Review: Naomi Billingsley – The Visionary Art of William Blake

Within Blake studies, Blake’s visual art tends to be studied less than his poetry and illuminated books. There have always been notable exceptions, of course, from Anthony Blunt on, but The Visionary Art of William Blake is an excellent contribution to an area of Blake studies – his painting and engraving not devoted to the prophetic books – that has been comparatively neglected. While Blake’s painting might be under-represented to some degree, since the turn of the millennium there has been some increase in critical works that consider the religious aspects of Blake’s works such as Susanne Sklar’s Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as Visionary Theatre and Magnus Ankarsjö’s William Blake and Religion, and in such contexts Naomi Billingsley’s new book is an extremely welcome addition.  Unsurprisingly given its sub title – Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination – the book concentrates on Christ (her own preferred term although Blake tends to use Jesus more frequently). Alongside a discussion of Blake’s Christology, Visionary Art presents an opportunity to discuss some relatively neglected works, such as the designs to Night Thoughts and the Butts temperas.

Visionary Art is arranged into five sections that correspond – generally – to several periods of Blake’s artistic production. These general themes (on resurrection and apocalypse, inspiration, community, Christ as universal form divine and crucifixion as self-annihilation) do not always match perfectly on to their corresponding texts, which include the illustrations to Milton and the designs for the Last Judgement as well as Young’s Night Thoughts. This is a function of any attempt to try and arrange Blake’s concepts into some kind of coherent schema that offers an interesting approach to Blake’s art other than a simple chronological survey, and Billingsley is not tied to that schema (including, for example, examples of resurrection imagery that is not restricted to Young), thus allowing herself flexibility. The only time it became problematic for me was in the discussions of the temperas for Thomas Butts, where it seemed occasionally she had to remind herself that as well as close readings of the images themselves she had set up a framework to discuss Christian inspiration. That said, this is an exceptionally good book for close readings of individual designs as well as overviews of Blake’s various series, with plenty of examples of detailed analysis of sometimes overlooked works.

The first section of Visionary Art, dealing with the designs and engravings for Night Thoughts, is exemplary, not least in that it provides an opportunity for Billingsley to demonstrate her extensive critical knowledge of the historical context surrounding the (failed) publication of Night Thoughts. She draws succinctly upon critics such as Eaves and the editors of the 1980 facsimile edition, building upon them with her own research to offer scholarship as is always evident throughout the book. Despite my previous comment, this is one chapter where resurrection as a thematic approach does work very well alongside a study of the failed project, with its emphasis upon Blake’s “endeavour to regenerate Young’s poem through a dynamic of creative conflict” (p.34). Several very interesting points also emerge in this section: that Blake, for example, is often very hesitant to use the image of the crucifixion, at least in the 1780s (hence the creative conflict of his emphasis upon images of resurrection rather than death); that he is not really a systematic theological thinker, at least in his visual series – a well-made point that is a recurring theme of the book); and that he seeks to emphasise an active Christology in which Jesus is full of energy and vitality as an example intended to transform the viewer.

The second chapter, dealing with inspiration and prophecy is, as previously indicated, where I felt the schema of Visionary Art was less successful. Despite this, the chapter offers once more an excellent reading of the tempera paintings for Thomas Butts (again, with some very good historical context) but occasionally it felt as though the dual demands – to provide as comprehensive reading of these paintings while also linking them to the overarching theme of inspiration and prophecy – could not always be reconciled. With regard to the thematic approach, I would have preferred something more wide-ranging across Blake’s entire oeuvre, but as an exploration of the Butts temperas in their own right this is one of the best accounts I have ever come across. Thus, for example, while considering the relevant critics such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson, Billingsley shows masterfully how the temptation to discover “a complete understanding of the series is impossible on secondary grounds, and may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” (p.65) With this in mind, she draws links very well between individual designs, such as those depicting Christ’s nativity and his life, a theme through many of the paintings, without being bound to try and explain the entire series as a coherent and systematic Christology. She is also extremely good at drawing attention to Blake’s innovations, such as his depiction of the baby Jesus springing upwards from Mary at the scene of his birth and, in a comparison with J.M.W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), draws attention again to how Blake’s paintings are intended to inspire the viewer rather than seek out the historical Jesus, this being a common factor of his Christology. As such, the Butts series is better read as “a web of recurring themes… in the context of Blake’s theological mythos” (p.86) rather than a systematic arrangement of narrative or theological ideas.

Chapter three, on Jesus as facilitator, concentrates on the watercolours created for Butts during and after Blake’s time at Felpham, offering a view of Christ’s ministry as a means of building a community. This is an ecclesiology that, as Billingsley rightly observes, is concerned less with church structures as with participants in the divine body of Christ. The watercolours produced during this time for Butts are often more vivid and memorable than the temperas, perhaps due in part to Blake’s renewed engagement with – even a reconversion to – Christianity during his time at Felpham. It is in this section that Billingsley offers some of her most insightful readings of images that are frequently neglected, such as The Hymn of Christ and the Apostles (c.1805), a depiction of the disciples playing musical instruments that is “a clear manifestation of Blake’s statement that ‘Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists’.” (p.127) The focus on the ministry of Jesus as an embodiment of the human form divine, a community of believers joined in the practice of art (which is, ultimately, to perform actions with love, care and devotion) works more effectively in this chapter, returning to a constant theme in The Visionary Art of William Blake, which is that by seeing these pictures the viewer is also intended to “internalise the processes of regeneration and inspiration” (p.131) and thus, by recognising their own human form divine, become part of that community.

In the following section, Billingsley explores how, in the penultimate decade of his life, “Blake was intensely engaged with fundamental questions related to art and Christianity” (p.164), exploring these particularly via his illustrations to Milton and various designs for The Last Judgement. Regarding the former, again she notes the slight variations and repetitions between the versions for Joseph Thomas, Thomas Butts and what was presumably an unfinished series for John Linnell. The focus on depictions of Christ, with five out of the twelve watercolours presenting the Son at the centre of the image, allow Blake to “Christologize” Milton’s poem, for example by making him central to the creation of Eve as well as the rout of the rebel angels, and she once again demonstrating her critical skills in a close reading of The Rout of the Rebel Angels that draws parallels and contrasts with The Ancient of Days, Christ circumscribed within a sun from which he casts error just as Urizen, similarly encircled, creates error. The centrality of Christ is another feature of Blake’s multiple designs for the last judgement, which also serves as a major source for his aesthetic theory. A common element of those designs (which take their inspiration from Michelangelo’s famous fresco for the Sistine Chapel) is the position of Christ at the centre of the image, which “does not make him a formidable law-maker, but subverts such a conception of God: that throne becomes the Mercy Seat and the book of Law becomes the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15).” (p.153) Such insight is one of the joys of Visionary Art, demonstrating a profound sympathy with Blake’s visual art as a means of conveying the complexities of his thought. The chapter, covering as it does the period of 1805-1811, also deals with a series of four unusual pieces – including The Virgin and Child in Egypt (1810) that are completely unlike anything else produced by Blake’s contemporaries, approaching almost the form of the icons of the Orthodox church.

Iconography and iconoclasm segue into the final chapter on crucifixion as self-annihilation. At first glance, this chapter would appear to contradict Billingsley’s earlier assertion that Blake disliked the crucifix as a subject, particularly considering later examples as on plate 76 of Jerusalem, but there is an important qualification: she is right to assert that he “regarded the doctrine of the Crucifixion as Atonement (the Son being offered as a ransom for humankind’s erring from the Father’s Law) as abhorrent” (p.168), and also notes that the subject was not popular in eighteenth-century art as probably too popish. Instead, in Blake we see a movement from cruciform figures, such as Orc in America, which are exemplars of violence upon the human form divine, to a vision of Christ’s ultimate generosity in self-sacrifice as the breaking of Urizenic law. As well as a close reading of the Jerusalem crucifixion and Michael Foretells the Crucifixion from Paradise Lost, she ends the chapter with a consideration of the same subject in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante Adoring Christ from his illustrations to The Divine Comedy, showing how Blake’s attitude towards the crucifixion became more positive in his final years.

