Along with a number of people, I have been extremely saddened to hear the recent news of the death of Dmitri Smirnov, the Russian-born composer whose love for Blake was such that he became a committed Anglophile and spent most of his career creating stunning and innovative compositions that set a multitude of Blake’s works to music.
Having contracted COVID-19, he passed away on Thursday, 9 April, leaving behind his wife – herself a great composer of note – and their children, Alissa and Philip. I had been in correspondence a few times with him because of our shared love for Blake, and there follows a piece I wrote on him as part of a wider essay dealing with the musical reception of Blake in Europe:
When Fitch was compiling his original catalogue in the late eighties, however, he noted that Soviet-bloc nations had yet to discover Blake, with two ‘startling’ exceptions (1989, xxiv). Elena Firsova’s (b. 1950)Proritzanye(Augury) is an impressive large-scale symphony composed in 1987-88, but it is the work of her husband, Dmitrii Smirnov (b. 1948), which demonstrates one of the deepest and most impressive engagements with Blake among the works of any composer. Born in 1948 in Minsk, Smirnov studied with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov and YuryKholopov at the Moscow Conservatoire, as well as being influenced by Philip Herschkowitz, who introduced him to the serialism of Anton Webern, which Smirnov would combine with Franco-Russian sensualism (Smirnov no date). One of the most important Russian modernist composers, and one of the founders of the Association for Contemporary Music in Moscow in 1990, he and his wife moved to England in 1991.
The influence of Blake on Smirnov cannot be understated, beginning with his piece for soprano, flute, viola and harp, The Seasons, based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches, first performed in Moscow in 1980 and then arranged as a symphony, performed by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra in 1981 (F1148, F1144). Thus began a decade during which Smirnov returned to Blake again and again, demonstrating a deep knowledge of Blake’s works (which he often translated into Russian),4 whether occasional pieces such as ‘To the Muses’ (included in the 1982 Ballada for Saxophone and Piano) or much more extensive pieces like the operas,Tiriel(1983-85, F1154), which premiered in Freiburg imBreisgau in 1989, and Lamentations of Thel(1985-86, F1146), performed in the same year at the Almeida Festival in London.
The 1980s represented a particularly intense period for Smirnov’s engagement with Blake (although by no means encompassing all his compositions at that time, which also drew upon writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Pushkin and Pasternak), and after his move to England he continued to draw inspiration from Blake, increasingly drawing upon the paintings which were now more readily available to him, as in his series of four ‘Blake Pictures’ (The Moonlight Story, Jacob’s Ladder, Abel, and The River of Life), composed between 1988 and 1992. His performances in England were enthusiastically received, with Stephen Pettitt praising the premiere of Jacob’s Ladder for The Times in 1991. Although Blake’s influence has been less prevalent on Smirnov’s work in the twenty-first century, he continues to be an important source, for example in the ‘Blake’ Sonata No. 6, performed in London and Cambridge in 2015.A number of Smirnov’s works were also included in the 2011 programme held to celebrate Blake’s birthday at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, as part of the William Blake and British Visionary Art exhibition.
Despite the use of almost the same title, I claim that William Blake’s “The Book of Thel” (1789) and British singer and songwriter Bruce Dickinson’s “Book of Thel” (The Chemical Wedding, 1998) are completely different narratives. In fact, I claim that Dickinson has turned the virgin Thel, who fears death or motherhood, depending on the interpretation of Blake’s version, into a male character. As I show in the following, Dickinson’s narrative mirrors the original, but turns the imagery on its head. Exchanging one sex for another (I refer here to sexes instead of gender roles because both texts implicitly talk about reproduction and roles are thus very clear-cut) generates a new narrative as well as a new context. So, what if Thel was male?
“Book of Thel” is part of the album The Chemical Wedding (1998), a concept album linking the occult to Blakean thought, paintings, and characters. I have explained it in more detail here.
Blake’s “The Book of Thel” deals with a variety of female gender roles as well as with questions of a meaningful life and mortality. Different personnel discusses with the young Thel their respective world-views of (heterosexual) relationships, parenthood, the (lack of) love, self-sacrifice, and duty. Malgorzata Luczynska-Holdys points out in her essay “’Life exhal’d in milky fondness’—Becoming a Mother in William Blake’s The Book of Thel” that
the chief question, then, is what it would mean for Thel to enter this world, Blake’s realm of Generation, or Experience. Entering it may be understood as a conscious decision to grow up and to assume the social roles prescribed for a woman in the adult world—primarily the role of mother.
