Blakespotting: News about William Blake, April 2018

Among new releases in April, the first part of the graphic novel series, Her Infernal Descent, appeared. Written by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson, with art by Kyle Charles, it offers an update on Dante’s journey through the underworld as a woman is taken in search of her family with William Blake as her guide. I reviewed the first issue and the next installment is due in May. Another major event was the premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Songs of Illumination at the Leeds Lieder festival on April 22, and again you can read the review of that performance on Zoamorphosis.com.

The end of the month saw the publication of Blake’s A Descriptive Catalogue on the Blake Archive. Printed in a small run, the Catalogue was written to accompany his one-man show of 1809-10 and the one review, by Robert Hunt, branded the exhibition the work of a lunatic. You can read about the history of the Catalogue on the Blake Archive blog and view the work itself under Manuscripts and Typographic Works on the Archive.

Sadder news was the death of Alice Provensen, at the age of 99, on 23 April. For some forty years she had worked with her husband, Martin, on illustrations until his death in 1987, before continuing a solo career into her nineties. During the period that she worked with Martin they produced illustrations for a number of children’s books, including the wonderful A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard. She is survived by her daughter, Karen, and you can read her obituary at The New York Times.

In other news, the Glasgow International this year included Mark Leckey’s Nobodaddy, described by The Guardian correctly, I think, as a “deeply troubled figure” and obviously based on Blake’s character of the same name. Meanwhile, a show by Alec Lewis at Tenby Art Gallery, West Wales, called The Painted Word demonstrates the influence of William Blake’s art and poetry – as well as that of Dylan Thomas and Leonard Cohen – and runs until June 10. At Union College in Schenectady, NY State, the exhibition “Blake@Union: From Print to Digital” is on display in the Lally Reading Room. Curated by Caitlin Williams, it shows the College’s collection of Blake works and will run throughout the summer.

A number of reviews of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, started popping up – such as this one at Slant Magazine, due to the release of the film on Blu Ray. If you haven’t had chance to catch up with this classic, which is a great surreal western as well as an homage to William Blake, then now is your chance. There was also some musical news with a new album, Hollow Ground, by the group Cut Worm (named after Blake’s proverb, “The cut worm forgives the plough”), although the other event was another death, this time of Bob Dorough, who wrote “Conjunction Junction” and worked with Allen Ginsberg on that poet’s album of Blake songs set to music.

And finally, Blake provided another pop culture reference in the form of HBO’s new season for Westworld, its dystopian vision of a future world of slavery and violence. In a reddit Ask Me Anything, director Jonathan Nolan cited a line from Auguries of Innocence, “A Robin Red breast in a Cage Puts all Heaven in a Rage”. As Cindy Davis remarked in a review of the new season, “if that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what would.”

From the Collection: The Punisher – The Tyger

First of all, a quick confession. Frank Castle is probably my favourite Marvel… character. I nearly wrote hero, which seems intentionally the wrong word, and yet also anti-hero is never quite right for me. The Punisher has been more frequently reviled as praised for being a series that glorifies violence. Yet for me, reviews such as Matt Kamen’s take on the recent Netflix series as an example of toxic masculinity are not quite correct (although to be fair to Kamen, his review is much more subtle than a one-phrase comment does justice to). Frank Castle occupies a position for me somewhere closer to Don Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy (which does, after all, deal with the events of the Duke of Castile and his son) and, as in all good Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, there will be blood. Lots of it.  Articles discussing the gruesome nature of violence in the series also seem to miss the mark: the violence is gut-wrenchingly unpleasant, and this is as it should be – if we enjoy violence, then there is, simply, something wrong with us (one of my fundamental problems with the Deadpool franchise). Frank Castle is as much punished as punisher and in the end I think he is a hero more for what he could have been, what he wants to be – a husband, a father – than what he is.

I’m also a sucker for the fact that Frank (born Frank Castiglione) had originally intended to become a priest before joining the marines. As with that other lesson in the dark morality of comics, Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, it seems that one ex-Catholic can’t quite get enough of his heroes always being willing to fall a little further while yet somehow never quite reaching the bottom of the abyss. This post, however, deals with an exceptional edition of The Punisher, published in February 2006 as part of the Max Comics imprint aimed at adult audiences. Entitled The Tyger, it is an origin story that also contains one of the most extensive expositions on Blake that I believe exists anywhere in the comic universe, but Garth Ennis, the writer alongside John Severin, who did the art for this issue, have attracted considerably less attention that other figures such as Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman.