The Visionary Art of William Blake is a compelling and scholarly contribution to Blake studies, which draws attention to often overlooked paintings and also reiterates the importance of Christ to his art, while avoiding the temptation to provide some kind of systematising tendency to his Christology. Rather, Blake’s relations with Jesus – as inspiration, source of revelation and, above all, the supreme example of the human form divine – is one which fluctuates and develops across his lifetime. If her thematic schema does not always map out entirely onto the historical survey of Blake’s work, this is due to an attempt to provide more than a mere catalogue of oft-neglected images. As a work of art history, placing Blake in the contexts of religious art in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this book is intensely rewarding.

 

Naomi Billingsley, The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination, London and New York: I.B. Tauris and Company, 2018, 256pp. RRP: £69. 

Review: Harriet Stubbs – Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception

Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception is the debut album by classical pianist, Harriet Stubbs, who first began to display her prodigious talent when she was awarded a scholarship at the age of five to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. During her time there, this apparently led James Gibb to make an exception to his rule of never teaching children to train her. That the talent of this Yamaha artist is prodigious becomes clearly evident after only a few moments of listening to this album, which aims to bring together a range of modern and more traditional classical music. As well as demonstrating the virtuoso skills of Stubbs, it will also introduce a new audience to compositions that they may not otherwise encounter. The Blakean connection comes, according to the booklet accompanying the album, through her work with Russ Titelman to transform the doors of listeners’ perceptions, “a Blakean philosophy” of progression from innocence to experience and then to higher innocence.

The Blakean connection is also clear in the opening track of the album, an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”, composed by John Adams in 1977-8: this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks included here because Stubbs has added a narration by Marianne Faithful, one which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The effect is strangely hypnotic and extremely compelling, with Faithful’s raking, rasping tones serving very well as the voice of the devil. In an interview with the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, she indicated that Patti Smith and Meryl Streep were also potential narrators, but that Faithful had been the most enthusiastic.

The selection of Adams as a vehicle for Blake’s philosophy is almost certainly not accidental: after all, it was Adams who began composing his piece for orchestra, Fearful Symmetries, in 1988 after the success of Nixon in China. His minimalist style, indebted to John Cage and with some similarities to composers such as Philip Glass or John Cage, is extremely evident in Fearful Symmetries, with its strong parallelisms and repetitions, although the arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates” tempers this considerably. Adams himself described the original as a “modulating square wave” that circled through the fifths, but the addition of Faithful’s voice breaks up the linearity of the music, an incarnation of Orc in opposition to the potentially Urizenic qualities of minimalism that transforms the listener’s perception of the track entirely.

After such a strong start – in Blakean terms – the rest of the album appears to move in a different direction that does invoke the Romantic artist so directly. This is by no means a comment on the qualities of Stubbs’s performances, which are always superb, from Mozart’s “Rondo in A Minor” onwards. Described by Hermann Abert as one of the “most important keyboard Rondos ever composed”, Mozart’s composition provides an excellent opportunity for Stubbs to display her virtuosity via its multiple embellishments and chromaticism. The lightness of her performance here does not bring with it the intimations of despair that some commentators have observed: instead, the doors of perception are being opened in very different ways, a world of sensual delight through which the listener can experience something of eternity.

There follow five pieces from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, Op 34 rather than the later (and longer) Op. 87, Preludes and Fugues. Like that later series of compositions, this version also circles through the major and minor keys, of which Stubbs includes No. 10 in C-Sharp Minor, No. 9 in E Major, No. 4 in E Minor, No. 20 in C Minor and, my favourite of the Preludes here, No. 14 in E-Flat Minor. The simplicity and passion of her performance here was the one that moved me most personally, although throughout all her own dedication and talent constantly shines through.

Of the remaining pieces, only one seems to invoke Blake again, however obliquely: Sergei Prokofiev’s “Suggestion diabolique”, number 4 of his 4 Pieces for Piano, and the one where the composer sought to challenge the strict roles of tonality, could be interpreted as another intrusion of the voice of the devil, although to be honest the relations to Blake are tangential at best. This is not to detract, however, from her virtuosity on all tracks. The most profoundly affecting for me, and my favourite from the entire album, is Ferruccio Busoni’s “Chaconne in D Minor”, adapted from Bach’s “Partita No. 2”. Busoni arranged this for piano in 1888 (writing it down in 1892) and it is a stunning piece of music: he was drawn to it because, among other things, it demonstrated how Bach made Beethoven possible, and its impressive range once more allows Stubbs to shine. This is also the moment, according to the liner notes, when experience enters the listener’s perceptions, and certainly there is a shift in the tone of the album with Busoni’s piece. Like other pieces, such as Alexander Scriabin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-Sharp Minor”, the technical demands are ones that Stubbs rises to with technical proficiency combined with passion, conveying fully the romantic and impressionistic sensations of such music superbly.

The album concludes with Gorgy Ligeti’s “Études, Book 1: No. 5, Arc-en-ciel”, a haunting track on which to end. A traditional form of étude (in contrast to those of, say, Cage), this shows a general theme of Heaven and Hell that contrasts with a number of contemporary composers such as Dmitri Smirnov or, more recently, Daniel Kidane: with the exception of Adams’s Phrygian Gates, the whole album has stronger links to traditional and romantic forms. The comparison is slightly unfair: Stubbs is a superb performer and arranger rather than composer, and many of the pieces included here offer wonderful opportunities for her to demonstrate her abilities.

Then why Blake? While the album identifies itself as “Piano Music Modern and Less Modern”, with the exception of Adams’s “Phrygian Gates” this is not a collection that often challenges the listener in the style of “difficult” modern classical music. Rather, its intention seems to be to open up a range of piano compositions to a new audience and thus to transform perceptions. In her interview with Trinity Laban, she observes that the aim of her album is to “cleanse its [classical music’s] listeners’ doors of perception, to encourage them to re-evaluate what classical music should be”. Unlike G. A. Edwards (who wrote an excellent review on his blog), I have a strong interest in how Blakean themes emerge in such music: strictly, they are motivated most strongly and obviously through her arrangement of Adams, but elsewhere Harriet Stubbs seems also to be infused with a sense of romanticism and energy that was the eternal delight of William Blake.

 

Harriet Stubbs, Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception, Suite 28 Records. RRP (audio CD) £14.54, (download) £7.49.

 

Review: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I travel’d through a Land of Men,
A land of Men & Women too,
And heard & saw such dreadful things
As cold Earth wanderers never knew.

These lines, from William Blake’s “The Mental Traveller”, offer a motif for the most recently translated book by Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk. In her novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the narrator and central character, anina Duszejko (who dislikes her own name even more than those of other people), discusses possible translations of Blake’s English into Polish with a friend, “Dizzie”. Blake’s poem is an often grim vision of the spiritual history of individuals and civilisations, how hope and liberty are often crushed by Urizenic forces. It is against such forces that Janina and her friends – idiosyncratically named by her as Oddball and Good News, as well as an entomologist, Boros – strive throughout a novel which is a deep, sometimes despairing, often intensely funny, meditation on ecology and mankind’s relations with the animal kingdom, the “dreadful things” which most of us choose not to know.

Drive Your Plow is one of the most Blakean novels ever written, and I would number it among a small handful, including Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, Kenzaburo Oe’s Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! and J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, that are suffused throughout with Blake’s ideas and words. Not only does each chapter of Drive Your Plow begin with an aphorism from Blake’s works, but Janina constantly refers to the poet in order to navigate and ground her life and actions, with Auguries of Innocence being the key to her understanding of the cold Earth in which she finds herself. With one important exception that I will go on to at the end of this review – and which necessarily involves an important spoiler to discuss fully – Janina’s actions are constantly guided by the spirit of Blake.

