‘Can I see anothers woe,/ And not be in sorrow too’: Sentimentalism of Blake and Dickens

Though Dickens has been accused of being pejoratively “sentimental,” (Kaplan 37) we should take into consideration what “sentimental” meant to Dickens and his contemporaries or the philosophical tradition that argues that the sentiments were inherently “moral.”(Kaplan 37)  According to Fred Kaplan, the eighteenth century writers who imposed moral value on “sentiment” were David Hume and Adam Smith.  Hume argues that “the ultimate ends of human actions can never…be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependence on the intellectual faculties….” (Kaplan 37)  Hume’s optimistic definition of human nature is complemented by Adam Smith who created the genial metaphor of the “internal…impartial spectator,” the “man within the breast,” a second self that we all possess, against whose altruistic and benevolent standards we judge our thoughts and actions. (Kaplan 37) Dickens, who inherits this tradition, by describing humiliated children, social outcasts and their cruel fate, provokes sorrow and anger towards social injustice.

This “sentimental” tradition can apply to the case of William Blake who, like Dickens, depicts people at the bottom of the social scale and arouses readers’ grief and wrath upon social evil and hypocrisy.  Blake and Dickens can be said to have the same interest which is not in accurately representing society but in creating a social world within their works that accurately embodies “the moral paradigms.” (Kaplan 59)  To represent their concern and anger, they both unnaturally amplify “the voice of the artist” substituting a personal vision for mimesis. (Kaplan 59)  In other words, they by substituting a secular text for what had once been the mission reserved for scripture, run the risk of compounding “the potential blasphemy and hybris.” (Kaplan 59)

To prove their “moral” sentimentalism, we will examine Dickens’ Bleak House and Blake’s “Chimney Sweeper” which will help us to understand how their sentiments are deeply related to morality.  First, let us turn to Jo, a crossing sweeper in Bleak House.   Next is a citation of a passage in which the state of Jo is described: “It must be a strange state to be like Jo!  To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and the corner of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows!  To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postman deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language – to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb!” (274)  Here Dickens describes Jo’s utter ignorance about reading and writing in a comical yet pathetic way and brings our attention to the result of a lack of education.

This condition also leads Jo to religious ignorance.  Though Jo admires the size of the edifice of “the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts,” he has no idea what it is all about. (274)  Jo’s ignorance symbolizes the fact that the Society, which tries to perform the mission of doing good to people abroad, never extends aid to Jo, however near its building may be to him.  Furthermore, Jo’s ignorance about the religion is also described as “[i]t must be very puzzling to see the good company going to the churches on Sundays, with their books in their hands.” (274)  It is noteworthy that “the great Cross of the summit of St. Paul’s Cathedral” (326) is degraded just as “the crowning of the great, confused city” in the eyes of Jo, which is “so far out of his reach.” (326)  Mark Spilka points out that “Dickens satirizes the senselessness and futility of contemporary faith.”(213)  Dickens’ satire is even more effective as it is mingled with moral compassion and sympathy for Jo.

A sharp attack on the established church is also delivered in “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.  A striking difference with Dickens’ depiction of Jo is that poems are narrated by a sweep so that we can share the same point of view with the victim and feel the same pain and sorrow: “When my mother died I was very young, / And my father sold me while yet my tongue, / Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep. / So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.”  It is likely that Blake’s contemporary readers also “weep” and “cry” in the bottom of their heart, as the sweep does.

Blake depicts not only the sweeps’ miserable lives but also a false picture of the promised afterlife in Tom’s dream of an angel.  In Tom’s dream, the sweeps begin “lock’d up in coffins of black.” Then “And by came an Angel who had a bright key,/ And he open’d the coffins & set them all free./ Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run/ And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.”  The angel of this poem is “unable or unwilling to alter the harsh facts of life of this world, only active in an idealistic afterlife.”(Marsh 111)  Thus we are faced by scandalous cruelty and injustice, and the religious propaganda that sustains injustice.  Blake urges us to change things and help the sweeps gain their freedom, to attack their father, employers, and the “angel”-Church.  When we pay attention to the ironic tone of the last line “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” our wrath towards the social injustice is aroused.

