William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion – review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage and Daemon Voices

In 1995, Philip Pullman published the first book in the trilogy, His Dark Materials. Set in an alternate-universe Oxford, Northern Lights told the story of Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry as they fought the machinations of the Magisterium, the equivalent of the Catholic Church in another dimension where there had been no Reformation nor any halt to its two-thousand-year expansion of power. Throughout the trilogy, Blake was quoted repeatedly, particularly with regard to the concept of Dust, and you can find some of my own reactions to his use of Blake in an earlier podcast.

With his new novel, La Belle Sauvage, the first title in a new trilogy called The Book of Dust, we are once more in the Oxford of Lyra, although now she is a young baby merely six months old. The story this time centres on an eleven-year-old boy, Malcolm Polstead, who works in a pub, The Trout, alongside the Thames and comes to learn of Lyra’s existence through a chance meeting with Lord Nugent, the former Lord Chancellor of England. Nugent has sought to place the young girl – daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter (familiar from the previous trilogy) – in the safe keeping of an order of nuns who live in Oxford. Through his work for the sisters, who are portrayed in a warm and generous light by Pullman (for his critique of organised religion is by no means blindly hostile), Malcolm becomes increasingly affectionate to Lyra and her daemon, seeking to protect her from the evil inclinations of those members of the Magisterium who wish to do her harm in order to hurt Lord Asriel. During this time, Malcolm also befriends a scholar, Hannah Relf, who has been inducted by Nugent into the secret society he heads, Oakley Street; Relf reads an alethiometer to discover events for the more liberal groups that Nugent represents. Less happily, at least to begin with, Malcolm’s acquaintances include the kitchen maid, Alice, who will become one of the real stars of the novel.

When the strange villain of the book, Gerard Bonneville, a crazed and sadistic scientist who has some understanding of the real nature of Dust, attempts to abduct Lyra, Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, flee the city along with Alice in his boat, La Belle Sauvage. A huge storm has flooded the Thames and surrounding areas, and when they flee southwards so the most important literary source for the novel – Homer’s Odyssey – comes to the fore, influencing a series of weird, visionary experiences along the way as when Malcolm and Alice encounter an island in the river whose inhabitants ignore them and the grim realities of their former lives that are hidden from view by an unearthly fog. In interviews accompanying the publication of the book, Pullman has also indicated that the unusual happenings along the Thames also take their inspiration from William Blake.

Before turning to the influence of Blake in more detail, some general observations on the novel are in order. A very simple observation is that for those readers who enjoyed His Dark Materials, on the whole they will almost certainly be pleased with La Belle Sauvage. It is, perhaps, a slower burn than the previous trilogy, and in comparison to Northern Lights it is worth observing that not a great deal happens. Indeed, a few readers on sites such as Goodreads have grumbled, not entirely without grounds, that this is a dull and slow book. That certainly wasn’t my experience of it, although my only criticism would be that it is very much a novel that is setting in place a number of pieces for the remaining trilogy. The end, when Malcolm and Alice finally meet Lord Asriel and hand over Lyra to him, is satisfactory enough but is very obviously not a moment of closure. Partly because of the allusions to The Odyssey, however, as well as the character of Bonneville, who is truly compelling (and disturbing) as a villain I personally found the novel much more entertaining than some other readers.

The critical reception of La Belle Sauvage has generally been very positive, with critics noting his literary influences (including a perceptive comment by Frank Cottrell Boyce regarding his struggles with C. S. Lewis). Sam Leith called it “a rich, dreamlike prequel well worth the wait”, a sentiment echoed by Claire Loughrey, and Stuart Kelly forgives Pullman the literary lectures in Daemon Voices because the first volume of The Book of Dust is so good.

A number – although by no means all – critics mention Blake. The influence throughout the novel is more subtle: with His Dark Materials, the full build-up to the war in heaven and a Blakean re-reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost took some time, but there were quotations and direct references that made Pullman’s debt to Blake very clear. This is not the case in La Belle Sauvage – the influence, rather, is implicit in elements such as Dust (which, as he made clear throughout the earlier trilogy, took direct inspiration from Blake’s poetry) and the resistance to organised religion. Upon first reading, my own assumption was that Blake had been relegated in importance, but repeatedly in interviews Pullman draws attention to Blake. Thus, for example, he told Time magazine “in William Blake’s terms I’m a proponent of two-fold, three-fold and four-fold vision and not single vision,” a notion repeated in his NPR interview. As such, Blake becomes a principle support for Pullman’s metaphysics, one where imagination provides the ability to re-vision the world around us as a matter of course.

The essays collected together in Daemon Voices are, as the editor, Simon Mason observes in his introduction, very varied. Comprising thirty of a hundred and twenty or so that Pullman has written over the years, this collection does contain a substantial insight into his understanding of Blake. The romantic poet and artist is scattered throughout the book, especially in the various discussions of His Dark Materials, but the very best essay in the collection – originally published in The Guardian in 2014 – is Pullman’s discussion of Blake’s influence over a period of fifty years. “Soft Beulah’s Night: William Blake and Vision” begins with a wonderful evocation of Pullman attempting (and failing) to locate copies of Blake’s work in Merionethshire after reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (the fact that he was able to track down Ginsberg in the coastal resort of Barmouth but not Blake speaks volumes). When he finally encountered the Dent Everyman selection of poems edited by Ruthven Todd, thus began a deep affection for the poet which is probably the most significant of all those affecting Pullman:

That was fifty years ago. My opinions about many things have come and gone, changed and changed about, since then; I have believed in God, and then disbelieved; I have thought that certain writers and poets were incomparably great, and gradually found them less and less interesting, and finally commonplace… But those first impulses of certainty about William Blake have never forsaken me, though I may have been untrue to them from time to time. Indeed, they have been joined by others, and I expect to go on reading Blake, and learning more, for as long as I live. (pp. 342-3)

This essay also provides a key to unlock La Belle Sauvage, discussing as it does the profoundly materialist nature of consciousness which Pullman garnered from that visionary materialist, William Blake, whose prologue to Europe a Prophecy includes the line “every particle of dust breathes forth its joy”. Likewise, it is from Blake that the later author draws his own conception of fourfold vision, the ability to view not with single, rational vision but to overlay all the faculties of our empathy and imagination.

