William Morris and the Art of the Book

After my somewhat relentless focus on contemporary figures who demonstrate the influence of William Blake’s art and/or poetry, the anniversary of the birth of William Morris provides me with an opportunity to explore a different vein. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself increasingly interested in Blake’s Victorian followers, not merely content to leave that field to friends (such as Shirley Dent) who have done a much better job than myself. Indeed, I’m gearing myself up to do some work on Algernon Swinburne, who wrote an exceptional study of Blake in the 1860s.

Morris – artist, designer, writer, socialist – cannot really be said to be one of Blake’s followers, and the fact that while he was often associated with many movements but rarely fully part of them (whether the Socialist League, which he founded but then broke with, or the Pre-Raphaelites), is actually one of the things I like about Morris, and an attitude of independence which I think he shares with Blake.

Obviously his friendship with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brought him into contact with the circle around Alexander Gilchrist that was renovating Blake’s reputation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Morris had little to do – at least in any explicit sense – with this renovation, but Blake’s combination of image and text in the sphere of design had an important effect on Morris’s work (as, indeed, was the case with other designers such as Walter Crane and Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Morris’s relations with W. B. Yeats, another leading exponent of Blake’s art at the turn of the century, has also been noted by academics such as Margaret Rudd and Morton Seiden.

It was with the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891 in which something special can be seen of Blake’s line of the art of the book. The 1896 edition of Chaucer, which Morris produced with Burne-Jones, is rightly considered a masterpiece, and it is not my intention in the slightest to diminish the extraordinary effects of works such as this by making any claims that “Blake got there first” (a claim that would, in any case, look ridiculous compared to those marvellous precursors which also affected Morris such as medieval illuminated manuscripts). Rather, like Blake, Morris conceived of the book as a complete work of art, one in which the matter of printing and all elements of production were instrumental in achieving its status as an object of beauty.

Morris’s politics are also equally fascinating to me. His interest in socialism is, of course, well-documented and extremely important, but the 1880s and 1890s was also a period when anarchism often appeared to be the vibrant and truly international movement, and Morris befriended Peter Kropotkin when the Russian anarchist settled near London in the 1880s. Similarly, Engels was rather disgusted at that time by what he saw as Morris’s uncritical support of anarchists in the Socialist League at a period when animosity between Marxists and anarchists was building up after the failure of the First International. Morris was much more consistent and dedicated in his political activity than Blake, but I have always taken pleasure in the fact that old, staid, conservative Albion every so often produces such artists who have such revolutionary fire in their belly.

The Last of England: Jarman’s Blakean vision

Another rather sombre anniversary today: Derek Jarman, artist, writer and film maker, died on February 19, 1994, from an AIDS-related illness aged 52, one of the few openly-gay artists in the UK at the time.

He is most widely known for films such as Jubilee (1977-8) and Caravaggio (1986), and the strongest influences on his style and content were Elizabethan figures such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and the magician, John Dee, yet Jarman also saw himself as a “Blakean leveller” and the leap from Renaissance England to Romantic artist was not such a hard one to make. Contemporaries and early critics of Blake saw his early works such as Poetical Sketches as a revival of Elizabethan poetry in contrast to the then-dominant Augustan style, and Blake himself was immersed in the worlds of Milton and English radicals of the Civil War and Interregnum.

A friend of mine, Mark Douglas, drew my attention to an obituary that appeared in Art Monthly after Jarman’s death, in which Roger Cook wrote:

When I think of Derek I think of William Blake’s fiery youthful giant Albion, incandescent with energy as represented in Blake’s engraving known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion. Like Blake, he identified the ecstasy of human sexuality with freedom and protested its bondage. It was this that made him so passionate and open.

Jarman had a fascination with England that is perhaps the strongest link between his work and that of Blake’s. In The Last of England, the book published from diaries written at the time he was making the film of that name, Jarman lamented how through the film Chariots of Fire reduced Blake’s vision to “some muscular Christianism and jingo, crypto-faggy Cambridge stuff set to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – a minor poet who wrote this popular football hymn”. The sarcasm and bitterness in those words, with their deprecatory reference to Blake as a “minor poet”, are a jaundiced reflection on the success of what he saw as jingoism compared to his own, more complex view of England’s green and pleasant land. His more passionate view about the Romantic artist was summed up in a note to Jubilee:

“all those who secretly work against the tyranny of Marxists fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc… who have conspired together to destroy the diversity and holiness of each life in the name of materialism… For William Blake.”

