Joel Bocko – Songs of Innocence and Experience

Joel Bocka’s short film, Songs of Innocence and Experience (2006). Shot in Prague and inspired as much by Jan Svankmajer as William Blake (a marriage made in heaven – or hell).

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Zoapod 10: His Dark Materials – Blake and Pullman (transcript)

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

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 10, which is an introduction to some of the Blakean motifs included in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The three books, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, were published between 1995 and 2000 to critical acclaim, The Amber Spyglass having won the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year prize while The Golden Compass was made into a film in 2007.

2. Pullman has long had an interest in Blake, having become President of the Blake Society in 2004, and he has written extensively about the Romantic poet and engraver. Regarding His Dark Materials, Pullman makes explicit its link to Blake in the acknowledgements to The Amber Spyglass, where he writes that although he has “stolen ideas from nearly every book I have ever read”, three debts are to be acknowledged above all others: Heinrich von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theatre, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and “the works of William Blake”. Blake’s poetry is also frequently cited in the headings to the chapters of The Amber Spyglass. Before discussing some of the ways in which Blake appears in those works, it is worth noting that while von Kleist and Milton provide a central text that influences Pullman, with Blake it is the complete corpus. Nor should this be restricted to the poetry, as he encountered Blake’s paintings shortly after leaving Oxford University, which were to affect him greatly.

3. The influence of Milton is immediately self-evident to any reader of His Dark Materials who has a working knowledge of Paradise Lost, the trilogy reworking the rebellion of Satan and the Fall from a sceptical perspective. Trying to pin down Blake’s role, however, is a more subtle affair. The most obvious starting point is Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which provides his infamous re-reading of Milton:

4. Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restraind it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost. & the Governor or Reason is calld Messiah.
And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is calld the Devil or Satan and his children are calld Sin & Death
But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is calld Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties
It indeed appeard to Reason as if Desire was cast out. but the Devils account is, that the Messiah fell. & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss…
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it (E34-5) 

5. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2002, Pullman remarked that “Blake said Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it. I am of the Devil’s party and know it”, and his assault on religious dogma throughout the novels – which has drawn considerable criticism in the United States in particular – is clearly a diabolical re-reading of the role of churches in human oppression that echoes the infernal spirit of Blake’s classic text. At the end of The Amber Spyglass, the transcendental system that sustains the church of mystery is imploded when the rebel angel, Baruch, is revealed to have once been a man and the Authority, known as Yahweh, El and the Almighty, is shown as a frail old man who was himself created and cannot survive eternally – yet whose death bring him peace. At the end of the trilogy, the Kingdom of Heaven is reconstituted as a Republic (drawing also on the ideas of the seventeenth century Digger, Gerard Winstanley), giving emphasis to another of Pullman’s guiding principles that has its origins in Blake, the notion that “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans”.

6. The diabolical reading of Paradise Lost is the clearest and most sustained example of Blake’s influence, but I would like to concentrate now on two others: Lyra Belacqua and Dust, both also being significant in Pullman’s forthcoming novel, The Book of Dust. Lyra’s first name is adapted from Lyca, who appears in the Songs of Experience poems, “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found”:

7. Frowning frowning night, 
O’er this desart bright,
Let thy moon arise, 
While I close my eyes.  

Sleeping Lyca lay; 
While the beasts of prey, 
Come from caverns deep,
View’d the maid asleep 

8. The first four of these lines from “The Little Girl Lost” are cited at the beginning of Chapter 13 of The Amber Spyglass, and Pullman took this poem and its companion as the source for the opening chapter in that novel, in which Mrs Coulter keeps Lyra in a cave in the Himalayas. What Pullman seems to take from Lyca is the sense of bravery, even rebelliousness, and innocence within a world of experience, so that in Blake’s poem Lyca is unharmed by the beasts of prey, while in Pullman’s novels Lyra is able to move safely among the dangers that she encounters, inspiring those she meets to help her in her struggles.

9. As well as the character of Lyra, the mysterious Dust that permeates the trilogy owes much to Blake. In the novels, Dust is an elementary particle, a dark matter that is conscious and attracted to individuals. The Church, believing it to be a manifestation of original sin, attempts foolishly to destroy its connection to humans, not realising that it is the very material that bestows consciousness itself. The sources of Dust are manifold – the Book of Genesis, Buddhism and quantum physics, but Blake also has an important role to play in the development of this motif. At a lecture to the Blake Society in 2005, Pullman presented a series of seven axioms describing the Republic of Heaven, each of which ended with a citation from Blake. Susan Matthews quotes the first of these in a 2007 essay on Blake and Pullman:

10. The physical world, this matter of which are made, is amorous by nature. Matter rejoices in matter, and each atom of it falls in love with other atoms and delights to join up with them to form complex and even more delightful structures: “and shew you all alive This world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.”