Next, let us turn to “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience.  Here is a citation of the first stanza: “A little black thing among the snow: / Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe! / Where are thy father & mother?  say? / They are both gone up to the church to pray.”  Blake attacks the hypocrisy of the Church and also the parents’ collusion with it.  The parents don’t have to feel guilty because they are persuaded that their son will go to heaven.  They are grateful to the whole establishment, Church and state.  It is clear that Church, state and parents collude in “a hypocritical lie.”(Marsh 115)

Blake also concentrates on problems of understanding, which is crucial in social reform and improvement: “And because I am happy, & dance & sing, / They think they have done me no injury: / And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King / Who make up a heaven of our misery.”  The sweeps are ignorant because of a lack of education, therefore they can believe they are “happy” and can “dance & sing.”  In spite of this cruel fact, employers and parents “think they have done” them “no injury” thanks to the false system of religion and faith.  As Karl Marx identifies education as a crucial stage in a society’s progress towards equality, Blake brings our attention to the importance of education.

The sweeps’ lack of education is reminiscent of Jo in Bleak House.  Let us look at the scene in which Jo is compared with a drover’s dog: “He [A dog ] and Jo listen to the music, probably with much the same amount of animal satisfaction; likewise, as to awakened association, aspiration or regret, melancholy or joyful reference to things beyond the senses, they are probably upon a par.  But, otherwise, how far above the human listener is the brute!  Turn that dog’s descendants wild, like Jo, and in a very few years they will so degenerate that they will lose even their bark – but not their bite.” ( 275)  Here Dickens suggests as dogs will lose their “bark,” Jo lacks the ability to utter words loudly to resist the social evil.  However, it is also implied that Jo should have the potential for violence against social injustice by the word “bite,” though Jo himself never show any revolutionary power to the end.

In conclusion, both Blake and Dickens are sentimental in that “sentiment” means a radically “moral” feeling and they both try to arouse feelings such as anger, sorrow, and sympathy in readers and incite them to reform society.  This sentimentalism we can also find in their depiction of the deaths of victims.  Just after Jo’s death the narration continues: “Dead, your Majesty.  Dead, my lords and gentlemen.  Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order.  Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts.  And dying thus around us every day.”(705)  Dickens is attempting purposely to arouse his readers’ innate moral sentiments, reminding them that “the more emotionally sensitive they are to death the more morally attentive they will be to the values of life.” (Kaplan 50)  This is exactly the case with Jo.  It goes without saying that Blake’s depiction of the deaths of the sweeps has the same effect.

 

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles.  Bleak House (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971)

Kaplan, Fred.  Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature (Penguin: Princeton University Press, 1987)

Marsh, Nicolas.  William Blake: The Poems  (Houndmills: Palgrave: 2001)

Spilka, Mark.  Dickens and Kafka: a mutual interpretation (Gloucester: Indiana University Press, 1963)

Blakespotting: My Pretty Rose Tree – Jason Franks and Luke Pickett

“My Pretty Rose Tree” is a short, four page comic adapted from Blake’s song of experience. Written by Jason Frank and illustrated by Luke Pickett, it was originally published in Kagemono: Flowers and Skulls, a collection of 22 horror stories from Australia, in late 2010. Luke Pickett, however, has made a low-res version of the story available on his blog and my thanks to him for drawing the comic to my attention.

Blake’s poem is pared back to a few skeleton lines that allow Frank and Pickett to re-imagine the poem as a luridly coloured gothic horror story, with implicit themes of sexual transgression being brought to the fore.

Luke, who currently resides in Toronto, studied art in Melbourne and now dedicates much of his time to developing comic art (a form that, unsurprisingly considering the combination of word and image attracts a large number of Blakeophiles – see, for example, Roger Whitson’s article on Korshi Dosoo’s Tyger). Jason Franks, also from Melbourne and the editor of Blackglass Press which publishes the Kagemono series, is a writer and programmer, and you can read more of his work on his blog at jasonfranks.com.

Kagemono: Flowers and Skulls

L. A. Woman, A City Yet a Woman: Blake, Jim Morrison, and Prophecy

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 15[17]:47-50)

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

Catacombs
Nursery bones
Winter women
growing stones
Carrying babies
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[31]: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.

secondary sources:

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.

Blakespotting: Outcasts and William Blake’s “The Tyger”

I have just been catching up with a new BBC series, Outcasts, which has attracted mixed attention in press reviews and caught my eye after friends began telling me that the first series made use of William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger”, first published as one of his Songs of Experience in 1794. While I shall try to avoid plot spoilers as much as possible, that’s not entirely possible in the brief analysis that follows.

