William Blake and Liminography

The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye claimed in 1951 that among the most ‘foolish’ ideas that had emerged about the visionary poet and artist William Blake, ‘The notion that he was an automatic writer is perhaps the most absurd.’ This imposition resulted, he argued, from literary students reading Blake’s words stripped from their original home, shorn of their artistic grounding. The dynamic between word and image, Frye believed, told a greater story, one closer to the intention of their creator. The association with occult technique apparently represented an ill-informed denigration of Blake’s creative integrity for the critic.

In some respects, Frye is right about automatic writing. The term itself was not in use during Blake’s time, emerging in the mid-nineteenth century in response to the practices of Modern Spiritualists. I also imagine that if Blake had been accused of being an automatic writer, he would have rejected it outright, the implication that he was simply an automaton unpalatable to him. Divine discourse, after all, was centred on spiritual empowerment, and Blake’s work was in part the fruit of his spirituality. By brushing it aside, Frye missed a powerful trick in understanding Blake’s work, however, one that places his creativity in a deeply ritual light.

Blake was an important practitioner in a trajectory of people who undertook mark-making in a ritual context; a liminography in which a chasm is temporarily created by rupturing the functions of writer and author. By relinquishing authorship, writers and artists used a ritual mechanism through which to manifest and articulate an individualised spiritual authority. In other words, this ritual paradox of authorship and authority facilitated an ability to democratise access to a power usually tied up in the hierarchies of Church and State. The creative work of practitioners was a personal sacrament to the divine communication.

Blake may not have been down with the discourse of automatism, but as will be shown he intimately understood the spiritual practice of writing and drawing, and would have recognised it in spiritualists and occultists, whatever terminology was employed. Indeed, liminography stretched from the late eighteenth century right through to the automatic writers  of the fin de siècle, and beyond, and Blake’s role in this emergent tradition was vital. Placing him in this tradition is the intention here.

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)

The scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had several encounters with Jesus Christ, including one when JC gave some unsolicited dietary advice to him in a pub in Clerkenwell. Thereafter he dedicated his life to elucidating the spiritual meaning of the Bible and paving the way for the New Jerusalem Church of Revelations, peppered of course with regular visits to the spiritual spheres to chinwag with their inhabitants. While he preferred to write up with a straight and rational head, he observed several forms of spiritual writing when journeying through the spheres, and experimented with relinquishing authorship.

Occasionally writings simply manifested, ‘There have sometimes been sent to me papers covered in writing; some of which are exactly like papers written by hand, and others like papers that had been printed in the world.’ Modern Spiritualists call this ‘psychography’. He also noted in his Spiritual Diary that spirits of the dead ‘could communicate their thoughts by words through another man, and even by letters […] and if they were permitted, they could write in their own peculiar style’. Ever the empiricist, he gave it a whirl:

I was ignorant of the series of things until after they were written; but this only in very rare instances, and only for the sake of informing us that revelations are made in this manner. Those paper [thus written] were therefore destroyed, because God Messiah was unwilling that it should be so done.

What emerged from his writings was a spiritual worldview that included the dispensation of a divine discourse inaugurating a new spiritual age, but which was centred around the question of permission and authority. His experiences became a blueprint for liminographers.

In the years after the mystic’s death, Swedenborgianism began to take shape in the religious landscape of Britain. On the one hand, there was those like Robert Hindmarsh (1759-1835) who took the mystic’s pronouncement of a New Church literally, and established a sect. For them, Swedenborg’s spiritual authority lay in his writings and the litany of the sect. On the other, however, were the mystically-inclined readers of his works. They believed the New Church would emerge from individuals and gradually transform existing institutions. Divine discourse, exemplified by Swedenborg’s experiences, was evidence of this progression. As such, they saw themselves as the medium of spiritual authority, not any sect or church.