Olga Tokarczuk has become more widely known in the Anglophone world following the Man Booker award given to the translation of her “constellation novel”, Flights, earlier this year, which also won the Nike award in Poland when it was first published in 2007. Trained as a psychologist, her work often deals with parables and mythic elements, and she has been attacked by members of the ruling Law and Justice Party and other “patriots” as a traitor for tarnishing the reputation of Poland with her criticism of xenophobia in the country (it will come as no surprise that Tokarczuk considers herself the true patriot, precisely because she delivers such criticisms). A powerful and intelligent voice in her home country, Tokarczuk’s increasing international reputation means that her latest novel, originally published as Prowad? swój p?ug przez ko?ci umar?ych in 2009, will also receive a much wider audience.

In contrast to the fragmented, nonlinear narrative of FlightsDrive Your Plow ostensibly is a slightly more conventional – if still decidedly offbeat – book that follows Janina as she is caught up in the investigation of a series of deaths in her home town near the border with the Czech Republic. At least one reviewer has compared her to Miss Marple (a foolish and, for reasons that become clear with the novel’s conclusion, impossible comparison), but to me here character, if not her actions, are more reminiscent of Gulley Jimson, the protagonist of Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Like Jimson she is odd and eccentric to most of humanity, though with the ability to form very deep and intimate relations with a few human beings, and, like him, William Blake is always at hand to provide an aphorism to explain the complexities of life. Indeed, the title of Tokarczuk’s novel is taken from one of Blake’s famous proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Unlike Gulley Jimson, however, Janina is filled with a profound anger of the world.

That anger arises from the fact that her town is filled with hunters who make it their business to commit murder against the living creatures of the wilderness that surrounds them. When it was released as the film Pokot (“Spoor”) in 2017, director Agnieszka Holland caught the intense beauty of the Polish landscape in winter and summer, a beauty that made the massacre of innocents even more brutal. As one character observes in the film, the town is one of many sites of holocausts that take place across the world every day: while some critics have observed that the cryptic title of Tokarczuk’s novel could refer to the bones of murdered victims whose bodies Janina finds, a reading that makes sense if it is viewed as a more conventional crime novel, my own temptation is to see these bones as belonging to more innocent victims – the deer, boar and even Janina’s dogs who are mercilessly slaughtered if they get in the way of the amusement of men.

The amusement of men is very much a theme of the novel, which also reveals a deep feminist anger: the attitude that allows men to kill animals with impunity also enables them to treat other women as mistresses and whores when young and with contempt when, as with Janina, they inevitably grow old. That the hero of the novel was once an engineer counts for nothing: now she is seen as nothing more than a crank obsessed with astrology and animal rights, getting in the way of the real business of the town, a business that is threatened as the corpses of a hunter, the police chief, a rich entrepreneur, the mayor of the town, and eventually its priest are discovered. When Janina informs the police of her belief that the animals are taking their revenge she is treated with derision, while her complaints to the authorities that living creatures are constantly being murdered are ignored.

That it is Janina who sees herself as the angel of these creatures’ vengeance is, strictly speaking, the least Blakean aspect of the novel, a submission to corporeal assault rather than mental fight. Yet even this stems from a deeply considered misreading (if misreading it is) of Blake’s Auguries. Most people will know the poem from its famous opening invocation to “see a world in a grain of sand”, and some will also recognise lines such as “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage”, but I suspect that few would understand just how profound the anger of Blake’s poem is. While Auguries of Innocence is a celebration of the innocence of living creatures, it is also motivated by rage against those men who abuse such animals and, through their abuse, become inured to the poverty and injustice inflicted upon their fellow human beings. For Blake, ecological justice does not operate in isolation from social justice, and this is a vision that is shared by Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. When Janina is told that she is crazy for telling one of the villagers not to kill animals, she responds with a Rintrah-like rage:

At that point I felt a surge of Anger, genuine, not to say Divine Anger. It flooded me from inside in a burning hot wave. This energy made me feel great, as if it were lifting off the ground, a mini Big Bang within the universe of my body. There was fire burning within me, like a neutron star. I sprang forward and pushed the Man in the silly hat so hard that he fell onto the snow, completely taken by surprise. And when Moustachio rushed to his aid, I attacked him too, hitting him on the shoulder with all my might. He groaned with pain. I am not a feeble girl. (p.72)

Like Rintrah, like Orc, like one of the devils with whom Blake converses in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Janina follows a morality that is askance, skewed from that of her fellow men. It would be more than possible to read the violence that she commits as profoundly immoral, operating against other men, but for me that ignores the deep rejection of a false society that she is forced into by men who do not care for all the blood on their hands, nor for the damage they wantonly inflict on the world around them. In a remarkable scene towards the end of the novel, Janina is forcibly expelled from a church for railing against the priest who blesses the hunters. This priest corrupts the story of Saint Hubert, a murderer of animals who is converted to Christianity when he feels compassion towards his prey, into a panacea for those who wish to kill. The church, like the police and the school in which Janina occasionally works, are symbols of a mundane, deep-rooted repression that is sanctioned by church and state. When such daily violence is blessed by angels, Janina believes that she has no choice but to cast her lot in with devils.

 

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018. RRP: £12.99.

Review: Visions of the Daughters of Urizon – What Should Be Wild, Julia Fine

Upon opening Julia Fine’s debut novel, What Should Be Wild, the reader is confronted by a dark ink blot of a family tree, a gothic sprawl upon the page that lists in fine, white text the lineage of the novel’s central character, Maisie Cothay, whose father, Peter, had married into the Blakelys. That family name is one of several shifting allusions to William Blake that are contained within the book. That ancestry descends from an unknown, white blankness at the top of the page (which, as is later hinted at, precedes some variant of the Ango-Saxon age) to a solid entry in black text that reads: Maisie B. 1990.

What Should Be Wild, then, is set in a time approximating the current age, although there are subtle hints that it is not our world but rather its dream image. The location, Coeurs Crossing, is somewhere that really belongs in a tale by Charles Perrault or the Grimm brothers, and this uncertainty allows Fine enough freedom to play with the atmosphere of this strange space without being tied to all-too familiar places. It is most similar, perhaps, to the Oxford of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, an author whose influence Fine has acknowledge in an interview with Qwillery magazine. The link to Pullman also allows her to subtly allude to another source, William Blake, and the key to the Blakely family does indeed include William, the father of Helen, born in 1660, one of seven daughters who is trapped near the house and whose story slowly unfolds throughout the novel.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the story of What Should Be Wild centres on Maisie, interwoven with the tales of her seven ancestors, all of whom have grown up in a strange house (a gloomy Manderley) named Urizon that was built by William Blakely. Maisie, as we discover in the opening pages, is one of a line of cursed women and is herself a literal marriage of life and death, able to kill and revive creatures with her touch. It is this morbid power that led to her mother’s death while she was still in the womb, and Maisie has grown up in Urizon alone with her father, Peter, an introverted, academic figure who married into the Blakely family and, for much of the novel, occupies an ambiguous position. When Peter disappears into the woods surrounding Urizon, into which it seems no man can venture and remain sane, and from which the daughters of Urizon cannot escape once they have entered, Maisie sets out in search of him accompanied by two companions, Matthew and Rafe. As the novel slowly progresses, so we learn more about Urizon, the seven women and the strange, black-eyed girl who spontaneously generated within the forest after the birth of Maisie.

Some reviewers appear to have had problems with What Should Be Wild in terms of its genre: although the novel seems to have appealed greatly to many readers, for others its uneasy classification as fantasy or horror or thriller has affected how they have approached it, especially in terms of pace or plotting. The dreamlike quality of the book certainly works against it as a piece of detective fiction, and attempts to construct it as a feminist version of Pushing Daisies also seem a little wide of the mark to me. In the interview mentioned previously, Fine indicates that some of her other influences include Karen Russell, Doris Lessing (whose The Golden Notebook is cited at the beginning of the novel), Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter, and Audrey Niffenegger has also warmly praised the book. If there is a genre to which this book belongs, it is perhaps Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, and as such another critical comment by some readers and reviewers – that the seven women do not really work as characters – was less important to me when set against a backdrop of zoas, emanations and spectres.