The most prominent role has hereby the Clod of Clay who confronts Thel with the infant – worm and grants her permission to enter her realm with the opportunity to return unscathed. Yet this realm does not only represent the world of adulthood, but also the world of the dead. This world is clearly a graveyard:
She wanderd in the land of clouds thro’ valleys dark, listning
Dolours & lamentations: waiting oft beside a dewy grave
She stood in silence. listning to the voices of the ground,
Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down. (Plate 6)
Thel visits the land of the dead and sits on her own grave. She does not get a glimpse of motherhood, but of death. Yet both readings converge in the image of the infant-worm. When Thel asks if she will become “food of worms,” (Plate 3) this may serve as mementomori as well as a reference to pregnancy. In case of a pregnancy, the infant-worm would feed of Thel, in its role as an embryo and later as an infant by breast-feeding. When confronted with the infant-worm, Thel spreads her arms, driven by sympathy. However, her attempt at motherhood is short-lived and will ultimately fail when confronted with her grave.
In Dickinson’s song we meet a narrator who uses a generalising “you.” I argue that he must be male because he is referring to a family tree which does require two different sexes because there is no progression without contraries. What is more, the narrator uses curse words to describe feminine gender roles. This alienated view on femininity paired with open contempt and hatred hints at a male view.
I also argue that he is Thel because, he, in turn, is courted by females as a partner, namely a priestess, a virgin, a serpent, and the female who betrayed him. Whereas all of them are definitely sexual partners, I think that two roles can be applied to the priestess. The priestess may take the role of the Clod of Clay as a gate keeper. She seems to be responsible for the opening of The Book of Thel, hereby creating a mise en abyme. To open the The Book of Thel hints at evoking the respective narrative. I think the priestess may be the character that invited him to get a glimpse of her realm, holding up her arm up in invitation like Thel does to the infant-worm. But the priestess is way less honest than the Clod of Clay. The priestess has lied about an unharmed return.
The priestess is not only the gate keeper, but also the birth-giver. I argue that all female gender roles are in fact one character that appears in different shapes. We are told that the serpent and priestess are one and the same character. I argue that the remaining roles, the virgin and what he calls a prostitute, are the same character, too. When Blake’s Thel talks to different entities to acquire different viewpoints, male Thel talks to one entity that appears in different (Blakean) shapes.
She appears, rather logically, as a weeping virgin, echoing both Thel and the “fair-eyed dew.” (Plate 3) But this virgin finds sexual fulfilment, implied by a line playing on the double meaning of “cry.” It can be decoded as a sexual reaction when seen in context – it is linked to joy. (Another hint that may have coined my conclusion is Dickinson’s ever ambiguous slogan and trademark “Scream for me.” (cf. http://screamforme.com))
The serpent echoes Genesis and the seduction of Eve. Serpents curled around bodies are a common and recurring motif in Blake’s paintings, as Jared Powells points out in Hell’s Printing Press | The Blog of the Blake Archive and Blake Quarterly, hinting at sex, sin, and seduction. The serpent is also a recurring motif in Dickinson’s work, mostly carrying the same connotations. It is linked to a kissing female in “Revelations” (Iron Maiden, Piece of Mind, 1983), it is kissed in “The Magician” (Accident of Birth, 1997), and becomes a symbol for the immortal evil in the human heart in “Believel” (Tyranny of Souls, 2005). Dickinson uses the serpent almost as frequently as a symbol for sin and seduction as Blake did, with the only difference that at least in the first example the serpent is definitely female (the exception of the rule being “Welcome to the Pit” (Accident of Birth, 1997) in which the viper and the snake are a phallus). This reinterpretation of the serpent as representative of the female sex implies a convergence of the serpent and Eve. In Genesis Eve seduces Adam to eat the forbidden fruit; Eve can thus be seen as victim as well as agent of seduction respectively. As the serpent in “Book of Thel” is female as well (because she is also the priestess), I say that in consequence she is Eve bringing doom on Adam. The weeping virgin who mirrors Blake’s rather hapless or at least harmless Thel has suddenly become Eve seducing Adam, causing the permanent loss of Paradise. This was never meant to end in an unscathed return on side of male Thel. The serpent turns this into a case of Paradise Lost. Male Thel falls to temptation, looses his “innocence,” and is damned.
