realisation of Leverkühn’s Blake is by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Jeney. A setting of Blake’s “In a Mirtle Shade” [Fitch 651] is included in his 12 Songs: for female voice, violin and piano, to poems by e. e. cummings, Tandori Dezso, William Blake, Weores Sandor and Friedrich Holderlin (Budapest: Editio Musica, 1985). It carries the ascription “Adrian Leverkühn’s song”.

There is one final point to be made in connection with Leverkühn’s music. In a letter to Benjamin Britten dated 14 September 1970 (mainly concerned with the Mann family’s positive response to Britten’s desire to compose Death in Venice) Thomas Mann’s son Golo wrote, “My father … used to say, that if it ever came to some musical illustration of his novel Doktor Faustus, you would be the composer to do it”.

As Adrian begins to plan his second oratorio The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus in 1928, his sister’s child Nepomuk, who calls himself “Echo”, is sent to live with him. Echo is an enchanting small boy, half-Hermes (like Tadzio in Der Tod in Venedig), half-Christ, a vision of “adorable loveliness which was yet a prey to time, destined to mature and partake of the earthly lot”, such as Britten would surely have warmed to as readily as Leverkühn. But part of Leverkühn’s covenant with the Devil is that he is not permitted to warm to anyone; and because he does, Echo dies, horribly, of cerebro-spinal meningitis. Echo is one of those young sacrificial victims, agents of salvation, that people Britten’s scores – Lucretia, Billy, Isaac, Miles, there are so many – all Angels from Heaven, but, as Vere says, “the Angel must hang”. Tadzio is a destroyer, bringing Aschenbach to ruin and death in abject humiliation. But so in their way are Billy and Miles – and Echo. Billy kills Claggart, dies, and condemns Vere to a lifetime of self-laceration; Miles dies, after (we imagine) driving the Governess insane and irremediably corrupting Flora. Echo dies – but his death causes Leverkühn to commit his ultimate act of creative negation, the “taking-back” or “un-writing” of the Ninth Symphony, in the form of his last work, The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus. The score of the Lamentation is completed in 1930, Adrian summons his friends and guests, and instead of playing the music he relates the story of his infernal contract, and descends into the madness which is to last until his death ten years later. Zeitblom visits him occasionally, and survives to witness the collapse of Germany’s “dissolute triumphs” as he tells the story of his friend.

It is remarkable that these two creative artists, Mann and Britten, who never met nor worked together, should turn to the same poetic texts at virtually the same time: Britten included “The Sick Rose” in his Serenade, op. 31, written in 1943 just when Mann started to write Doktor Faustus. Furthermore, another Blake poem which Mann has Leverkühn set – ”A Poison Tree” – was also set by Britten, both earlier in 1935 [Fitch 181] and much later in the 1965 Songs & Proverbs of William Blake, op. 74 [Fitch 182]. Mann’s comments on Leverkühn’s treatment can also be applied to Britten’s: “The evil simplicity of the verse was completely reproduced in the music”.

Further reading.

Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik (Tu?bingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1949).
Translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster: Philosophy of Modern Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1973).

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; edited with an introduction & commentary by Michael Phillips (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011).
Includes a complete facsimile of the copy in the Bodleian Library, a transcription, and partial facsimiles of other copies.

William Blake, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake; edited by Geoffrey Keynes. Centenary edition (London: Nonesuch Press, 1927).
When citing Blake I have here followed the Keynes text.

Benjamin Britten, Letters from a Life: the Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976. Vol. 3: 1946-1951; edited by Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed, and Mervyn Cooke (London: Faber, 2004).
Another version of the Golo Mann anecdote.

Patrick Carnegy, Faust as Musician: a Study of Thomas Mann’s Novel Doctor Faustus (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973).

Evelyn Cobley, “Decentred Totalities in Doctor Faustus: Thomas Mann and Theodor W. Adorno”, Modernist Cultures, vol. 1, no 2 (October 2005), 181-91.

John F. Fetzer, Music, Love, Death, and Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Studies in German literature, linguistics, and culture; 45 (Columbia SC: Camden House, 1990).

Donald Fitch, Blake Set to Music: a Bibliography of Musical Settings of the Poems and Prose of William Blake (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus: das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn erzählt von einem Freunde (Stockholm: Bermann Fischer, 1947).
Translated by Helen Lowe-Porter: Doctor Faustus: the Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), and more recently by John E. Woods (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Woods’ translation is in a more modern vein than the Lowe-Porter, and does not attempt to mirror the original’s use of dialect and archaic German.

Thomas Mann, Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus: Roman eines Romans (Amsterdam: Bermann-Fischer, 1949).
An autobiography of Mann’s later years which was originally planned as an account of how he came to write Doktor Faustus. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston: The Genesis of a Novel (London: Secker & Warburg, 1961).

Christopher Palmer, “Towards a genealogy of Death in Venice”, in Philip Reed, ed., On Mahler and Britten: Essays in Honour of Donald Mitchell on his Seventieth Birthday (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995).
The source of my final paragraphs.

Anthony W. Riley, “Notes on Thomas Mann and English and American Literature”, Comparative Literature, vol. 17, no. 1 (Winter, 1965), 57-72.
My source for details of the collected Blake that Auden gave to Mann.