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. Essentially an extended short story or novella, 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 story, told as a series of fragments, deals 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.

Review: Red White & Blake

Will Franken’s Red White & Blake begins with the rather wonderful warning that “No Blake scholars were consulted in the making of this motion picture”. As an ostensible Blake scholar, that offends me much less than it delights me, especially as Franken – who has made his reputation as a comedian but who studied English literature in the USA before coming to Britain – is clearly familiar with a wide range of Blake scholarship alongside the works of Blake himself. Franken demonstrated this last year when he was the winner of the Blake Society’s 2017 Tithe Grant for a wonderful letter he wrote as though addressed by Blake to Samuel Palmer, and Red White & Blake is Franken’s own personal love letter to the engraver and to the country in which he lived.

Written and directed by Franken, and produced by Scott Ambrose, Red White & Blake is organised into four sections based on the four zoas, the first segment in this documentary opens with Tharmas as a guiding light to discussion of theology. Franken begins with the typical (although superseded – at least with regard to James Blake) view that the artist’s parents were Dissenters before expressing surprise that they baptised their son in a Church of England service. He does follow this with a concise summary of some aspects of Protestant Christianity on the Continent and in England, and his discussion of the tenets of Christianity is liberally interspersed with readings from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, such as “The Garden of Love” and “The Little Vagabond”, before focussing on the works of Emmanuel Swedenborg, noting the importance of the Swedish mystic’s influence on Blake in such works as “The Divine Image”. More important, however, is Blake’s split from Swedenborg, explored in considerable detail as Franken moves through The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the presenter deserves a huge amount of praise for spending so much time exploring Blake’s religious beliefs in such a sincere fashion.

While I don’t agree with all points that Franken makes, he is generally sophisticated and subtle in his thought, expecting the viewer to keep up with all aspects of his theological speculation and drawing attention, among other things, to the fact that Blake’s voice is to be distinguished from that of the devil in The Marriage. Perhaps his most astute comment is when he points out (in the section on Urizen) that for many contemporary Blake fans a difficulty lies in the fact that the artist was a devout (if idiosyncratic) Christian. The attempt to erase a controversial aspect of Blakean thought demonstrates a failure of vision on the part of many contemporary readers and, by focussing on politics and failing to address religion, we do Blake a great disservice.

In the second section on Urizen (slavery), Franken begins with Blake’s desire to create his own artistic system, as well as his mythological framework. This leads quickly into an explanation of Albion’s division into the Four Zoas as the model for England. Franken interprets Urizen as the devil rather than God the Father (that role being reserved for Tharmas). While facile Blakean criticism tends to observe that Urizen is depicted like traditional images of God in heaven, Franken draws upon The [First] Book of Urizen (among others) to develop his argument, a reading of Blake that shows he really knows the scholarship. As demiurge, Urizen is both the first slave and first slave-master and this sophisticated exegesis is one of my favourite parts of the documentary.

After this, the film moves on to explicit considerations of slavery in the late eighteenth century via “The Little Black Boy” and then America, but the focus is the mental self-enslavement that Britons were mastering in the age of reason, as well as the effects of the growth of urbanisation and industrialisation on England’s green and pleasant lands. As such, the argument is generally very sophisticated for such a documentary, following through mental slavery via British empiricism.

The third section, on Luvah (liberty) is the most explicitly political section of the film, again circling around The Marriage against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Franken follows this with an account of Blake’s arrest and trial for sedition in Felpham, which is generally good on the background, though there is the occasional mistake, such as his assertion that coffee houses at the time of the Civil War contributed to the death of the king, whereas the first ones did not open in London until after the execution of Charles I. Nonetheless, throughout this section – as in the film as a whole – there is some vibrant context for the background of Blake’s thoughts, for example in the writings of Thomas Paine as one of the inspirations for the American War of Independence.

The effects of the American and French Revolutions are fed through to Blake’s mythology, and this is another example of how Franken does not relent with regard to his expectations on the viewer’s concentration. One example is the thread that contrasts a good Satan versus the bad Satan in America (Urizen/God versus Orc/Jesus) – this is only true in part and, since Northrop Frye, many scholars have tended to view the relations between Urizen and Orc as more dialectical than Franken suggests here. Nonetheless, this is a question of emphasis and what cannot be doubted is his extensive knowledge of Blake’s, quoted throughout the documentary with passion. Following the section on America, there is a consideration of the effects of the French Revolution, as reflected in Blake’s poem of the same name – a segment which offers Franken the clearest means to focus on a straight history of the Revolution as well as the reaction of Romantics generally against Napoleon as emperor.