The Joy of Revolution

While preparing some materials for a talk on the Situationists as part of a course I am teaching, I stumbled upon a delightful reference to Blake in the comic Lulu’s Public Secrets, which can be found on the Bureau of Public Secrets site (http://www.bopsecrets.org/comics/lulu1.htm).

The comic, an act of détournement that will be familiar to anyone with some knowledge of the Situationists, takes the text of Ken Knabb’s The Joy of Revolution dealing with the possibilities and problems of global, anti-hierarchical revolution, and splices it with an episode from one of the Little Lulu comics. (Lulu Moppet was a troublemaker popular in American comic strips in the 1950s and 60s. Despite such promising beginnings, of course, Lulu ended up being thoroughly recuperated into the service of advertising and product placements, so this particular act of détournement feels like a return to first principles. Certainly my students liked it.)

Knapp’s text is fairly standard in terms of presenting Situationist ideas to a new generation – an observation rather than a criticism. After making the pertinent point that capitalism and hierarchy will always generate new obstacles as a matter of course should we overcome old ones, he notes that one aim should be to point out these familiar patterns so that people can recognise and avoid them, which is where Blake comes in:

An anti-hierarchical revolution would not solve all our problems, it would simply eliminate some of the unnecessary ones freeing us to tackle more interesting problems. The new society would be far more diverse than any utopian description. Visionaries like Blake or Whitman, childhood memories, moments of love or enthusiastic creativity, only hint at what it could be like. The only thing that stands in the way is people’s unawareness of their own collective power.

As with so many revolutionary ideas, the gesture is romantic as well as radical, and for all Knabb’s dismissal of utopianism there is much that is utopian here. But, of course, that is why it fits Blake so well, rather like the anarchist Herbert Read’s appropriation of Blake in his work (along with Shelley and plenty of other usual suspects). There is always something rather innocent about ideals of revolution, but while that is often the snide excuse to dismiss them with harsh experience, Blake himself argued that “organiz’d innocence” was the most appropriate state for our lives.

Zoapod 1: Test Dept and Jerusalem (transcript)

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

1. Welcome to the first in a series of podcasts that will appear on Zoamorphosis.com. The aim of these podcasts is to present short introductions to the various ways in which Blake has been used by artists, writers and musicians since his death in 1827, sometimes drawing on research I am doing, at other times reflections on aspects of Blake’s reception that have attracted my attention.

2. This first podcast will focus on one particular version of Blake’s most famous poem, the stanzas beginning “And did those feet” which is more commonly known as the hymn “Jerusalem”. Blake wrote his verses as part of the epic poem Milton sometime between 1804 and 1811, those words being set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916. Since that time, the hymn has often been invoked for political purposes, both by left and right, but one of the most extraordinary versions was issued by the industrial group Test Dept in 1990.

3. Pax Britannica, the album on which “Jerusalem” appears, was the seventh studio album released by Test Dept and is subtitled “An Oratorio in five movements”. Having formed in London in 1981, Test Dept quickly became part of an experimental industrial music scene that included groups across Britain and Europe such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubauten and Laibach.

4. Test Dept were overtly committed to music as political event, playing benefit gigs during the miners’ strike of 1984 as well as anti-nuclear events and demonstrations opposing the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. On Pax Britannica Test Dept was accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum, Edinburgh Orchestra, with a score provided by John Eacott and conducted by James Macmillan. Part of the soundtrack was performed as a live event at the “Second Coming” show in the St Rollox Railway Works in Glasgow, and live recordings were released the following year on the album Proven in Action.

[music clip]

5. “Jerusalem”, as part of Movement I, is one of the most astonishing versions of the Parry-Blake hymn for a very simple reason. While the opening two verses appear little more than a particularly bombastic rendition of the Elgar arrangement, a crescendo after the line “Among these dark Satanic mills?” announces a radical break in the music. Now the heavy percussion becomes more dominant, and Blake’s words are replaced by the voice of Margaret Thatcher, lines from a speech delivered to the Conservative Party Conference in October 1989.