In Blake’s illuminated book, the serpent appears in the last illustration in a situation which may well imply that it is a phallus; the serpent is ridden by a young woman and children. If we accept this reading, which implies that Blake offered us two endings and the illustration is an alternative outcome of the narrative, as Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi observe, here too it is the serpent which brings the sexual union and the change of narrative.
In a last step, the virgin who has become the seductress / serpent becomes a mother. The women he calls a prostitute is the one who gives birth, as inclined by the use of vocabulary. But, the mother figure in Blake’s poem is the Clod of Clay, earth itself and the keeper of the dead, her realm a graveyard. Dickinson’s song combines motherhood and death (as they have already been combined in the imagery of the infant-worm in Blake’s poem) and links them to the realm of the Clod of Clay. The motherly character of the Clod of Clay who cares for the infant-worm in Blake’s poem is now giving birth herself. And she gives birth to death, which is, in my eyes, considering that she is mistress over a graveyard, a very logical conclusion. This birthing of evil is announced with a Shakespeare quote taken from Macbeth “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” (IV, I, 44-45)
Up from here, the song is open to two different interpretations. In a first reading, the narrator does actually die. His union with the virgin leads to a quick end, which may be another sexual pun or the indication that he does indeed die. After all he is meant to enter the graveyard world Thel enters. Whereas Thel walks to her own grave and sits on it, male Thel has the “marriage hearse” of Blake’s “London” at his disposal to take him to a funeral (which is most likely his own). This imagery of a pairing in death also harks back to the chorus of the title song “The Chemical Wedding” in which a couple is united in the grave, a union which becomes their wedding (which in turn mirrors the manifest Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz Anno 1459 (The Chemical Wedding, 1616) in which three couples are killed to be reborn as the king and the queen).
In a second reading, I argue that the narrator is doomed. He is talking about a destroyed family tree and that he has to relive his tale. He has been marked, a process that is irreversible. He has been seduced to spawn evil and now he is caught by what he has done. The pairing of lamb and wolf (which echoes The Lamb and The Tyger) may suggest that male Thel, the victim, was targeted from the evil forces right from the beginning.
Be that as it may, the outcome of Dickinson’s “Book of Thel” is the exact opposite of Blake’s The Book of Thel. As the seduction takes place, the whole narrative changes (and it changes for the worse), arguably because Thel was tricked and betrayed by the gatekeeper. The crying Thel has indeed become a very classical femme fatale who brings death.
Dickinson has turned the hapless Thel into a monstrous female, monstrous in the meaning that she is an evil seductress who intends and brings doom, but also in the meaning that she is linked to death and gives birth to evil. This constellation is very befitting for the genre of heavy metal as it tells a horror story. These changes may thus be seen as a logical step considering the target genre Blake’s text was adapted for. But, it also casts a new light on Blake’s text. If we follow the Biblical narrative of Eve having seduced Adam, the consequential punishment is death. The fact that the priestess / serpent / virgin has seduced male Thel, also leads to death. Weeping Thel who refuses motherhood has been exchanged for the first femme fatale, the seductress Eve; the rejection of motherhood has been turned into the birth of evil. What if Thel was male? He might succumb to the seductive power of Eve / the serpent and witness the birth of death (the Fall). In a clever twist, swapping the sexes has turned The Book of Thel into Genesis.
Another song slightly hinting at The Book of Thel is “Accident of Birth,” stemming from the album of the same name which precedes The Chemical Wedding. Here, the narrator points out that dying actually means returning to the womb, a narrative which also turns Blake’s The Book of Thel on its head. Whereas Thel enters the world of death and returns to her world; the dying person in the song returns to the realm of death where he originally came from. Now the world of the living becomes the visiting space. Birth, dying, and the realm of death converge again.
Andreae, Johann, Valentin. Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosenkreutz Anno 1459. Translated by Walter Weber. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben, 1957.