John Clowes (1734-1831)

Among the latter group was John Clowes (1734-1831), the Anglican rector of St John’s Church, Manchester, who was first introduced to Swedenborg’s work in 1773. According to his biographer, several days after reading True Christian Religion (1771) he was ‘powerfully drawn into a state of inward recollection’ and, ‘whilst he lay musing on this strange, and to him most delightful harmony in the interiors of his mind, instantly there was made manifest, in the same recesses of his spirit, what he can call by no other name than a divine glory. He thereafter took up Swedenborgianism, but remained an Anglican.

Clowes argued vehemently against the establishment of the sect. After all, his own experience apparently proved the progressive nature of the mystic’s New Church, with himself an example of how the old Church would be transformed. He existed in a liminal space between the sect and Church, inferring both but being neither. In 1799, he wrote a letter to Robert Hindmarsh:

there was observed during almost the whole time of writing a sensible dictate from Spirits at my first waking in the morning, attended with inexpressible delight, and exciting by their presence such a holy awe […] This I have frequently expressed in the writing of sermons, many of which have thus been dictated throughout by spirits.

One of the first recorded examples of Swedenborgian liminography, Clowes’s ritual was attuned to the progressive New Church, so far as through the writing of sermons he was inaugurating an inner transformation within the Anglican church itself. As such, it subverted the institutional medium of spiritual authority, in favour of the power of direct Authorship.

Blake’s relationship with Swedenborgianism has been a continuing debate. A couple of points, however, are clear. Firstly, he owned and annotated several of Swedenborg’s works. Secondly, he and his wife Catherine attended the inaugural conference of the New Church sect. He later told his friend Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) that he regarded Swedenborg as a ‘divine teacher’, but as his first biographer noted, ‘he hardly became a proselyte or “Swedenborgian” proper. At the very least though, he apparently did agree with Clowes. A clue to his feelings about the sect can be gleaned from an annotation in Divine Love of Angels, ‘the Whole of the New Church is in the Active Life & not in Ceremonies at all,’ and elsewhere he disapprovingly underlined a person who ‘adheres to a sect.’

One aspect that Blake and Swedenborg did share was divine discourse. Robinson recorded a conversation in which the poet stated that he wrote, ‘when commanded by the spirits, and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published and the spirits can read. My MS. is of no further use.’ In a letter sent in 1803 to Thomas Butts about Milton:

I have written this poem from immediate Dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without Premeditation & even against my Will; the Time it has taken in writing was thus render’d Non Existent, & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life, all produc’d without Labour or Study.

It’s a remarkably similar description of the practice when compared to Clowes and Swedenborg. For Blake, it simultaneously lent a spiritual authority to his work, and in doing so subverted the traditional avenues of established churches, with their litanies and ceremonies. Relinquishing authorship underscored his own personal spiritual heterodoxy.

Swedenborg, Clowes and Blake all utilized the idea of ritual writing as a way of deterritorializing spiritual authority. As Kathleen Lundeen has noted, ‘Spiritualism, for Blake, is more than a metaphor for verbal mediumship, however; it is a prerequisite for writing with a freer tongue.’ Indeed, it was no metaphor, it was ritual. As liminography, writing and drawing was a process of authorizing spirituality, and with its emphasis on individual praxis and creative output, it subverted the orthodoxy of social and institutional religious hierarchy.

Interestingly, it was precisely in non-sect Swedenborgian circles that Blake was cherished after his death, particularly by the politician Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849). Unsurprisingly, therefore, when Modern Spiritualism began to emerge in Britain during the 1850s, it is precisely in these circles that it had the largest impact. Early writing mediums Garth and William Wilkinson, for instance, had reissued Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1839, and were friends with Tulk. Over time, a variety of terms proliferated to describe the practice, including ‘automatic writing’, ‘passive writing’, and ‘writing by impression’. Yet the ritual of relinquishing authorship and establishing personal spiritual authority remained its defining feature, and continued to subvert the religious landscape well into the twentieth century—through occultism, spiritualism, mind sciences and of course art.

