Blakespotting: The Divine Essence of Things – Nick Cave and William Blake

In a response to a question on his fan site, The Red Hand Files, earlier this year, Nick Cave listed Blake as one of his favourite poets – alongside Stevie Smith, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson and a dozen others, describing them as the “poets whose company I consistently enjoy” (a phrase that may, either consciously or unconsciously, echo Blake’s comment in the album of the antiquary William Upcott as “one who is very much delighted with being in good Company”).

The connection between the two visionaries is hardly a new one. Indeed, by the early 2000s comparisons between Cave and Blake had become something of a stereotype. The Guardian called him “Ted Bundy with a William Blake obsession” (not, as it transpires, intended as a compliment in a fairly snippy review of the album Nocturama – admittedly not his best work), while Eric Carr, writing for Pitchfork, could throw away a smart jibe that until 1997 “the Nick Cave Songbook read like a set of William Blake Mad Libs filled in by undertakers, jilted lovers and John Wayne Gacy, with a few American folk covers thrown in for variety”. The psycho Blake/Cave comparison was a lazy, edgy meme for journalists who wished to portray themselves as literate without too much effort, although there were others who realised that the front man of the Bad Seeds was becoming a very different kind of person to the heroin-addicted figure who had destroyed his relationship with P. J. Harvey in the 90s. In a very good article for Salon in 2004, Thomas Bartlett only invoked Blake tangentially – to portray Cave as “A true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” – but the article overall treated the singer’s religious beliefs with much greater respect than was usually the case. A thoughtful tone was likewise struck by Russell Porter in The Beat Happening magazine (2008), who described Cave as writing with “a lyrical tone that owes as much to the visions of William Blake as it does to the street savvy tempo of William Chandler and Dashiel Hammet”.

Bartlett had made an astute observation that very few music journalists commented on Cave and religion. Almost certainly, this was due to supposedly secular reputation of pop music, which was commonly assumed to be fully of the devil’s party despite the well-known beliefs of figures as diverse as Prince, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As well as regularly invoking biblical motifs in his songs and his 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave spoke explicitly about his relationship to Christianity in a programme for BBC 3 Religious Services in 1996. Entitled “The Flesh Made Word”, the transcript and Cave’s recording is available at NickCave.it.

The piece, lasting some seventeen minutes, provides a fairly detailed, autobiographical account of Cave’s relationship not merely with his Anglican upbringing but, more pointedly, how his father’s desire to inculcate a love of literature in his son was also a kind of spiritual ecstasy, an elevation from the mundane to the “divine essence of things”: “although he would have laughed at this notion, what my father was finding in his beloved literature was God.” Unlike his father, this pursuit of God was something that Cave began to pursue explicitly, taking an interest in relgious art against the desires of his instructors who thought he should be interested in more contemporary forms. The deity that first appealed to the young singer was the retributive creator and destroyer of the Old Testament, making him “a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke.” While he was happy with this for a while, it was eventually through the gospels – lovingly evoked by Cave as “four wonderful prose poems” – that Cave returned to the Jesus of his childhood. This was around the period that, in Berlin, he began to write And the Ass Saw the Angel: Jesus still spoke all too often in the language of the father to the singer at this point, but Cave also began to recognise the importance of an imagination that was explicitly Christian:

What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. Clearly what Jesus most despised, what he really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolized by the scribes and Pharisees, those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law. What was Christ’s great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian church ever since, was the Pharisees’ preoccupation with the law in preference to the logos. Said St. Paul to the Corinthians: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” So how can one be elevated spiritually, if they are loaded up with the chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration, or for that matter God, be moral?

Cave only invokes Blake once in this piece: “To loosely paraphrase William Blake: I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.” This is, indeed, a very loose paraphrase, taking its inspiration from plate 3 of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion: “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves, every thing is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.” (E145) Cave invokes Shakespeare, Nabokov and Dostoevsky, but aside from the Bible it is only Blake he cites, and his chosen source is, frankly, astonishing: while various critics have noted the singer’s allusions to Blake’s lyrics – entirely understandable in a song writer – none have, to my knowledge, drawn attention to his familiarity with the difficult, late prophetic books. For me, the fact that Cave does not merely invoke Jerusalem but does so playfully suggests a possible familiarity that goes far beyond that of almost any other popular musician.