[music clip]

6. Delivered at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, on October 13, the theme of Thatcher’s speech as recorded in the archive of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation was “The Triumph of Freedom”. Dealing with the failure of eastern bloc socialism that was becoming evident everywhere in 1989, Margaret Thatcher contrasted those flaws with a decade of Conservative triumphs in the economy, healthcare, choice and the environment. With the Berlin Wall about to crumble and the tenth anniversary of her election as Prime Minister, it appeared self-evident to Thatcher that the triumph of freedom was synonymous with the victories of the Conservatives, the election of whom in 1979, she declared, was one of the immediate causes of the decline of communism.

7. The transformations across Europe which led to the fall of the Soviet bloc appeared in many ways an endorsement of the policies pursued by Thatcher and other western leaders. In truth, its rapid collapse was also immensely destabilising and the Prime Minister herself was running into difficulties, central to these being the Community Charge: against evident unpopularity facing its introduction into England and Wales in April 1990, Thatcher decided to champion it personally, leading to the formation of a number of Anti Poll Tax Unions which organised protests and demonstrations, the largest of which took place in London on March 31 where more than 200,000 protestors attended and violent rioting and clashes with the police occurred.

[music clip]

8. The threat of widespread unrest was only dispersed by the resignation of Thatcher after a leadership contest in November 1990. Although the Conservatives actually increased their vote in Scotland in 1992, the implementation of the Charge there a year earlier as an experiment had consolidated the view of the party as more interested in England than the rest of the Union, making mainstream demands for devolution inevitable and a mockery of the Prime Minister’s remarks that “Britain needs us”.

9. This is the background to the version of “Jerusalem” included on Pax Britannica. The album had actually been in planning for some time, but when recording began at the Cava Sound Workshops in Glasgow in the winter of 1989-90, the political situation in Britain and Europe had become much more volatile. The decision to record with Scottish orchestras itself became more significant as opposition to the Poll Tax had begun with its introduction in Scotland, adding emphasis to the album’s critique of Tory imperialism within Britain.

10. This was not the only use of the Blake-Parry hymn in such circumstances: in May 1990, Billy Bragg released his album The Internationale which included a version of “Jerusalem” as one of several songs attacking the government of the day. The comparison between the Bragg and Test Dept versions is revealing: Bragg’s is one of the simplest ever to have been recorded, consisting of his voice accompanied by a piano and perhaps the closest to Parry’s original arrangement.

[music clip]

11. The version of “Jerusalem” by Test Dept, by contrast, is an overblown and bombastic treatment of the Elgar arrangement that is most familiar to listeners from Last Night of the Proms, allowing no restraint whatsoever in its deployment of orchestral and choral effects. Without the sample of Margaret Thatcher’s speech, it would be no more than a particularly aggressive rendition of English patriotism. Yet of, course, that single intervention is what transforms the Blake-Parry hymn into a grotesque and particularly fascinating spectacle. Test Dept break the back of “Jerusalem”, split it into two parts so that the embedded nationalism of that hymn, accumulated over decades and intensified in many quarters of British society during the 1980s, is parodied by Thatcher’s triumphalism.

12. Billy Bragg’s aim had been (and continues to be) to recuperate “Jerusalem” as a song of the left. Test Dept’s ambition, by contrast, was to exacerbate the hymn’s totalitarian qualities, committing an act of violence to make explicit the repressive tendencies of the authorities. The combination of the first two verses of “Jerusalem” and the extracts of the Prime Minister’s speech may be read in several ways: it is possible that Blake’s text serves as an implicit contradiction of Margaret Thatcher’s words, a rebuke to her singular vision of post-imperial glory; alternatively, both work in parallel, buttressed by the swagger of Elgar’s arrangement so that the jingoism implicit in “Jerusalem” is made explicit by the Thatcher speech.

13. As the Prime Minister became increasingly unpopular, her moment of triumph a high-point of hubris before the coming fall, so any lingering beauty in the hymn becomes unbearable, splintered by an interruption that for the typical audience of Test Dept at the time would have provoked intensely forceful reactions. In their version of the hymn, the rhetoric of power of the state is symbolically assumed and extravagantly celebrated – taken at face value so that it cannot be ignored and, through ironic deprecation, be allowed to continue. By recasting “Jerusalem” as a nationalist hymn, there is no saving grace in hoping for salvation via an alternative (national) socialism. The atrocity is made manifest, defined as error the more clearly to be accepted or rejected.