Blakespotting: The Divine Essence of Things – Nick Cave and William Blake

In a response to a question on his fan site, The Red Hand Files, earlier this year, Nick Cave listed Blake as one of his favourite poets – alongside Stevie Smith, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson and a dozen others, describing them as the “poets whose company I consistently enjoy” (a phrase that may, either consciously or unconsciously, echo Blake’s comment in the album of the antiquary William Upcott as “one who is very much delighted with being in good Company”).

The connection between the two visionaries is hardly a new one. Indeed, by the early 2000s comparisons between Cave and Blake had become something of a stereotype. The Guardian called him “Ted Bundy with a William Blake obsession” (not, as it transpires, intended as a compliment in a fairly snippy review of the album Nocturama – admittedly not his best work), while Eric Carr, writing for Pitchfork, could throw away a smart jibe that until 1997 “the Nick Cave Songbook read like a set of William Blake Mad Libs filled in by undertakers, jilted lovers and John Wayne Gacy, with a few American folk covers thrown in for variety”. The psycho Blake/Cave comparison was a lazy, edgy meme for journalists who wished to portray themselves as literate without too much effort, although there were others who realised that the front man of the Bad Seeds was becoming a very different kind of person to the heroin-addicted figure who had destroyed his relationship with P. J. Harvey in the 90s. In a very good article for Salon in 2004, Thomas Bartlett only invoked Blake tangentially – to portray Cave as “A true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” – but the article overall treated the singer’s religious beliefs with much greater respect than was usually the case. A thoughtful tone was likewise struck by Russell Porter in The Beat Happening magazine (2008), who described Cave as writing with “a lyrical tone that owes as much to the visions of William Blake as it does to the street savvy tempo of William Chandler and Dashiel Hammet”.

Bartlett had made an astute observation that very few music journalists commented on Cave and religion. Almost certainly, this was due to supposedly secular reputation of pop music, which was commonly assumed to be fully of the devil’s party despite the well-known beliefs of figures as diverse as Prince, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As well as regularly invoking biblical motifs in his songs and his 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave spoke explicitly about his relationship to Christianity in a programme for BBC 3 Religious Services in 1996. Entitled “The Flesh Made Word”, the transcript and Cave’s recording is available at NickCave.it.

The piece, lasting some seventeen minutes, provides a fairly detailed, autobiographical account of Cave’s relationship not merely with his Anglican upbringing but, more pointedly, how his father’s desire to inculcate a love of literature in his son was also a kind of spiritual ecstasy, an elevation from the mundane to the “divine essence of things”: “although he would have laughed at this notion, what my father was finding in his beloved literature was God.” Unlike his father, this pursuit of God was something that Cave began to pursue explicitly, taking an interest in relgious art against the desires of his instructors who thought he should be interested in more contemporary forms. The deity that first appealed to the young singer was the retributive creator and destroyer of the Old Testament, making him “a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke.” While he was happy with this for a while, it was eventually through the gospels – lovingly evoked by Cave as “four wonderful prose poems” – that Cave returned to the Jesus of his childhood. This was around the period that, in Berlin, he began to write And the Ass Saw the Angel: Jesus still spoke all too often in the language of the father to the singer at this point, but Cave also began to recognise the importance of an imagination that was explicitly Christian:

What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. Clearly what Jesus most despised, what he really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolized by the scribes and Pharisees, those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law. What was Christ’s great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian church ever since, was the Pharisees’ preoccupation with the law in preference to the logos. Said St. Paul to the Corinthians: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” So how can one be elevated spiritually, if they are loaded up with the chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration, or for that matter God, be moral?

Cave only invokes Blake once in this piece: “To loosely paraphrase William Blake: I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.” This is, indeed, a very loose paraphrase, taking its inspiration from plate 3 of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion: “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves, every thing is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.” (E145) Cave invokes Shakespeare, Nabokov and Dostoevsky, but aside from the Bible it is only Blake he cites, and his chosen source is, frankly, astonishing: while various critics have noted the singer’s allusions to Blake’s lyrics – entirely understandable in a song writer – none have, to my knowledge, drawn attention to his familiarity with the difficult, late prophetic books. For me, the fact that Cave does not merely invoke Jerusalem but does so playfully suggests a possible familiarity that goes far beyond that of almost any other popular musician.