Outcasts, which began filming in 2007, is currently being shown on BBC One and is on the second episode out of eight. Set on another planet Carpathia (so named after the ship that rescued some of the survivors from the Titanic) in a not-too-distant future, it depicts the struggles of a group of pioneers attempting to establish a better future following nuclear devastation on Earth. Personally, I find it at best of middling interest as a drama: much of the dialog is somewhat stilted, many cast members are rather flat or unintentionally comic in their delivery, and the action scenes are occasionally risible thus failing to create any real tension – none of which is helped by an intrusive musical score. Undoubtedly the producers have attempted to exploit the interest roused by the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica, and if that was not their deliberate intention then it is not helped by the presence of Jamie Bamber (playing Mitchell Hoban here, a role very different to that of Apollo in BG).

Despite these criticisms, however, it is clear that some potentially interesting moral dilemmas are being played out, even if the handling of those dilemmas is somewhat clumsy. The reference to Blake is very explicit – and sustained – throughout the first episode, “The Independents”. The very first dialogue that we hear is the first two lines of “The Tyger”, and parts of the first stanza are repeated twice more. Linus Hoban, the child who delivers those lines (in a fashion, I’m afraid, that does very little credit to Blake’s verse), by failing to articulate the words “fearful symmetry” halfway through the programme draws attention to the significance of this phrase. In a manner similar to Alan Moore’s use of the famous phrase in Chapter 5 of Watchmen, “fearful symmetry” is meant to indicate to the viewer the contraries and opposites in operation throughout the episode: as Hoban is killed, his wife dies at the same moment, dying from his assault just as one of her friends kills him. Similarly, Hoban is clearly intended to stand in rebellious opposition to Richard Tate, and the struggle between Hoban and his wife over their sun reminded me to a degree of Blake’s famous print of the struggle of the good and evil angels over a child.

That such readings are not entirely supposition is indicated by the (finally) rather dramatic exposition of the first verse of “The Tyger” by Linus as he watches a spaceship exploding in the sky overhead. As he recites the opening lines, reiterating once again that phrase “fearful symmetry”, so any viewer with a knowledge of the poem will almost certainly call to mind the penultimate stanza as they watch meteoric fragments streaking in flame through the air:

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

As soon as Linus speaks, the camera cuts to a vision of the exploding craft which has jettisoned its escape pods, inside which is an ominous figure, Julius Berger, who had overseen the original evacuation from Earth. His face red lit from the emergency lights, he is (extremely unsubtly) cast as a diabolic figure. The unspoken part of Blake’s poem, of course, refers to the war in heaven as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and when Berger assumes his full role in episode two of Outcasts there is something politically satanic about him: like Milton’s adversary, he has fallen from heaven to a bleak world and is clearly to be established as the primary antagonist of the series.

Berger’s satanic figure also brings with it Blakean references, particularly the character of Satan in Milton a Poem. Like Blake’s Satan, he appears to others as though motivated by religion and pity. Palamabron’s remarks on Satan in Milton are also applicable to Berger:

You know Satans mildness and his self-imposition,
Seeming a brother, being a tyrant, even thinking himself a brother
While he is murdering the just[.]

Other Blakean allusions may take in the related poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “The Little Boy Lost” and “A Little Girl Lost”, as Linus is taken into the wilderness by his father and Lily Isen is captured by clones after her escape pod lands in the desert. While this particular echo may be a particular misprision on my part, Hoban’s eulogies to liberty throughout episode 1, and the paternal authority of President Tate, certainly brings to mind the struggles of Orc and Urizen – and there may also be a subtle reference to Bladerunner, another film about cloned slaves which has a famous (mis)citation of Blake’s America by the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc. (My emphasis)

Outcasts does not come close to Bladerunner – nor the new Battlestar Galactica: it is frequently portentous (and somewhat pretentious) rather than profound. It is not entirely without merit, however, and while a few commentators have been irritated by the Blakean quotation it is fascinating to me as another example of “The Tyger” as part of what Simon During called “the global popular”. Not every viewer, I am sure, will read as deeply as I do into these few, repeated lines, but on a personal level I find it heartening that, according to writer Ben Richards, when citizens of 2040 need to frame their own sense of the fearful sublime it will be to Blake that they turn.

Jeff Gillett’s Songs

My attention has just been brought to Jeff Gillett’s setting to music of the forty-six poems from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (including “A Divine Image”). The Songs have, of course, been a popular source for many musicians, and you can read about a few versions in articles by Keri Davies on Benjamin Britten and John Sykes, as well as a more recent entry by me on Fernand Péna. These particular versions offer renditions accompanied by guitar, cello and other stringed instruments that draw strongly on folk traditions.

