The video below is a lightly edited version of a talk to the Blake Society on February 17, 2021, about some of the ways in which Blake’s theory of religion developed throughout his art and poetry.
The video below is a lightly edited version of a talk to the Blake Society on February 17, 2021, about some of the ways in which Blake’s theory of religion developed throughout his art and poetry.
With the release of Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, published by Reaktion Books on 15 March, 2021, I’m starting to make a number of short videos based on the text of that book.
Titled “Blake Bites”, each of these is a short (3-4) minute video that focuses on a particular poem or art work by Blake. The first two are now live and can be viewed on my YouTube channel, Zoavision. In this case, they deal with “The Ancient of Days” and “The Tyger”, and you can watch them both below.
I intend to make new videos on a weekly or fortnightly basis, so please do consider subscribing to the channel.
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.
William Blake as a writer and artist was clearly fascinated by America: while his contemporaries were shaped almost entirely by the French Revolution, Blake’s initial contact with revolutionary ideas was shaped by the War of American Independence. In turn, he was taken up enthusiastically by a number of writers and thinkers across the Atlantic, and in her book William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Linda Freedman explores a particular line of reception history in the American arts and literature, one which emphasises the Romantic’s assumption of a prophetic mantle. In her introduction, Freedman indicates a number of the ways in which Blake was interested in the Americas in his own work, most notably his illustrations to John Stedman’s Narrative, of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) and, of course, America a Prophecy (1793). She also draws upon more recent interpretations of Blake’s work that has greatly developed since David Erdman’s important but too-enthusiastic adoption of Blake as the thoroughgoing supporter of the American revolution, noting that what later writers influenced by Blake saw in him was an ethical writer who could give them the tools to critique as well as celebrate their country: “Blake entered American society at a time when slavery was still rife and civil war threatened the fragile experiment of democracy.” (p.7)
In fact, while Blake may have become increasingly important at the time of the Civil War, Freedman is also right to point out that – aside from a very few friends who kept his memory alive in the declining years of his reputation after 1827 – Blake was actually better known in America than he was in early Victorian England. Her first chapter, which explores his initial American appeal, notes that Blake’s writings appealed much more directly to the Transcendentalism of Emerson, who first encountered Blake (as did a number of American writers) through James John Garth Wilkinson’s 1839 edition of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. While Emerson drew back from Wilkinson’s Swedenborgianism, that movement was enjoying something of a revival in nineteenth-century America, and Emerson’s copy of the Songs established Blake as a writer of importance even before he read Gilchrist’s Life. The other entry point for Blake into American culture was via the Abolitionist movement, particularly through Lydia Maria Child, who published a number of Blake’s poems during her tenure as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard in the 1840s. Freedman provides a superb account of the trials that faced Child as editor, not least the difficulties of reconciling hard-line abolitionists to the wider population, as well as her search “for ways to recapture a sense of spiritual liberty that felt free from received error.” (p.26)
Having established the early importance of Blake to American cultural life, the second chapter of The Myth of America concentrates on the most important – if rather complex – relationship between Blake and Walt Whitman that cemented the two in American consciousness as the poets of “prophecy and democracy” (p.43). Freedman offers another extremely clear account of the relations between Whitman and Blake, which are less to do with the reception of Blake in Whitman’s work (there is no real evidence that he knew of Blake before writing Leaves of Grass) than with the milieu into which Whitman’s poetry is received in the United Kingdom in particular. As Whitman was the first critic to offer a wholesale appreciation of Whitman in his 1868 essay on Blake, so the two figures became increasingly entwined: early on, Whitman was happy to note the recognition that an important critic gave him, but as time went on he rankled at the suggestions that he somehow had copied Blake, a situation that was made worse by the continued linking of Whitman’s and Blake’s names by other Americans such as Moncure Conway and Whitman’s friend, John Swinton, who made the cardinal error of suggesting that the American poet must have known the English Romantic. By the end of his life, particularly through his friendship with Anne Gilchrist (entirely Platonic on his part even if she wished for more), Whitman was somewhat reconciled to Blake and chose his image of “Death’s Door” as the model for his own tomb, but he also continued to maintain a distance to the earlier artist during those final years when he “felt his poetic control over American national identity slipping” (p.61). Although many later Americans linked Whitman and Blake inextricably, for Whitman himself the legacy of the earlier artist was always a troubled one.
Chapter 3, on the early twentieth-century reception of Blake, is – with that on music – the least satisfactory in the book mainly because it has to do a great deal of work clearing the ground before Freedman can turn to Ginsberg. This is not to say at all that it lacks value: quite the contrary. Here we see the continuation of an important theme linking American and Hebrew poetry (which will, of course, become immensely important with Ginsberg), and Freedman does an excellent job of highlighting how Blake infused the social and poetic spirit of a multitude of American writers, including Waldo Frank, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Theodore Roethke. There is the occasional omission – Upton Sinclair included Blake as one of his socially-inspired poets in his 1915 anthology, Cry for Justice, but this is simply because so many writers need to be covered here. I have also bracketed off Freedman’s reading of Eliot which is excellent in its subtlety and attention to detail: she is convincing when portraying his depictions of Blake as especially resistant to the occult-mystical nationalism of W. B. Yeats and Edwin Ellis, which became prevalent in the early 1900s because of their ground-breaking edition of Blake’s collected works. Transplanting Eliot back to America, however, with his “expatriate imagination” (p.76), is not quite as effective as some of the other readings – the man who had renounced his American passport aged 39 would never sit easily alongside his former countrymen, although as he observed in a 1959 interview that the source of his poetry “comes from America” (The Paris Review, Spring-Summer, 1959).
The next chapter on “Ginsberg’s Prophetic Guru” is, quite literally, the centrepiece of the book. This is where William Blake and the Myths of America ties together most clearly the strands of prophecy and spiritual seeking, political and social demands for justice, and an awareness of what is perhaps best thought of as romantic irony, the scepticism of the poet and artist towards his or her own work and its achievements. Unsurprisingly, it is a much more coherent chapter than the previous one, for though Kerouac and other members of the Beats have walk-on parts to play, it clearly has a focus on Ginsberg alone, for whom “Blake was more than a poetic influence, he was a spiritual forefather” (p.89). It is Ginsberg more than any other who fuses together Blake and a reluctant Whitman (while also – and this is an important point – recognising the differences and separation between the two) to create the alternative soul of America that he sought to bring into being in post-war America. The first part of the chapter is, for anyone with any interest in Blake and Ginsberg, relatively familiar territory – from the Blakean influences on Howl to Ginsberg’s sense of prophetic calling after experiencing an auditory hallucination of Blake’s voice in Harlem in 1948: Freedman is perceptive and concise on all accounts, and what she definitely brings to this account of the early influence of Blake in particular is the fun that Ginsberg was having with his spiritual forebear. What was more enlightening to me (because I only have the sketchiest knowledge of it) is the relationship between Blake and Ginsberg after his trip to Japan in the 1960s, particularly his renewed sense of enlightenment while on the train to Kyoto, where he seeks a return to the body instead of the hedonistic drug culture which had started to dominate his thinking. Especially revealing is Ginsberg’s reading of “I saw a Monk of Charlemagne” outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and his increased understanding of “Blake as a disillusioned radical, who struggled with the same conflicts as people in modern America” (p.116). Urizen was as relevant to the potential threat of the neutron bomb in 1960s America as he had been to the forces of counter-revolution in Europe in the 1790s.