The issue begins with Frank on a rooftop in the 1970s, waiting to commit an assassination and pondering on how his violent actions will be explained away as a convenient narrative based on the post-traumatic stress of combat in Vietnam. Yet the real cause of his transformation took place in 1960 when he was ten years old, and its origins lie in two figures – Lauren Buvoli and Vincent Rosa (a son of a local mafia boss) – as well as, we are told very explicitly, “the tyger”. The scene cuts to Frank as a young boy witnessing a man on fire, running through a navy yard, like a terrible parody of Orc. We will later discover that the man on fire has been set on fire by the others at the navy yard for being a strike breaker and complicit in an accident which left one of the men permanently injured. This brutal example of lex talionis is apparently justified by Frank’s father, but his mother decries such mindless violence.

It is Frank’s mother, we learn, who at this point influences him more than his father, inspiring in him a love of poetry that Catiglione senior cannot understand and dismisses as queer and unmanly. Ten-year old Frank, however, is very much his own boy, and a boy in love at that: Lauren Buvoli is beautiful and kind, a song of innocence in Frank’s neighbourhood and one of several indications throughout the series of the very different life that he could have led before he was forced to embrace experience. We also briefly encounter Lauren’s brother, Sal, a marine who will occupy a very important place in the story. It is partly to get closer to Lauren, but more to encourage his own sense of imagination, that Frank visits Father David who teaches poetry to kids in the neighbourhood. Father David introduces the class to Blake’s “The Tyger” and, as Frank observes, the priest and Blake “had me from the get-go”.

The follows, after the reading of the entire poem, an original and (the first time I read it) entirely unexpected disposition on reader response theory. Having let his imagination loose to conceive the tyger in his mind’s eye, a “force made flesh” that knows neither remorse nor mercy, Frank, Lauren and Father David discuss who it was that made this creature. It seems entirely credible to me that Ennis is familiar at this point with Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class?in particular Fish’s discussion of how critics answer the question in Blake’s poem according to their own preconceptions as to the nature of good and evil. Frank believes that the tyger must be made by something other than God, while Father David – responding to Lauren’s wonderfully liberal assertion that “can’t Frank read the poem the way he likes?” with a fatal assertion: “In this instance he really can’t.”

Ennis’s use of Blake is not as subtle and allusive as Alan Moore’s in part V of Watchmen, nor indeed Grant Morrison’s playful rejoinder in Zenith (more on both of these soon), but this discussion is an exceptionally intelligent series of observations on the role of interpretive communities in reading Blake and follows with another remarkable example of the role of the reader in interpreting the text. While on his second tour in Vietnam and out searching for a pilot lost behind enemy lines, Frank encounters a tiger. Rather than shooting in fear – for by this point, Frank Castle really doesn’t do fear – he and the tiger (or is it a tyger) reflect each other’s dangerous, stoic stare. As Frank remarks: “To this day, I have no idea if it was real. Or imagination filling in the gaps.”

The remainder of the grim roots of the origins of the Punisher involve rape, suicide and a dreadful, burning revenge by Sal who is, we realise, the “tyger” invoked by Frank at the beginning. In contrast to Frank’s father, who operates a kind of vigilante law of revenge that does, in the end, know fear and pity, Sal is remorseless and without mercy. He is also, as Frank discovers very quickly in Vietnam, walking towards his own death wish. The scene in which Sal takes his revenge on Vincent Rosa, burning him alive, is another demonstration of how Blake’s poem is used throughout the issue, being an act of fearful symmetry. By the end of the issue Frank reveals that he has made his choice, fixed his reading of “The Tyger” to become one who shows “the world a face not made by God”.

Ennis and Severin’s reading of Blake via the eyes of ten-year old Frank Castle is, quite simply, remarkable. I do not actually agree with Frank’s interpretation, and that is ultimately (for me) his loss, of innocence for experience. Yet Frank himself, throughout the various issues of The Punisher, knows this, and that is why – for me – he is such an interesting character. When The Punisher: The Tyger was published, Blake’s poem had already entered popular culture as one of the images – alongside the Great Red Dragon – in the Hannibal Lecter series. Yet unlike Francis Dolarhyde, with whom we are invited to at least empathise, if not sympathise, Frank stands apart from us: ultimately, his actions require a different kind of judgement. The invocation of the tyger is particularly interesting because this is not, in Ennis’s words and Severin’s art, a creature of Dionysian joy but, rather, a figure of stoicism – and, as in the works of that other famous stoic, Seneca, violence and pain are a punishment to be endured in a brutal, uncaring universe.

From the Collection: Spider-Man and Tigra

As I’ve been preparing for a talk in Manchester on Blake and comics, entitled “Here be Tygers”, I thought I’d share this little oddity from Marvel Comics. Part of the Marvel Team-Up series, Spider-Man and Tigra: At Kraven’s Command! is probably the oldest comic I have with a Blake connection as it was published in 1978.