11. As Matthews remarks, this quotation from the Preludium to Europe, which is also the heading for chapter 34 of The Amber Spyglass, “stresses the constantly joyful quality of the material world” and emphasises the bodily nature of Blake, who considered the separation of body and soul as the grounding error of the Church which had allowed it to create so effectively the mind-forg’d manacles of mystery.

Zoapod 9: Blake’s Poems – Holy Thursday (Transcript)

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

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 9, which follows from the last one in taking two more of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in this case the two “Holy Thursday” poems. The parallel, contrary visions that Blake offered on many themes and motifs in each of these two books, Innocence and Experience is, of course, well known, and this podcast will explore that contrast in two of his best known lyrics.

2. In the early eighteenth century, a tradition began in which charity school children would attend a special service, this event being held at St Paul’s Cathedral between 1782 and 1871. As [Stanley] Gardner points out, these children were not destitute, nor rescued from “the lowest order of poverty”, but rather came from families of the “deserving poor”, and during the century as many of six thousand of them would attend a thanksgiving service which although it did take place on a Thursday, was never on Holy Thursday during Easter week or Ascension Thursday as is often asserted. The services provided an opportunity to educate these children under the auspices of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but the event was, according to Gardner, more of a festival than a strictly disciplined procession.

3. Having witnessed one of these earliest festivals at St Paul’s, Blake was inspired to write one of his most famous lyrics:

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green

Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

4. While the couplets of this poem are familiar from a great deal of eighteenth century verse, Blake’s long, fourteener lines are unusual for the period, being more typical of Elizabethan poetry. They add to a stately rhythm, slowing and making the pace of the poem gentler and, as Gardner observes, Blake avoids any satirical intent in this poem. Although David Fairer has written, in relation to this particular poem, that “Blake’s texts lose their innocence more easily than most”, and [Andrew] Lincoln feels that “the exuberant tone of the poem is to some extent modified by a sense of anticlimax”, it is a mistake to assume that Blake is here being sarcastic about the “wise guardians” watching over the “flowers of London town”. That the final moral appears somewhat self-evident, even sentimental, to modern, experienced eyes does not mean that it was not heartfelt on the part of Blake who appears to have responded to this event with great devotion and humility, lavishing considerable care and attention on the more than usually elaborate border to the poem.

5. In the poem “Holy Thursday” included in Songs of Experience, Blake moves from a particular occasion in a specific setting to a general accusation against his contemporary society:

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

6. The condemnation of the extremes of wealth and poverty is powerfully made, and it is clear that Blake’s remonstrance against the hypocrisy of his day is as deeply felt as his joy at seeing the children’s service at St Paul’s. Yet in some ways the moral of the final stanza is as bland as that in the final line of the poem from Innocence, and in some ways may even be false and superficial – sunshine and rainfall are, by themselves, no guarantee of protection for poverty. Lincoln, it seems to me, is correct in drawing attention to the suspicion with which we should view the narrator of the poem: while the insistent rhythm of the song may emphasise its moral outrage, the speaker is unwilling to recognise any vitality or joy in his subjects, instead retreating “into generalization, and an emotional hardening, that offers little prospect of escape from the human coldness it condemns.”

Zoapod 8: Blake’s Poems – London

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

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 8. Continuing the irregular series looking at William Blake’s poetry, this podcast will focus on one of his most popular lyrics, “London”, from Songs of Experience.

2. Published in 1794, “London” has become one of Blake’s best-known and most widely-anthologised poems. The simplicity of the ballad form, an extremely popular type of poetic format, is used by Blake to deliver an intensely powerful critique of his contemporary society, one in which sophisticated condemnation of political, religious and sexual mores is presented with remarkable brevity and compression. My own reading of Blake’s Song, is very conventional in terms of following critics such as E. P. Thompson (Witness Against the Beast, 1993) and Edward Larrissy (William Blake, 1988), seeing the poem as one of social critique. Harold Bloom’s comment in David Erdman’s edition of Blake’s Complete Poetry & Prose, which sees the poem as operating as a response to the tradition of biblical prophecy, seems rather obscure to me – something rather typical of Bloom’s criticism.

