During my near thirty years of studying Blake, there have been plenty of books and articles that I have been sent which cross the normal boundaries of academia and publishing and are also given as an act of friendship. I have a strong suspicion that this is something that is more common in Blake studies than elsewhere, but it is something that I felt very strongly upon reading John Higgs’ William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever.
This slender non-fiction title, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is not an academic text at all (and I mean that neither as a slight to William Blake Now, nor as a stab at my own profession). One thing that has always intrigued me about Blake is how he appeals to thoughtful readers outside academia: of course, this is also true of a number of writers and artists – Jane Austen is a contemporary of Blake who has a vibrant afterlife beyond the university – but Blake is one of those who has never been owned by the hirelings such as myself who populate universities. In this short book, Higgs provides nine essays – a series of brief spots of time (or, better, moments in each day that Satan cannot find) that are placed at angles to each other, like the surfaces of a gemstone. They form a wonderfully personal and frequently polemical consideration of Blake’s value to our contemporary times, that future age to which he called in works such as Milton a Poem.
That personal response is evident in the opening chapter, which brilliantly paints the occasion of the unveiling of Blake’s new grave – a stone commissioned by the Blake Society to mark the newly discovered spot where Blake’s body lay. Delighting in the sight of celebrities mingling with the hoi-polloi (as, indeed, it should be), Higgs remarks the Romantic’s unusual ability “to reach across society” (p.3) before focussing on his relationship with the English Beat writer, Brian Barritt, who stimulated his interest in Blake. Standing before Blake’s grave, Higgs has a revelation or vision, that he sees the golden thread that connects the engraver, writer and artist to our own age. For him, it is clear that the Beats form an important strand in that thread, bound through in the next chapter when he discusses the influence of Blake on Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Patti Smith. There has been a huge amount of interest in Blake and the Age of Aquarius in recent years – not least Linda Freedman’s William Blake and the Myth of America and Stephen Eisenman’s edited collection William Blake and the Age of Aquarius. Higgs clearly feels this connection strongly, but this is his entry point, the doorway to Blake’s influence: as he wrily remarks – “The 1960s were a long time ago… We are in a very different world now.” (p.15)
The relevance of Blake to now emerges in the following two essays. In some respects, the first of these – entitled, simply, “London” – is the most important. The Song of Experience is famously one of the most profound poems ever written on the city, and Higgs’s personal reflections on that poem lead him into a discussion of Englishness and national identity in which, amidst the divided Britain of Brexit, both remain and leave may be contraries of a personal character: “if you don’t have love for your home and neighbours, then any proclamation of love for those further away is suspect… if you condemn groups of strangers far away, then how true is your love for your home and neighbours really?” (pp.22-3) It is an optimistic vision of a division too often defined by rancour, but in the end both contraries must learn that opposition is true friendship if this island is ever to be more than a disunited kingdom.
The following chapter, “Blake Now”, is one for my blushes as my own observations on the froth of Blakespotting (a favourite activity of mine) form the basis for a multiplicity of scattered references to the poet and artist in computer games, films and social media. For Higgs, such sightings are rarely more than superficial: for my part, I delight in such superficiality as well as the deep struggles with Blake’s meaning, but this is one of those points where it feels I am reading (and mentally conversing with) an old friend, making the book a very personal delight. The following two chapters, as with so much of the book, are very personal and insightful considerations on the topics of understanding Blake and remembering him. The former returns once more to Blake’s grave, and the words of Bruce Dickinson as an example that “understanding Blake is not knowledge that you possess but an activity that you undertake” (p.34). The notion of a Blakean praxis or activity is one that is not pursued enough: after thirty years of studying Blake, I am never entirely sure that I understand the strange and wonderful visions that he wrote, engraved and painted, but I feel most profoundly that from those studies I have joyfully learned the error that comes when “you see with, not through, the eye”.
