William Blake’s Life & Work

The first  in a series of publications called Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions is now available. This will provide a set of concise, clearly presented guides that draw on the latest research in Blake studies to outline different approaches to Blake’s poetry and art.

William Blake’s Life & Works is a clear and elegant introduction to one of the most remarkable poets and artists ever to have lived and worked in the British Isles. This concise book, first in the Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions series, provides an account of Blake’s biography and his major works that draws upon some of the most recent scholarship on Blake, presenting that material in an accessible fashion.

This is available as an eBook in HTML and PDF formats, with an ePub version for mobile readers due soon. To download a copy go to the Publications page.

Zoapod 5: Blake’s Poems – The Divine Image (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast five, Blake’s Poems – The Divine Image. In this podcast I shall be doing something different, looking at one of Blake’s poems in some detail rather than concentrating on how Blake’s works have been taken up by subsequent artists. In the first of this (irregular series), I shall be looking at a lyric first published in 1789 as one of the Songs of Innocence, his poem “The Divine Image”.

2. Songs of Innocence was one of Blake’s first books to be printed using a technique that has since become known as illuminated printing, a technique that allowed Blake to combine text and image in the innovative fashion for which he has become best known as an artist. In 1789, this work consisted of thirty-one plates, and Blake produced sixteen or seventeen impressions of the collection during that year. He continued to issue copies of Songs of Innocence over the following years, printing it as a separate book even after he had combined the poems of Innocence into an edition that included Songs of Experience in 1794.

3. As Andrew Lincoln observes in the William Blake Trust/Tate Gallery version of the poems (London, 1991), Songs of Innocence was originally produced to take advantage of the rapidly expanding market for children’s books that existed in the late eighteenth century. Such books were often illustrated with engravings or woodcuts, but Blake’s own production methods went far beyond conventional printing methods. Likewise, while he used many apparently familiar motifs of children’s literature in his poems and illustrations, such as shepherds, the mother watching her baby, or children at play, the aim and tone of the Songs was radically different, sometimes deceptively so as in a poem such as “The Divine Image”:

4. To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

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

5. At first reading, this poem may seem very familiar from generations of Christian verse, its pronouncement that God is love seeming no different to those hymns such as Charles Wesley’s “Stupendous love of God most high!”, first published in 1780. However, as Lincoln and others have pointed out, the difference between Blake’s poem and the hymns of his contemporaries is clearest when considering the following lines from Isaac Watts’s “Praise for the Gospel”:

6. Lord, I ascribe it to thy Grace
And not to Chance, as others do,
That I was born of Christian Race,
And not a Heathen, or a Jew. (Cited in Lincoln, p.159)

7. Watts published his Divine and Moral Songs in 1720, and many of the hymns promise justice and retribution for those who fail to follow the message of God’s word. “Praise for the Gospel” ends with the promise that Gentiles and Jews will “in judgement rise” against the speaker if he does not keep God’s law. In “The Divine Image”, by contrast, there is no mention of God’s anger or retribution (just or otherwise), only the constant refrain that God is mercy, pity, peace and love. Over the years, when I have taught this poem, plenty of listeners have tended to assume that it is rather saccharine in its nature – too sweet, literally too good to be true – but this is a failure to see just how radical Blake’s message is within the song.

8. Lincoln believes that Blake’s hymn asserts that all religions have the same emotional basis, but also that all religions are essentially Christian. There is no reason to doubt that Blake may have believed this, but the poem does not state this quite as clearly as Lincoln does – it ascribes, rather, the simple belief that God is Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, nothing more than this, and it is easy to see how this Song could be adapted by certain types (though by no means all) of Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or various other creeds. In All Religions are One (1788), Blake had written that “The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy.” (E1) In contrast to the vast majority of Christian assumptions, there is no innate superiority of Christianity in this view: it is but the one response of one group of people to the divine that Blake believed intrinsic to the human condition.

9. And this is where Blake’s poem reveals its radicalism. God is not something separate to man, but revealed entirely within and through man: it is the human face and human heart which demonstrates to us the reality of divinity. Rather than a metaphysical presence behind this world, we encounter God whenever we experience (or, indeed, demonstrate) the virtues of mercy, pity, peace and love. While these are familiar Christian virtues, their choice is significant: it would be very easy to conceive a God based on righteousness, or obedience, but these are far from Blake’s conception of the human form divine. In his later works, particularly the epic poems Milton and Jerusalem, Blake was to identify this tendency to self-righteousness as the Moral Law, and to ascribe it as a spiritual condition closer to Satan than to Christ.