3. I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

4. A heavily corrected copy of this poem exists in Blake’s Notebook, offering considerable insight into the gestation that “London” underwent. Probably the most famous line from the poem, its reference to the “mind-forg’d manacles”, was originally written by Blake as “german forged links”. The original scans more regularly as iambic verse than his more famous amendment (with “forged” being pronounced on the second syllable), and drew attention, as Thompson observed, to the billeting of Hessian troops in London in the early 1790s in response to fear at social unrest in the capital, as well as the German origins of the Hanoverian dynasty and George III. The modification to “mind-forg’d manacles” forces the reader to slow down slightly with the spondee “mind-forg’d”, and the abstraction of oppression away from a particular incident and situation has led various critics to see in Blake’s phrase a powerful and effective illumination of the effects of ideology.

5. Another change that the poem underwent from Notebook to publication was the modification of “dirty Thames” in the second line to “charter’d”, repeating the word from the first line. Paine, writing in the first part of The Rights of Man (1792), denounced charters as a post-Norman trick to bribe the populace into submission: “William the Conqueror and his descendants parcelled out the country in this manner, and bribed some parts of it by what they call charters to hold the other parts of it the better subjected to their will. This is the reason why so many of those charters abound in Cornwall; the people were averse to the Government established at the Conquest, and the towns were garrisoned and bribed to enslave the country. All the old charters are the badges of this conquest, and it is from this source that the capriciousness of election arises.” The use of the word charter in “London” is literal in the first line, but metaphorical in the second, placing even the free movement of the natural world under the restriction of government.

6. After a period of enthusiasm in Paris following the fall of the Bastille, tensions increased throughout the 1790s, especially following the execution of Louis XVI and the Terror of 1793. Fear of revolution in Britain led the government of William Pitt to a loyalist reaction, first felt in Scotland as a series of sensational trials for seditious libel which took place in 1793, the results of which were draconian sentences against Thomas Muir and Thomas Palmer. In 1794, as members of the London Corresponding Society called for an English Convention, Pitt suspended Habeus Corpus and ordered the arrest of its leading members, as well as those of the Society for Constitutional Information. Thomas Paine had already fled the country at the end of 1793, and although the three men finally brought to trial were acquitted, there could be no doubt that Britain was a dangerous place for anyone with radical sympathies.

7. These are the events alluded to in the third stanza of “London”, in which soldiers’ blood stains the walls of palaces (almost certainly a direct reference to the events of August 1792 when a mob stormed the Tuileries and massacred the Swiss Guard defending the royal family). Amid this political storm, the hypocrisy and degradation of the poor is also dealt with by invoking the conditions of children chimney sweepers, the subject of two other poems in Blake’s Songs, as well as child prostitution in the final stanza. Stanley Gardner (The Tyger, The Lamb and the Terrible Desart, 1998) observes that in Lambeth a group of “noblemen and gentlemen” had converted the old Hercules Inn into the Female Orphan Asylum “to save girls between the age of nine and twelve from ‘the guilt of prostitution’.” The lives of these so-called “chicken prostitutes” was brutal and fatal, with many not surviving into their twenties as they suffered from violence and those sexual diseases such as syphilis that blasted substantial sections of the metropolitan population.

8. Within four, short quatrains, Blake delivers one of the most savage visions of the city ever written, and for this reason alone it is unsurprising that the poem has become so well-known. To read it is to experience the shock of an explosion among the familiar platitudes and hypocrisies of church, priest and king. Yet there may be something even more subtle going on here. Larrissy is correct to point out that it is a misconception – even if a common one – to assume that the voice of the narrator is that of Blake’s. The speaker in “London” marks those all around him: the word “mark” here functions in different ways – as a unit of currency (an old term used to refer to 8 ounces of gold or silver), as a blemish or sign, and as the verb “to mark”, as in to identify or characterise something or someone. The narrator, then, sees these marks and he sees them everywhere: “And mark in every face I meet \ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

9. These spots and stains of weakness and woe are inscribed on these faces by the weight of capitalism and power that emphasise the poverty of those who live in London, but Larrissy draws attention to the fact that it is also the speaker who is marking these faces – observing and characterising them as weak, woeful. That this voice of experience is potent should not blind us to the fact that it is also a single vision: there is no alternative, no innocence, in “London”, and in a scene of such potential violence and depravity it is not hard to see why. And yet, as with Terry Eagleton’s criticisms of Theodore Adorno’s concept of ideology, this is to give the powerful too much power, to assume rather defeatedly that there is no alternative. Sometimes such single, purposeful vision is necessary, to clarify and explain the social conditions in which we find ourselves, but for the possibility of something better, the voice of experience must also be matched by that of innocence, the belief that things can be changed.