“On Being Remembered” dealswith the vagaries of reception and influence, particularly through the works of artists such as Tracey Emin who invoked Blake in her 2017 retrospective. Certainly his influence is much more wide-reaching than that of much more famous contemporaries, perhaps precisely because he is so difficult to possess as knowledge rather than practice. As a primary artist of imagination, the subject of the following essay, Blake has led many writers, artists and filmmakers to pursue their own vision – to create their own systems rather than be enslaved by others – and Higgs ends his collection with a wonderfully idiosyncratic reflection of a visionary experience of his own on Primrose Hill. It is London that perhaps resonates most with him; certainly it is the poem he returns to, tracing the protests of Extinction Rebellion and the opening of the London Olympics to the vision of London that appeared in Songs of Experience. Blake, perhaps more than anyone, with his profound insights into perception, art, spirituality and politics, “has prepared us for the world we find ourselves in.” (69)
John Higgs, William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019. 79pp. £5.99.
Despite the use of almost the same title, I claim that William Blake’s “The Book of Thel” (1789) and British singer and songwriter Bruce Dickinson’s “Book of Thel” (The Chemical Wedding, 1998) are completely different narratives. In fact, I claim that Dickinson has turned the virgin Thel, who fears death or motherhood, depending on the interpretation of Blake’s version, into a male character. As I show in the following, Dickinson’s narrative mirrors the original, but turns the imagery on its head. Exchanging one sex for another (I refer here to sexes instead of gender roles because both texts implicitly talk about reproduction and roles are thus very clear-cut) generates a new narrative as well as a new context. So, what if Thel was male?
“Book of Thel” is part of the album The Chemical Wedding (1998), a concept album linking the occult to Blakean thought, paintings, and characters. I have explained it in more detail here.
Blake’s “The Book of Thel” deals with a variety of female gender roles as well as with questions of a meaningful life and mortality. Different personnel discusses with the young Thel their respective world-views of (heterosexual) relationships, parenthood, the (lack of) love, self-sacrifice, and duty. Malgorzata Luczynska-Holdys points out in her essay “’Life exhal’d in milky fondness’—Becoming a Mother in William Blake’s The Book of Thel” that
the chief question, then, is what it would mean for Thel to enter this world, Blake’s realm of Generation, or Experience. Entering it may be understood as a conscious decision to grow up and to assume the social roles prescribed for a woman in the adult world—primarily the role of mother.
The most prominent role has hereby the Clod of Clay who confronts Thel with the infant – worm and grants her permission to enter her realm with the opportunity to return unscathed. Yet this realm does not only represent the world of adulthood, but also the world of the dead. This world is clearly a graveyard:
She wanderd in the land of clouds thro’ valleys dark, listning
Dolours & lamentations: waiting oft beside a dewy grave
She stood in silence. listning to the voices of the ground,
Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down. (Plate 6)
Thel visits the land of the dead and sits on her own grave. She does not get a glimpse of motherhood, but of death. Yet both readings converge in the image of the infant-worm. When Thel asks if she will become “food of worms,” (Plate 3) this may serve as mementomori as well as a reference to pregnancy. In case of a pregnancy, the infant-worm would feed of Thel, in its role as an embryo and later as an infant by breast-feeding. When confronted with the infant-worm, Thel spreads her arms, driven by sympathy. However, her attempt at motherhood is short-lived and will ultimately fail when confronted with her grave.
In Dickinson’s song we meet a narrator who uses a generalising “you.” I argue that he must be male because he is referring to a family tree which does require two different sexes because there is no progression without contraries. What is more, the narrator uses curse words to describe feminine gender roles. This alienated view on femininity paired with open contempt and hatred hints at a male view.
I also argue that he is Thel because, he, in turn, is courted by females as a partner, namely a priestess, a virgin, a serpent, and the female who betrayed him. Whereas all of them are definitely sexual partners, I think that two roles can be applied to the priestess. The priestess may take the role of the Clod of Clay as a gate keeper. She seems to be responsible for the opening of The Book of Thel, hereby creating a mise en abyme. To open the The Book of Thel hints at evoking the respective narrative. I think the priestess may be the character that invited him to get a glimpse of her realm, holding up her arm up in invitation like Thel does to the infant-worm. But the priestess is way less honest than the Clod of Clay. The priestess has lied about an unharmed return.