The second essay on Blake, “I Must Create A System: A Moth’s-Eye View of William Blake”, is less compelling, mainly because it is a transcript of a talk given to the Blake Society and is one of those pieces that would be infinitely more pleasurable to hear than to read. Nonetheless, again and again Pullman demonstrates his deep and thoughtful relation with Blake, offering keen insights as when he notes that Blake was not a Gnostic, not infected with that religious sect’s despair against the natural world. Indeed, it is through such engagement with Blake that we come towards another important element of Pullman’s relationship with the earlier poet, one evident in the title. Pullman’s conceit of daemons, animal spirits that materialise the psyche of each character in his alternate world, draws much of its power from another text by Blake, one intimately bound up with the animal world and which Pullman refers to repeatedly. Auguries of Innocence, perhaps the first true poem dealing with animal rights and man’s indebtedness to the animal world, at least in the west, becomes the second key that opens the doors onto the world of Philip Pullman’s fiction. It may be, indeed, that he wishes to use Blake’s advice to create a system that will free him from organised religion and repressive science, but it is also important that the system he seeks to create can see a conscious, living world of energy and joy in every particle of dust, in every grain of sand.

La Belle Sauvage and Daemon Voices are both published by David Fickling books and are available for RRP £20.


Review: U2, Songs of Experience

As the biggest band in the world (or, at least according to Rolling Stone, one of the top 100 and the only one to make it through more than three decades without changing their lineup), U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience has been attracting a great deal of attention. So far, so unsurprising. What is more surprising is that the latest addition to their corpus should be named after a William Blake collection – a trick they’ve pulled off not once, but twice, with Songs of Experience the follow-up to their 2014 album, Songs of Innocence.

The reviews are, frankly somewhat mixed: perhaps the most damning has been Kitty Empire’s two-star summation of SoE as “an insipid try-hard” (ouch), while Amanda Petrusich argues that the band has “run out of things to say” and, in one of my favourite reviews, Calum Marsh observes that the band is struggling to make itself relevant in the second decade of the twenty-first century; against these more negative pieces, David Fricke argues that, while flawed in parts, it is their most powerful album in a long while and Alexis Petridis noted it as album of the week.

Of course, what the world has been waiting for is a middle-aged academic to weigh in the subject, so to ensure that no more breath is baited I’ll offer my brief summary of the albu. As a musical addition to a band’s output that has not, frankly, much interested me since their 1987 The Joshua Tree, I was genuinely surprised to actually rather enjoy the album, certainly much more than Songs of Innocence which was the insipid contribution to their back catalogue. There are the inevitable jangly guitars, signature mark of David Howell Evans (because, even thirty years later, I can’t bring myself to call him the Edge, as much as anything because I’m never one hundred percent sure where the capitalisation starts…). Actually, U2, while being far too middle of the road for my tastes deserve much greater respect than any sarcastic knocks from a literary scholar and so I shall simply observe that Songs of Experience, while amusingly pompous at times (this is, after all, U2) is certainly much more listenable than recent work.

What this review will focus on instead is how significant the title choice is. Songs of Experience, named, of course, after William Blake’s 1794 famous collection of verse, was meant to be released more quickly after Songs of Innocence as a companion piece but apparently, due to the progress of the 2016 election and a near-death experience on the part of Bono (I’m genuinely resisting all the tasteless jokes for a moment). Personally, I suspect the almost-unanimous hostility that greered SoI was another reason to pause: convincing Tim Cook to release the album to every owner of an iOS device was business genius but a bit of a PR disaster – it’s been a long time since Apple was synonymous with the phrase “think different” and the sheer arrogance of assuming a few hundred million iPhone and iPad owners wanted to listen to your Blake-inspired warblings was astonishing.

By contrast, Songs of Experience is genuinely enjoyable at times if somewhat more maudlin and still obviously the work of a band that believes it will change the world. This is clear on tracks such as “Lights of Home” (available in two versions on the album), which is actually one of my favourite tracks but with its final chorus – ominously repeating a motif from SoI‘s “Iris (Hold Me Close)” – enters full on pseudo counter-culture territory as it invites listeners to “free yourself to be yourself”. A proverb of hell this is not. It’s almost as though punk never happened and, at that precise moment, reminds me of Primal Scream’s great song, “Kill All Hippies.” Nevertheless, the album often displays a greater degree of self-knowledge that is genuinely touching, as on “You’re The Best Thing About Me” when Bono sings “Shooting off my mouth / That’s another great thing about me”. How many of his critics have thought that about him?

Petrusich’s review is one of the most thoughtful but, for reasons I’ll come on to later, also one of the most inappropriately academic. A couple of paragraphs in, she endeavours to explain the significance of Blake which, of course, invites all kinds of generalisations and inadvertent falsehoods which is often the case in the format of a music review. As Blake himself wrote, “to generalise is to be an idiot; to particularise is the alone distinction of merit”. Her overall point, however, is correct – if also somewhat obvious: to future generations, it is Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience that will be remarked worthy of the distinction of merit. She also points out that while U2’s Songs of Innocence did seem to capture some of the essence of childhood and adolescence, their Songs of Experience seems to miss much of the point. On the whole, I agree: the experience of U2’s songs is generally a more self-concerned – if sometimes genuinely touching – mark of introspection, the obsession with the authors’ own mortalities, rather than Blake’s genuinely angry cries against social injustice.