Jeff Gillett himself has performed in folk clubs around the UK, working in particular with Ron Taylor on releases such as Take Off Your Old Coat (1992), Fair Length and Share (1995) and Both Shine as One (2006). Some of Jeff’s work has also provided inspiration for the ceilidh group The Downfielders. Performers on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience include violinist Cathy Brown, pianist/cellist Alison Gregory, and Jeff’s partner Elaine.

The starting point for this particular CD was initially an educational one (as a teacher, Jeff wanted to help his students prepare for an examination and so use music to help them remember the poems). As such, the project is as much a pedagogical one as musical, but plenty of the tracks that be heard at www.myspace.com/blakesettings demonstrate the sensitivity of accompaniment for which he is best known. Jeff’s voice in particular is especially suited for creating sympathetic renditions, his version of “The Sick Rose” being a favourite of mine.

You can buy the CD, as well as read Jeff’s comments on the poems, view videos (and even book him for a performance) at www.blakesongsettings.co.uk.

Fernand Péna’s Ode to William Blake

This month sees the release of a two-year project by Fernand Péna, a privately released CD based on Blake’s poetry and titled Ode to William Blake.

Péna, who has been a musician and singer since 1968 in bands such as ETC and Climats Sonores, released his last album – Rien à comprendre (Nothing to understand) – five years ago. This also included two tracks inspired by Blake: “The Mother Said” (drawn from Blake’s lyric “I saw a monk of Charlemagne”) and “Get thee away” (from “I rose up at the dawn of day” in the Rossetti manuscript). Ode to William Blake, however, is – with regard to Blake – a much more extensive and  ambitious work, including some sixteen songs taken from Blake’s poetry.

Many of these take their inspiration from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but others come from other Blakean lyrics such as “William Bond”. You can hear these, as well as the earlier Blake inspired tracks, at http://www.myspace.com/fernandpna/music. The CD also comes with a selection of Blake’s poetry in the form of a booklet, some samples of which can also be seen on his MySpace page. As Péna remarks of his latest release:

The songs on this disc have been made very spontaneously, therefore very quickly. [Yet] working-out, registering, programming and mixing asked for hundreds of hours. Each song, each note (even the wrong ones!) were only kept after many rejected versions. The respect toward Blake’s ideas was always there. I chose, most of the time, this rasping voice, that is for me the best way to fit with what I feel toward Blake. But this was not systematic or conceptual. As I do it for yoga I avoided overthinking and looked for the most difficult thing: conscience in the instant. I do not pretend to have succeeded in it.

Péna worked previously with David Tootill, artistic director of Southbank Mosaics, whose Project Blake (to install Blake-inspired mosaics in Lambeth) led the singer to compose music for the project. He will also be singing at Tate Britain on November 28 at the invitation of the Blake Society.

Blake Set to Music: John Sykes

The music critic Andrew Porter said of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, that “there can be few English-speaking composers who … have not contemplated setting all forty-six of the poems”. Though, as Donald Fitch points out, few have actually realised any substantial part of that dream. Only the American composer William Bolcom has succeeded in setting all 46 poems as a single sustained composition. Many others have set substantial numbers of the poems, though not often as a connected set. A relatively unknown composer, John Sykes, came close. A provisional list of Sykes’s songs, compiled by Stephen Banfield, shows settings of all but nine of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Sykes eschewed commercial dissemination of his work to the extent that he published none of his songs and gained no professional performances of them in his lifetime.  There may well have been others like him, personally modest, content to write for themselves alone or for a few intimate friends; in Sykes’s case these included the pianists Mary and Geraldine Peppin and the latter’s husband Randall Swingler. A Blake-inspired poet active in the British Communist Party and a flautist of professional standard, Swingler wrote (with Auden) the libretto for Britten’s Ballad of Heroes, and supplied Sykes with some of his song lyrics. It is unclear if Sykes himself was a Party member.

John Austen Sykes was born in India in 1909. In 1928 he went up to Oxford as organ scholar at Balliol, where he was a contemporary of Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis. One contemporary considered him to have been the most distinguished music undergraduate of his time. After Oxford, he went to London, to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition under Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob. In 1936 he was appointed to the staff of Kingswood School, the Methodist boarding school in Bath, founded by John Wesley in 1748, and there he stayed, except for war service in the Pioneer Corps (he was a conscientious objector), until he died of cancer in the school Sanatorium in the summer term of 1962.