The priestess is not only the gate keeper, but also the birth-giver. I argue that all female gender roles are in fact one character that appears in different shapes. We are told that the serpent and priestess are one and the same character. I argue that the remaining roles, the virgin and what he calls a prostitute, are the same character, too. When Blake’s Thel talks to different entities to acquire different viewpoints, male Thel talks to one entity that appears in different (Blakean) shapes.
She appears, rather logically, as a weeping virgin, echoing both Thel and the “fair-eyed dew.” (Plate 3) But this virgin finds sexual fulfilment, implied by a line playing on the double meaning of “cry.” It can be decoded as a sexual reaction when seen in context – it is linked to joy. (Another hint that may have coined my conclusion is Dickinson’s ever ambiguous slogan and trademark “Scream for me.” (cf. http://screamforme.com))
The serpent echoes Genesis and the seduction of Eve. Serpents curled around bodies are a common and recurring motif in Blake’s paintings, as Jared Powells points out in Hell’s Printing Press | The Blog of the Blake Archive and Blake Quarterly, hinting at sex, sin, and seduction. The serpent is also a recurring motif in Dickinson’s work, mostly carrying the same connotations. It is linked to a kissing female in “Revelations” (Iron Maiden, Piece of Mind, 1983), it is kissed in “The Magician” (Accident of Birth, 1997), and becomes a symbol for the immortal evil in the human heart in “Believel” (Tyranny of Souls, 2005). Dickinson uses the serpent almost as frequently as a symbol for sin and seduction as Blake did, with the only difference that at least in the first example the serpent is definitely female (the exception of the rule being “Welcome to the Pit” (Accident of Birth, 1997) in which the viper and the snake are a phallus). This reinterpretation of the serpent as representative of the female sex implies a convergence of the serpent and Eve. In Genesis Eve seduces Adam to eat the forbidden fruit; Eve can thus be seen as victim as well as agent of seduction respectively. As the serpent in “Book of Thel” is female as well (because she is also the priestess), I say that in consequence she is Eve bringing doom on Adam. The weeping virgin who mirrors Blake’s rather hapless or at least harmless Thel has suddenly become Eve seducing Adam, causing the permanent loss of Paradise. This was never meant to end in an unscathed return on side of male Thel. The serpent turns this into a case of Paradise Lost. Male Thel falls to temptation, looses his “innocence,” and is damned.
In Blake’s illuminated book, the serpent appears in the last illustration in a situation which may well imply that it is a phallus; the serpent is ridden by a young woman and children. If we accept this reading, which implies that Blake offered us two endings and the illustration is an alternative outcome of the narrative, as Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi observe, here too it is the serpent which brings the sexual union and the change of narrative.
In a last step, the virgin who has become the seductress / serpent becomes a mother. The women he calls a prostitute is the one who gives birth, as inclined by the use of vocabulary. But, the mother figure in Blake’s poem is the Clod of Clay, earth itself and the keeper of the dead, her realm a graveyard. Dickinson’s song combines motherhood and death (as they have already been combined in the imagery of the infant-worm in Blake’s poem) and links them to the realm of the Clod of Clay. The motherly character of the Clod of Clay who cares for the infant-worm in Blake’s poem is now giving birth herself. And she gives birth to death, which is, in my eyes, considering that she is mistress over a graveyard, a very logical conclusion. This birthing of evil is announced with a Shakespeare quote taken from Macbeth “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” (IV, I, 44-45)
Up from here, the song is open to two different interpretations. In a first reading, the narrator does actually die. His union with the virgin leads to a quick end, which may be another sexual pun or the indication that he does indeed die. After all he is meant to enter the graveyard world Thel enters. Whereas Thel walks to her own grave and sits on it, male Thel has the “marriage hearse” of Blake’s “London” at his disposal to take him to a funeral (which is most likely his own). This imagery of a pairing in death also harks back to the chorus of the title song “The Chemical Wedding” in which a couple is united in the grave, a union which becomes their wedding (which in turn mirrors the manifest Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz Anno 1459 (The Chemical Wedding, 1616) in which three couples are killed to be reborn as the king and the queen).