This is not to say that U2 have not read Blake. Originally, I had intended to offer a more detailed analysis of many of the individual tracks from the album, but the blog In Search of Rock Gods has already done this and I recommend that you read this for a detailed song-by-song analysis in the post “Hopeful Symmetry: A Blakeian Look at U2’s Songs Of Experience“. I do not completely agree with all of the author’s observations – I think there is a tendency to find similarities where some may be much more tenuous, nonetheless the following is an interesting example:

“Infant Sorrow”: My mother groaned, my father wept: Into the dangerous world I lept, helpless, naked, piping loud.
“Lights of Home”: I was born from a screaming sound.
“The Showman”: Baby’s crying because it’s born to sing.

This demonstrates both a strength and weakness: the line from “Lights of Home” is genuinely compelling and an interesting allusion, but that from “The Showman” is far too generic to be convincing. However, the ultimate argument of “Hopeful Symmetry”, and one which I found illuminating, is that both of U2’s albums work by reflecting and pairing each other. Thus, for example, “Love Is All We Have Left” (SoE) pairs with “Iris” (SoI) and “American Soul” (SoE) with “Volcano” (SoI). This point is intelligently made, and the repetitions of phrases and motifs suggest that this was clearly intended by the band, leading to a more dialectical approach to the two collections that would fit with a Blakean approach to the two contraries of the human soul.

And yet, ultimately it is Songs of Experience itself that fails to convince me that U2 have clearly absorbed the darker energies of Blake’s poetry. Like the earlier collection of poetry, there is a lyric that deals with an iconic place: for Blake, it is London – for U2, it is America. Both are ideas as much as physical locations, and both deal with the darker manifestations of those places – Trump’s USA and the England of William Pitt. First of all, Blake’s “London”:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

This poem has been known to generations of children (and rightly so) and I know from my experience of teaching those school children when they come to university it is a poem that leaves a lasting impresion on them (even if they are not always sure why). Contrast this to U2’s “American Soul”:

Blessed are the bullies
For one day they will have to stand up to themselves
Blessed are the liars
For the truth can be awkward

It’s not a place
This country is to me a sound
Of drum and bass
You close your eyes to look around

Look around, look around
Look around, it’s a sound
Look around, look around
It’s a sound

It’s not a place
This country is to me a thought
That offers grace
For every welcome that is sought

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

It’s not a place
This is a dream the whole world owns
The pilgrim’s face
It had your heart to call her home

Call her home, Brother John
So every mother’s weepin’
Dream on, Brother John
In your dreams you get me sleepin’

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American, American

Put your hands in the air
Hold on the sky
Could be too late, but we still gotta try
There’s a moment in our life where a soul can die
And the person in a country when you believe the lie
The lie (the lie, the lie)
There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream
It’s a call to action, not to fantasy
The end of a dream, the start of what’s real
Let it be unity, let it be community
For refugees like you and me
A country to receive us
Will you be our sanctuary

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American soul, American soul

I do rather like this track on the album – it has delightfully dirty, soulful backing guitars that give it a raw power – but as a modern counterpoint to Blake’s denunciation of the corruption of a country ruined by war it falls far short. Blake’s poetry is terse, burning with rage against religion, war, child slavery and child prostitution (the latter not abstractions in eighteenth-century London). By contrast, U2’s lyrics are… worthy. I admire the sentiment, but it is sentimental. The heart of Blake’s nameless narrator is filled with wrath, for Blake knew that the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction, yet U2 have hitched themselves up to the latter, preaching to the converted with weak puns (“Refu-Jesus”? Seriously?) rather than denouncing the evils that men do the children they should protect. A liberal piss fit because Trump was elected will never match the Jeremiad of Blake’s righteous wrath. It is one thing I have always loved about him – while the religious right frequently lays claim to the power of the words of the King James Version, it is that radical antinomian who denounces God, priest and king who more accurately captures the violent cadences of the Bible.

In the end, for me U2’s Songs of Experience is too weak, too well-meaning to fully adopt the mantle of Blake’s poetry. I do actually rather like the album (although much of this week I’ve been listening repeatedly to Martha Redbone’s Garden of Love as a truly wonderful Blakean adaptation), but ultimately the band is concerned with love conquering all. Although Blake frequently observed that experience was not the end, that “organized innocence” provided a fruitful marriage of the two contrary states of the soul, he was also a great enough poet to allow evil to speak with a clear voice, the better that it could be understood and rejected. This is the prophetic voice of the original Songs of Experience, one that contains – in poems such as “The Sick Rose”, “London” and, of course, “The Tyger” – some of the clearest delineations of evil ever to have been written and which Blake allows to stand alone at this point, without the intervention of a loving god to rescue us. Blake’ trusts his readers to understand within their own souls the pathways they must follow. After all, when he asks “Did he who make the lamb make thee?” he does not rush to provide an answer, for the assertion that love conquers all is meaningless for those whose innocence is taken away. In one of the darkest poems of Songs of Experience, Blake grimly observes:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we

Against such clear-sighted vision, Bono’s assertion that “Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”, for all its invocation of near-death experiences, will always remain too simplistic, too glib by comparison.

Rev. of John H. Jones’s Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilation

Cover: John Jones

John H. Jones. Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilation. $90.00. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. pp. xii+250.