While the chapter on Ginsberg is probably the most important in this book, tying together as it does Freedman’s themes of prophecy, history and a desire for social and political justice as important factors in the American myth, I preferred the following one on Robert Duncan. Much of this is due to the fact that Duncan’s relation to Blake is much less discussed than Ginsberg’s (although Ed Larrissy does combine the two in his book Blake and Modern Literature). Duncan’s family background – his parents were interested in theosophy and Swedenborgianism, and his own inclinations to anarchism place him closer to Blake’s own political views in many ways – are dealt with concisely and sympathetically, and Freedman, as ever, offers a nuanced reading of his career at Black Mountain College, as well as his more difficult relations with the anti-Vietnam protests (he opposed the war, but saw collective action as leading to further authoritarianism). Duncan wrote extensively about Blake in various essays, observing at one point that: “To take Blake or Dante as gospels of Poetry, as I do, is to testify to and to enter into the reality of a divine history within what men call history.” (cited p.121) Blake was also a direct influence on some of Duncan’s verse, for example “Variations on Two Dicta by William Blake”, as well as a refracted source as in “My mother would be a falconress”, which he wrote after reading Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Freedman’s reading of Visions is a virtuoso piece, exploring the complexities of that poem which can condemn rape and slavery while also realising the fundamental realities that a raped, enslaved woman lacks the power to change the society that wills such things. She is completely compelling in her understanding that “Duncan realized that Blake was a difficult and ethical writer” (p.133), one who refused simple resolutions for an ideological position but instead saw existence as “muddied”. She is sympathetic to the desire of the psychedelic generation to have their perceptions cleansed, but the discussion of Duncan’s relations with Blake point to a much maturer understanding of the Romantic’s influence on American history and mythology.
Chapter 6 offers another set of masterly readings, this time concentrating on the ecopoetics of Michael McClure and Gary Snyder (with a brief interlude that considers George Oppen) and how they engage with an ecological view of Blake that runs counter to the experience of many readers of Blake in the mid-twentieth century – that he believed nothing could be learned from external nature – and instead is decades ahead of the green revisionism of Blake that began to take place in the 1990s. Freedman is very much correct to assert that both McClure and Snyder adopt Blake “in ways that were naive and uncritical” (p.141), but her readings are also sympathetic to the reasons why they do adopt him, as well as conscious of the differences between them. Thus McClure, with his ranting, anti-intellectual and anti-idealist approach to poetics takes Blake’s diabolic energy as a call to return to the body, as in his essay on Blake in Meat Science Essays (1963). Snyder, by contrast, sees in Blake a much calmer reflection on man’s relations to the environment, influenced by his engagement with Buddhism via the teachings of D. T. Suzuki and with anarchism both via American libertarian traditions and Chinese Taoism. (It is also worth noting, although not covered by Freedman, that Suzuki also provided links to west coast craftsmen, artists and poets to the mingei movement inspired by Soetsu Yanagi who, through his introduction to the Romantic by Bernard Leech, became one of the first intellectuals in Japan to write on Blake.) Freedman observes that although he distanced himself increasingly from the Beats after reading with Ginsberg in San Francisco, he connects more closely to the mythopoeic formulation of the myth of America – particularly in its lineage from the American transcendentalists and their interests in environmentalism – than McClure’s deliberately contrarian work.
Like chapter 3, chapter 7 on the music of the counterculture and its immediate aftermath, is not as compelling as others because it has to do so much work in a short space. Unlike the earlier chapter, this one would easily have benefited from being divided into two chapters; as the recently released William Blake and the Age of Aquarius demonstrated, there is a great deal still to be written on the psychedelic culture of the 1960s. In addition I also feel that, in contrast to most of the poets that Freedman concentrates on in her book, a more critical sifting of her subjects here would have been beneficial, in that their appreciation of Blake varies wildly. Dylan, for example, while a great songwriter, appears to me to have only really slenderly known Blake, a point which is excellently made by Luke Walker in Rock and Romanticism; likewise, despite famously taking his name (via Aldous Huxley’s appropriation) from Blake, but did not necessarily delve more deeply into the Romantic’s works than the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Auguries of Innocence as Tristanne Connolly suggests. A more critical stance to these two big hitters would, in my opinion, allow a Blakean light to shine much more clearly on the two other figures considered in this chapter: Ed Sanders, of The Fugs, and Patti Smith, both of whom I believe have had a much deeper engagement with Blake. In the case of Smith, this has been truly profound and ongoing over many decades – along with the French Symbolists, Blake is probably the most important poetic influence on her career; by contrast, Sanders’ use of Blake is more restricted but more delicate and truly affectionate towards his Romantic predecessor. As well as setting “How sweet I roam’d” to music – one of the best adaptations ever – The Fugs’ 1969 “Homage to Catherine and William Blake” shows a real understanding of Blake’s oeuvre as well as a free-spirited, funny and truly subversive reworking of Blake that goes far beyond Jim Morrison’s rock god pomposity.
Chapter 8 on Blake and countercultural theology is one of the most interesting in the book, mainly because it deals with figures who only tended to be dealt with tangentially in Blake studies and thus benefit from greater analysis – namely Thomas Merton, Thomas Altizer and Norman O. Brown. Altizer and O’Brown are the main subjects of this section (and, as with the remainder of the book, the opportunity to concentrate in lengthier detail on her subjects allows Freedman to explore them in greater depth). In contrast to the rather mixed chapter on music, the discussion of alternative radical theologies in the 1960s also allows Freedman to examine a more explicitly Christian element of the prophetic theme that runs throughout William Blake and the Myth of America. The thoughtfulness of both Altizer and Brown is evident in that both “shared an immensely metaphysical approach to reality, an obsession with circularity over linearity, sensual response, and a philosophical commitment to the principle of coincidentia oppositorum, the union, integration, or interpenetration of opposites.” (p.195) Unsurprisingly, for both scholars Blake’s notions of Contraries was greatly appealing, and Freedman demonstrates how each thinker used a Blakean dialectic with considerable sympathy for their attempts to establish an alternative Christology to that of St Paul, one which would avoid the apostle’s authoritarianism. She is also excellent in placing these in the contexts of the death of God controversy that exploded in the mid-decade – as well as the fact that Brown in particular was far from radical in his personal life while, in works such as Love’s Body, presented some of the most prophetic and open-minded views of the decade.