There are various subtle reminders of William Blake throughout the novel – one location is Urthon Hill, for example, while a chapter on “Symmetry and balance” invokes the tyger and notions of contraries – but it is Urizon that most clearly links him to What Should Be Wild. The house is a literary emblem, part Rebecca’s Manderley, part Miss Havisham’s Satis House, also reminiscent of Poe’s House of Usher: its name is almost certainly intended to invoke the notion of Urizenic reason, the masculine imposition of which imprisons all the women of the novel, but Fine’s characterisation of the place is more sophisticated than that. Urizon is also a home, a haven, and its final destruction also represents the shock of uncertainty that freedom brings as well as its pleasures. That ambivalence also extends to the relationship between Maisie and her father, Peter: I kept expecting him to become more clearly malign but he is perhaps closer to a (rather less dynamic) Lord Asriel in Pullman’s trilogy. The relations between the two do appear to evoke a Blakean spirit, however: as in “The Little Girl Lost”, Maisie wanders like Lyca through the “desert wild” until she is found by her parents among the tigers and lions, asleep. The beast of prey here is the silent, malevolent black eyed girl:

What is this girl? All of the Blakely women wonder. Is she a demon, biding her time? Some sort of savior? The dark twin of the girl at Urizon? One of their own, unborn daughters made flesh? The girl was born within the wood, not taken later, like the rest of them. There is nothing of the outside world upon her. Nothing broken. No scarred flesh. (P.65)

This silent girl is as evil as the woods, but it is a wild evil outside the place of men that exists upon its own terms (and, as each of the Blakely women recall their experiences, less brutal than the evils of men, though perhaps ultimately more fatal). It is a marriage of sorts between Maisie and this girl that the novel aspires to. A more mundane struggle between good and evil angels takes place between Matthew and Rafe, Maisie’s male companions. In the case of Maisie at least, overt sexual awakenings are dealt with more subtly, although the literal bleeding that takes place is a violation as sickening as any rape (and resolved in as satisfying a manner as would occur in one of Angela Carter’s stories). Rather than a marriage of good and evil, the figures of Matthew and Rafe are perhaps best viewed as Maisie’s emanation and spectre, one who will fulfil her, the other a negation of her desires, one of the many feminist twists of Fine’s book that subverts Blake’s masculine model of the human psyche.

The conclusion of the novel, where Maisie meets her dark alter ego, reminds me somewhat of Blake’s Milton a Poem, where Milton confronts and reclaims his spectre, Satan. If that is the case (and not simply me reading too much into the book), then Fine once more teases and twists that conclusion, creating a true marriage of what has been inhibited and what should be wild, a union of heaven and hell. A text that may be closer to the author’s intentions is Visions of the Daughters of Albion, not only for its accounts of Oothoon’s brutal treatment at the hands of Bromion and Theotormon, but also for the determination of the hero and the clarity of her perceptions:

Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens: and the meek camel
Why he loves man: is it because of eye ear mouth or skin
Or breathing nostrils? No. for these the wolf and tyger have.
Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav’nous snake
Where she gets poison: & the wing’d eagle why he loves the sun
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old. (3.8-14, E47)

Oothoon’s understanding of the extra-sensory elements of the natural world seems to be a suitable model for the awakening of Maisie. Visions is also Blake’s early work that introduces Urizen as “Creator of men! Mistaken Demon of heaven” one whose “joys are tears! thy labour vain, to form men to thine image.” (5.3-4, E48). Although nowhere near as malevolent as Urizen, Peter has mistakenly tried to make his daughter into his own image, to protect her as much as to conform her, and if the house of Urizon is a haven it is also clearly a prison. The daughters of Urizon have frequently sought escape from its confines only to become trapped in turn in the woods beyond the house of men: Maisie’s union with the wild child of that forest is what finally liberates her.

What Should Be Wild is wonderfully written, and Julia Fine’s style is frequently beautiful and poetic without being laboured, as when she describes the end of the house which William Blakely built:

The forest spools and gathers, holds its breath until evening. In the dark it protracts to take a fuller span of William Blakely’s masterpiece, Urizon, Helen’s home. Mary’s home. Emma’s and Lucy’s. The ivy moves quickest, sneaking in through the cracks in the stone, under the doors, forcing them wider. The roots of the yard oaks crack like cramped legs and extend themselves, sighing as they stretch against the floorboards, popping them loose. Tree branches tap windows. Wild roses, sharp-edged and hideously sweet, thorn through and scent the parlors. The outside comes in. Centuries of stagnation have exploded into action; eternal life, an eternal inertia, releasing all the force it’s held at bay. (P.291)

Some readers appear to have been confounded by the pacing and plotting of the novel, and, in this respect, for her first novel Fine might have been better served by the more compact visions of Angela Carter, whose relative brevity made her easier for many to digest. This is the difficulty of literary fantasy, a genre that operates outside many of the restrictions of typical genre expectations. For those, such as myself, interested in how William Blake can be taken up and transmuted into a feminist tale of awakening and transformation, it is a thoroughly fascinating and beautifully poetic novel.

 

Julia Fine, What Should Be Wild, Harper, 2018. RRP, hardback: £20.99.

Reviews: John Yau – The Wild Children of William Blake; Eric G. Wilson – Polaris Ghost

The first of these reviews, John Yau’s The Wild Children of William Blake, brings together a series of essays, articles and reviews, most from the past decade but with a few stretching back much further into the 1980s. Yau is a poet and critic who lives in New York City, whose collections of poetry include Forbidden Entries (1996) and Further Adventures in Monochrome (2012). Wild Children was published at the end of 2017 and comprises a series of pieces on the role of art, with articles that originally appeared mostly in Hyperallergic Weekend, which he co-edits as art critic.

The title of the book is taken from the final essay in the collection, a review of Raymond Foye’s Dark Star: Abstraction and Cosmos that was published in Hyperallergic Weekend in 2016. Foye had brought brought together eight artists – some historical, such as Jordan Belson and Harry Smith – others contemporaries working in a variety of media. The link between them all was a re-examination of “non-objectivism” through the media of mysticism, psychedelics and meditation, and it was “strain of occult thinking” that, according to Yau, made them Blake’s wild children. The contemporary artists, including Tamara Gonzales and Sally Webster, were more immediately linked by their interest in Smith and Belson, and behind those two figures the abstract, non-representational art of painters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian.

The only explicit reference to Blake in the article is contained in the final paragraph:

Harry Smith’s “Untitled Drawing, October 19, 1951” (1951), which was done in ink, watercolor and tempera on a sheet of paper measuring 24 ½ x 18 ¾ inches, reminds me of a map of both earth’s inner core as well as an early version of the solar system. It brought to mind George Baxter’s prints of the cosmos that were specially made for the religious sect, the Muggletonians, of which the poet-artist William Blake was a member. The Muggletonians believed Copernicus, Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton had it all wrong. I don’t think you would be wrong if you get the feeling that some of the artists in this exhibition agree with Blake.

This shows off the strength of Yau’s work (his knowledge of contemporary art) and his weakness (a relative lack of understanding of the historical contexts – Blake was no Muggletonian). Indeed, the book as a whole feels a little like a bait and switch in terms of its title: Blake is often no more than an interesting meme to riff along with. Perhaps the exception is the essay on “William Tillyer’s Clouds”, a revision of the original essay published alongside Tillyer’s work in the catalogue William Tillyer: Against Nature. Although Blake is not directly invoked (unlike Constable), Tillyer did title one of his earlier exhibitions Fearful Symmetries in 1993. Overall, Yau’s book is an excellent read on some of the most interesting contemporary art that strives against easy classification, although it offers little insight into the reception of Blake among those new artists.