One of the most unusual appropriations of Blake’s works in recent weeks has been a cabaret show loosely based on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Ian Schrager, the hotelier and former Studio 54 co-founder, opened a new Weimar-esque cabaret, the Paradise Club, at the Times Square Edition hotel with a floor show – “The Devouring”, which The New York Timesdescribed as “a high-concept reimagining of a William Blake poem and features half-clothed acrobats, ballerinas and an operatic cover of “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. The overall effect is somewhere between Cirque du Soleil and a Super Bowl halftime show, reimagined by Twyla Tharp.”
Elsewhere, an exhibition at New York’s Morgan Museum and Library shows how theatrical designs for stagings of Maurice Sendak’s work often took their inspiration from William Blake as well. Famous for Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak also sought to put his work on the stage in theatrical performances and even operas, and as a Blake collector the Romantic’s vision affected his own art work. “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet” is on at the Morgan from 14 June to 6 October, and Artnetobserved that in 1981 Sendak’s work was displayed alongside that of Blake and Mozart, both of whom were important sources of inspiration for him.
Books and games drew attention to two Blake sightings in May and June. A review in The Irish Times of Peter Linebaugh’s story of Catherine and Edward Despard – which takes its title, Red Round Globe Hot Burning from Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion – observes that the barbaric hanging of Despard in 1803 in front of a crowd of 20,000 draws upon a dual vision of the words as representing the human heart and the globe of the world. In his book, published in March, Linebaugh describes Blake as having “the prophetic power to imagine a different world, and a different heart.” (p.2) Meanwhile, Asobo Studio/Focus Home Interative released A Plague Tale: Innocence in May. A survival game, it’s connection to William Blake came from a promotional trailer in which Sean Bean recited the poem from Songs of Innocence, “The Little Boy Lost”. Unlike DMC5 (reviewed here), there doesn’t seem to be a more profound connection to the Romantic poet, but hearing Sean Bean recite Blake’s words is something definitely worthwhile. The gaming website Kotakusummed it up best with the headline: “Sean Bean Reading William Blake is My Kind of PR Stunt”.
Finally, Ed Simon offered a thoughtful piece for JStor Daily at the beginning of June outlining why Blake’s religious and spiritual perspective made him a much more effective abolitionist in the anti-slavery cause, especially in his illustrations for John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname, that often racist Enlightened philosophers such as as Voltaire and Jefferson.
The start of April saw Tate Britain ramping up the publicity for its new Blake exhibition that will open in September. Among the stories carried in the national press, themes tended to emerge around the importance that will be given to the role of his wife Catherine – The Guardianwrote that it will celebrate her creative influence, while The Telegraph said that she would be placed at the heart of the exhibition – and the inclusion of the only self-portrait by Blake. Senior curator Martin Myrone told the Evening Standard that the portrait had a “jewel-like intensity” and The Daily Mail reported that this would be the first time it has gone on display in the UK. William Blake: The Artist will be on show at Tate Britain from 11 September until 2 February.
While the opening of the Tate exhibition will be the biggest event of the year, the most important event of the month was the world premier of Allen Bevan’s Ancient of Days on 15 April. Performed by the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus at the Winspear Centre for Music in Alberta, the opera was a multi-media work for chorus and orchestra, much of it spoken word and drawing extensively on Blake’s poetry, ideas and visual art. Toronto-born Bevan had completed his Masters at Edmonton and he himself conducted several of the parts on the night.The EdmontonJournal described it as a “verbal drama with incidental music”, with Timothy Anderson and Dawn Sadoway playing the parts of Blake and his Emanation, the whole comprising a “thoughtful work” and “an effective introduction to Blake.”
Paradise Club in New York held an event early in April entitled “The Devouring: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. A cabaret night where participants were invited to paradise and inferno, the show itself was performed by the Brooklyn collective House of Yes with a “theatrical feast” created by John Fraser. Hosted by Nik Alexander, The Telegraph described it as “not your usual theatre experience”, the organisers intended the burlesque to be a celebration of “what it means to be human”.
Finally, as April drew to a close, the music organisation WordSong, based in Boston, hosted Tyger Circus, a set of fifteen different compositions based on Blake’s poem “The Tyger”. Taking place on 26th, Krista River, Keith Phares, and Linda Osborn performed work by Adele Dusunbury, Howard Frazin, and Benjamin Pesetsky at the First Church in Boston, at an event that also marked the tenth anniversary of Wordsong. The month also saw the launch of Peter Linebaugh’s Red Round Globe Burning Hot, which begins with the execution of Colonel Edward (Ned) Despard after a plot to overthrow George III. Tracing resistance to the loss of commons throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Linebaugh draws upon Blake’s imagery throughout the book to draw attention (as he explained in an interview for Counterpunch) to how “Blake’s moment of truth is upon us”.