The penultimate section, on Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, takes a very different perspective to the main part of the book and, as Freedman observes, “provides an important counterpoint to Blake’s standing in psychedelic counterculture” (p.214). Bellow, as she points out, could not be more different to the majority of the figures considered previously, although in some respects this is perhaps due to the fact that the Blake of the Beats and the counterculture had drowned out those alternatives which were very much in evidence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American society, as with the abolitionists or trade union movements. Bellow’s Blakeanism, suggests Freedman, is subtle but significant – and “a timely critique of Blake’s assimilation into what Bellow perceived as the sham Romanticism of the counterculture.” (p.215) Freedman is incredibly incisive at this point, picking up on some of my own reactions to certain shallow appropriations of Blake that do indeed take place in some (although by no means all) of the main players in the counterculture. It is through Bellow’s Herzog that Blake is explored most directly in readings of London, offering some insights into both Blake in particular and Romanticism more generally after the Holocaust. The one criticism that I have of this last chapter is that, once more, Freedman tends to move through some of her subjects too quickly: Bellow is dealt with in considerable detail, but Vonnegut and Bradbury are skirted over too quickly and – in a much longer work! – would have benefited from her insights into their writings.
Bellow as the antithesis of the counterculture, in which the substance and proper struggle for morality and identity as indicated by his invocation of Blake in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), is an interlude in the main trajectory of William Blake and the Myth of America: it is a vision of Blake that does not take on the characteristics of the bardic and prophetic tradition that dominated the vision established by Ginsberg in particular. What we may see, in effect, is two understandings of Blake as inheritor of the Jewish tradition of prophet – the ecstatic Ezekiel of Ginsberg and the more gloomy Jeremiah of Bellow – in which the role of the Beats has, not entirely rightfully, taken pre-eminence. There is, of course, more than enough room for both reception histories, and it is possible to see how Freedman could have written a different book if she had given more space to those currents outside the Beats and counterculture. The final chapter, which explores some of the later reception history of Blake in America, is something of a mixed bag: it offers a truly wonderful reading of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, as well as Paul Chan’s cartographical art from the early 2000s, but it also demonstrates just how much is missed in this study from the post-sixties era. Blake in pop cultural forms from the eighties to the millennium and beyond includes the Hannibal Lecter books and films, folk and jazz musical traditions such as M. Ward and the Dave Taylor Octet, and the many classical composers of the twentieth and twenty-first century from William Bolcom to Jonathan Lovenstein who have taken Blake as their inspiration. I do not wish to end on this criticism: Freedman is very clear that her work is tracing a particular bardic and prophetic vision of Blake through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that concentrates on the counterculture with some important counterpoints (notably Bellow), one that rightly draws attention to the religious spirit of his American reception. What her excellent work does for me is to demonstrate what other work needs to be done on Blake in America. What William Blake and the Myth of America admirably shows is that the “Blakeanism of the counterculture forged a place for the creative imagination in the redemption of modern America” (p.254). The dangers of such energies were that they too often could become destructive and nihilistic, but they also ensured that during the Cold War visions of America were not held entirely in thrall to the Urizenic machine.
Linda Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. xiii +273, RRP £55.00.
In 2005, Patti Smith released a well-received book of poetry, Auguries of Innocence, that clearly indicated her affections for the work of William Blake. Some thirteen years later, the influence of Blake is once more evident in her latest collection, a series of seven prose-poems entitled The New Jerusalem, a handsome volume that has been released by the Nexus Institute in a bilingual, English and Dutch edition.
As well as the poems themselves, the book includes a series of illustrations, some of them reproductions of Smith’s own work such as her silkscreen print of South Tower Copper. The Nexus Library series (of which this is a part) has been an eclectic mix, including works by Mario Vargas Llosa and Garry Kasparov as well as Smith’s latest offering, and the images and texts are preceded by an essay written by Rob Riemen, founder of the Nexus Institute and a longtime admirer of Smith’s. It is his introduction that offers the clearest link to Blake as he recounts a meeting the two of them had in New York:
“I’ve just started on a poem that’ll be called The New Jerusalem.”
“The new Jerusalem! Like the prophesy at the end of The Revelation of St. John in the New Testament? Or like the visionary poem Jerusalem by William Blake?” I knew what a passion she had for that eighteenth-century poet and painter.
The immediate cause of the poem is actually the Trump administration’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and thus the political act of recognising the “universal” city as the capital of Israel. Regarding literary influences, Smith herself goes on to list a long line, including Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Andrei Tarkovsky, Allen Ginsberg – and the one that surprises Riemen the most – Jesus Christ. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the introduction is Smith’s insistence of the interlinking of art and religion. She cites Wilde’s De Profundis to argue that Christ was an artist, and though it is a little more oblique she certainly knows of Blake’s repeated references to Christianity as art. This becomes part of Rieman’s argument, that we have replaced concepts such as soul, forgiveness, God and creation with innovation, popularity and consumption, and that all art – not merely that of the sixties and seventies – is an art of counter-culture. He cites the line from Blake’s Laocoön, “Art Degraded, Imagination Denied, War Governed the Nations”, but with regard to Patti Smith’s ideas he could also have quoted: “A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian”.
Riemens links this very Blakean conception of the Christian art of imagination to a counter-culture, operating both against the religious right of contemporary America but also current political trends of Trump’s America, which he mournfully compares to the tribulations of Lincoln, a party linked by name only across the centuries. Despite this somewhat melancholy end to the introductory essay, however, begin with a much more powerful tone: “Matter of Time”, the opening piece, is redolent of Ginsberg and, to my eyes, Yeats as well as Blake, as in the following passage:
The new time slouched then accelerated, visceral, chaotic, yet soon governed with a terrible lucidity. God usurped by Goal. Chemical commerce the prime directive. Cultivators initiated an unremittent engineering of nature. Controllers enforced a neo-naturalization, devoid of charity or human quality. Mercenary priests devised the moral center. Iron and steel rose from the face of the holy city, the earth shuddered, and it was holy no more.