The second piece reviewed here, Eric G. Wilson’s Polaris Ghost, is much more profoundly Blakean. A collection of shorts tories, it offers itself as a combination of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Blue Velvet. One of Outpost19’s “Short-ish” series, Wilson’s previous works are non-fiction pieces that include Coleridge’s Melancholia and My Business is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing.  The influence of Blake is strong from the very first page, beginning with an epigraph to James Basire, to whom Blake was presented. The stories can be read as a series of fragments, some of them dealing with Polaris who splits into two entities known as Otto and Ella, echoing Blake’s vision of emanation and spectre. The flat, affectless style of the early chapters in particular evokes Lynch’s work, as with the girl who will become Ella seeing a vision of a grey man threatening her while she bathes which her father later tells her was the smoke from a fire that had threatened to destroy them all.

Throughout most of Polaris Ghost, the pseudo-anonymous characters – husband, girl, boy – function as archetypes dissociated from the backgrounds of the worlds in which they live, and work almost as sinister fairy tales. In the final book (Book VIII), Wilson’s prose almost reads as a retelling of “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Boy Lost” from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. As a husband has night terrors that he is a boar, so it is only by becoming a boy again that he can master those fears:

He heard the sound again. It was a grunting sound. He saw a huge figure in his path. The creature was on all fours. He saw its eyes. They were blue. Under the eyes were two giant tusks. This was a boar. Its head was tilted towards the ground. It made the sound again. This was not a grunting sound. It was a whimpering sound. This boar was sick.

The husband as a boy was no longer afraid. The boar needed help. He stepped towards the boar, and saw that in the boar’s mouth was his doll. The boar reached for the doll. The boar opened its mouth, and the doll fell out and hit the ground. The boy reached down to pick the doll up.

In between such deceptively simple psycho-dramas are meditations on Elvis and Bowie or Godzilla in the nuclear age. The whole is delightful – a kind of adult Maurice Sendak story (which, on one level, would be an apt description for some of David Lynch’s movies). Polaris Ghost was my first encounter with Wilson’s work, but demonstrates a subtle engagement with Blake that provides a series of sometimes troubling reflections on marriage, family relations and growing up that will certainly make me look out for more of his writing.

 

John Yau, The Wild Children of William Blake, Autonomedia, 2017. $15.00
Eric G. Wilson, Polaris Ghost, Outpost19, 2018. $14.00.

 

 

Review: Patti Smith – The New Jerusalem

In 2005, Patti Smith released a well-received book of poetry, Auguries of Innocence, that clearly indicated her affections for the work of William Blake. Some thirteen years later, the influence of Blake is once more evident in her latest collection, a series of seven prose-poems entitled The New Jerusalem, a handsome volume that has been released by the Nexus Institute in a bilingual, English and Dutch edition.

As well as the poems themselves, the book includes a series of illustrations, some of them reproductions of Smith’s own work such as her silkscreen print of South Tower Copper. The Nexus Library series (of which this is a part) has been an eclectic mix, including works by Mario Vargas Llosa and Garry Kasparov as well as Smith’s latest offering, and the images and texts are preceded by an essay written by Rob Riemen, founder of the Nexus Institute and a longtime admirer of Smith’s. It is his introduction that offers the clearest link to Blake as he recounts a meeting the two of them had in New York:

“I’ve just started on a poem that’ll be called The New Jerusalem.”

“The new Jerusalem! Like the prophesy at the end of The Revelation of St. John in the New Testament? Or like the visionary poem Jerusalem by William Blake?” I knew what a passion she had for that eighteenth-century poet and painter.

The immediate cause of the poem is actually the Trump administration’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and thus the political act of recognising the “universal” city as the capital of Israel. Regarding literary influences, Smith herself goes on to list a long line, including Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Andrei Tarkovsky, Allen Ginsberg – and the one that surprises Riemen the most – Jesus Christ. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the introduction is Smith’s insistence of the interlinking of art and religion. She cites Wilde’s De Profundis to argue that Christ was an artist, and though it is a little more oblique she certainly knows of Blake’s repeated references to Christianity as art. This becomes part of Rieman’s argument, that we have replaced concepts such as soul, forgiveness, God and creation with innovation, popularity and consumption, and that all art – not merely that of the sixties and seventies – is an art of counter-culture. He cites the line from Blake’s Laocoön, “Art Degraded, Imagination Denied, War Governed the Nations”, but with regard to Patti Smith’s ideas he could also have quoted: “A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian”.

Riemens links this very Blakean conception of the Christian art of imagination to a counter-culture, operating both against the religious right of contemporary America but also current political trends of Trump’s America, which he mournfully compares to the tribulations of Lincoln, a party linked by name only across the centuries. Despite this somewhat melancholy end to the introductory essay, however, begin with a much more powerful tone: “Matter of Time”, the opening piece, is redolent of Ginsberg and, to my eyes, Yeats as well as Blake, as in the following passage:

The new time slouched then accelerated, visceral, chaotic, yet soon governed with a terrible lucidity. God usurped by Goal. Chemical commerce the prime directive. Cultivators initiated an unremittent engineering of nature. Controllers enforced a neo-naturalization, devoid of charity or human quality. Mercenary priests devised the moral center. Iron and steel rose from the face of the holy city, the earth shuddered, and it was holy no more.

The accompanying image, South Tower Copper, indicates that there is something about this passage that is explicitly imagist, of a tower rising in the literal city of Jerusalem to form the new embassy. At the same time, it is also clearly visionary, and while some of this verse literally sticks in the mouth as I read it (“enforced a neo-naturalization devoid of charity”) this is, perhaps, appropriate to the language of Ulro. Although not quite the howl of Ginsberg’s poem, there is something about this opening passage that is very reminiscent of his accusations against Moloch:

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

The first poem is also a retelling of Blake’s account, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as to the origins of religion. Originally the preserve of ancient poets, who “animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive”, this inspired form of worship was soon abstracted into a system and “thus began Priesthood”. For Smith, modern priests are consumer culture, automation and mechanisation which drives us along as part of alienated modernity.

It is against such mechanisation, the Moloch of Ginsberg or Blake’s Ulro, that she is clearly writing her new Christian art, inspired very much by those two poets as well as the other artists and writers identified by Rieman. Thus in the second piece, “What manner of herald flies over”, offers a visionary account of a Caravaggio, not explicitly identified but probably his “Decapitation of St John the Baptist”, the marking of an end of an epoch of art that is followed by a scene of literal sacrifice of cattle: it is the institution of priesthood, but also – via it’s title, “Triumph and Deceit” – a mocking reference to the politics of the 45th President of the United States, who sacrifices truth in the service of power.

The style of all these and the remaining pieces – “The Alchemical Sovereign”, “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, “The Cup” and “A Time of Gifts” – is highly allusive. That it has its roots in a specific political event is not immediately evident without Rieman’s introduction, and these could be read as a series of narrative images that are frequently hauntingly beautiful in their simplicity:

In a dream, a woman gave me a small object, wrapped in brown tissue. It was a cup, delicate, near transparent, created long ago by one who had aspired to transform mute material into gold… He saw carnage and famine and the bleached arms of power. He saw himself shackled to futile ambition. None shall enlighten, he cried, save a nature I shall never know.

Throughout all the poems, allusions to Blake are frequently as delicate as the porcelain cup that Smith holds, but they are very much in evidence. As “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, drawing both on Blake’s famous declarations of prophecy and his Songs of Innocence, is especially redolent of his aphoristic style in works such as The Marriage and Auguries of Innocence. It is also a key to The New Jerusalem, a series of songs that are intended to revive that lost idea of a soul through the act of prophecy. The collection ends with Smith collecting up her writing tools as a voice inside her tells her that she is (re)born, a voice of “inexhaustible good”.