It is in the later prophetic books, I would argue, that Cave would discover ideas from Blake, most notably around the rejection of the Moral Law, that seem to have shaped his attitudes to the creative imagination. For Blake, “The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself” (E132), and against this very existence itself the poet placed the dead letter of the law, which Albion recognises in his fallen state:

O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law:
There Babylon is builded in the Waste, founded in Human desolation. (E169)

Zoe Alderton has written about this programme in “Nick Cave: A Journey from the Anglican God to the Creative Christ“, observing the profoundly literary route through which the singer approaches spirituality. While noting the paraphrase of Blake, she fails to recognise the significance of it however: that Cave appears to believe so profoundly that faith is bound up with imagination owes much, I would argue, to the earlier poet who wrote in All Religions are One that spirituality is itself the Poetic Genius. What is more, as the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a Bible of hell that retold an infernal account of Genesis via The Book of Urizen, Blake is a profoundly appealing artist to anyone seeking to understand a post-secular world while also avoiding the gins and traps of religion. Blake was a prophet and, like most prophets, he was without honour in his own country which worshipped instead the God of this world.

Of those writers who have noted Cave’s lyric indebtedness to Blake, Karen Welberry in an essay “Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter” (in the collection Cultural Seeds, edited by Tanya Dalziell and Karen Welberry) pointed out that “The Hammer Song” emulates Blake’s “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience, echoing the line “My mother groand! My father wept / Into the dangerous world I leapt” in the opening stanza which ends: “My father raged and raged / And my mother wept”. She also observed that Blake read the poem on a BBC TV programme, Poetry Nation, in 1994 (p.54). John H. Baker offers some excellent insights into the use of Blake in Cave’s verse, whether echoes in the Bad Seeds’ debut album, From Her to Eternity, to the revelation that Christ was an artist which was Blake’s vision of Jesus (in his edited collection, The Art of Nick Cave). The most profound lyrical connection to the earlier poet is to be found in the 1990 track, “A Weeping Song”. It was David Fallon, in his “Blakean Notes in 1990s Pop Music”, who first pointed out that the song, included on the album The Good Son, was a contrary from Songs of Experience to match “Laughing Song” in Innocence, going on to repeat Wellberry’s observations on “The Hammer Song” and adding further allusions in Murder Ballads. Certainly in the 1990s, William Blake seems to have been very much on Nick Cave’s mind. (In Blake 2.0, edited by Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly and Jason Whittaker, p.250.)

I would go further than Fallon to consider just how important the connection between “A Weeping Song” and Blake is. Cave does not merely allude to the earlier Romantic – which, as has been demonstrated here, is a repeated feature of the singer’s work. No: nearly 200 years after the publication of the original, Nick Cave decided to write another song of experience. This, for me, represents one of the most astonishing acts of imagination in the field of musical reception of Blake. Again and again the poet is set to music or even adapted more allusively by various performers, but to extend one of Blake’s most popular collections demonstrates a level of love and admiration that goes far beyond anything else encountered musically. The connection is also one that demonstrates Cave’s understanding of the deceptive simplicity of the earlier writer, whereby simple repetitions operate both musically and thematically to create a doorway to eternity via the simplest language of children.

Where Blake writes:

When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He. (E11)

Cave responds:

This is a weeping song
A song in which to weep
While all the men and women sleep
This is a weeping song
But I won’t be weeping long

As with Blake’s Songs, the spare economy of these words is allusive rather than diminutive, part of two different worlds – innocence and experience – where the simplicity of childhood vision sees a world beyond everyday normality. This is one of the means by which poetry can elevate us into visions of eternity.

Which leads, ultimately, to Cave’s most recent album, Ghosteen. I am fully aware that, like a witchfinder general, I am often keen to sniff out Blake wherever I can find him. This article is not intended as a review of Ghosteen, which I am still very much slowly coming to understand, but as I have demonstrated the singer-songwriter’s interest in William Blake is both very longstanding and far from superficial. At least one reviewer, Elizabeth Aubrey for the NME, has drawn attention to the echoes of William Blake in lines such as “It isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be / With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief / and everybody hanging from a tree” from the song “Sun Forest”. Such echoes are certainly there, and the musical style of the album continues that of its haunting predecessor, Skeleton Tree, the first album released after the tragic death of his son. The song that electrified me was “Fireflies”, which opens:

Jesus lying in his mother’s arms
Is a photon released from a dying star
We move through the forest at night
The sky is full of momentary light
And everything we need is just too far
We are photons released from a dying star
We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar
And everything is distant as the stars
I am here and you are where you are

The image invoked here – Jesus as photon from a dying star – is perhaps something closer to a piece that John Berryman (another of Cave’s favourite poems) might write, and yet in the line “We are the fireflies a child has trapped in a jar” I cannot help but hear another lyric by William Blake, “The Fly”:

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

In the hands of another poet, this would be nihilism, and in the hands of another singer “Fireflies” would be an equally empty vision of death. Yet for Cave – guided by, I would argue, William Blake as much as those “wonderful prose poems” of the New Testament – what we come to in Ghosteen is that post-secular quest for a world of eternity, one that owes nothing to the religion of stocks and stones and everything to the creative imagination.