John H. Jones’s Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilation argues that dialogic self-annihilation in Blake’s oeuvre is a means of resistance to all forms of “philosophical and political monologism” that dictatorially impose a single vision upon readers and listeners.  Where monologism establishes the author as an authority and the reader as a passive recipient, Blake’s dialogism invites both readers and listeners to the process of creating textual meaning through authorial acts of self-annihilation, acts that are opposed to the assertion of Blakean “selfhood.”  Jones asserts that Blake’s “inspired discourse” anticipates Bahktin’s concept of dialogue, drawing upon Bahktin in each chapter to comment upon Blake’s use of discourse.  Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination and Makdisi’s William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s provide Jones with his theoretical orientation as he explores his thesis in chapters devoted to The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The [First] Book of Urizen, Milton, and Jerusalem. This monograph’s strength lies in its detailed examination of a subject that has attained a high profile in Blake studies in the years preceding its publication. Jones’s examination spans key works across Blake’s entire career and is supported by careful readings of select texts. Its weaknesses are that its appropriation of Bakhtin is sparse enough to be able to be cut entirely with no loss, and it at times presents a Blake so committed to non-authoritarian dialogism that he cannot say anything at all. Its greatest fault, ironically given the book’s thesis, is that its thesis is applied without development or modification in chapter after chapter. This monograph on Blake’s dialogism, therefore, does not sufficiently recognize the strength of assertions offered by a dialog, Blake’s greater proximity to some points of view than others, and seems unable to assimilate Blake’s insistence on definite form.

Sarah Haggarty’s Blake’s Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange

booksSarah Haggarty. 2010. Blake’s Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange. New York: Cambridge UP. $99.00. x+256 pp.

Sarah Haggarty’s engaging and original study, Blake’s Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange, examines the theme of the gift in William Blake’s poetry and personal letters. Blake’s notion of the gift is considered in five areas from which each chapter takes its title: economy, patronage, charity, inspiration, and salvation.  Because relatively little Blake scholarship is focused upon this topic, she theorizes her study by comparing Blake’s notion of the gift to either Derrida’s The Gift of Death or Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money,  Marcel Mauss’s The Gift: The Form and Reasons for Exchange in Archaic Societies, and Bourdieu’s titles on practice and cultural production. Most often siding with Mauss contra Derrida, Haggarty affirms that Blake’s notion of the gift maintains the idea of the gift as freely given in dialectic with the gift as the inauguration and sign of a relationship, seeking to contextualize Blake’s works within “the transactions of the world those works exist in” (p. 12).  “Politics” in Haggarty’s title may be therefore slightly misleading unless construed in a very broad sense: Blake’s notion of the gift, according to Haggarty, often serves the purpose of elevating his works and his relationship with his patrons and readers above economics and politics in their narrower senses, or transforming and redeeming politics and economics as they are normally practiced. Rather than emphasizing the language of price, debt, and experience in his notion of the gift, Haggarty argues, Blake preferred the language of “treasures, rewards, gold, talents, and riches” (p. 12), extending his readers‘ conception of economics beyond the acquisition of material wealth. Haggarty’s well-written monograph isolates one of Blake’s less-regarded golden threads and rolls it up into a substantial, complex study that sheds valuable light on a number of themes important to Blake scholarship.

by James Rovira


Genesis: William Blake’s Last Illuminated Work

Robert Essick’s and Mark Crosby’s Genesis: William Blake’s Last Illuminated Work (with an essay by Robert Wark: Huntington Library, 2012) has just been published by the Huntington Library. This impressive edition of the beginning of Blake’s rendition of the book of Genesis is aptly titled, as it is Blake’s last attempt at a work combining text and image. It’s very large, to accomodate full-size / full-color reproductions of the eleven leaves, most of which are pencil sketches — the more finished drawings are at the beginning, the most sketchy at the end, which may provide some indication of Blake’s work habits near the end of his life. These aren’t the watercolors of the Bible found on blakearchive.org. The book is available in green cloth with no slipcase or cover.

Stood up on its side this book is almost the same height as the books in the Illuminated Books series. But, it’s thin. 11 reproduced leaves printed single-side and 58 pages of text, notes, and commentary, plus a little bit of front matter. Because the pages are so large, of course, the notes and commentaries can be extensive and still not take up a large number of pages. Blake’s handwritten text on the most semi-finished pages are, interestingly, a Gothic script: Blake drew lines using a rule, wrote out his lines in his normal handwriting, then wrote over that handwriting in Gothic script for the final product.

According to a note by Rossetti, this book was commissioned by Linnell and begun in the last year of Blake’s life, so left incomplete at the time of his death. One leaf is watermarked 1821 and two are watermarked 1826.

My first impression after looking at these drawings is that Blake worked in this way:

1. rough sketch with lines drawn for text.
2. words in Blake’s own handwriting
3. More line detail added to the drawing
4. words in finished script (Gothic)
5. initial watercolor — heaviest coloring in the center of the figures with detail to be worked toward the edges later, so that these intermediate or early-stage colorings only have heavy colors in the middle of the figures.

The next step would have been final, detailed watercoloring, but none of the leaves were finished to that stage. Some of the latter sketches are very sketchy indeed: circles and ovals for bodies in some cases, circles and ovals with scribbles for initial detail (hair and robes) in others. Of course steps 1-2 and 4-5 could be in either order or combined.

Blake’s header for Chapter 1 is “The Creation of the Natural Man.”

Full color reproductions are followed by —

Textual transcription
Notes to the textual transcription
Comparison of Blake’s text to the Authorized Version
Forward to Wark’s essay by the Huntington Director of the Art Collections
Editors’ notes to Wark’s essay
Wark’s essay
Editors’ commentary

The paper on which images are reproduced is not too reflective, which makes for a better viewing experience. I haven’t seen the originals so can’t speak to the possibility of any lost detail, but these appear to be very high quality reproductions, so I doubt that any detail was lost.