The accompanying image, South Tower Copper, indicates that there is something about this passage that is explicitly imagist, of a tower rising in the literal city of Jerusalem to form the new embassy. At the same time, it is also clearly visionary, and while some of this verse literally sticks in the mouth as I read it (“enforced a neo-naturalization devoid of charity”) this is, perhaps, appropriate to the language of Ulro. Although not quite the howl of Ginsberg’s poem, there is something about this opening passage that is very reminiscent of his accusations against Moloch:
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
The first poem is also a retelling of Blake’s account, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as to the origins of religion. Originally the preserve of ancient poets, who “animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive”, this inspired form of worship was soon abstracted into a system and “thus began Priesthood”. For Smith, modern priests are consumer culture, automation and mechanisation which drives us along as part of alienated modernity.
It is against such mechanisation, the Moloch of Ginsberg or Blake’s Ulro, that she is clearly writing her new Christian art, inspired very much by those two poets as well as the other artists and writers identified by Rieman. Thus in the second piece, “What manner of herald flies over”, offers a visionary account of a Caravaggio, not explicitly identified but probably his “Decapitation of St John the Baptist”, the marking of an end of an epoch of art that is followed by a scene of literal sacrifice of cattle: it is the institution of priesthood, but also – via it’s title, “Triumph and Deceit” – a mocking reference to the politics of the 45th President of the United States, who sacrifices truth in the service of power.
The style of all these and the remaining pieces – “The Alchemical Sovereign”, “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, “The Cup” and “A Time of Gifts” – is highly allusive. That it has its roots in a specific political event is not immediately evident without Rieman’s introduction, and these could be read as a series of narrative images that are frequently hauntingly beautiful in their simplicity:
In a dream, a woman gave me a small object, wrapped in brown tissue. It was a cup, delicate, near transparent, created long ago by one who had aspired to transform mute material into gold… He saw carnage and famine and the bleached arms of power. He saw himself shackled to futile ambition. None shall enlighten, he cried, save a nature I shall never know.
Throughout all the poems, allusions to Blake are frequently as delicate as the porcelain cup that Smith holds, but they are very much in evidence. As “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, drawing both on Blake’s famous declarations of prophecy and his Songs of Innocence, is especially redolent of his aphoristic style in works such as The Marriage and Auguries of Innocence. It is also a key to The New Jerusalem, a series of songs that are intended to revive that lost idea of a soul through the act of prophecy. The collection ends with Smith collecting up her writing tools as a voice inside her tells her that she is (re)born, a voice of “inexhaustible good”.
Patti Smith, The New Jerusalem, Amsterdam: Nexus Library, 2018. Bilingual edition, 76pp. €20, available from nexus-instituut.nl/en/publication/the-new-jerusalem.
Everyone knows the Doors are named for the doors of perception – but that phrase comes from Aldous Huxley’s book on hallucinogens as well as from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Morrison quotes ‘Auguries of Innocence’ in ‘End of the Night’ on the first Doors album: ‘Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to Endless Night’. But that is the only direct Blake reference in Morrison’s recorded lyrics. Is that it? Did Morrison only do a little vague and random dipping into Blake? Or was Ray Manzarek right to think of him as an authority on the visionary poet? ‘I wonder what Blake said… Too bad Morrison‘s not here. Morrison would know’ (Manzarek, as recorded by Joan Didion in The White Album, passage reprinted in Rocco’s Doors Companion, p. 13).
In interviews, Blake seems to come readily to Morrison’s lips. He demonstrates a basic acquaintance with famous lines from Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In a 1968 interview with John Carpenter for the Los Angeles Free Press, he remarks (without attribution), ‘Opposition is true friendship, ha!’ (in Hopkins, Lizard King, p. 205). Speaking with Lizze James in 1969, Morrison’s thoughts go to Blake when asked about the ‘apocalyptic vision’ of his work on the first Doors album (1966-7): ‘It used to seem possible to generate a movement… they’d all put their strength together to break what Blake calls “the mind-forged manacles” … The love-street times are dead’ (Lizard King p. 279). They also turn to Blake when the topic is erotic mysticism: ‘Blake said that the body was the soul’s prison unless the five senses are fully developed and open. He considered the senses the “windows of the soul”. When sex involves all the senses intensely, it can be like a mystical experience’ (p. 281). Though initially this seems not the most subtle reading of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell‘s cleansing of the doors of perception, it picks up on the implications of ‘sensual enjoyment’ (MHH 14) carried forward into Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and detects Blake’s odd slide from windows to doors as transparent inlets of perception. A fuller knowledge might underlie these fairly obvious quotations: Blake actually does call the senses ‘This Lifes dim Windows of the Soul’ in The Everlasting Gospel, just before the more widely known lines, ‘And leads you to Believe a Lie / When you see with not thro the Eye’.
Manzarek, in his autobiography Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors, recounts his memories of Jim Morrison’s book collection: ‘very eclectic, but also standard… we were all reading the same thing… Except Jim had more! A wall of books’ (p. 78-9). Though he doesn’t list Blake specifically, his omission from such an impressively full, typically bohemian bookshelf would be remarkable. Beyond his own collection, Morrison could also find Blake in the libraries of the colleges he attended. When Howard Smith asked him his opinion of the value of university, Morrison says, ‘If they have a good library, that’s about it… the main key to education is reading, basically. You could do the same thing on your own’ (in Lizard King p. 296). At UCLA, as well as having access as a student, he would have spent steady time in the stacks when he worked in the Powell Library from early 1964 until he was fired in August of the same year for lack of punctuality (as Davis narrates in his biography, p. 55). Unfortunately the library no longer has shelf lists to recreate the holdings from that time, but a look at the current collections shows that there may have been a good deal of Blake available: of pre-1964 editions, not only the Complete Writings edited by Geoffrey Keynes (1957), but also Poems of William Blake edited by W. B. Yeats (1938), Prophetic Writings of William Blake edited by Sloss and Wallis (1926), and further selections by Amelia H. Munson (1964), John Sampson (1960), Alfred Kazin (The Portable Blake, 1946), and Frederick E. Pierce (1915), plus in the way of criticism, The Divine Vision and Ruthven Todd’s Tracks in the Snow. The reference department at UCLA’s College Library were very kind in response to my queries, and shared the information that the Powell building housed the undergraduate College Library collection as well as the research collection while a new library was built for the latter (completed in 1964). My assumption, without being able to check acquisition dates, is that pre-1964 items in the College Library collection would have most likely been found in the Powell Library stacks where Morrison shelved books. (If the search is opened beyond the undergraduate to the research collection, there are of course many further possibilities; for instance, that is where Frye’s Fearful Symmetry is.)