It is in the later prophetic books, I would argue, that Cave would discover ideas from Blake, most notably around the rejection of the Moral Law, that seem to have shaped his attitudes to the creative imagination. For Blake, “The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself” (E132), and against this very existence itself the poet placed the dead letter of the law, which Albion recognises in his fallen state:

O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law:
There Babylon is builded in the Waste, founded in Human desolation. (E169)

Zoe Alderton has written about this programme in “Nick Cave: A Journey from the Anglican God to the Creative Christ“, observing the profoundly literary route through which the singer approaches spirituality. While noting the paraphrase of Blake, she fails to recognise the significance of it however: that Cave appears to believe so profoundly that faith is bound up with imagination owes much, I would argue, to the earlier poet who wrote in All Religions are One that spirituality is itself the Poetic Genius. What is more, as the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a Bible of hell that retold an infernal account of Genesis via The Book of Urizen, Blake is a profoundly appealing artist to anyone seeking to understand a post-secular world while also avoiding the gins and traps of religion. Blake was a prophet and, like most prophets, he was without honour in his own country which worshipped instead the God of this world.

Of those writers who have noted Cave’s lyric indebtedness to Blake, Karen Welberry in an essay “Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter” (in the collection Cultural Seeds, edited by Tanya Dalziell and Karen Welberry) pointed out that “The Hammer Song” emulates Blake’s “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience, echoing the line “My mother groand! My father wept / Into the dangerous world I leapt” in the opening stanza which ends: “My father raged and raged / And my mother wept”. She also observed that Blake read the poem on a BBC TV programme, Poetry Nation, in 1994 (p.54). John H. Baker offers some excellent insights into the use of Blake in Cave’s verse, whether echoes in the Bad Seeds’ debut album, From Her to Eternity, to the revelation that Christ was an artist which was Blake’s vision of Jesus (in his edited collection, The Art of Nick Cave). The most profound lyrical connection to the earlier poet is to be found in the 1990 track, “A Weeping Song”. It was David Fallon, in his “Blakean Notes in 1990s Pop Music”, who first pointed out that the song, included on the album The Good Son, was a contrary from Songs of Experience to match “Laughing Song” in Innocence, going on to repeat Wellberry’s observations on “The Hammer Song” and adding further allusions in Murder Ballads. Certainly in the 1990s, William Blake seems to have been very much on Nick Cave’s mind. (In Blake 2.0, edited by Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly and Jason Whittaker, p.250.)

I would go further than Fallon to consider just how important the connection between “A Weeping Song” and Blake is. Cave does not merely allude to the earlier Romantic – which, as has been demonstrated here, is a repeated feature of the singer’s work. No: nearly 200 years after the publication of the original, Nick Cave decided to write another song of experience. This, for me, represents one of the most astonishing acts of imagination in the field of musical reception of Blake. Again and again the poet is set to music or even adapted more allusively by various performers, but to extend one of Blake’s most popular collections demonstrates a level of love and admiration that goes far beyond anything else encountered musically. The connection is also one that demonstrates Cave’s understanding of the deceptive simplicity of the earlier writer, whereby simple repetitions operate both musically and thematically to create a doorway to eternity via the simplest language of children.

Where Blake writes:

When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He. (E11)

Cave responds:

This is a weeping song
A song in which to weep
While all the men and women sleep
This is a weeping song
But I won’t be weeping long

As with Blake’s Songs, the spare economy of these words is allusive rather than diminutive, part of two different worlds – innocence and experience – where the simplicity of childhood vision sees a world beyond everyday normality. This is one of the means by which poetry can elevate us into visions of eternity.