In a second reading, I argue that the narrator is doomed. He is talking about a destroyed family tree and that he has to relive his tale. He has been marked, a process that is irreversible. He has been seduced to spawn evil and now he is caught by what he has done. The pairing of lamb and wolf (which echoes The Lamb and The Tyger) may suggest that male Thel, the victim, was targeted from the evil forces right from the beginning.
Be that as it may, the outcome of Dickinson’s “Book of Thel” is the exact opposite of Blake’s The Book of Thel. As the seduction takes place, the whole narrative changes (and it changes for the worse), arguably because Thel was tricked and betrayed by the gatekeeper. The crying Thel has indeed become a very classical femme fatale who brings death.
Dickinson has turned the hapless Thel into a monstrous female, monstrous in the meaning that she is an evil seductress who intends and brings doom, but also in the meaning that she is linked to death and gives birth to evil. This constellation is very befitting for the genre of heavy metal as it tells a horror story. These changes may thus be seen as a logical step considering the target genre Blake’s text was adapted for. But, it also casts a new light on Blake’s text. If we follow the Biblical narrative of Eve having seduced Adam, the consequential punishment is death. The fact that the priestess / serpent / virgin has seduced male Thel, also leads to death. Weeping Thel who refuses motherhood has been exchanged for the first femme fatale, the seductress Eve; the rejection of motherhood has been turned into the birth of evil. What if Thel was male? He might succumb to the seductive power of Eve / the serpent and witness the birth of death (the Fall). In a clever twist, swapping the sexes has turned The Book of Thel into Genesis.
Another song slightly hinting at The Book of Thel is “Accident of Birth,” stemming from the album of the same name which precedes The Chemical Wedding. Here, the narrator points out that dying actually means returning to the womb, a narrative which also turns Blake’s The Book of Thel on its head. Whereas Thel enters the world of death and returns to her world; the dying person in the song returns to the realm of death where he originally came from. Now the world of the living becomes the visiting space. Birth, dying, and the realm of death converge again.
Andreae, Johann, Valentin. Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosenkreutz Anno 1459. Translated by Walter Weber. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben, 1957.
“Jerusalem” is mostly known as a hymn written by Hubert Parry (1916), a musical adaptation of the verses found in the introduction to William Blake’s Milton: a Poem (1804-11). There are numerous musical variations and re-recordings which are more or less faithful to the hymn. The version I am to discuss today, however, is radically different. And it was intended to be radically different. British singer and songwriter Bruce Dickinson wanted to show what he describes as the true character of “Jerusalem.” He rejects a patriotic reading in favour of mysticism. Dickinson interprets the verses named “Jerusalem” in his song of the same name (The Chemical Wedding, 1998) as part of the mystic tradition, informed by alchemy. (Dickinson, Autobiography, 269-270)
“Jerusalem” is hereby only a small part of a larger project. The Chemical Wedding is a concept album linking concepts of mysticism and occult, such as tarot cards (“The Tower” – the chorus consists exclusively of archetypes taken from the major arcana), or representations of the occult, such as the three witches in Macbeth (“Book of Thel”), with Blakean characters and thought (“Book of Thel”, “Gates of Urizen”) or even descriptions of Blake paintings (“Book of Thel”). The name derives from the third manifesto of the Rosicrucian Order, Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz Anno 1459 (The Chemical Wedding, 1616), a text heavily rooted in alchemy. But, the overarching theme holding it all together is the opposition of Los and Urizen, which Dickinson identifies as two antagonistic forces fighting for the soul of the artist. In this case Los embodies creativity, while Urizen stands for art industry. (cf. Dickinson, Autobiography, 269)
In case of “Jerusalem” he has partly re-written the stanzas and added his own lyrics to flesh out what he sees as its true character. (l. c. 269-270) Which leads us to the question: What is the true character of “Jerusalem?”
Dickinson indeed presents a rewriting of “Jerusalem” that is in no way patriotic. In a last twist, he questions the possibility of recreating “Jerusalem,” because the spatio-temporal surroundings are far from ideal (and this negative description refers to England). This gives “Jerusalem” a very pessimistic ending. Probably it is too late or impossible to recreate “Jerusalem” after all – a notion which sweeps away all heroic notions from the stanzas with on motion of the hand.