March was a fairly quiet month for Blake news, with the big splash being the release by space-folk duo, Astralingua, of their new album, Safe Passage. A beautiful piece of work which has already garnered very favourable reviews, you can read my thoughts about the album in the Zoamorphosis review, in particular of their first single, an adaptation of Blake’s “A Poison Tree”.
Other musical news for March included the thirteenth year for Outside the Box, an annual music festival at Southern Illinois University. This year’s event included a virtual reality exhibit, “Fool’s Paradise”, combining music, poetry and art. According to festival organiser, Christopher Walczak, the Digital Museum of Digital Art “commissioned a number of visual artists and composers to create a virtual world full of art based on the works of William Blake”, with the event running from 27-30 March.
The stage performance of David Almond’s classic for children, Skellig, at the Nottingham playhouse was reviewed by a number of newspapers. Blake’s poetry appears throughout the novel and the stage play, adapted by Trevor Nunn, manages to retain some of the Romantic poet’s work in its depiction of the encounter between two children, Michael and Mina, and the creature that is part human, owl and angel. The Times described it as capturing “a spirit of adventure and magical realism”, while LeftLion called it a “soaring production”.
The Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem” features in Arcadia, a film by Paul Wright stitched together from BFI footage and which was first shown on BBC4 on 7 March. According to a review in The Financial Times, it mingled lush pastures, clopping horses and country churches mingled with inevitable weirdness and occult hints. Arcadia doesn’t “trace a simplistic journey from innocence to corruption”, and while much of the English countryside may have been lost, so also the sense to retain what many people have has also grown.
February was a busy month for Blake-inspired music. Reviews began to appear for the most significant launch of the new year, Fearful Symmetry: The Songs of William Mac Davis, which was released by Centaur Music. Performed by Lynda Poston-Smith (soprano) and Robert Carl Smith (piano), the album comprises a series of eight songs drawn from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, as well as additional pieces that take their lyrical inspiration from Christopher Smart and various other poets and lyricists. World Magazine described it as a series of melodies that “command immediate attention”, particularly as sung by Poston-Smith.
Other releases were somewhat more allusive rather than being direct settings of Blake to music. Thus the new single from These New Puritans, “Anti-Gravity”, was inspired by Blake’s quote that “the imagination is not a state, it is human existence itself” according to reviews such as those in DIY Magazine. Likewise, Hearbreak (for now) by Roman Lewis includes a track, “Rose”, that references Blake’s “My Pretty Rose Tree” and can be heard at Clash. Somewhat more substantial is An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil by Jim Jarmusch and Josef van Wissem. Jarmusch is famous for his Blakean movie, Dead Man, and this new collaboration with van Wissem, according to an interview with Pitchfork, draws upon Helena Blavatsky as well as William Blake to perform an occult meditation on apocalyptic visions.
February also saw a number of live performances, such as the Martha Redbone Roots Project, which played in New Jersey at the Lackland Performing Arts Center, and Mike Westbrook who performed some of his Blakean pieces as well as others at Ronnie Scott’s in London.
In contrast to new musical releases, February was quiet in terms of the literary and visual arts, but previews appeared for a major video game release due in March that makes considerable use of Blake’s words. Plenty of commentators noted that the protagonist of Devil May Cry 5, V, cites Blake throughout the game, The Independent observing that the game is probably the best in series so far, and Videogamer announcing more simply that it is “bloody brilliant”. Theories began to appear on Reddit that the game draws upon The Book of Urizen, but my favourite comment is that, apparently, V has “a dedicated button to recite William Blake poetry during combat“. Less impressive was the new movie Burning Men, a virtual straight-to-streaming release in which the lead for the band Burning Men, Ray, also quotes Blake regularly. According to Cath Clarke in The Guardian, however, the whole experience is rather dreary and depressing.
Finally, Blake made a couple of other, interesting appearances during February. The first was as inspiration for the poet and model Wilson Oryema who, in a poem written for The Guardian‘s fashion section, said that his inspiration was William Blake and Nayyirah Waheed. Blake was also the source for a debut collectino, SS19, from the fashion brand maharishi, which drew on quotations from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to demonstrate “a balanced interaction of opposing forces” in its new range.