10. This raises another important point about the poem: in many respects, it deals less with belief and more with practice. Religion is not the doctrine that we profess to follow, but the actions that we perform. As many scholars working in Blake studies have observed, Blake’s actual religion in terms of a clear-cut denomination is hard to pin down. His parents were probably non-specific Nonconformists (although recent research suggests that while his mother came from a Moravian background, which so influenced the young John Wesley, his father may have been more traditionally Anglican than previously thought). Certainly, a brief flirtation with the doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg aside, Blake himself never expressed particularly strong inclinations to one sect or another. To seek exactitude on this matter is completely to miss the point: Christianity, or indeed any religion, is not following one creed over another, defining oneself against what one is not, but to practice simple virtues to all. With this thought, Blake is able to express the most radical vision of the poem in the final stanza, expressing universal communality with all mankind, whether they live Christians, Jews, Muslims or even have no professed belief in God. It is not what men say that they believe that is important, but what they do.

11. The illumination for “The Divine Image” shows groups of figures, some praying, others walking, standing or reclining, amidst fronds that rise and swirl about the text. In some, particularly early copies, these fronds are coloured green, clearly plants shooting up in the flow of life. In some later copies, however, these forms are painted red, and look more like flames or the fires of divine energy that lick around the words and figures. E. D. Hirsch suggested that an angel in the image is carrying bread and wine, but an important point to make is that if we are to distinguish between humans and angels in this illustration, that distinction is not immediately self-evident: all we, the reader of the poem, are presented with is the human form living amidst these rising forms of vernal or fiery life, and whatever we see Blake’s hope must be that we respond with love, mercy, pity, peace.

The William Blake Channel

zoasquareThe William Blake Channel has been launched on iTunes. This provides free podcasts from the Zoamorphosis | Blake 2.0 Blog direct to subscribers from the iTunes store.

If you are an iTunes user, you can download and listen to podcasts on different aspects of Blake’s reception by artists, musicians, writers and other figures, and these will be updated every week or so.

The William Blake Channel aims to be a definitive guide for anyone interested in how Blake’s work has been adopted and used since the artist’s death. In addition, it will provide readings of individual poems and artworks by Blake.

Click here to access the William Blake Channel (link requires iTunes to subscribe).

Zoapod 4: Tiger Caged (transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. “The Tyger” is undoubtedly one of the most famous and most loved of Blake’s poems, fragments of which have reverberated through popular culture for at least a century. The phrases “fearful symmetry” and “burning bright” alone, for example, are the titles of more than a dozen books and stories, while “Tiger, Tiger” is the name of anything from coffee bars and restaurants to karaoke booths and retailers of Buddhist charms and pendants. The appropriation of the Blake brand is, of course, frequently little more than opportunistic marketing as inconsequential as the Charles Dickens pubs found around the world from London to Melbourne, or William Shakespeare gift shops, but such Tyger-related paraphernalia is only one of the most evident signs of the diffusion of this much-anthologised poem throughout popular culture.

2. Nor has the popularity of “The Tyger” been solely a twentieth-century phenomenon, as with so much of the reception of Blake’s works. It was one of the few poems to have made some impression on the poet’s contemporaries during his lifetime, being reprinted in Benjamin Heath Malkin’s A Father’s Memoirs (1806), translated by Henry Crabb Robinson for the Vaterländisches Museum (1811) and then appearing in Alan Cunningham’s biography of the artist shortly after Blake’s death; Charles Lamb thought it “glorious” (BR 394) and Dorothy and William Wordsworth copied the poem and several other of Blake’s songs into a commonplace book, although William Beckford made a note in his copy of Malkin that the lines of Blake’s verse were stolen “from the walls of bedlam” (BR 571), while Coleridge’s final judgement was “I am perplexed – and have no opinion.” (Stranger from Paradise, p.353)

3. Perplexity, as G. E. Bentley, Jr. notes, has been a common reaction to this apparently simple poem, one so straightforward in its metre and diction at least that it is more often included in collections of children’s verse such as the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children than adult anthologies. Of critical reception, not a little has focussed on the incongruities between the forceful, even sublime, text and the rather domestic example of Panthera tigris included in the illustration to this Song of Experience, looking for all the world like a stuffed toy.

4. However, in this podcast I wish to concentrate on one particular poem that not only overtly displays the influence of Blake’s poem, but also uses it to create something of power in its own right, John Cotton’s “Tiger Caged”:

5. The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage. 

The sun shines through cage bars
On his barred coat the sun,
His tiger sun,
Shines through. 

He does not look
At those who look at him.
They are without
The cage he treads within. 