Overall, this edition of Blake’s last illuminated work has the potential to shed additional light on Blake’s appropriation of creation myths and on his views of Scripture as a printed book. His reproductions and departures from the text of the Authorized Version deserve some attention, as does his use of Gothic script.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: U Chicago, 2011

Michael Phillips’s beautiful and professionally-bound University of Chicago edition of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell appears to be a cover to cover facsimile of the Bodelian’s copy. I mean “cover to cover” quite literally: the image posted on Amazon and the publisher’s website is a full-color photographic reproduction of a nineteenth-century binding. Upon opening the book you will find a full-color reproduction of the inside cover. The next page — which is a blank page in the original — is again reproduced exactly — so that the cover shows wear marks, and front matter shows ink marks, book stamps, water stains, and all.

This edition, then, is an exact reproduction of Copy B of Blake’s Marriage from cover to cover, with the addition of Phillips’s extensive introduction, textual transcription, notes, commentary, a checklist of copies, and bibliography. There’s simply nothing quite like it; not even the edition published by the William Blake Trust for the Illuminated Books series. Owning this book is as close to owning an original copy of the Marriage as possible.

The William Blake Archive does reproduce Copy B of the Marriage with a textual transcription, so that you can preview the specific contents of the reproductions in Phillips’s edition there. This edition, however — being a full, cover to cover reproduction of the book owned by the Bodelian — includes some additional images that are not part of the same sequence of images available on the Blake archive website, though these are available elsewhere on the site. These additional images include reproductions from nine copies of what is Plate 14 in the Bodelian copy with alternate copies of a few other plates such as “A Song of Liberty” and one of the memorable fancies, in addition to a copy of “Our End is Come” preceding the text of Marriage. More details about Copy B are available on the William Blake Archive website.

Overall, this edition of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell is well worth the price and a good purchase even if you already own the William Blake Trust’s edition, both for its originality of presentation and for Phillips’s notes and commentary. This volume may represent the future for reproductions of Blake’s works: professional, full-color facsimile editions of each individual copy.

Fernand Péna and Guy Pearson

Ode to William Blake. Fernand Péna. Lezarts, 2010. €15.00. lezarts.info.Glad Day. Guy Pearson. Issimo, 2010. £11.00. guypearson.com.

Fernand Péna, based in Paris, has been a rock musician since the 1970s, one who’s influences include Tom Waits, Neil Young, The Doors and Frank Zappa. His latest project, released in late 2010, is the result of several years’ labour to bring together these influences with another love of his life, Blake’s art and poetry, in the form of the album Ode to William Blake. Comprising sixteen tracks, with a very handsome illustrated booklet that includes Blake’s lyrics as well as short essays in French and English on Blake’s life and works.

Péna’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Waits (or indeed Tom Petty),  and Ode to William Blake is a determined rock record (indeed, the back cover describes it as “Rock Songs with Words from the Mind”). Péna is extremely faithful – indeed, literal – to Blake’s poetry, drawing primarily from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with only two tracks drawn from elsewhere in Blake’s corpus. One of these, “Oh, I say you Joe”, shares its origins with the Songs insofar as it is located in An Island in the Moon (the original source of such Songs of Innocence as “Holy Thursday”), while the last track on the album, “William Bond”, is taken from The Pickering Manuscript, most famous for the poem “Auguries of Innocence”.

After a slightly disappointing start with “Songs of Innocence” (the “Introduction” to Blake’s own Innocence), Ode to William Blake quickly improves with two of my favourite tracks from the entire album: “The Little Vagabond” and “The Little Boy Lost/The Little Boy Found”. Actually, I have a personal block with more of less all versions of the first poem in Innocence, it being, for example, one of the weakest tracks for me on Jah Wobble’s  The Inspiration of William Blake. “The Little Vagabond”, by contrast, establishes very firmly Péna’s strong rock and blues style guitar, with a very mellow backing track. Very occasionally, his French pronunciation either jars or adds an additional exoticism to Blake’s lyrics, but in general his gravelly voice is rich and luxurious.

Throughout the album as a whole, what is most fascinating about Péna’s work is how successfully he transfers Blake’s lyricism into soft rock that is not simply professional in terms of its musical quality (entirely to be expected of Péna’s background), but rather natural. The virtue of Blake’s songs is that many of them may be transformed into rock ballads, though there remain – as is to be expected – a few surprises. The slightly unconventional metre of “The Little Black Boy” returns the listener to Blake’s words in new and fascinating ways,  while the acoustic accompanying guitar of “To Tirzah” throws the frankly bizarre lyrics into [new light?]

Many of the tracks, such as “A Poison Tree” or “William Bond”, are dominated by vibrant classic guitar licks (so much so that “William Bond” in particular struck me as something that could have been produced by a group such as Pink Floyd in the eighties or nineties). Not that the style is by any means monotonous, however: thus “Oh, I say you Joe” experiments with a  calypso feel, while “Holy Thursday” is mournful and thoughtful. Péna’s talent is to have transferred Blake’s poetry to a popular format with aplomb and very evident affection.

Guy Pearson’s Glad Day, also released in 2010, is in a very different style although it too also draws largely from Songs of Innocence and Experience. Classical piece, primarily for piano and voice, these draw on a different tradition of classical music (though one that, in a few cases, such as the introductory track, “Glad Day”, also echoes with filmic references). Pearson’s style works best when focussed on his own virtuoso piano playing in accompaniment to such singers as soprano Rachel Major or James Savage-Hanford’s delightful tenor voice.