To grasp what might be the “true character” of the stanzas referred to as “Jerusalem,” I want to go back to their origin, to the preceding text in the introduction. Blake calls out to his fellow artists, to “painters,” “sculptures,” and “architects”. For once, they should leave aside the “slave[ry] of the Latin and Greek sword,” meaning the legacy of the ancient classics, Homer, Ovid, Plato, Cicero, in favour of the Bible. Secondly, they should put up a “mental fight” against “ignorant Hirelings.” The “fashionable Fools” try to rule the world of art by payment or advertisement. The artist, however, should ignore “Greek and Roman models” and live by “his true Imagination” of “the World of Eternity in which we shall live forever.” This clearly echoes what Dickinson describes as the never-ending dilemma of the artist, the dichotomy between artistic inspiration and commerce of the world of art. This world view is thus clearly something both artists share. But what does it have to do with “Jerusalem?”
The crucial point, in my eyes, is indeed “Jerusalem.” “Jerusalem” commonly refers to the New Jerusalem, or, Heavenly Jerusalem, as described in the Biblical chapter “Revelation.” It refers to the new city that will emerge after the Apocalypse (Rev. 22 NIV). In this case, however, we have a significant addition: the grail. Dickinson points out that the New Jerusalem will be rebuilt in England, but that it will contain the grail. This is physically impossible. As much as you try to built a Jerusalem in England, it cannot automatically contain the grail.
As “Jerusalem” as described here cannot refer to a material city, it is thus something spiritual, something immaterial. The narrator seeks to be able to lay his eyes upon an unspecified object again, which arguably refers to the New Jerusalem, by the removal of scales from his eyes. This invokes the Biblical story of Saulus who is transformed to Paulus by the falling of scales from his eyes to allow him see again. (Acts, 9 NIV) The scales in the song are supposed to be washed off by blood that rains from the sky, which in turn evokes the first trumpet of the Apocalypse. The first trumpet causes fire, hail, and blood to come from the sky. (Rev, 8:7 NIV) The seven trumpets of the Apocalypse precede the coming of the New Jerusalem. (Rev, 8-9, 11:15 NIV) In short, the first trumpet of the Apocalypse causes blood to fall from the sky which washes away the scales of the eyes of the narrator who can then see again, his surroundings in general and the New Jerusalem in particular. So far we are following a thoroughly Biblical narrative.
Yet, the narrator is not so much passively waiting, as fighting. The line in the third stanza “bring me my spear: the clouds unfold!” is exchanged for the exclamation that the narrator will not sleep until the clouds open and thus make it possible for Jerusalem to descend from the sky or for the narrator to see skyward. This change to an imperative not to rest until the task is accomplished adds urgency. The opening of the sky is something he has to fight for, as illustrated in Blake’s original text: “Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrow of desires, […] bring me my chariot of fire,” and “I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.” I argue, that this is where not only Rosicrucianism comes in, but also Arthurian myth as well as myths about the Knights Templar. It is the Knights Templar who sought the earthly, old Jerusalem. Lore and Mysticism often link them to the quest of quests, the search for the grail, which in turn also evokes the Arthurian knights. Sword, chariot of fire, (mental) fight are all elements which may point to chivalry and so, with addition of the crucial element of the grail, put “Jerusalem” firmly into the context of different discourses of knighthood.
The grail traditionally asks for a true hero, such as Indiana Jones in the rather recent example Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), who must pass several tests or fulfil certain tasks to prove his worthiness of the grail. Whereas these tasks are more like riddles for Jones, they were something as tricky as finding the right behavioural code at court, a question of political correctness, for Percival in the eponymous medieval epic written by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1200-1210). To find the grail is not only a quest in the meaning of physical adventure, it is indeed a process that asks for purification of the mind.