His only two published works were a Christmas anthem, The Child of the World (O.U.P., 1958)—a setting of words by Randall Swingler, and “Disposer Supreme”, a hymn tune published in the supplement to the old Methodist Hymn Book.

Most of his music was written either for the school or for a small group of friends. Over the years, he wrote something like twenty anthems for the chapel choir. A former pupil recalls

From the experience of my own lessons with him, where I learnt from him, rather than was taught by him, I have to say that Sykes was not all that brilliant a teacher: but he was far more—he was an inspiration. Without ever forcing it on us, he filled the school with music so that it was a natural and exciting part of our lives—and I don’t just mean those of us who eventually were to become professional musicians: it was for everybody.

Readers of E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963) must have been puzzled by his digression into an irrelevant denunciation of Kingswood School. The puzzlement increases when it is realised not just that Thompson was a pupil at that school (omission of such data is typically Thompsonian mauvaise foi) but that his discovery of Blake must owe much to a charismatic, left-wing, Blake enthusiast on the staff—John Sykes.

As Stephen Banfield has pointed out, Sykes’s Blake songs (two sequences of 16 and 20 songs, the one from Innocence and the other from Experience) are uneven; the simpler (though later composed) Songs of Innocence in particular, often relying too much on unmemorable ostinati and strophic repetition. The best perhaps show the influence of Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) and his admired Elizabethans. Banfield continues

One wishes [Sykes] had allowed himself more broad unfolding canvases, as in ‘Hear the voice of the bard!’. But when, as in ‘The little black boy’ or ‘Nurse’s song’, an extremely graceful melody is supplemented with unobtrusive harmonic colouring, the outcome is exquisite. ‘London’ is an isolated essay in dissonant modernity; but what concerns us here is his distancing himself backwards, like Warlock, to the renaissance. Although some of his later songs, notably the Homage to John Dowland, whose texts are even more of a referential tribute than the music, he consolidated his neo-Elizabethan manner, the one wholly outstanding example of it comes rather unexpectedly in the last of the Songs of Innocence, ‘On another’s sorrow’. It is perhaps unnecessary to comment at all on such a perfect song … except to say that with its wonderfully crafted melody and plastic metre, its sensibility of both romantic refinement and archaic artifice, and its transfixing marriage of an 18th-century text with a 16th-century manner, it seems the perfect encapsulation in English song of one era’s transmutation of another.

Blake settings by John Sykes

“Ah! Sunflower” (song for high voice and piano). Apparently an early work. A later setting is Songs of Experience, IV. [Fitch 1216]

“I love the Jocund Dance” (choral setting for SATB unacc.)

“Jerusalem” (unison song with piano, January 1939)—presumably an arrangement of Parry’s tune.

Songs of Experience (song cycle for voice and piano, ca 1931). [Fitch 1217]

I. “Introduction: Hear the Voice of the Bard”.—II. “Earth’s Answer”.—III. “My Pretty Rose Tree”.—IV. “Ah! Sunflower”.—V. “The Lilly”.—VI. “The Poison Tree”.—VII. “The Sick Rose”.—VIII. “The Fly”.—IX. “Holy Thursday”.—X. “The Tyger”.

Banfield and Fitch list further settings of “The angel”, “The garden of love”, “The little vagabond”, “London”, “The human abstract”, “Infant sorrow”, “To Tirzah”, “The schoolboy”, “The clod and the pebble”, and “The voice of the ancient bard”; these do not appear to form part of the Sykes Archive at Kingswood.

Songs of Innocence (song cycle for voice and piano, June 1935—March 1936). [Fitch 1218]

1. “Piping Down the Valleys Wild”.—2. “The Blossom”.—3. “The Shepherd”.—4. “The Ecchoing Green”.—5. “The Lamb”.—6. “The Little Black Boy”.—7. “The Little Boy Lost & Found”.—8. “Laughing Song”.—9. “A Cradle Song”.—10. “The Divine Image”.—11. “Holy Thursday”.—12. “Spring”.—13. “Nurse’s Song”.—14. “Infant Joy”.—15. “A Dream”.—16. “On Another’s Sorrow”.

“The Tyger” (duet, TB + piano). An arrangement of Songs of Experience, X, with lower voice part added. [Fitch 1219]

“To The Muses” (for SATB unacc.)