 

Patti Smith, The New Jerusalem, Amsterdam: Nexus Library, 2018. Bilingual edition, 76pp. €20, available from nexus-instituut.nl/en/publication/the-new-jerusalem.

Review: Rock and Romanticism, edited by James Rovira

The connection between rock music and Romanticism is a longstanding one. Thomas Goldthwaite, reviewing an Elvis concert in Phoenix, Arizona in 1970, compared the rock star (not entirely favourably) to a mixture of Lord Byron and Davy Crocket, and Camille Paglia was to repeat the comparison – sans Davy Crocket – twenty years later in her sprawling Sexual Personae. Byron doesn’t get his own star turn in this latest collection edited by James Rovira, although the artist formerly known as Shelley (as Percy Bysshe has tended to be referred to in recent years) does have a particularly fine chapter dedicated to him. Instead, the essays here largely concentrate on Wordsworth and Blake as influential figures in the field of rock music that runs from the sixties until the present day. This particular review will focus on those chapters dealing with Blake, although this is by no means a comment on the remaining sections that outline Wordsworth’s role in defining contemporary music.

James Rovira’s introduction to Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, explores the relationship between its two defining terms and is very good on the established – but not unproblematic – definition of Romanticism, with Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity being an important text. The most significant element here is Löwy and Sayre’s notion of Romanticism as “opposition to capitalism in the name of pre-capitalist values” (cited p.xiv), which is important in terms of defining the attitudes of both Romanticism and rock music outside of the essentially modernising strands of Marxism. This definition works very clearly in one important aspect in terms of of rock music as not “selling out”, a theme which runs through the Situationist Internationale through punk and into grunge, although plenty of Marxist and left-wing critics have noted the intensely capitalist nature of contemporary popular music, the tensions of which are evident in some of the essays in this collection. Marxist readers of Blake such as Saree Makdisi would probably make much more of this tension, but I have never seen Blake as a proto-Marxist but rather, as with William Godwin, a proto-anarchist – which is one reason why he is such a good role model for rock music and something that could have been pursued more forcefully in one or two of the essays here. Rovira is mildly, and correctly, critical of the privileging of the conceptual over the affective in Löwy and Sayre’s definition of Romanticism, that it tends to ignore the aesthetic qualities of the movement in favour of economic, social and political contextualisations (p.xvi), but at the same time the use of this approach does provide a coherence and direction to the discussion of relations between rock music and Romanticism throughout the collection.

As well as considerations of direct influences of Blake – such as actual settings of his lyrics to music or allusions to his poetry – some of the theoretical discussion in the book revolves around Raymond William’s “structures of feeling”, the observation that artistic movements are rarely acknowledged at the time because “both participants and observers are unable to objectively distance themselves far enough from it to classify it” (p.37). As such, influence may be parallel and affective rather than direct and referential, and Lisa Crafton echoes an approach adopted by myself, Steve Clark and Tristanne Connolly in Blake 2.0 to draw attention to models of reception that emphasise affiliation or resistance as much as concepts of transmission and inheritance (p.67). As a very personal aside, it made me laugh to see my own words used against me as, once or twice as detailed below, I would have really appreciated a few more examples of such “patrilineal concepts”. Nonetheless, on the whole I agree with this approach (I would have to say that, wouldn’t I) as it offers a much more allusive and sophisticated model for discussion Blake’s reception.

The first essay in the collection is a perfect example of just such a sophisticated reading. Luke Walker, whose work on the 1960s counterculture and Blake is a fantastic addition to reception studies of Blake, offers a wonderfully subtle interpretation of Blake, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Noting that there has not been a great deal of academic work on Dylan and Blake despite bold assertions, as in the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, that “Bob Dylan is the spiritual twin of… William Blake” (p.3), Walker provides a delightfully nuanced reading of how much Dylan really knew about Blake – and how little he may have wanted to be influenced by him, at least in the 1960s. Personally, I am perfectly happy with the notion that Dylan didn’t actually know Blake at all well, an argument pursued by Tristanne Connolly with regard to The Doors in her article “How Much Did Jim Morrison Know about William Blake?” – the Romantic could still have been important as the grain of sand (literally in Dylan’s case) to inspire various pearls of his own music. Walker provides a compelling and extremely well-thought through argument regarding Dylan’s struggling anxiety of influence towards Blake but also, in many respects more significantly, towards Ginsberg. Certainly in the later decades of his career Dylan could be much more relaxed in his relationship with Blake’s work, indicating a renewed respect towards the poet in an interview from 1992 and incorporating cut-ups (after William Burroughs) of Blake’s “The Tyger” in “Roll on John”. Again, Dylan’s reading of Blake does not need to be particularly deep to be significant: as Walker indicates, throughout the 1960s Blakean texts operated in a rhizomatic, fragmentary fashion, cropping up as aphorisms and graffiti which seemed entirely appropriate to the inventor of the proverbs of hell (p.9).

The next essay on Blake, Douglas T. Root’s “William Blake: The Romantic Alternative”, is the most frustrating for me and the one where I would have preferred a little less free-form, allusive structures of feelings and a little more rigorous – Urizenic, even – patrilineal heritage. This essay was more frustrating because I essentially agree with Root’s argument that Blake’s attitude towards art, or more accurately the accepted myth of his attitude towards art as someone who once wrote “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s”, is precisely why he does provide an allusional, parallel model for much contemporary music. From the Pre-Raphaelites through the Surrealists to BritArt, Blake has frequently been seen as a “total artist” – one who lived entirely for his art and someone who, unlike many of the other Romantics, never sold out. Actually, the reality of Blake’s personal situation was much more complex than that, and ignores the fact that the editions of Young’s Night Thoughts and Blair’s The Grave were intended as fully capitalist publishing endeavours for which Blake would have happily sold (if not sold out) his skills for a much higher price were he able. Nonetheless, one legacy of Blake’s failure in his life time to be a successful artist – along with his continued faith in his own art and abilities – has been an enduring, and sometimes essential, myth of the Romantic artist alone against the world.

My frustration with Root’s essay is that, by concentrating on Blake’s influence on alternative American rock music and pretty much ignoring entirely the British scene he effectively eviscerates much of his argument. Blake’s influence on figures such as Kurt Cobain is definitely present, but also much refracted: Cobain recorded a soundtrack to Burrough’s “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him”, and Allen Ginsberg (who, according to Sam Kashner, rejected Cobain’s application to the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) was part of the Nirvana front man’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In Gus van Sant’s poetic retelling of his final hours, Last Days, Cobain is renamed Blake, but by ignoring the British connection, Root cuts off a direct line into rock music: Malcolm McLaren studied Blake at art school, Derek Jarman name checks the Romantic constantly throughout his movies, and Jah Wobble (John Wardle), bassist in Public Image Ltd alongside John Lyden, recorded an entire album based on Blake’s works, The Inspiration of William Blake (1995). I am by no means so crass a reader of reception to insist that direct transmission is the basis for meaningful readings of Blake’s afterlife, but the addition of “punk Blake” would have made the argument for “grunge Blake” much more convincing.

By contrast, Nicole Lobdell’s essay “Digging at the Roots: Martha Redbone’s The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake“, is direct, simple and one of the most joyous essays in the collection, although that probably reflects my attitude that this is among the best musical adaptations of Blake’s work ever to be made. Lobdell’s contribution is less theoretically complex than that of Root and Walker, probably because when dealing with such an overt piece of musical reception issues of the anxiety of influence or importance of structures of feeling tend not to apply. Instead, the chapter offers a detailed and comprehensive account of the contexts of Redbone’s album, outlining how her Appalachian ballad is partly an adaptation of older, English forms to create what she terms “Appalachian Romanticism” (pp,51-2). This chapter is probably weaker in terms of theoretical readings of Romanticism – I did cringe at an appeal to “the universality of the poetry and the timelessness of the Romantic ideals that the music embodies” – but it is excellent in terms of exploring the minute particulars of both the Appalachian context of Redbone’s music and close readings of the tracks on the album.