One of the most impressive examples of Blakean inspiration to start off 2019 was his use by Refik Anadol, whose astonishing immersive installation, the Infinity Room, was showcased during the Winter Gallery Crawl in Pittsburgh. Created using a series of lasers, the room draws upon Blake’s quotation – later cited by Aldous Huxley – that “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Born in Istanbul and currently living in Los Angeles, the small cube – each side 12 feet in length – contains mirrors on the floor and ceiling to support, according to an interview with TribLive, “the idea that there is no gravity”.
A significant new literary release at the end of 2018 and which began to receive reviews in January was the fourth novel by Mexican writer, Adriana Díaz Enciso. Entitled Ciudad Doliente de Dios (“The Doleful City of God”), it tells the story of Cristina, a girl abandoned in an orphanage by her parents, who has mystical visions that lead her to a knowledge beyond her years. With an image of Los englobing the fallen body of Urizen as a huge drop of blood for its cover, the book is framed in the cosmogony of William Blake, and a post giving an insight into her thoughts on the Romantic poet and artist can be found at Finding Blake.
Musical sightings and performances included a profile of Martha Redbone for Berkeleyside, whose 2012 album The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, remains one of the best Blakean compilations ever recorded; she also performed at the Weill Hall, Sonoma State University, on January 24th. Jim Jarmusch (whose 1995 film Dead Man cast Johnny Depp in the role of accountant in the wild west, William Blake) and Jozef Van Wissem, announced a new album – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil – which draws upon the ideas of Blake, Swedenborg and Helena Blavatsky and is to be released in early February. Another announcement was the new album Inside the Rose by These New Puritans: due out in March, some of its music including the titular track claim the inspiration of William Blake.
The month ended with a performance by Patti Smith at the Camden Roundhouse that attracted rave reviews. Appearing in London at the close of January, Smith’s set included a series of her own music, cover versions of artists such as U2 and Midnight Oil, and recitals of readings of her own work, Virginia Woolf, Robert Burns, and, of course, William Blake. Ellie Porter, writing for theartsdesk.com, remarked on her “ceaseless energy”, while Emily Finch at CamdenNewJournal described her as a “booming bright light”.
2018 began in spectacular fashion with the opening of an exhibition at Petworth House in Sussex on January 13. Entitled William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, the exhibition concentrated on Blake’s experiences and art from 1800-1803 when he lived at nearby Felpham, as well as other works subsequently created by him for the Earl and Countess of Egremont who lived at Petworth. It was for Elizabeth Ilive that Blake produced one of his most ambitious works, A Vision of the Last Judgement, which rightly formed the centrepiece of this display of some of his most exceptional paintings and prints.
Other exhibitions from the beginning of the year includedFaith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries at Carnegie Mellon University, where Wilding formerly taught, and demonstrating her multiple influences, including Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and, of course, William Blake. Also on show from February to April was “Tales of the Unseen”, work by Siggi Ámundason, whose large-scale pen drawings reference William Blake as well as eighties anime, Goya and Francis Bacon.
Blake-influenced publications in early 2018 included the quite astonishing comic, Her Infernal Descent, which was released in five parts throughout the year. A reinterpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a middle-aged woman is led through hell by Blake as her spirit guide, offering satire and commentary on life in the twenty-first century as well as a rather profound portrayal of loss. This was joined in April by the publication of Polaris Ghost by Eric G. Wilson, a collection of short stories that reference Blake throughout, as well as Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a new collection of prose poems that offered her response to the election of Donald Trump among other things. Julia Fine’s wonderful debut novel, What Should Be Wild, offered Blakean elements of horror and fantasy in the style of an Angela Carter fairy tale.
2018 was, as ever, a busy one for The William Blake Archive, which saw a number of new publications, including new copies of Jerusalem, Urizen, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, as well as entirely new additions in the form of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue and his Notebook. The major addition, however, was Vala, or The Four Zoas, which now makes widely available the fragile manuscript of Blake’s most ambitious epic poem.