Morrison may have done some purposeful Blake research in the library, since he wrote an essay on Blake for an English class in Romanticism. This was English 154, Spring Semester 1965. I am very grateful to the instructor, Fredrick Burwick, for sharing his memories of teaching Morrison. (And I want to credit and thank David Fallon for pointing out the connection.) Burwick recounts, ‘He showed me a paper on Hieronymus Bosch that he had written for a community college in Florida and wanted to know whether he might submit a similar paper on Blake. His Bosch paper focused on the visionary/hallucinatory experience of The Garden of Earthly Delights. I agreed that a similar approach to Blake’s illuminated works was possible. I remember that he wrote on MHH and referred to other Blake plates, but I can’t recall any details of the work he submitted’. One of Morrison’s main interests in Blake, then, was vision and intoxication: ‘Jim asked me if Blake did drugs. I told him that I didn’t think so’. (Burwick later wrote about Blake’s imagery of ergot poisoning from rotting grain – there is lysergic acid (LSD) in ergot fungus – in his book, Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination (1996), a fascinating and thoroughly researched account of Blake’s insight into the significance of this illness, and its dual potential of vision and suffering.)
It was in the previous summer, 1964, while Morrison was working in the library, that he began to write in his ‘Notes on Vision’ notebook that became The Lords, half of The Lords and The New Creatures, the one book of his poetry to be commercially published in his lifetime (by Simon & Schuster in 1969). Though it owes much to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Rimbaud’s principle of the derangement of the senses, there are specific Blakean echoes. It owes much to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There are formal parallels: The Lords is a hybrid collection of verse and prose, veering among literary composition, philosophical musing, sensory exploration, and cultural commentary. Morrison’s ‘Cure blindness with a whore’s spittle’ (p. 37) sounds like it could be a Proverb of Hell. A description of a ‘happening… in which ether is introduced into a roomful of people through air vents’ breaks down the borders between audience and performer, while ‘the gas acts out poems of its own through the medium of the human body’ (p. 39), tempting comparison with Blake’s Illuminated Books as multimedia experiments in composite art, dominated by the expressive Human Form Divine (which sometimes inhabits the words themselves, especially in titles), and demanding active participation from their readers.
As the passage goes on, it becomes evident that not only form, but also concepts and vocabulary are shared with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Morrison writes,
The aim of the happening is to cure boredom, wash the eyes, make childlike reconnections with the stream of life. Its lowest, widest aim is for purgation of perception. The happening attempts to engage all the senses, the total organism, and achieve total response in the face of traditional arts which focus on narrower inlets of sensation. (p. 39)
In The Marriage (5), ‘that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses. the chief inlets of Soul in this age’. The aims of Blake’s artistic project are also described in terms of washing, purging, and bringing about ‘an improvement of sensual enjoyment’:
This I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. (MHH 14).
When men conceived buildings,
and closed themselves in chambers,
first trees and caves (p. 36)
are comparable to Blake’s lines following the cleansing of the doors of perception: ‘For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern’ (MHH 14).
As well as the resemblances to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a passage on shamanism in The Lords makes use of the phrase ‘mental travels’, suggesting Blake’s poem ‘The Mental Traveller’. There is also a distinctly Blakean physical and metamorphic version of expanded perception in The Lords.
The eye looks vulgar
Inside its ugly shell.
Come out in the open
In all of your Brilliance (p. 24)
recalls the ‘two little orbs… fixed in two little caves / Hiding carefully from the wind’ in Blake’s Book of Urizen (11:13-15; also see Milton 3:15-16, and Four Zoas Night IV 54:21-2), and the apocalyptic ‘Expanding Eyes of Man’ that ‘behold the depths of wondrous worlds’ in The Four Zoas (Night IX 138:25; also the ‘eyelids expansive as morning’, Four Zoas Night VI 73:36).
In the summer after working in the library and taking the Romanticism course, Morrison threw away all of his notebooks except for his recent work toward The Lords. The summer of 1965 was also the time when he lived on a roof in Venice, California, hardly ate but took plenty of acid, and began writing the songs that would be the spark of the Doors’ creation when he sang them to Ray Manzarek in their legendary encounter on the beach.
Davis, Stephen. Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. New York: Gotham, 2005.
Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. First published 1954, 1956.
Manzarek, Ray. Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors. New York: Berkley Boulevard, 1999.
Rocco, John M. The Doors Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. London: Omnibus, 1997.
Morrison, ‘An American Poet’, and ‘English Blake’ are popularly espoused as voices of their nations. Both saw themselves as prophets, claiming at least to comment on and at most to influence the political and cultural events surrounding them. As part of their prophetic personae, they both invented new lineages for themselves, mystically adopting chosen ancestors that would tie them tightly to the kind of historical and creative inheritance they wanted for themselves and their countries.
Morrison tells a powerful memory of childhood trauma in ‘Dawn’s Highway’, one of the poems he recorded on his last birthday (it was put to music by the surviving Doors on An American Prayer):
Me and my – ah – mother and father – and a grandmother and a grandfather – were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truckload of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just – I don’t know what happened – but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.
So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta been about four – like a child is like a flower, his head is just floating in the breeze, man.
The reaction I get now thinking about it, looking back – is that the souls of the ghosts of those dead Indians… maybe one or two of ’em… were just running around freaking out, and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still in there.
Morrison’s personal mythology here is an attempt to attach himself to the shamanic traditions of native Americans, and also to opt for a more ‘authentic’ American identity than the one of oppressive white power that his biological lineage dictates (considering his father was an admiral in the US Navy, and very much involved in Vietnam).
In Milton, Blake describes becoming one with John Milton, Britain’s most imposing national poet:
The first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift;
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus enterd there;
But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe
Milton had used his writing talents to support the English Revolution (including defending the regicide), and suffered for holding to his beliefs in the Restoration. Blake is asserting radical political authority as well as literary prowess by identifying with Milton.