The final essay that deals with Blake, Lisa Crafton’s “‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’: U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism”, is considerably more sophisticated – and an essay towards I am ever so slightly more ambivalent. It’s greatest achievement is to inculcate a greater sympathy towards U2, who for me embody a capitalist sellout of rock music that tends towards an ersatz version of Romanticism. Crafton demonstrates that U2’s interest in Blake has existed for a much longer period than I had realised, and offers a much more generous understanding of their political engagement in terms of Löwy and Sayre’s notions of Romanticism which, if I never quite fully agree with, I did come to appreciate much more. The vision of Blake that U2 sees may sometimes be my greatest enemy, but what I cannot doubt – quite clearly from their recent albums Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – is that the group’s appreciation of Blake has been an enduring and honest one. Regarding the link to Leonard Cohen, I was slightly more perplexed: Crafton seems to follow a line that Cohen operates more in terms of a Blakean/Romantic aesthetic – I don’t really have a problem with this, but also Cohen seems to know Blake fairly directly, as when he invoked the poet in a 1988 interview.

This review has focussed on the chapters dealing with the reception of Blake in Rock and Romanticism and, as such, neglects those that deal with Wordsworth or other aspects. That is no comment on their quality – David Hogsette’s chapter on Rush and Romanticism, for example, is an essay in pure, unalloyed joy, and some of the contributions on Wordsworth offer sophisticated readings of musical contexts and influences. The subtitle, relating music to Blake and Wordsworth, doesn’t always work (Lorenzo Sorbo’s final chapter on the Scapigliatura is fascinating but feels as though it belongs to a different collection) and at times I would have preferred either a more comprehensive collection on the influence of Romanticism throughout rock music – Shelley and Byron are spectres that have haunted the dreams of far too many wannabe rock gods – or, alternatively, a collection that dealt more intensely with William Blake. The latter, perhaps, could have extended the boundaries of rock into other genres, such as pop evocations (one of my favourite settings remains Blur’s “Magpie”, the b-side to their single “Girls and Boys”), as well as exploring the English music scene, where William Blake thrives in the work of artists as diverse as Van Morrison (mentioned in passing several times), Julian Cope, The Fall and Pete Doherty. Some of these are dealt with in the follow up volume, that explores post-punk, Goth and Metal, and in any case these desires also reflect my intense enthusiasm for this book: Rovira’s decision to deploy Löwy and Sayre throughout the collection gives it a coherence that is unexpected in an edited volume, creating an extended argument regarding Romanticism’s influence on contemporary music that is frequently compelling and always fascinating.

 

James Rovira (ed.), Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018.

Review: Fernand Péna, Ode to William Blake, vol. 2; Shawn Colvin, Cradle Song; Jóhann Jóhannsson, Holy Thursday

Ode to William Blake, Volume 2 is, as its name suggests, is a follow up to Fernand Péna’s first set of recordings of Blake’s poems. This was released in 2010 and you can read the original review of it here; as with the earlier CD, this one includes a lavishly-illustrated and somewhat idiosyncratic booklet that includes the various Blake poems as well as Péna’s interpretations of Blake’s life and work (many sections of which appear to have been carried over from the original CD).

As with the first collection, there are eighteen tracks although the Dylanesque and Doors-inspired influences feel as though they have been added to here. This is evident on the first song on the album – “Never pain to tell thy love” – which is a strong start and reminded me a lot of late Bowie. Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, was probably released too late to be an immediate influence, but other releases such as The Next Day may have inspired Péna, as on “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found” and “Earth’s Answer”.

Lest this began to imply that the album is a tribute – even to such a great artist as Bowie – what is particularly impressive about Ode to William Blake is the variety of Péna’s styles. Thus “The Land of Dreams” uses classical-style guitar to great effect to create a much more melodic style (and for me was superior to the preceding, rock-oriented track, “Mary”). Elsewhere, Péna’s work is strongly reminiscent of Dylan and Tom Waites, as in the delightful “My Spectre Around Me Night and Day” and “The Ecchoing Green”, or “Fayette”, which is offered as a duet. It’s with some of the straight rock numbers, particularly “Night” and “Long John Brown & Little Mary Bell” that I found myself less inspired, although the guitar on “The Crystal Cabinet” is exceptional and demonstrates Péna’s abilities to a much greater degree.

More unusual contributions include “A Fairy Skip’d Upon My Knee”, an almost psychedelic piece that matches the delightfully strange subject matter, while “When Kloptstock England Defied” is a bluesy number that, once again, suits the humorous content (and also was another which had echoes of Tom Waites for me). Less successful for me was the slight reggae style of “On Another’s Sorrow”, although that tone, with 10cc undercurrents, works very well on “The Fly”, which approaches the subject of death in a joyful fashion rather than despondency and despair. Finally, Péna deserves credit for his version of “The Tyger” – always a tough one because it is so well known. My own personal favourite version of this remains John Tavener’s choral rendition, but the heavily syncopated rhythm of this track – along with prog rock elements that are perhaps reminiscent of Tangerine Dream or even Simon Thaur – make this an unusual, memorable and very listenable adaptation.

While Péna has crafted an entire album devoted to Blake, the other two parts of this review deal with single tracks on other albums. The first of these, “Cradle Song”, is by Grammy-award winner, Shawn Colvin. Colvin’s own influences and career have included folk singer-songwriters such as Pete Seeger and various Broadway musicals, and both feed through into her latest album, The Starlighter, which takes its immediate source of inspiration a children’s book, Lullabies and Night Songs. Colvin’s work has been described as “soothing and sophisticated at once“, which sums up her sound for me. Certainly her melodic skills are superb, and this particular version of Blake’s poem – one of the most popular pieces to be set to music with versions going back to the nineteenth century – is gentle and tender.

The final track to be considered is “Holy Thursday (Ég heyrði allt án þess að hlusta)” by Jóhann Jóhannsson and which was released on the album Englabörn & Variations in March this year. Johansson, who had composed widely for cinema and theatre (most famously working with Denis Villeneuve, although not on Blade Runner 2049) and who died suddenly in the month before Englabörn & Variations was released, was famous for combining traditional orchestration with electronic and ambient influences, and this is very much in evidence on his last album. Bringing together a beautiful harmony of voices via the Theatre of Voices, this is in many respects a simpler piece than some of the other tracks on Englabörn but one that deserves recognition, in my opinion, as one of the finest settings of Blake to have been produced.

Fernand Péna – Ode to William Blake, Volume 2 – available from https://odetowilliamblake.bandcamp.com/releases.

Shawn Colvin – The Starlighter, SLC Recordings.

Jóhann Jóhannsson – Englabörn & Variations, Deutsche Grammaphon.

 

Review: Daniel Kidane – Songs of Illumination

Each year, the Leeds Lieder Festival brings together a number of composers and performers to celebrate a variety of songs and poetry in many languages. This year’s festival ran from 19-22 April and on Sunday 22 I had the opportunity to hear the world premiere of Songs of Illumination, three of Blake’s poems set to music by Daniel Kidane.

Kidane, who describes himself as a British composer of mixed heritage (his mother is Russian, his father Eritrean), has attracted considerable attention as one of four young composers who was selected last year to represent the UK in Portugal as part of the Year of British Music. Having previously studied at the Royal College of Music, London, and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, as well as studying violin and composition privately in Saint Petersburg, he is currently reading for a doctoral degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has indicated a strong interest in developing multicultural aspects within British classical composition (including, for example, bringing elements of grime and jungle into his music), and his previous engagements have involved working with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (for Sirens, in April 2018) and Dream Song, performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall this year.

For the Leeds Lieder Festival, his premiere was one of a three-part series performed by Ian Tindale on piano and the wonderful tenor, Nick Pritchard, who I’ve previously seen perform at Southwell Minster. As well as Kidane’s Songs of Illumination, Tindale and Pritchard offered a collection of songs by Robert Schumann, Liederkreis, and Benjamin Britten’s Winter Words, settings by Britten of Thomas Hardy’s final collection of poetry.

