I shall be making a presentation about my new book, Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, to the Blake Society this Wednesday (17 February). The following is an extract from the book which references some of the paintings I’ll be discussing on Wednesday.
The starting commission [for Thomas Butts] was a series of fifty-three paintings illustrating the Bible, the majority of which were completed in 1799 although some were painted when the Blakes were in Felpham. For these works, Butts paid more than £400. Of the series, only thirty remain of which seven deal with subjects from the Old Testament, and the remainder from the New Testament. The medium for these paintings was tempera, water-based pigments bound with gum or glue, and they were intended as “cabinet paintings”, smaller pieces that could be hung on the walls of the Butts’ residence. When composing his paintings, Blake applied the pigment in multiple layers, often reinforcing outlines with black ink and glazing the finished work with glue. The editors of the Blake Archive say that Blake may have been trying to create “jewel-like paintings”, as he later described them in his Descriptive Catalogue as “enamels” and “precious stones” (E531). A number of the temperas were also painted on copper, further enhancing their jewel-like nature. Unfortunately, the medium was unstable as the different layers expanded and contracted at different rates – leading to cracking – while the carpenters glue used by Blake frequently dulled and browned over time.
Despite these problems with Blake’s medium, some of the paintings in the series that have survived demonstrate his astonishing imagination when dealing with biblical subjects. Naomi Billingsley is correct to point out that we should be careful of ascribing too clear an understanding of the series as earlier critics, such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson have done. While the temptation is to treat these as some kind of narrative journey demonstrating Blake’s understanding of the role of Christ, we simply no longer have the complete sequence of paintings and such a story “may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” Rather, over a period of four years, these were biblical subjects that appealed to both Blake and Butts, although the fact that five of the extant paintings are larger than the rest (around 30 by 50 cm rather than 27 x 38 cm) and all illustrate the life of Christ indicate that these were intended as a series.
The paintings as a whole do not need to be seen as explaining a consistent Christology, but there are clear innovations that mark these out as separate to Blake’s contemporaries. In his depiction of The Nativity, for example, Jesus springs from Mary in an entirely unrealistic but wholly inspirational fashion, a glowing ideal who leaps towards the outstretched hands of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. Likewise, as Billingsley demonstrates with comparisons to contemporary art works such as J. M. W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), Blake’s images renounce any form of naturalism: they are intended to inspire the viewer to consider the nature of Christ rather than to seek out the historical Jesus. Two very striking images are from Old Testament subjects. The first, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, is another image painted on copper, and while it also uses tempera with glue or gum binder as well as pen and ink outlines, the use of gold highlights make this image shine. This would be a technique that Blake would use several times – most notably with the coloured copy of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion – to make his art works shine in a literal act of illumination. Blake’s study of the subject is also unique – and one that he would return to several times throughout his career. Eve, naked, stands full-frontal to the viewer with no shame or modesty, befitting entirely her status before the fall: she is an example of the human form divine that will be lost when mankind seeks to cover up its glorious nakedness. Adam is asleep next to her – the last time that man will sleep in such an innocent state – and the serpent coils alongside her body, for all the world appearing more like a wingless dragon than the typical snake of Christian art. The scene is dark and foreboding, prefiguring the collapse of the world that will take place, yet because Blake is deliberately capturing Eve in her innocence, the overall effect is startling: as she reaches up for the apple, which we cannot see, she seems fully confident. It would be tempting to see her as revelling in the act of taking the forbidden fruit, but I think this is to misinterpret the scene: Eve does not yet know sin – the expression on her face is calm and peaceful, more like representations of the Buddha than the accusatory depictions of the fallen woman who “Brought Death into the World, and all our woe / With loss of Eden” (Paradise Lost, I.1-2). We are presented with mankind at the final moment before the Fall, and this picture for me inspires incredible sadness at what will be lost.
Another image in the series continues the theme of the fall in an even more disturbing way: Abraham and Isaac shows the two figures standing between an altar prepared with wood to burn a sacrifice and a thicket where a ram is caught, illustrating Genesis 22.13: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” Blake, however, has done something very disturbing in his rendition of this line – as Billingsley observes, the clothed Abraham is a passive figure looking up towards heaven in sorrow for the act he is about to commit, while it is Isaac, naked and dynamic, who sees the ram that will substitute for him in an act of sacrifice. Abraham in his long robe with arms outstretched, a curved knife held in one hand, is reminiscent of Blake’s depictions of the druids, and his pose makes him similar to Urizen in America a Prophecy. Rather than passive, he may even be seen to be impassive, implacable in the face of the demands of human sacrifice. Isaac, by contrast, is innocent and unafraid: as Billingsley correctly points out, it is his childlike perception that sees more clearly the way to reconcile god and man as opposed to the false religion followed by his father.
The talk will take place at 8pm (UK time) on Zoom. It is free and all are welcome, but the Blake Society asks for visitors to register in advance via this link.
2021 began with a suitable Blakean bang (rather than a whimper) with a New Year’s Eve performance by Patti Smith, streamed at Picadilly Circus as part of a month-long takeover organised by the digital platform CIRCA. Included in her performances throughout the month were recitals of “The Divine Image” and “The Tyger”, as well as 2021: A New Year inspired by her “Blakean Year” poem.
While Smith’s words were a bright spot in what has been a dark beginning to the year, one of the best presents for Blake scholars to begin the new year was the announcement by the Blake Archive that they were making available a digital edition of Poetical Sketches, the collection of juvenilia and early work that Blake produced between c. 1769 and 1777, and which was published with the support of John Flaxman and the circle attached to Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet. While those who supported its publication (along with Blake, it seems) did not appear to hold the volume in especially high regard, it has since the time of Gilchrist at least been recognised as an important contribution to the development of what would become known as Romanticism. The digital edition itself is available at http://www.blakearchive.org/work/bb128, and additional news of the development of that addition (from the copy owned by Charles Tulk) can be found at https://blog.blakearchive.org/2021/01/14/publication-blakes-poetical-sketches/.
January saw the second issue of a new comic launched at the end of 2020. Written by Paul Grist (whose previous work includes Judge Dredd), with art by Grist, Andrea di Vito and R. B. Silva, The Union tells of a team of super heroes gathered from all over the UK and led by Britannia. When disaster strikes in the form of a foreign invasion, that team is pushed to their limits in this satire on Brexit. The Blake connection is, of course – as Bleeding Cool News points out – the inevitable reference to the hymn Jerusalem. Other comic news included a review of G. E. Gallas’s excellent work, The Poet and the Flea (originally published in 2016) in Comicsbeat.
While film references to Blake have taken a hit as the medium (like theatre, concerts and exhibitions) finds a new way to deal with the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, his appeal to writers continues to be in evidence. Thus John Higgs, whose William Blake vs The Worldis due out in May, spoke to The Quietusabout the esoteric history of Eddie the Head, the mascot of Iron Maiden whose lead singer Bruce Dickinson has long been a Blake fan.
In other news, actor, musician, member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and lifelong Blake aficionado, Kris Krostofferson, announced his retirement at the age of 85. As a reminder of his love for the Romantic poet, Best Classic Bandsreminded readers of his assertion in the Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music, that Blake’s poetry “is telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”
Titled “Blake Bites”, each of these is a short (3-4) minute video that focuses on a particular poem or art work by Blake. The first two are now live and can be viewed on my YouTube channel, Zoavision. In this case, they deal with “The Ancient of Days” and “The Tyger”, and you can watch them both below.
I intend to make new videos on a weekly or fortnightly basis, so please do consider subscribing to the channel.
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”.