Blake’s possession by Milton apparently has wide repercussions (‘spread over Europe’ – like Morrison, Blake is writing in wartime). The most conspicuous appearance of Morrison’s recurring lines, ‘Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding / Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind’, is in ‘Peace Frog’ on Morrison Hotel, a prophetic, apocalyptic song with its own specific geography: ‘Blood on the streets / in the town of New Haven’, where Morrison had become the first rock star to be arrested on stage (as Fong-Torres notes, p. 112). Like Blake, he takes elements from his own biography and mythologizes them on a global and cosmic scale. And like Blake he creates catalogues of places to illustrate the national reach of his prophecy: ‘Blood in the streets / of the town of Chicago’, ‘Blood stains the roofs / and the palm trees of Venice’, ‘The Bloody red sun / of phantastic L.A.’. In such a visionary city, he combines literal and figurative geography: ‘blood on the streets / runs a river of sadness’, and most remarkably, ‘The river runs red down / the legs of the city’, recalling Blake’s imagery of birth trauma and miscarriage (in Morrison’s notebook these verses were titled ‘Abortion Stories’, according to Jerry Hopkins in The Lizard King, p. 129). Compare also the ‘unborn living living dead’ of ‘The Unknown Soldier’, and
to the river
in ‘The Soft Parade’. However, the lines could also suggest loss of virginity (which has revolutionary force in the case of Orc and the Nameless Shadowy Female in the Preludium to America); or menstruation as the simultaneous potential of fertility and infertility, life and death; or indeed human sacrifice as practiced by women in Jerusalem. ‘Blood hath staind her fair side beneath her bosom’ (Jerusalem 67:43) in the extended narrative of the Daughters of Albion ‘drunk with blood’ (Jerusalem 68:12), while for Morrison the blood is also the woman’s as victim:
Blood! screams her brain
as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born
in the birth of a Nation
These lyrics are juxtaposed with a parallel set dominated by the repeated line ‘She came’: female orgasm is apocalyptic and violent for Morrison as it is for Blake at the end of The Song of Los, where
The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes
Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem:
Her bosom swells with wild desire:
And milk & blood & glandous wine
In rivers rush & shout & dance,
On mountain, dale and plain (7:35-40)
In ‘Peace Frog’, and more clearly in ‘L. A. Woman’, Morrison also creates ‘a City yet a Woman’ (Four Zoas, Night IX:223) as Blake does in the figure of Jerusalem, with a kind personification which perceives both simultaneously – ‘I see your hair is burning / Hills are filled with fire’ – and mixes both, blurring external and internal – ‘Drive through your suburbs / Into your blues’. (Note how personification is used toward social commentary: the suburbs are a direct route to depression.) They draw on a collective origin in Biblical prophecy, and partake of its depiction of Israel as a combination of innocent wife and abandoned harlot: ‘Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light? / Or just another lost angel’. Like Blake’s persecuted Jerusalem, ‘Never saw a woman so alone’. (Oothoon also, as rejected but righteous harlot / wife, and as ‘the soft soul of America’ (Visions of the Daughters of Albion 1:3), is a precursor of ‘L. A. Woman’.)
Both Blake and Morrison proceed from this kind of imagery to imagery of male power: as in Blake the call, ‘Awake! Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion / Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time’ (Jerusalem 97:1) leads to the predominantly phallic imagery of Albion’s awakening and reuniting with the Zoas, Morrison also moves from the L. A. Woman to the combination of resurrection and erection in his anagram, ‘Mr. Mojo Risin / Got to keep on risin’ / Risin’, risin”. Morrison sings, ‘L. A. Woman, you’re my woman’, while for Blake Albion’s rising also is catalyzed by union with the feminine personification of nation: ‘England who is Brittannia’, who is also Jerusalem, ‘enterd Albions bosom rejoicing’ (Jerusalem 95:22, 32:28). Morrison once said, ‘Los Angeles is a city looking for a ritual to join its fragments, and the Doors are looking for a ritual also. A kind of electric wedding’ (quoted by Federica Pudva, p. 133), like the ones evoked by Blake at the end of Jerusalem, and in the title of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
In her essay on Morrison and Blake, Federica Pudva points out that ‘London was for Blake a real city and at the same time a spiritual and symbolic reality, part of a broad divine vision’ while in Morrison’s vision, Los Angeles was ‘the umbilicus of the world’ and a microcosm of fragmented modern society (p. 132-3, my translation). Morrison called Los Angeles a ‘”genetic blue-print” for the United States’ (Lizard King p. 301). In a poem, ‘The Guided Tour’, he writes,
“I am a guide to the labyrinth”
city is inside of body made manifest
meat organs & electrical
power plants (American Night p. 143)
reminiscent, in reverse, of Los searching ‘the interiors of Albions / Bosom’, which involves coming ‘down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London’ (Jerusalem 45:3-4,14). Though the alienated modern city in Morrison owes much to Baudelaire and, as William Cook examines in detail, T. S. Eliot, Pudva finds that Morrison’s flâneur-like observation of prostitution in the city in his poem The Lords – ‘a ring of death with sex at its centre’ – is rooted in Blake’s ‘midnight streets’ and ‘Harlot’s curse’ in ‘London’ (p. 127-8).
We might see Morrison grasping more than content in the Songs if we take ‘People are Strange’ as commenting on the contingent voice of Songs of Experience and playing with the use of persona it offers.
People are strange
When you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you’re alone
emphasizes the kind of interior realities which may contribute to the compulsion of the speaker in ‘London’ to ‘mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. ‘Women seem wicked / When you’re unwanted’ distils the combination of blame and pity in the ‘Harlot’s curse’ seen as infecting the city and blighting both birth and marriage with death. ‘Faces come out of the rain / When you’re strange’ is like the fragmentation of faces and voices without bodies in ‘London’, and ‘Streets are uneven / When you’re down’ is a direct statement on psychogeography. If the song was inspired by an enlightening Laurel Canyon sunrise, as Robby Krieger narrates (in Fong-Torres 95-6), then it is located (or projected) on Morrison’s home territory as ‘London’ is on Blake’s.
Cook, William. ‘Jim Morrison: A “Serious Poet”?’ Literary Kicks: Opinions, Observations and Research. 12 July 2003. http://www.litkicks.com/JamesDouglasMorrison
Fong-Torres, Ben, and the Doors. The Doors. New York: Hyperion, 2006.
Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.
Pudva, Federica. ‘The Devil’s Party: Jim Morrison e William Blake’ Anglistica Pisana 2:1 (2005) 119-37.
I FIRST read Milton Klonsky on Blake better than 35 years ago. In the spring of 1974 I picked up issue # 20 of American Review, a mass-market paperback literary magazine that appeared from 1967 to 1977. The key attraction was the cover—a collage that much resembled Cal Schenkel’s strangely charming illustrations for some of Frank Zappa’s early albums.
As I skimmed the pages, what next caught my eye was an insert of illustrations that reproduced one of Robert Hooke’s original drawings of a flea as seen through the first microscope, as well as an engraving of a more fanciful flea by William Blake, made during one of those long evenings when he stayed up to all hours waiting for a “visitation” from any spirit who might feel the need to come to him. There was also a page from a Classic Comics adaption of Crime and Punishment. This insert accompanied a very long essay called “Art & Life: A Mennipean Paean to the Flea; or, Did Dostoevsky Kill Trotsky?” by Klonsky, someone I had never heard of. To even begin reading it, I had to look up “Mennipean,” which, as I learned, means a combination of styles and genres—including mixing verse and prose—often with a satiric intent.
In this essay, and a handful of others written in the same period, Klonsky indeed mixes prose and poetry—of Blake and Christopher Smart and others—but also centuries, genres, depths of relative seriousness, politics, science, art and, just as his title promises, life. Klonsky was a classic “Village Intellectual” who set out to know everything interesting there was to know—about drugs, drink, poetry, politics, and most memorably, the great poet artist William Blake. And, further, to combine all this in unexpected ways, give it some topspin, and serve it back with style.