Another seeker who faces such riddles and trials to purify him and improve his wisdom is no other than Christian Rosenkreutz in Chymische Hochzeit. The third manifesto of the Rosicrucian Order is variously seen as an allegory, a text describing a spiritual vision, or a hoax. But, as pointed out above, it is safe to say that this text is heavily rooted in alchemy. Alchemy does not only seek the purification of metal, but also of the mind. Rosenkreutz excels so much in the tasks given that he wins the special favour of the king after the king’s resurrection. I am speculating here, but I assume that this is the king we encounter in the song. Winning the favour and respect of the king is of course another ideal of knighthood, together with carrying king and queen in their hearts.
I think we are thus left with several possible readings of these metaphors of chivalry. In the first reading, the chivalry harks back to the quest of Rosenkreutz and the various knights who seek enlightenment in one way or another. In a second reading, the fight is a fight for Jerusalem. In a third reading, enlightenment and Jerusalem are probably even the same. In the end, we can say that the narrator has adapted the mindset of a knight and is actively fighting to rebuild “Jerusalem”.
I think, that this fight is a metaphor for opposition to conventional ways of thinking and resistance against oppression and suppression of the free development of the mind. The knight-figure must seek his own enlightenment and purification. Here we go back to the beginning to the dichotomy between Los and Urizen as embodiments of inspiration and art industry. If I read “Jerusalem” in its original context, meaning the preceding text of the introduction, these restrictions refer to the aforementioned prescriptions by the art industry. The artist ought to follow the poetic imagination which Blake calls the “Eternal World in which we will live.” This is an accurate description of the New Jerusalem, the city the narrator seeks to see again. This complies with what Dickinson describes as Blake’s “anti-materialistic message.” (Dickinson, Autobiography, 270)
“Jerusalem” is thus the “Eternal World” in the future to come, the paradisiacal city after the Apocalypse, and the poetic imagination alike. (I know, I am claiming here that Jerusalem, the city/person, takes the place of Los, but stay with me.) The last line in Dickinson’s song refers to a destroying of chains – and these chains, in turn, tie indeed the city / person Jerusalem “in the Dens of Babylon” (plate 39). This later quote from Milton follows the recording of the song as a spoken quote, tying the somewhat paratextual verses from the introduction to the body of the work. Now, “Jerusalem” stands for four different objects: poetic imagination, “Eternal World”, city, and person. I argue that these chains are the one thing to be fought; the knight-figure must indeed free Jerusalem. He is to free “Jerusalem” from the chains and thereby recreate it.
So what is indeed Blake’s “true Jerusalem?” I do not think that we can ever truly answer this (as long as we don’t put up a séance), but I say that Dickinsons reading of “Jerusalem” as representing the true artists’ minds is closer to Blake’s original text when compared with the context they originate in than every attempt to use “Jerusalem” as a second national anthem.
See a Live Performance of Bruce Dickinson’s “Jerusalem” featuring Ian Anderson in Canterbury Cathedral:
“Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull with Bruce Dickinson – Jerusalem.” Youtube.com, uploaded by Jethro Tull & Ian Anderson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTgZatpr1L8 (21.12.2011) [09.09.19]
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. ed. by W. J. Craig. London, Henry Pordes, 1984.
Steiner Rudolf. “Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosenkreutz.” Andreae, Johann, Valentin. Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosenkreutz Anno 1459. Translated by Walter Weber. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben, 1957. 135-174.
Whittaker, Jason. “‘Jerusalem’ Set to Music: A Selected Discography.” Blake/an Illustrated Quarterly. Vol. 52, no. 4, 2019, n. p.
Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival: Band 1 und 2, Mittelhochdeutsch /Neuhochdeutsch. Translated by Wolfgang Spiewok. Reclam. 2011.
There is an amusing skit on Blake that has gone viral in the past few weeks on Twitter and elsewhere on the web entitled “Death Metal Lyric or William Blake Quote?” (thanks also to Mike Goode for drawing my attention to this). The premise of the piece is perfect in its simplicity: ten quotes, of which the reader must decide whether they were written by William Blake or a death metal group, and while “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” could perhaps have been written by Zyklon for their charming track Chaos Deathcult, the final line of that song, “Every man is therefore guilty of all the good he did”, feels as though it should be from Blake. (Actually, it’s a variation of Voltaire’s “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do” – though I prefer the rewrite).