The final section on Urthona as Contrary returns once more to Blake’s death as it had at the very beginning of the film, and focuses on imagination as the Holy Spirit, a pentacostal view of Christianity which is dynamic and constantly changing, an act of prophecy and – in Blake’s hands – of art. This section deals with one of Blake’s most difficult books, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, especially as this leads us on to an understanding of Los, who Franken calls “the bridge between the here and the hereafter”, the prophetic alter-ego of Blake. As with the rest of Franken’s documentary, he emphasises the importance of religion to Blake’s world view (via a fascinating detour through psychology as a means to secularise prophetic vision in a segment that seems to owe a great deal to another fan of Blake’s work, R. D. Laing).

The reading of contemporary psychoanalysis through the lens of Blake’s works is fascinating, but is followed by, for me at least, a considerably more contentious segment that treats social justice as a justification for racial victimisation and views of toxic masculinity that turns into an attack on feminism. Strictly speaking, Franken is determined to specify that his complaint is with “third-wave feminism” (which is never defined with as much care as given, say, to various theories of the Enlightenment). Throughout this section, there are moments when Franken seems to be on the verge of offering a potentially more critical view of Blake’s own views of gender and sexuality, but in the end this is elided rather than fully addressed. While I understand that Franken is concerned to oppose what he sees as liberal forms of totalitarianism – particularly ones which deny freedom of speech in the name of liberality (a clear contradiction) – the reason I feel that he is misusing Blake at this point is because, with regards to race and gender in particular, discrimination is unfortunately not historical but alive and well. At his best, Blake attacks the powerful and while there are plenty of hypocrites who make a living from identifying themselves as victims, there are too many women who are paid less and people of colour who are discriminated against. I was painfully reminded at this point of the documentary of a Blake scholar who told me how much she loves Blake until those moments when he makes such observations as: “In a wife I would desire / What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire” (E474). Blake – rightly – does not desire us to read his words as holy writ, and when he is wrong we should engage him in mental fight just as he fought with Milton.

Franken seeks to avoid the worst excesses of his own argument via a very  good point regarding negations versus contraries – the former, says Blake, should be destroyed whereas the latter lead to the true heaven of Eden. This is a difficult argument at the best of times, and interestingly the documentary breaks down formally at this point, becoming more than a little incoherent as I suspect that Franken really is struggling with his argument. He attempts to illustrate it via a terrorist who ends the discussion, with it the discussion then being taken up in a pub (hints of “The Little Vagabond”), and his conclusion moves towards the notion that the individual must set up against a contrary against all authoritarian elites, whether religious, fascist or liberal. His model at this point is as much Monty Python’s Flying Circus which was Franken’s entry point into a vision of Albion alongside that of William Blake.

There is much in this documentary that deserves high praise: Franken is clearly enthusiastic about Blake, and his emphasis on Blake’s religion is very well made – contemporary scholars who try to secularise Blake in their own image do the poet and artist a great disservice. He is particularly good when it comes to contextualising Blake in terms of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and there is more than a passing familiarity with the work of figures such as Kant, Leibniz, Spinoza and Locke among others. His final conclusion that Blake is a “radical Christian patriot” is, however, a more ambivalent one for me: as one of those scholars not consulted – rightly – by Franken, I have spent a great many years considering what Blake’s national and (to a lesser degree) what his religious vision mean. There is a potentially dangerous tendency at the end of Franken’s love letter to Albion for him to indulge in what George Orwell identified as the worst elements of nationalism – fear (or at least disdain) of the other – rather than the best aspects of patriotism – love of what we hold dearest. Franken’s exuberance and enthusiasm cannot be doubted, but nor should it ever be forgotten that the radical Christian patriot who is his subject was also the one who wrote:

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

Without contraries is no progression, but we should never forget – as too many contrarians do – that a negation is not the same thing, seeking only to squash and oppress that it disdains.

 

Red White & Blake is now available on Amazon Instant Video and is free for Prime subscribers, or costs from £7.99 to purchase.

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
Refu-Jesus

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.