As Schumann was the first selection to be performed, this did lead my expectations in a slightly different direction, as I began to wonder whether Kidane was included in this selection as someone deciding to dabble with Romanticism in musical styles as well as choice of lyrics. The main piece of music I’d heard before by Kidane – Sirens, which takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s Sonnets – was not necessarily a clear guide in this respect, mixing contemporary dance rhythms with more obvious contemporary classical inspiration. In the end, it was Schumann who was the odd person out in this concert, with Britten’s powerful dissonances offering a closer guide to the Kidane’s three pieces.

Although there was no indication in the programme, it seemed more than possible to me that Kidane was invoking at some level Britten’s 1965 Songs & Proverbs of William Blake. Another collection of pieces for piano and voice (admittedly baritone rather than tenor), the deep, rumbling tensions of Britten’s opening proverb found its echo in the first of Kidane’s songs, Blake’s “A Dream”. Likewise, in “The Little Black Boy” (a song rarely set to music by classical – as opposed to popular – composers), Pritchard thrillingly expressed Kidane’s rhythms in a fashion that brought to mind songs such as Britten’s setting of “The Tyger”, creating an underlying anxiety and sombre tone that seems to be (from reviews I’ve read of Dream Song) a theme elsewhere in his work at the moment.

The biggest surprise for me was “The Land of Dreams”. Taken from the Pickering Manuscript, this is not a poem that is widely anthologised, although Donald Fitch’s Blake Set to Music indicates that it has been used by more than half a dozen composers, including Nigel Butterley and Alec Rowley. What was particularly exceptional for me in this choice was that it demonstrated a deeper appreciation of Blake’s work than I had expected: while “The Land of Dreams” is not unknown to British composers in particular, it is hardly a common source of inspiration.

In contrast to Dream Song, which draws upon fragments of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” accompanied by an orchestra and choir, Songs of Illumination demonstrates Kidane’s use of more intimate musical forms and settings. The three songs performed at Leeds were thoughtful, intellectual pieces that reflect the potential for a much more thorough engagement with Blake, should Kidane wish to explore more of the poet’s works (and I for one hope that he does). Without emphasising too much his Russian heritage and experiences in Saint Petersburg, his work was reminiscent in part of Dmitri Smirnov, who has dedicated a great deal of his output to exploring Blake’s music since the 1970s and 1980s. Like Smirnov (and Britten before him), Kidane challenges us to listen to Blake as the intellectual precursor of Modernism rather than a simpler voice of Romanticism.

Review: Her Infernal Descent#1

There have been many re-interpretations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly its first part, Inferno, since the poet wrote his vision of heaven and hell in the early fourteenth century. As well as influencing writers as diverse as T. S. Eliot, Osip Mandelstam and Jorge Luis Borges, it has inspired classical (Puccini, Liszt) and popular (Nine Circles, Depeche Mode) music, video games – most notably Dante’s Inferno (2010) – and has been illustrated repeatedly by an infernal army of artists, most notably Gustave Doré, Salvador Dali and, of course, William Blake.

The connection between Blake and Dante is explored in a particularly fascinating way in a new comic written by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson and illustrated by Kyle Charles, Dee Cunniffe and Ryan Ferrier. Entitled Her Infernal Descent, the series – the first episode of which, “Denial”, was released this week – charts the journey of a lonely widow into hell to find her family. We find the, as-yet-unnamed, protagonist in her home, void of the life once given to the place by her husband and children but full of the detritus of material that reminds her of them. She herself is ageing, visibly sinking into despondency and unable to rouse herself from the deadening effects of loss, and the opening pages have been noted by several reviewers for the simplicity and beauty of their engagement with an all-too ordinary form of grief.

It is five pages in, after a beautifully illustrated montage of her climbing into an attic to pack away yet more mundane stuff of finished lives, that she encounters the figure who will be the spirit guide on her future journey: William Blake. In a reverse scene of that in Alan Moore’s From Hell, when William Gull (Moore’s Jack the Ripper) appears as a ghost to Blake and inspires the original The Ghost of a Flea, Blake rears up before her in the attic space to tell her that he has spoken to her family in hell and that she now has the opportunity to accompany him there. Sceptical at first, she soon succumbs to his prophetic charms (as so many of us do) and lets him lead her out into the dreamlike streets that soon transform into a portal into the underworld.

All the reviews I’ve read have been extremely positive, and in general I can see why. The artwork is delicate and reminiscent of the work of Dave McKean and Eddie Campbell in particular. While I am less impressed by the writing than some, for reasons I’ll outline below, nonetheless the topic is wonderful in its scope, especially as it combines the descent into hell with such a mundane sense of an ordinary woman’s life. It’s not quite the first graphic novel version: Joseph Lanzara’s Dante’s Inferno (2012) made use of Doré’s art in a frankly derivative fashion while Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory (2004) is a much more original take. Her Infernal Descent is very much in the latter category, and for this reason alone is a worthy example of the inclusion of Blake – as well as Dante – in a long line of comic-book adaptations.

While this version is extremely admirable for so many reasons, however, its depiction of Blake is one with which I can’t quite connect. The initial appearance of Blake bears a resemblance to that of Eddie Campbell’s in From Hell, yet is more gaunt, rather like a spectral Nick Cave. That connection would be admirable enough, but throughout the comic it was a slight irritation to me that this was not my Blake as I so often imagine him based on a series of paintings and drawings of the artist during his lifetime. This, however, was much less of an issue than his tendency to speak in rhyming couplets: William Blake was not necessarily averse to such couplets – they appear, most notably, throughout Auguries of Innocence – but the form is actually a relatively rare one for Blake. After meeting him and before deciding to go along for the ride, the protagonist asks him, “Are you gonna be rhyming the whole time?” and, I’m afraid, I felt her pain, as in such lines as the following:

You should be assured hell is as real as the great human spirit.
This offer only comes once, or be cast aside if thou fear it.

This example (admittedly one of the worst in the issue) appears to be attempting to emulate both Blake’s fourteeners from epic poems such as Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion as well as the heroic couplets of the Augustan age. Frankly, it doesn’t work, not least because the rhythm (something that Blake was a thorough master of at his very best) is all utterly irregular and thus fails to scan effectively.

Somewhat less egregious, but also mildly annoying to me, are some weird decisions – probably factual errors – on the part of the writers of Her Infernal Descent: Blake talks about the loss of his son throughout the issue, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was not a profound if obscure reference to Tristanne Connolly’s work on Catherine Blake’s miscarriage in William Blake and the Body (a hypothesis that was never widely known) as a simple mistake for the death of Blake’s brother, Robert. Likewise, when the pair first descend into hell, Blake greets the classical writers Plato, Aristotle, Ovid and Homer as those figures “from whom the word of power I glean”. While this line strictly refers to a pseudo-occult power that Blake as psychopomp possesses in the comic, the notion that Blake the man would have given such reverence to classical authors – whom he so memorably attacks in the Preface to Milton a Poem – is inaccurate.

And yet, despite these criticisms, Her Infernal Descent is a wonderful book. I am most certainly not the target audience for a graphic novel of this kind and, the occasional very poor poetic couplet aside, most of my criticisms above are nitpicking or subjective responses. Above all else, the fact that the authors decided that William Blake should replace Virgil as the archetypal guide to the underworld is a brilliant conceit, demonstrating a deft understanding of pop culture appropriations of Blake that generally work. I doubt that many readers with at least a passing understanding of the Romantic’s poetry would question his suitability as a spiritual guide, and although this first issue essentially sets the scene for further encounters I wonder how much of Blake’s antinomian visions of hell will percolate through future episodes of the comic.

Her Infernal Descent is published by AfterShock, aftershockcomics.com, RRP $3.99 or £2.49.