The middle of the year saw a number of Blakean citations in film and television, not least the Criterion Collection of reissue of Dead Man for blu-ray, which prompted a number of retrospective reviews, such as this at Glide Magazine. Much more controversial was the release of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, a bloody serial killer movie that notes Blake’s “The Tyger” as a model and which, frankly, did not receive great reviews. By contrast, more people were impressed by the fact that season two of Westworld offered multiple quotations from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence as a running theme for its depiction of mankind’s inhumanity to robot. Will Franken’s Red, White & Blake sought to rescue the Romantic poet from bland, liberal academics such as myself, offering a heartfelt plea to return Blake to his position as national writer and artist.
Significant news was Tate Britain’s announcement of a huge forthcoming Blake exhibition, and there was a truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art by Jack Handscombe, a student at Edinburgh College of Art, who produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”. Elsewhere in the arts, a new piece of choreography and music inspired by Blake, entitled Apolión and directed by Jerónimo Búffalo, was performed at the Art Centro de Arte UNLP in Buenos Aires. In London, a new show in London was announced, Wirework (originally written by Daleen Kruger in Afrikaans in 2009 but translated into English this year) at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas, Wirework explores how they created an extraordinary museum, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake.
The biggest event of the summer, however, was the unveiling of a new gravestone, 191 years after his death on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.
Celebration of Blake’s life and work was also a reminder of some of the other figures, as well as Mark E. Smith, who had been influenced by Blake in some way and died in 2018. These included Alice Provensen – who lived to the glorious age of 99. For some forty years she had worked with her husband, Martin, on illustrations until his death in 1987, before continuing a solo career into her nineties. Her books included the wonderful A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard. She was followed shortly afterwards by Bob Dorough who helped Ginsberg set Blake to music and was more famous as the composer of Conjunction Junction. Likewise, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).
As the year turned to autumn, mid September saw a return of the three-day celebration of Blakean arts, Blakefest, which took place on 14th-16th in Bognor Regis. Blakefest has become a fairly regular cultural and artistic festival, with Lene Lovich and a tribute to George Harrison headlining at this year’s event. Other art shows included an exhibition at the Levy Gorky gallery in New York, featuring a selection of works by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecu and Jaspar Johns. Entitled “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”, the full show included work by 27 artists and unfolded over three floors in a pattern that was inspired by Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.
The autumn also saw publication of one of my personal favourites, the translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Taking its title from one of Blake’s proverbs of hell, the novel was originally written in 2009. Described by Sarah Perry at The Guardianas “an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature”, it is one of the most profoundly Blakean novels ever to have been written.
The year ended with a series of Blake-inspired music: the exemplary pianist, Harriet Stubbs, released her debut album, Heaven and Hell: The Doors of Perception, which opens with an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”. Composed by John Adams in 1977-8, this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks due to the narration by Marianne Faithful which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This was followed in December with a new musical adaptation of “A Poison Tree” by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. The track is also to be included on their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019. And, just squeezing in before the near year, was Johanna Glaza’s wonderful Albion EP, a setting of parts of Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion to music, which we’ll be reviewing later in 2019.
Anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.
Friday 6 December saw the release of a new musical adaptation of William Blake’s song of experience, “A Poison Tree”, by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. Based in Denver, Colorado, their music features mandolins, cello and ghostly harmonies in a mixture of classical, folk and psychedelic sounds. The track, which you can hear below (and see the accompanying video), is from their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019.
Here they tell Zoamorphosis some of the ways in which Blake has influenced them and their music.
I’ve been interested in Blake’s work since I was about 16 years old. A friend lent me a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience and it amazed me. At first glance, it reminded me of the illustrated rhyme and story books I’d read as a child, which endeared it to me. It then became quickly apparent how rich it was in poetry, metaphor, craft, and vision. I bought a pocket copy by Penguin books and carried it around with me for quite some time. I would also go to the local bookstore and pore through whatever Blake collections they had, trying to find the best prints of his artwork.
His artwork was strange, anachronistic, and singular. I saw so many different genres of modern-day art reflected in his works from 200 years earlier – fantasy paintings, storybook illustrations, comic books, and animation. Blake exaggerated proportions, movement, and faces to create effects that I saw in all sorts of pop culture’s artwork. Figures sometimes seemed detached from their surroundings (Nebuchadnezzar), or as if leaping from the canvas. In many, there were layers upon layers of images, blended together like psychedelic paintings. Those were just my first impressions – the exciting things that grabbed my adolescent attention. As time went on, and I came to better understand and appreciate the fine arts, I realized what a master painter Blake was, how capable and detailed, and began to admire him even more.