Consequently, “Art & Life” isn’t a traditional essay; its progress has little to do with logical argument, clear development, or any other English 101 parameters for “expository writing.” Klonsky begins at the beginning, with Robert Hooke’s invention of the first microscope, the first close-up view of a flea; from there, via a satire on science he goes to Rabelais, from there to Swift, then to Samuel Butler, to Leeuwenhoek, who used his improved microscope to discover that the flea had tiny pests of its own, from there to Newton fleeing the plague of 1665, from Smart via Bedlam to Blake, to (disappointingly) Carlos Castaneda, to Trotsky’s killer and Dostoevsky, stopping along the way for scenes from his own early life and that of his friend Itchky, all the while locating the often purely tangential flea (and at times not even that, but substituting other tiny insects) somewhere in the field of wider vision if not exactly within the argument. This technique makes it seem as if Klonsky could connect anything with anything. His progression is equal parts arbitrary and magical. At one point in Art & Life, Klonsky even compares the development of the comic book form to the physical development of the flea:
At the time, coincidentally, I had been struck by the eureka that the enclosed form of the heroic couplet, after a morphogenesis as astonishing as the metamorphosis of a flea in its life cycle, had evolved into the boxes of comic strips.
All this flea-pivoted development by purely subjective associations moves by way of Klonsky’s mental flight, itself as erratic as any insect’s, and the flea-caliber leaps he makes, and winding up with this starry-eyed orthographic oddity:
MAN like a Flea shall
Jump from star to *
BY THE time I read through all these intellectual twists and turns, one of the few things that had become absolutely clear was that Klonsky was at his best on Blake. To make this clarity clearer: by “Klonsky on Blake” I mean two things: first, the obvious fact that Klonsky was writing about Blake; secondly, in the sense that “Klonsky on Blake” parallels “Kerouac on Benzedrine,” or “William James on nitrous oxide.” That is, Blake intoxicates Klonsky, helps him look at the world with sustained energy, and from new perspectives—with the added benefit of avoiding the damaging effects of less literary and artistic drugs.
In “W. B.4: or, the Seer Seen by His Own Vision,” Klonsky, in effect, compares the experiences of Blake and drugs, with drugs coming in a distant second. Klonsky begins by quoting these famous lines from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would
appear to man as it is, infinite.
Such perception, Klonsky points out, “must be personal. . . . [Has] to be seen by himself alone. There can be no other eyewitness.” Klonsky then offers a personal eyewitness account of an experience on a beach in the mid-Sixties, one which involved Blake from its beginning:
For better or worse, Blake’s words . . . were deeply etched on my mind one day about ten years ago . . . when for the first (and also the last) time I was turned on to LSD.
Klonsky’s experience wasn’t a true “bad trip,” but he didn’t enjoy it, suffering alternately from heat, cold and loneliness. Blake’s words, as he tells the tale, were with him all the while. As each revelation, each fresh-minted perception arose, Blake’s words arose as well, as if a rising airship were spontaneously generating banners out of the atmosphere to stream along behind it. Klonsky, as would be expected on a beach, saw “a world in a grain of sand,” saw things in their “minute particularity.” The drug eventually wore off, and Klonsky remembered nothing of his visions—except Blake, “whom I invoked to preside over the scene.”
In “W. B.4” Klonsky at times translates Blake’s beliefs into modern equivalents, as when he writes that Blake’s visitations with spirits are like “leptons and muons, quarks and anti-quarks, ‘strange’ or ‘charmed,’ of nuclear physics . . . mind-stuff, the stuff that dreams and concepts are made of, close to the margins of nonentity, and crossing over from time to time.” But these passages have the becalmed surface of considered intellectual parallels. Klonsky immerses himself in the deeps with more delight (for us and, it seems clear by his tone, for him as well), when he thinks his way through fields of thought closer to the provinces from which Blake draws his own inspiration. Here Klonsky takes Blake’s visionary countdown,
Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
’Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton’s sleep.
and observes that, “Blake’s fourfold method of envisioning reality seems to reflect, mirrored within his ‘inner eye,’ the fourfold hermeneutics devised by cabbalists as well as scholastic commentators upon the Bible, whereby the literal-historical, the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and, finally, the anagogical (or spiritual) levels of meaning in Scripture are successively revealed.” Klonsky also goes on from here to point out how he feels Blake was influenced by the cabbalistic text the Zohar, and much more. . . .
BUT THESE are only some of the minute particulars of Klonsky on Blake. Klonsky worked him into all of his major essays for the last dozen years of his life, including an otherwise lackluster piece on McLuhan, “Mc2Luhan’s Message” (1968), which was the first of his essays that visibly reaches up toward his mature style. Minor pieces stretching back to the 1950s also allude to Blake’s work, but Klonsky isn’t really “on” Blake at this point; his intellectual sobriety lacks that inspirational *.
Klonsky died in 1982, but he hasn’t been entirely forgotten. He even appears as a character in Klonsky and Schwartz, a two-person play by Romulus Linney that debuted in 2005. “Schwartz” is Delmore Schwartz, the briefly brilliant, long-dimming poet who was Klonsky’s friend for years. In the play the Klonsky character suffers both from feeling that he is a lesser writer than his friend and from trying to keep Schwartz’s madness from killing him. But there is nothing of the particular Klonsky in the play; the characters could have been given any two writers’ names with even roughly the same relationship and nothing would be lost. Is it romanticizing, I wonder, to believe that Klonsky, a contrary and fiercely individual mind, would have preferred complete oblivion to a bland survival in name only?
BUT THIS will not be Klonsky’s fate as long as we continue to read Klonsky on Blake. Klonsky’s books can be found easily enough, some through out-of-print dealers, at least one through print-on-demand, and any Blake fan should seek out the two big Blake editions from the late 1970s, as well as the unfortunately titled A Discourse on Hip.
Reading these works, noting how Klonsky’s thoughts are ignited by Blake, the seemingly-simple question “Why?” discretely arises. Even those of us who return to Blake again and again—always finding our efforts rewarded, always finding more than we found the previous time—understand that not everyone appreciates Blake. It isn’t a question of “taste,” but of some affinity, some point where the tumblers in our aesthetic register are turned by some key or keys in Blake’s work. If we can’t say why this might be, we can perhaps understand some of the how. Critic George Steiner has written about the effect of encountering “classics,” defining a classic
in literature, in music, in the arts, in philosophic argument, as a signifying form which “reads” us. It reads us more than we read (listen to, perceive) it. There is nothing paradoxical, let alone mystical, in this definition. [A classic] will challenge our resources . . . ask of us: “have you understood?”; “have you re-imagined responsibly?”; “are you prepared to act upon the questions, upon the potentialities of transformed, enriched being which I have posed?”