Several of the tracks are direct translations of Blake’s lyrics, such as the delightful “A Dream” or “Ah! Sun-flower” (both sung by Major). Elsewhere, however, Pearson provides some extremely interesting interpretations designed to capture elements of Blake’s art or poetry. “An Island in the Moon”, for example, is a marvellous instrumental that captures the joie de vivre of Blake’s satire and something of its rumbustious, rococo style, while “Newton” offers echoes of Michael Nyman’s work in order to express the mechanical (yet also immensely elegant) world view of the scientist and philosopher. Ironically, perhaps, it is one of my favourite pieces on the album and puts me in mind of Blake’s ambivalence towards Newton in his famous large colour print from 1795 – the angelic spiritual form of one of England’s greatest mind’s as beautiful as Satan in his former glory.

Of the eighteen tracks, others that attracted my attention include “The Tyger” and “Lux Nova”. “The Tyger” actually begins with haunting whispered words from the opening lines of Auguries of Innocence, “To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower”. The effect of this, particularly with Pearson’s minimalist introduction and – once more – Major’s wonderful soprano, is to focus the listener on the tiger as not merely an instrument of terror and the sublime but also return him or her to the beauty of this creature. “Lux Nova” does not draw directly from Blake’s own poetry, but this new light could clearly be one of Blake’s own innocent songs, or perhaps one of the those clear and lucid moments that emerge at the end of his grand prophecies such as The Four Zoas or Jerusalem, when the prophet Los emerges from the obscure and terrible darkness that has preceded. What is more, “Lux Nova” allows the listener to enjoy Pearson’s piano very simply.

Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant: Blake’s Poetry and Designs

(Note: this review is a corrected version of a review originally published in College Literature, 35:8 (Summer 2008): pp. 198-201.  The author would like to thank the editors of College Literature for making an exception in publishing the original version of this review.)

Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, eds.  2008.  Blake’s Poetry and Designs: A Norton Critical Edition.  Second Edition.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co.  $22.50 sc. xxvi + 628 pp.

Mary Lynn Johnson’s and John E. Grant’s update of their 1979 Norton critical edition of Blake’s Poetry and Designs represents a significant step forward in the presentation of Blake’s work to the public.  Consistent with newer Norton editions, Blake’s Poetry and Designs is more compact, colorful, and better typeset than the first edition and incorporates significant updates to its content, continuing to arrange this content with the most widely circulated editions of Blake in mind.  Their 1979 edition followed Keynes’s edition of Blake in its chronological arrangement of Blake’s work, which had been the standard edition of Blake from 1925 to the seventies.  The updated Norton edition follows the now-standard Erdman’s edition, placing the text of the illuminated books first then following it with manuscript material, marginalia, and letters.  One effect of this change is to shift from a study of Blake oriented around the development of his thought through time to a focused emphasis upon the illuminated books.

This emphasis is reflected in the new edition in its inclusion of all of Jerusalem. The first edition had less than half of what is now considered Blake’s great work, so that all of Blake’s illuminated books are now presented in a Norton Critical Edition.  Johnson and Grant expand For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise from only the concluding “To the Accuser Who is the God of This World” to the complete text, add Blake’s marginalia to Spurzheim’s Observations on Insanity, and approximately double the text of Blake’s letter to Thomas Butts of 26 April 1803.  But where the editors giveth, the publishers taketh away, so as a partial trade-off for the inclusion of all of Jerusalem, the editors cut all of Hayley’s letters from 1800 and approximately ten pages of their selections from Blake’s notebook, which is no longer thematically organized.  The first edition’s sections on “Drafts” and “Love” from the notebook suffered the fewest cuts while its section on “Visions” is about half its previous length and “Art and Artists” is barely represented at all.

The net effect of these cuts is to reduce the notebook to a reading companion to the illuminated books emphasizing the themes of sex, love, and vision, a reasonable decision given the necessity of cuts and the new edition’s greater emphasis on the illuminated books.  Johnson and Grant are not as concerned with separating Blake’s poetry from his prose as Erdman was, but I wish they had chosen to follow their original chronological arrangement of Blake’s work.  As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Erdman’s New and Revised Edition of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, a chronological presentation of Blake’s poetry and prose could be a productive departure from Erdman’s norm, one conducive to new approaches to Blake’s material which have become increasingly historically oriented.

One radical departure from all prior presentations of Blake is this edition’s reliance upon The William Blake Archive for transcriptions of the illuminated books (Erdman’s text, cross referenced with originals, is used for Blake’s other works).  The William Blake Archive serves as an online companion to this edition as it is continually referenced in notes and introductory material.  Reliance upon the archive for transcriptions brings readers closer to Blake’s self-published illuminated works as they appear in the material objects he actually produced.  In the past, readers of Blake did not read Blake, but one editor’s ideal text redacted from a number of variant prints. The temptation to revise and correct Blake is for most editors of Blake difficult to overcome, but Johnson and Grant resist as much as possible.  The new Norton edition presents for the first time the particularities of Blake’s individual manuscripts, bringing the reader as close as possible to Blake’s text as it would be read in one of the illuminated works themselves.

This edition’s most striking feature is the quality of the color reproductions of Blake’s visual art.  Johnson and Grant were only able to include sixteen color illustrations in this edition, half the number of the first.  However, Blake’s illustrations are now printed on non-glossy, lightly textured, cream-colored paper, so that the Norton edition paper very closely blends with the color and texture of Blake’s own paper in some instances.  This choice of paper combined with Norton’s investment in high quality color reproduction allows Blake’s colors to leap as strikingly from the pages of Blake’s Poetry and Designs as they do when seen in person: precisely how they do not when they have to compete with light reflected from glossy paper – which, I might add, falls out of the older Norton editions quite easily while the new paper binds well.   I regret to report one printing failure, however: in my copy, the colors are slightly out of register in the reproduction of the title page to Europe (copy K), so Blake’s striking, vibrant blues come out a dull brown and the text is a bit fuzzy.  Aside from this glitch, there’s simply no going back to glossy reproductions of Blake’s art.  In addition to these color reproductions, eighty-six black and white illustrations appear throughout the text of the illuminated books, continually reminding readers that Blake didn’t just produce volumes of poetry but illuminated works.