From what the bars divide
The side you are depends.
Each has his bars,
His limits and his ends. 

The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage. 

6. John Cotton was born in 1925 in London and published his first collection of poems, Old Movies and Other Poems, in 1971, followed by Kilroy Was Here in 1975, with other collections appearing in the 1980s when he retired from teaching. He also founded the magazine Priapus with Ted Walker in the 1960s, and was active in various organisations, such as the National Poetry Society, until his death in 2003. “Tiger Caged” was published in the at times inspirational, at times infuriating, anthology Children of Albion: Poetry of the “Underground” in Britain, edited by Michael Horovitz in 1969.

7. The echoes of Blake’s poem extend beyond the mere title. The repetition of first and last verse is, of course, similar to “The Tyger”, but Cotton’s skill is to evoke Blake’s tyger without simply replicating it, either verbally or thematically. Thus, for example, the line “And thwarted purpose rage” evokes the roaring of Rintrah in The Argument to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where “the just man rages in the wilds” (E33), The Argument also beginning and closing with duplicate lines: “Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burdend air; / Hungry clouds swag on the deep” (E33). “Bars” and “limits” are, of course, by no means exclusively Blakean words, but as common tropes throughout his poetry express the desire for liberty, as in the following lines from the epic, Milton:

8.  Seek not thy heavenly father then beyond the skies: 
There Chaos dwells & ancient Night & Og & Anak old: 
For every human heart has gates of brass & bars of adamant,  
Which few dare unbar because dread Og & Anak guard the gates
Terrific!  (20.32-6, E114) 

9. In Cotton’s poem, the bars are Urizenic – restrictions that impose bounds upon the tiger and thwart his purpose. In contrast to the apparent or at least potential energy of Blake’s tyger unbound, Cotton’s tiger is constrained not merely by the bars of his cage, but also those of his body, stripes of light and dark on his skin that, one imagines, ripple with rage as he treads his cage. The condensed physicality of the tiger is indicated powerfully in the single line, “400 lbs of muscle, bone”, a specificity of mass combined with an economical material anatomy that beautifully emphasises a conservation of power with the omission of the conjunction one would typically expect, preserving also the regular iambic metre that it adapts from Blake’s verse (interrupted only by the spondee “Shines through”). The rhythmic and rhyming structure of Cotton’s verse also appears to embody the “fearful symmetry” of the former: rhymes, or more accurately repetitions and pararhymes, become oppressive, replicating the cage in which the tiger finds himself.

10. Despite the many similarities of Blake’s tyger and Cotton’s tiger caged, then, Cotton’s beast is no mere re-iteration of Blake’s: both are associated with violent imagery, but in Blake’s poem the potential energy of the creature he describes has been condensed at its birth and now breaks free of all bonds that the narrator doubts even mortal hand or eye could frame, while Cotton’s tiger is freeborn but now imprisoned within the cage that mocks not only him but the limited ends and ambitions of the spectators without. For Blake, as recognised for example in Taverner’s setting of “The Tyger”, there is at least the possibility of a divine marriage, but in Cotton’s poem the viewer is divorced from the subject of the gaze, able to recognise the sun that illuminates the bars of his skin but barred out from the energy of the tiger sun that shines from within.

New titles on Blake for 2010

New books on Blake due out in the first half of 2010.

A new reprint of the two volume edition of Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake will appear as part of the Cambridge Library Collection in April, and another reissue is Bill Gillham’s Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, first published in 1966 but now available in paperback from February. In Contrary States, Gillham argues that the apparent contradictions of Songs of Innocence and of Experience are due to the fallacy of reading them as Blake’s opinions, rather than projections of dramatic states.

One possible oddity released in January of this year is the somewhat bizarrely titled And did Those Feet in Ancient Time: Poetry, William Blake, Hymn, Apocrypha, Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, Glastonbury, Book of Revelation, Second … Heaven, Industrial Revolution, Old Testament,  by Frederic Miller et al which offers yet another reading of the Glastonbury myth of Christ’s visit to Britain in the light of Blake’s famous lyric from Milton.

More substantial scholarship will be found in Collin Trodd’s Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World 1830-1930, which was due for publication in 2009 but has been delayed till later this year. Similarly,  John H. Jones will explore the significance of Blake’s concept of ‘self-annihilation’ as it pertains to language and communication in Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilationto be published by Palgrave in May, and although publication details are not yetforthcoming, Faber and Faber is due to release a selection of Blake’s poems in June with an introduction by the poet and critic James Fenton, who has occasionally written on Blake as in his 2007 essay on Blake and slavery.