All this may see perfectly obvious, still Steiner errs: he believes that there are certain works that at least should have this kind of reading effect on any of us who encounter them. This is because the recognized classics of the canon have this effect on him.
But Steiner’s list— Aeschylus, Joyce, Schoenberg, other names in the canon—leaves many of us cold. The truth is we each have to find our own artistic experiences that “read us.” Klonsky, for all his ranging across work from Classic Comics to T. S. Eliot to Christopher Smart, in the end is read best by Blake. Blake is “a classic” for Klonsky—as Klonsky is one for me. For my part I usually (with the occasional profound exception) am only skimmed by Blake. But among those many writers, authors, and artists perpetually awake on the shelves and walls around me, who perpetually stay up to all hours waiting for me to choose to be their visitation, Klonsky reads me better than almost anyone. And if he waits with Blake and his visiting flea at his side, I could never be read better.
Today is the birthday of the poet, novelist, and critic, David Dabydeen, who was born and raised in Guyana before coming to Britain to study, reading English at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Dabydeen, who is a professor at the University of Warwick, has published several novels and collections of verse, as well as studies of eighteenth-century art and literature including Hogarth’s Blacks (1985) Black Writers in Britain 1760-1890 (1991).
Dabydeen’s strongest connection with William Blake lies in his 1984 collection, Slave Song, written in Creole and using Blake’s famous illustrations to John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). Two of the four illustrations from the Narrative included in Dabydeen’s book are engraved by Blake, the other two by Francesco Bartolozzi who was also sometimes employed by Joseph Johnson, the radical publisher who hired Blake to complete some commissions for him in the 1790s.
Dabydeen describes Creole as a “naturally tragic language”, one formed by slavery, indentured labour and brutality, which is littered with obscenities like “fresh faeces” (Slave Songs, p.14). Unsurprisingly, the songs and poems in the collection depict a world where pain and labour are the norm, as in “Song of the Creole Gang Women” and “The Servant’s Song”, or where rape, murder and violence are commonplace (“For Mala”, “Slave Song”). Dabydeen does not wallow in dejection, however, and there are also moments of tenderness and beauty in the collection, as in “Guyana Pastoral” or “The Canecutter’s Song”.
The four illustrations from the Narrative are of a slave being broken on the rack, a rebel Negro, a female slave with a weight chained to her ankle, and a Surinam planter in his morning dress. The first, engraved by Blake, is the most shocking, depicting a slave bound to a wooden frame, one hand hacked off and his body covered with welts as another slave is forced to beat him to death. This is placed against the title poem, but the slave of that song also fantasises what his “gold flooding” cock could do – “Me still gat life!” – and that as long as such life continues there will be an Orcish, diabolic desire that refuses to submit to oppression for ever.
Although Dabydeen does not offer an analysis of the images he includes, among the most powerful of anti-slavery image (although Anne Mellor sees such illustrations as part of a pornographic obsession with slaves’ bodies), that Blake’s vision had a significant hold on Dabydeen’s accounts also becomes evident in another of his books, The Counting House (1996), set on the Albion Plantation in Guyana in the late nineteenth century. The sugar cane factories become the dark satanic mills of Victorian industry, a dark mirror of the British empire which maintains such economic slavery long after the ostensible slave trade had been abolished. While Mellor and some others often see in Blake an erasure of difference, the sublimation of black and white into a higher white empire of Jerusalem, the fact remains that few other poets have so celebrated opposition to slavery and consistently offered a voice to those who suffer its effects – and wish for the joy of release. As he wrote in a short lyric, “Merlin’s Prophecy”:
Tho born on the cheating banks of Thames
Tho his waters bathed my infant limbs
The Ohio shall wash his stains from me
I was born a slave but I go to be free
Today is the anniversary of the birth of David Jones (1895-1974), a poet and artist born in London to a father from a Welsh-speaking family, whose Welsh heritage and Catholicism – as well as the work of William Blake – did a great deal to shape his art.
Jones entered Camberwell Art School in 1909, but his experiences during the First World War, where he served on the Western Front as one of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, led him to explore the catastrophic events leading up to this collapse of a civilisation. As he wrote in his long poem, The Anathemata, the growth of industrialisation and a global imperium that divided communities from their social, cultural and mythological histories – what Jones referred to as ‘The Break’ – had brought material benefits but dislocated those communities from their essential spiritual and moral compass.
Jones’s interest in Catholicism brought him into contact with Eric Gill, and he joined Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic and later the artistic community at Capel-y-ffin. He worked as an illustrator on numerous books, including Gulliver’s Travels and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and produced two notable literary works, In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (published by Faber and Faber in 1952, although Jones continued to work on it for the rest of his life).
As with In Parenthesis, The Anathemata was an attempt to recuperate what he saw as a humanity sacrificed by science, technology and politics in pursuit of military victory, the effects of which had been to create a historically- and culturally-impoverished society. The Anathemata (meaning precious or sacred gifts) was Jones’s attempt to regenerate a republic of art and help create a British counter-culture.
Part of his project, and one reason why the text was never satisfactorily completed for Jones, was not simply to illustrate the past but literally illuminate his text and history. In this task Jones was greatly influenced by Blake, not merely to bring together the heterogeneous elements of his Anglo-Welsh cultural heritage (with roots in Latin and biblical culture), but also formally through imitation of Blake’s acts of repetition. Jones had been an early admirer of Blake, and his return to the mythographical accounts of the origins of Britain out of Geoffrey and Monmouth shared great similarities with the Romantic poet’s desire to locate the beginning and end of all things “in Albions Ancient Druid Rocky Shore”.
Blake, particularly in his prophetic works Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion and Milton a Poem, is not the only influence on Jones’s poem, for he also drew upon a long line of English poetry from The Dream of the Rood to Hopkins via Shakespeare, Milton and many others. In addition, he privileged the position of classical civilisation and chthonic mother religions in a way that marks out his ethos as very distinct to that of Blake’s. Nonetheless, his mythic map-making and delineation of space is often closer to that of Blake’s than any other poet, as when he writes:
This shares considerable similarities to Blake’s idiosyncratic description of Albion in his later books, for example in Milton:
Yet while British (specifically Celtic) history is essential to Jones’s salvation history as it was, with a more particular English twist, to Blake’s, both poets emphasise the importance of the story of the gospels to that national story. If Blake’s radical Protestantism may have caused him to baulk at what he would have seen as Jones’s priestcraft, at the same time the profound similarities between their prophetic visions lay in their self-conscious sense of being Christian poets in Albion.