Written by Chris Claremont with art by Dave Hunt and John Byrne among others, the Blake connection is pretty slender, to be honest. On the inside cover, Peter Parker is shown spinning his flight between buildings, worrying that he should really be studying but enjoying the freedom that his spidey-skills bring. Above him in bold letters reads the heading: “Tigra Tigra Burning Bright!”

It’s the oldest direct comic book reference I’ve found so far (and I’d be very happy to be contradicted/enlightened/educated in the comments below!) The story itself is usual Marvel fare from the seventies: Spider-Man, seeking to capture his foe Kraven the Hunter is himself caught and taken to Kraven’s lair. There the hunter sets Tigra – formerly an ally of the Fantastic Four but now controlled by an electronic collar that makes her Kraven’s slave – on Parker, an act that will result in his or her death that is (of course) averted when he uses his strength to destroy the collar.

As far as Blakeana goes, it is an extremely superficial link, more useful in many respects as an indication of just how prevalent the poem “The Tyger” was in post-war pop culture that Marvel could reference it in a pun with absolutely no further reference and expect its audience to get the joke. I’ll follow with a couple more from the collection at a later date.

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.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, March 2018

March ended with something of a bang in terms of Blakespotting, with the public unveiling of the new arrangement of Team England’s theme for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Recorded by Tokio Myers, the current champion of Britain’s Got Talent, and The Voice star and Commonwealth silver medallist, Jazmin Sawyers, their new version of Parry’s “Jerusalem” attracted a huge amount of attention during the month. As well as having a remarkable voice, Sawyers (who won silver in the Glasgow 2014 games) also attended the 2018 events to participate in the long jump. Team England announced the version mid March, and the British newspapers carried a fairly typical series of stories, with plenty of explanations as to why the song is performed instead of “God Save the Queen” and, my personal favourite, The Sun explaining why “This is… the right anthem for England“. If you haven’t heard it already, the link to the new version appears below.

The exhibition at Petworth House, William Blake in Sussex, continued to attract attention in March. There is a straightforward notice in The Argus and I shall note my own review of the exhibition and catalogue. The highest recommendation, however, is for an extremely thoughtful review by Esther Chadwick is available at Apollo Magazine, in which Chadwick also notes how Blake “was drawn to the patron of [his] strange work”, A Vision of the Last Judgement. Certainly the National Trust attracted a great deal of attention for the event, with it being sold out on the day that we attended and showing off Blake to his best effects.

In other news, Eric G. Wilson, a professor at Wake Forest University, published a collection of stories, Polaris Ghost, which offers the intriguing claim to connect “the dots between William Blake and David Lynch”. It’s available on sale now and in the near(ish) there will be a review on Zoamorphosis, along with another book published in January but only recently available in the UK, Jeremy Limn’s The Auguries of Lost Lilacs. The Scoundrel & Scamp stage in Tucson, Arizona, also saw a performance of Mickle Maher’s 2011 comedy, There is a Happiness that Morning Is, in which two lovers and academics give their views of life as based on the work of William Blake. Kathleen Allen of the Arizona Daily Star called it a “stellar production.”

In music, Englabörn & Variations by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, was released on 23 March and includes a version of the poem “Holy Thursday” on its second disc. Jóhannsson was famous for his film work, having composed the score for The Theory of Everything as well as a number of movies by Denis Villeneuve and had tragically died, aged 48, in February. Englabörn had originally been recorded in 2002 as his first solo album, and so the re-release with additional material (including the Blake track) was the first record to be issued after his death. “Holy Thursday” is particularly beautiful and makes his sudden death even more poignant. You can listen to it at Spotify.

The end of the month also saw the announcement of a new exhibition to open in April at the Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, New York State, featuring a local artist, Rockwell Kent. Kent is not an artist I have been familiar with, but apparently studied Blake alongside Nietzsche and his politics and private mores “scandalized family, friends and adversaries” according to a preview in The Post Star. While his work has passed me by so far, one image that has been used to publicise the exhibition – Flame – is so clearly Blakean in its inspiration that my own curiosity has been stimulated to explore his works more fully. The show, the first comprehensive one since 1974 after his death in 1971, opens on Sunday 8 April and runs until July 22.

 

Blakespotting: The Frankenstein Chronicles

With The Frankenstein Chronicles available on Netflix, now is an opportunity to catch up with a series that first aired on ITV in 2015 and then followed up with a second series which was filmed in 2017. For those who haven’t seen it yet, the plot follows Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) as he seeks to discover the author of a grisly series of child murders which have resulted in an attempt to create artificial life from the sewn-together body parts. The first series received a considerable amount of critical praise and, while a little foolish in some places, is also clever enough and certainly entertaining enough to deserve a repeat viewing.