Further Reading

Donald Fitch, Blake Set to Music: A Bibliography of Musical Settings of the Poems and Prose of William Blake. Catalogs and bibliographies; 5 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)

Stephen Banfield, Sensibility and English Song (Cambridge: The University Press, 1985)

Website

http://www.jasykes.talktalk.net

Zoapod 13: Jah Wobble Presents The Inspiration of William Blake (transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast 13. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 13, which will take a look at the 1996 album by Jah Wobble, The Inspiration of William Blake. Jah Wobble, born John Joseph Wardle, first came to the attention of a wider public when he joined John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd as bass player in 1978. Although he left after only two years, the combination of post-punk and dub music was to have an important influence on Wobble’s subsequent career.

2. After a period as an underground train driver, that career was revived with the 1989 release of Without Judgement, and Wobble engaged in a number of projects, becoming quite prolific from the mid-90s onwards, experimenting with a number of cultural influences including Chinese music and English folk songs. It is that willingness to experiment that makes The Inspiration of William Blake much less an unusual choice than it may first appear. Taking his cue from that other Londoner (Wobble was born in Whitechapel in the East End), Wobble is clearly attracted by the combination of antinomian politics, metropolitan nous and visionary experience. As he writes in his commentary on Blake’s The Good and Evil Angels which prefaces the lyrics to The Inspiration of William Blake, Wobble is attracted to the earlier artist’s contrary vision:

3. Blake demonstrates the perfect balance between heaven and earth, good and evil, man and woman, yin and yang; two archetypal forces moving against each other and yet in harmony. Both are separate yet contain each other. Neither can live without the other and therefore, nor could human life. Both inform one another as they move into each other, unconscious into conscious and back again. What would light be without dark, and when all is dark where is wisdom?

4. The thirteen tracks of Inspiration were recorded at 30 Hertz Studios and The Chapel, Wobble working with Jackie Liebezeit on drums, Justin Adams on guitar, Neville Murray on percussion, and a number of other musicians throughout the album. Wobble mixes relatively straight adaptations of Blake’s poems – primarily from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but also The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Auguries of Innocence – with tracks that take Blake more loosely as their inspiration, such as “Bananas” and “The Kings of Asia”. Here, I’ll look briefly at a selection of the tracks, beginning with the second on the album, “Lonely London”:

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5. Leibezeit’s and Murray’s percussion on the track creates a wonderful feel to this vision of London, reminiscent of Samba or perhaps even the Burundi drumming that Malcolm McLaren impishly poached from Adam and the Ants to promote his 1980s new wave group, Bow Wow Wow. After the multicultural, exotic London marked in the vibrant opening to the track, the mood shifts strongly as Wobble’s sinister voice recites Blake’s “London” and lines from the Proverbs of Hell over Mark Feda’s synthesised atmospheres. After the gentle (and, unfortunately, slightly tedious) voice of childhood in the first track, “Songs of Innocence”, Wobble is much more effective as the voice of the devil. However, lest we become too tempted by such diabolism, the following song, “Bananas”, offers a delightfully light, nonsensical and rhythmic dance track.

6. The dub strain evident throughout the album is used to particularly impressive effect on “Tyger Tyger”:

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7. The lyrics of this track are pretty much straight Blake, but Wobble’s musical interpretation is one of the boldest and most original ever to be released. This Tyger is a jaunty beast of the jungle, one confident enough to declaim in a Cockney accent against a calypso chorus. The answer to Wobble’s ever-so slightly adapted question, “Did he who make the lamb really make thee”, cannot be anything other than yes, but this is a creator laid back and poised in a laconic universe in which tigers are a portion of eternity too great for the eye of man to see. This is, quite rightly, the track from Inspiration that is most widely known.

8. The last track to be considered here, and also the last track of the album, “Auguries of Innocence”, lacks the easy familiarity of “Tyger Tyger” but is a resounding and remarkable climax to the album.

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9. Wobble’s dramatic – even melodramatic – declamation of Blake’s couplets embellishes the powerful lines of the Auguries over an extraordinary soundscape. Again, Wobble’s Cockney voice is confident, proud, defiant and also sympathetic, immensely flexible as it performs Blake’s verse. It is a fallacy, of course – though, I am sure one that also occurred to Wobble himself – but listening to his melodic speech one is tempted to believe this would be as Blake would sound were he to speak those words. The musical textures that interweave the lyrics are hypnotic, intricate, sometimes soothing, sometimes menacing, creating a sense of space and time beyond words that intimates the eternity and infinity with which Blake begins one of his most popular poems. Perhaps what is even more astonishing is the fact that, by the end of the track, that wonderful music disappears and we are left where Wobble himself must have begun, with the words and inspiration of William Blake.

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