You can read the original posting at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/lists/15petzold.html, which thus draws attention to the many appropriations of Blake by metal acts. As the first major poet in western literature to declare himself knowingly of the devil’s party (although Blake’s Christian diabolism is very different to the rather bland Satanism that became popular after the 1960s), it’s hardly surprising that he should have attracted so many metal followers. Eli Petzfold’s post simply follows a common feeling among music fans (goth and punk as well as metal) that the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell would have made a great lyricist for any number of bands that have always been at odds with the mainstream. To paraphrase:
The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity, but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy, according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.
Thus one portion of being is Metal, the other Pop: to Pop it seems as if Metal was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
But Metal would cease to be Metal unless Pop, as a sea, recieved the excess of his delights.
Some will say: ‘Is not God alone Metal?’ I answer: ‘Metal only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.’
These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.
Blake as a metal inspiration is a constant riff (only a month or so ago I came across an interview with Jason Kolkey, lead singer of Deus Absconditus, on Blake as an influence), but here I’ll just concentrate on three.
The first is one of the grand old men of British metal, Bruce Dickinson, most notably on his album The Chemical Wedding (1998), which not only features Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea as its cover but also has several title tracks directly drawn from Blake, including “Jerusalem”, “Book of Thel” and “The Gates of Urizen“. (You can also hear the Dickinson tracks on The Blake Disco.) Dickinson has always had a pomp-rock inclination towards literary appropriations (I remember interminable playings of Iron Maiden’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” while at school), and the Blake-inspired tracks are, “Jerusalem” aside, loose interpretations based on Blakean themes. It seems to work with “The Gates of Urizen”, but “Book of Thel” leaves me very cold. As evidence, I’ll present a few lines from Blake’s and Dickinson’s respective Thels side by side:
The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks.
All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air.
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard:
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.
O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall.
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud.
Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water.
Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face,
Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air;
Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head.
And gentle sleep the sleep of death. and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.
The mark is on you now
The furnace sealed inside your head
Melting from the inside now
Waxy tears run down your face
The whore that never told her tale
Relives it every night with you
Far off stands the lamb and waits
For the wolf to come and end its life
Stand inside the temple as the book of Thel is opening
The priestess stands before you, offering her hand out, she’s rising
Come the dawning of the dead
In famine and in war
Now the harlot womb of death
Spits out its rotten core
Serpent on the altar now
Has wrapped itself around your spine
So you look into its mouth
And you kiss the pearly fangs divine
Happy that your end is swift
All I can say is I think Dickinson was using a very poorly edited copy of Blake’s works.
Much more impressive are the offerings of Ulver and Thelema, for somewhat different reasons. Ulver has, indeed, attracted a fair bit of attention in Blake circles. A Norwegian trio (their name is Norwegian for “wolves”) in the early part of their career Ulver were associated black metal music but, since their first album release in 1993, have moved in more experimental directions. Influenced by Scandinavian folktales and poetry, in 1998 they changed direction with Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This really is quite an impressive concept album (and even the prog-rock connotations of that term are appropriate in terms of the ambition of this work). You can listen to some samples from Themes on the Zoamorphosis blog.
My current favourite, however, is Thelema – partly, I’m sure, because of that sense of having “discovered” something that as yet has not been widely circulated among Blakeans. Thelema is a progressive death metal/experimental band from Gomel, Belarus, that formed in 2003, and its current lineup consists of four members including Alex Sedin on vocals. As well as two demos, On Heavenly Fields (2003) and Divine Image (2007), the group has released one album inspired by Blake’s poetry, Fearful Symmetry (2008). This is much more than the usual Blake-ripoff, and actually demonstrates something quite unusual: like Ulver, members of Thelema appear actually to have read some of Blake’s poetry (“The Crystal Cabinet”, for example, is hardly one that appears regularly in death metal music), and progressive death metal itself is an interesting spin-off from the multifarious sub-genres of metal, incorporating elements of jazz and funk. You can hear Thelema on the Blake Disco.
Any other bands that deserve a mention? Please leave your comments below.