Rather than a review of the first series (the only one I’ve been able to watch so far), here I’ll concentrate on three particular ways in which The Frankenstein Chronicles weaves Blake into its story. Set in 1827, the series draws upon a number of historical figures, such as Robert Peel, Ada Byron and, of course, Mary Shelley. Blake makes an appearance in episode 2, “Seeing Things”, when Marlott visits the home of the dying engraver following the discovery of an illuminated poem from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Marlott has found this in the room of a young woman who has been set up as a prostitute by the hardened street criminal, Billy Oates, and sees the name of Blake on the print.

The episode with Blake is the most obvious allusion in the series, although to me the most annoying (this is where knowing too much about your subject really interferes with the willing suspension of disbelief). Steven Berkoff actually gives a fine performance as Blake on his deathbed, avoiding what I call the tendency towards “shouty Blake” which rather dominates television depictions of the poet (all loud declamations because prophets are always, well, loud). Nonetheless, while avoiding the worst excesses of presenting “mad” Blake as well, the wide-eyed staring prophet surrounded by a crowd of gloomy, chanting crowd (presumably intended as either the Shoreham Ancients or members of the millennarian Irvingite sect to which Frederick Tatham and, probably, Catherine Blake later belonged – or a combination of both) is very far from much of what I understand about Blake’s final hours. Certainly the environment at 3 Fountain Court was squalid according to a number of Blake’s friends, for the Blakes were poor, but even in declining health his spirits seem to have been buoyant. As well as working on his illustrations to Dante, he was colouring up a final impression of The Ancient of Days (for which, according to Alexander Gilchrist, Tatham had generously paid him three and a half guineas), announcing before he died: “There! That will do, I cannot mend it.”

Gilchrist records the final hours as follows:

In that plain, back room, so dear to the memory of his friends, and to them beautiful from association with him — with his serene cheerful converse, his high personal influence, so spiritual and rare — he lay chaunting Songs to Melodies, both the inspiration of the moment, but no longer as of old to be noted down. To the pious Songs followed, about six in the summer evening, a calm and painless withdrawal of breath ; the exact moment almost unperceived by his wife, who sat by his side. A humble female neighbour, her only other companion, said afterwards: “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.”

Gilchrist also preserved the record of J. T. Smith:

“On the day of his death,” writes Smith, who had his account from the widow, “he composed and uttered songs to his Maker, so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine, that when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said, ‘My beloved! they are not mine. No – they are not mine!’ He told her they would not be parted; he should always be about her to take care of her.”

The Frankenstein Chronicles, then, misses much of the real affection between Blake and Catherine (although, to be fair, Catherine’s very brief cameo bringing tea to Marlott is nicely done). I also wish that the house of the prophet could capture a little more the humour of an engraver who mocked his friend John Varley while composing visionary heads, the rumbustious laughter of An Island in the Moon, or the laid back account of dinner with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I know that “shouty” Blake certainly existed, but too few people seem to get funny Blake, gentle Blake, which is a great shame to me.

The appearance of Mary Shelley was a laugh out loud moment (stretching Blake’s slender acquaintance with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft to the extreme) but was clearly necessary to the plot and it was pleasant enough to see Blake the man as a crucial turning point in the narrative. More significant, however, are the other ways in which Blake has influenced The Frankenstein Chronicles both within the story and in terms of other formal qualities. The appearance “The Little Girl Lost” is a wonderful addition (especially with two verses read in Sean Bean’s inestimably rich tones), while Lyca’s name serves as another influential plot element. The scene when the missing girl, Alice Evans, is superimposed on Lyca from the poem is a delightful moment of Blakean vision.

Even more fascinating, however, is the use of Blake’s fictional Book of Prometheus, both within the narrative and as a visual background to the show’s opening credits. Prometheus only appears once in all of Blake’s writings, as an annotation to Boyd’s Historical Notes on Dante in which he remarks rather inauspiciously: “the grandest Poetry is Immoral the Grandest characters Wicked. Very Satan. Capanius Othello a murderer. Prometheus. Jupiter. Jehovah, Jesus a wine bibber”. The link is, of course, to connect Blake to Mary Shelley’s “Modern Prometheus” (the subtitle of Frankenstein), and while Blake himself preferred Satan as the arch rebel (in contrast to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who rejected Satan in preference of the Titan as the hero of Prometheus Unbound), it was with absolute fascination that I observed how plates and images from works as diverse as Milton a Poem and The Ghost of a Flea were incorporated into this arcane grimoire. What is particularly fascinating is that Tatham, as Blake’s literary executor, is reputed to have destroyed a number of the engraver’s works that offended his more conventional religious sensibilities. The creators of the programme have almost certainly picked up on this and appropriated Blake’s mythical “Bible of Hell” to their Promethean ends.

The Frankenstein Chronicles is available on Netflix.

 

 

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.