They say Blake was considered “mad” in his time. I must be “mad” too, as I speak his language and he speaks mine. I imagine I like Blake for the same reason that a lot of artists do. His works weren’t popular in his age but it did not deter him. He didn’t change his style to suit the day. He painted and wrote his truth and vision. Because of that, there’s such pureness and honesty in his creations. His paintings and prints are filled with excitement, passion, and exuberance, and one senses in them the desire to communicate. When looking at his illustrations or reading his poems, you feel Blake’s earnestness. And when you take all this together, you get a sense of his likely isolation and loneliness, his reaching out for someone with whom to connect. In the end, you take his work personally, even though he’s communicating Universal Truths. Plus, his poetry makes you smile.
Rhymed and metered poetry takes work. You have to be more selective with what you say. No word or line can be wasted and you have fewer words from which to choose. A lot of poets have great command of rhyme, but their poetry is lacking. Other poets have beautiful ways of describing unique insights, but all without rhyme. Blake was a master of both. He was so joyfully playful. In his craft, more than just rhyming, he uses alliteration, plays with syntax, mixes and matches lines and schemes. There is such wealth offered to the reader.
One thing that stands out to me about Blake, especially in his artwork, is how pure and defined his subjects are, both in emotion and physique. Looking at anyone he depicts, you see beauty, grace, grief, horror, shame, pity, strength, longing, and weakness all expressed – whatever characteristic it is, it is abundantly clear and undeniable.It makes his works so striking and evocative, and I think that’s often missing in modern art, music and media. Our culture now seems to embrace a nebulous, almost non-committal attitude, and characters are often aloof, vague, and undefined. Much the same with our emotions, where there is a prevalence of numbness, disaffection, and distraction. We’re overstimulated to the point of boredom. Maybe that’s why people fall for Blake the way they do when they discover him finally – they see the human experience expressed with such richness and in such volume, much louder and stronger than we are encouraged to experience it. Everything is full of passion and energy. He reminds us of our human capacity for real feeling.
“A Poison Tree” is available on Bandcamp, with Safe Passage also available for pre-order.
You can also see Astralingua’s video using Blake’s art on YouTube.
The main event of November was the anniversary of Blake’s birth, with at least one celebration taking place at the Theodore Bullfrog in London, where members of the Blake Society gathered to sing, play music and recite the poet’s words for an evening of entertainment. Elsewhere, plenty of Blake’s poetry appeared online, as with an article dedicated to his best poems in The Week. The magazine Town Topics also ran a piece on encountering Blake through Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg as a meditation on the Romantic’s birthday.
On a sadder note, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. His most recognisable work, the Siegfried Hall Arch, was first completed in 1966 but then redesigned in 1987 and, according to WOUB, restored in 2015 (illustrated above). Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).
Among the visual arts, November saw the opening of Extreme Nature! at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Largely dealing with excessive visions of landscapes and the natural world, this would appear unfamiliar territory in which to encounter Blake, but the curator Michael Hartman has the Times Union newspaper, taken a fantastical view of the world that allows him to include the Romantic artist’s illustration of Behemoth and Leviathan from the Book of Job to be included. The exhibition runs at the Institute until February 24, 2019.
A delightful artistic detail was the launch of a collection of plates designed by Richard Ginori and Ippolita Rostagno (the latter more famous for jewellery design). Called “The Road to Heaven is Paved with Excess”. According to Rostagno:
The collection ‘The Road to Heaven is Paved with Excess’ is inspired by the poet William Blake. The concept is that you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough. I love this idea because it wraps up exuberance and restraint into a constant dynamic, which is perfect for this moment in which maximalism reigns.
With each plate starting at £85, the collection is not cheap – perhaps fitting for the excess of maximalism. You can purchase the collection at Artemest.
On a more serious note, The Japan Times included a short but very welcome piece on Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel Prize winner for literature whose novel Rouse Up O Young Men explores how the writer engages with his profoundly disabled son through the work of William Blake. The Romantic is quoted extensively throughout the novel which, as Damian Flanagan observes, provides a means to “probe the hinterland of the unknown not merely by rational analysis”. Along with Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and the recently translated novel by Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead (reviewed here), Oe’s book is a work that is deeply indebted to Blake.