Footnotes and textual notes emphasize literary references, suggest readings intended to make more coherent the tangled network of Blake’s mythological works, and usually make reference to Blake scholarship from the 1960s through the current decade, sometimes reaching further back.  Reprints of responses to Blake by his contemporaries are almost identical to that of the first edition, except that Lamb has been dropped and replaced by Leigh Hunt’s review of Blake’s exhibition, providing some representation of hostile reactions to Blake during his lifetime.  Selections of twentieth-century criticism are as annoyingly short in this volume as they are in any other Norton critical edition.  I suspect the editors feel the same way.  Only three of the essays in the first edition make their way to the second, with little representation of the editors’ own fortyish years of Blake scholarship.  Another terrible exclusion is any essay by David Erdman, who does however find his way into footnotes more often than any other Blake scholar except for Morton Paley.  The editors have been perhaps too careful about not citing their own work, their worst exclusions being reference to Johnson’s work on Blake and the emblem tradition in footnotes to For the Sexes and only a brief reference to Grant’s prickly, precise reading of “The Fly.”  But they make up for it by their care to cite when possible up-and-coming Blake scholars such as Angus Whitehead, whose meticulous work on Blake in the 1790s deserves close attention and appraisal.

Overall, the editors’ selection of twentieth-century criticism represents a variety of approaches, including an excerpt from Ginsberg on Blake, pointing readers to Blake’s influence on American literature and culture.  The select bibliography is extensive, inclusive of a number of points of view, and sensibly divided into categories that give newcomers to Blake scholarship some orientation to the amount and diversity of scholarship on Blake, while the chronology sets the production of Blake’s illuminated books within the context of his overall artistic production, his major life events, and British history.  By all standards this is the best edition of Blake available on the market today, especially if supplemented with online resources such as The William Blake Archive and The Blake Digital Text Project as intended.  I would say that its only shortcoming is one common to all text-based editions of Blake: art historical studies tend to be underrepresented in footnotes.  This edition, carefully assembled by two veteran Blake scholars, is ideal for graduate and undergraduate students as well as casual readers, reasonably priced, and sure to be a go-to edition for years to come.  The editors themselves should have the last word as they offer what might be the best advice possible to both long-time and brand-new readers of Blake: “Our advice is simply to start with whichever thread of meaning first catches your eye, follow that lead as far as it takes you; pick up the next loose end you see, and keep on exploring the book in your own way [. . .] keep following the glint of that golden string just ahead, winding as you go—and the walls will start opening before you.”

James Rovira – Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety

Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety. James Rovira. Continuum, 2010. pp. 184 + ix. £60. ISBN: 978-1-4411-3559-9.

As James Rovira explains in the introduction to his book, despite the widespread dissemination of Søren Kierkegaard’s concepts in the early twentieth century, full-scale applications of those concepts to Blake remain relatively rare. What is surprising about this is that Kierkegaard was an important link between Harold Bloom’s and Northrop Frye’s theories of influence and their work on Blake, yet aside from a small number of essays the only book-length study of Blake and Kierkegaard is Lorraine Clark’s Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic, published in 1991. Rovira suggests that widespread disillusionment with the religious contexts within which Kierkegaard worked is one reason why this philosopher, whose ideas are so fruitful to a study of Blake, has been widely overlooked; in any case, the various transformations that have taken place in discourses around religion in the public sphere in the intervening two decades since the appearance of Clark’s book mean that a re-evaluation of the relation between Blake and Kierkegaard is a timely one. Rovira may be seen to complement Clark in some ways, dealing as he does with texts prior to 1800 rather than after that date, and he concentrates less on the process of dialectic rather than the reasons why, in both Blake and Kierkegaard, acts of creation may generate a sense of anxiety within the self that is not adequately explained by current post-structuralist and deconstructionist theories.

This said, Rovira is somewhat more extensive than Clark in his treatment of both Blake and Kierkegaard. The opening chapter is generally excellent in providing information about the historical contexts in which both figures worked – my one proviso being that sometimes Rovira’s more emphatic statements about similarities between Denmark in the 1830s and 40s and Britain under a constitutional monarchy in the 1760s appear occasionally to make claims that, to me, would apply to many countries in western Europe and the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Part of my response, however, is due also to the fact that my own knowledge of Denmark at the time is poor and so, while attempts to provide a link between Blake and Kierkegaard in terms of the socio-political environments within which they both worked reads to me as occasional special pleading, I did enjoy and appreciate greatly Rovira’s treatment of Kierkegaard’s background. This provides some extremely useful insights into how his writings were produced and how they may be read by later generations of readers.

When turning to shared intellectual contexts, any sense of special pleading disappears completely: instead, by tracing Socratic and classical models of human personality, Rovira indicates thoroughly and clearly what Blake and Kierkegaard shared in terms of a philosophical heritage which formed both the points of origin and catalysts for reaction in each of their profoundly religious critiques of what it means to be human. Rovira notes how Kierkegaard came to the Socratic tradition via the German Romantics, a development which means that “[i]rony is not a mere trope in Kierkegaard’s thinking but, at least potentially, an existential stance.” (p.39) Socratic irony allows space for an existential self, and Rovira’s reading of the development of a dialectical author through Kierkegaard’s various philosophical texts is fascinating, emphasising as it does a deep critical and masterly engagement with existential doubt via pseudonymous authors such as Haufniensis and Anti-Climacus. Rovira follows this with a suitably thoughtful examination of Blake’s often complex relation to and use of Plato – sometimes demonstrating affinities to Platonic idealistic thought, as in his letter to Trusler in 1799, at other times ambivalent towards Plato. As Blake’s “world of ideal forms is a visceral one” (p.49), so Rovira suggests it is better to consider him as working in a tradition or genre of “apocalyptic” rather than “Platonic” idealism. This is an obvious enough point in many ways, but important in that Rovira follows it through that too often neglected tradition of religious thought from Augustine and Origen via Erasmus that allows Blake to be critical of the literal and scriptural materialisms of both the Thomas Paines and Bishop Watsons of his day.

This ties very neatly into Rovira’s account of classical models of personality that flourished in both Blake’s and Kierkegaard’s day, which in chapter three are related to the dialectical process in Kierkegaard’s transition from aesthetic to ethical personalities, as well as the movement in Blake from innocence to experience. This dynamic relation within the self, one of the clearest and most fruitful points of contact between both writers, also shares some features with Clark’s work, although Rovira provides a much fuller context for a study of Blake as he emphasises the movement between innocence and experience in Blake’s early works of the late 1780s and early 1790s. Within the third chapter are some particularly effective interpretations of the Songs, The Book of Thel, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion in particular, with Rovira indicating that rather than a standard path of progression from innocence to experience to higher, or organised innocence, we should instead the developmental process as “differentiations within innocence itself that are not usually registered within innocence” (p.71). Kierkegaard’s own model was the development of a bodily-oriented subject in the aesthetic stage, followed by a soul-oriented ethical stage, with a final spirit-oriented religious subject. Coyness – or, indeed, antagonism – among many secular critics about this spirit-oriented, religious subjectivity, tends to mean that those critics tend to ignore the joyous paradox that the self discovers its own eternal sense precisely at the moment that it annihilates self. Rovira is completely right to focus on this religious experience, too often brushed aside, as corresponding to Blake’s sense of visionary consciousness: as such, both Blake and Kierkegaard were able to “confront Enlightenment psychologies that mechanize human beings” (p.92), emphasising instead a break with immanence and environment that enables creation instead of reaction.

These contextual accounts take up more half of the book, and the final two chapters are given over to a reading of the problematic of generation more generally in Blake and Kierkegaard, followed by a detailed consideration of creation anxiety in The [First] Book of Urizen. As Rovira observes, in classical models procreation serves as the foundation for all future acts of creativity (and out of this creation anxiety arising from the attempt to create life and form outside of natural processes). In the first part of chapter 4, Rovira draws fairly extensively on Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety (written under the pseudonym Haufniensis) to help explain some of the dialectical processes at work in Blake’s concept of “Generation”, suggesting that both writers share a common concern with the relations of procreation and the fall of man that were relatively widespread throughout Christian Europe, if rarely dealt with as imaginatively as by these two writers. His summary of Blake’s concept as at work in Visions of the Daughter of Albion is particularly worth repeating:

These are the principle elements of Blake’s critique of fallen generation: it divides the self; it alienates feminine, sensual joy through both male aggression and male introversion; and it alienates both of these from each other, so that male sexuality finds its only expression through the aggressive impulse signified by Bromion. (p.112)

Sexual procreation is the model for all human creativity as understood by Blake and Kierkegaard, but it is the figure of Urizen, argues Rovira in his final chapter, that the full extent of creation anxiety as exhibiting tensions “between monarchy and democracy, science and religion, and nature and artifice” (p.121) finds its fullest expression. Again, Rovira particularly draws upon The Concept of Anxiety to help explain this demon-creator, but he also makes some interesting asides (for example via gnostic traditions) that also include some particularly telling criticisms of other commentators on Blake: a notable example of this is the tendency of Blake critics to see an attack on the Anglican church as an attack on all Christianity, defined as a somewhat generic “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity. Rovira is quite correct to draw attention to the vagueness of such dismissals, although his discussion of Blake’s religious beliefs in terms of such things as Gnosticism would have benefited from further consideration of the discovery in recent years by biographical discoveries that place Blake’s mother in a Moravian tradition. Rovira is on more certain ground when dealing with the tensions between science and religion in the Urizen books, and I particularly enjoyed his readings of Urizen as the pre-eminent demonic character in Blake’s poetry (a position usually – though not always – reserved for Orc). Again, Haufniensis/Kierkegaard is the most pertinent text here, explaining the “misrelation to eternity” developed through the concept of spiritlessness, the “neither guilty nor not guilty” that operates as a “talking machine”. Ironically, this is a state without anxiety for the spiritless who may even then appear happy. “As a result,” observes Rovira, in a telling final few pages, “it is political and religious life, spiritlessness ‘is a perfect idol worshipper…’ Revivalists, kings, dictators, populist presidents, and fascists find their political fields ripe for harvest in a culture of spiritlessness.” (p.140)

Rovira’s book is an involved but extremely rewarding book, one that delves fully into the complex and sophisticated dialectical processes involved in Kierkegaard’s thought . There are two minor points where I take slight issue with Blake and Kierkegaard, both of them involving contextual materials. One of these, in terms of Denmark’s social and political history may be entirely due to my own lack of knowledge, though the other, regarding the Moravian contexts of Blake’s religious thought does require discussion in such texts that deal with Blake’s theological concerns. However, what Rovira does with incredible dedication and perspicacity is to trace through a discourse of profound spiritual and religious attention that does not easily sit well with many current frameworks for discussing Blake’s work, largely due to the fact that we tend to over-secularise and simplify the Christian doctrines within which writers such as Blake and Kierkegaard worked. Rovira’s reading of Urizen the “Creator-Monarch”, dictatorial in his act of fallen generation precisely because he refuses to consider the spiritual engagement of creation that is both the source and recompense of anxiety, is masterful while Blake and Kierkegaard as a whole is a carefully thought-through and argued text.