Which leads, ultimately, to Cave’s most recent album, Ghosteen. I am fully aware that, like a witchfinder general, I am often keen to sniff out Blake wherever I can find him. This article is not intended as a review of Ghosteen, which I am still very much slowly coming to understand, but as I have demonstrated the singer-songwriter’s interest in William Blake is both very longstanding and far from superficial. At least one reviewer, Elizabeth Aubrey for the NME, has drawn attention to the echoes of William Blake in lines such as “It isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be / With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief / and everybody hanging from a tree” from the song “Sun Forest”. Such echoes are certainly there, and the musical style of the album continues that of its haunting predecessor, Skeleton Tree, the first album released after the tragic death of his son. The song that electrified me was “Fireflies”, which opens:

Jesus lying in his mother’s arms
Is a photon released from a dying star
We move through the forest at night
The sky is full of momentary light
And everything we need is just too far
We are photons released from a dying star
We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar
And everything is distant as the stars
I am here and you are where you are

The image invoked here – Jesus as photon from a dying star – is perhaps something closer to a piece that John Berryman (another of Cave’s favourite poems) might write, and yet in the line “We are the fireflies a child has trapped in a jar” I cannot help but hear another lyric by William Blake, “The Fly”:

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

In the hands of another poet, this would be nihilism, and in the hands of another singer “Fireflies” would be an equally empty vision of death. Yet for Cave – guided by, I would argue, William Blake as much as those “wonderful prose poems” of the New Testament – what we come to in Ghosteen is that post-secular quest for a world of eternity, one that owes nothing to the religion of stocks and stones and everything to the creative imagination.

Review: William Blake, Tate Britain

As the director of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson, observes in the catalogue accompanying the new Blake show, although there have been a number of very well-received exhibitions of Blake’s work in the twenty-first century, such as those in Paris (2009), Moscow (2011) and the Ashmolean, Oxford (2014), it is through four major exhibitions since 1913 – the last having taken place in 2000 – that the Tate at Millbank has established “a very special relationship with this most idiosyncratic and distinctive of artists” (William Blake,  p.6). This latest show, titled simply “William Blake”, is the largest and most comprehensive ever to be held, presenting a huge variety of Blake’s works (over 350 of them) in a largely chronological order via a series of galleries. Its overall ambition is to shift the emphasis of Blake’s work from being perceived almost entirely as that of a printmaker to that of a visual artist of much wider abilities. Tracking Blake’s progress across his lifetime, the works are then grouped in a series of five “rooms” that also organise the collection thematically according to the format or period of the artist’s life.

The first of the five rooms is called “Blake Be an Artist!”, drawing this unusual instruction from an account recorded by Henry Crabb Robinson, in which Blake related how a spirit told him: “Blake, be an artist and nothing else.” While the overall flow of the exhibition is largely chronological, this first room begins not with the young Blake’s apprenticeship to the engraver James Basire, but rather his enrollment at the Royal Academy in 1779. This is certainly to pre-empt the shift that the entire show is attempting to make, to transform Blake from being perceived almost entirely as a printmaker to an important visual artist who is also a master engraver. As the authors of the catalogue explain, “whatever use he made practically of the facilities [at the Academy], there is no doubt that this was a turning point in his life and his art.” (p.25) It was at the Academy that Blake made the pivot into the art world of the eighteenth century as a designer and originator of art rather than remaining a craftsman employed to reproduce the works of others, coming to the attention of significant players such as Henry Fuseli and John Flaxman.

Before entering the terracotta-red space of Blake’s first expressions as an artist, the visitor faces a single blue-green wall upon which is set “Albion Rose” (previously known as “Glad Day” after Gilchrist’s description of the painting in his 1863 Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotis). This colour-printed etching – a difficult procedure that was only rarely used in the eighteenth century – was made around 1793 and hand coloured by Blake during one of the most revolutionary phases of his life. Much reproduced, it depicts the giant Albion, a key figure in Blake’s mythology, standing in a pose similar to Da Vinci’s depiction of the Vitruvian Man. Along with “The Ghost of a Flea”, “Newton” or “The Ancient of Days”, it is one of his most famous images and, as Myrone and Concannon observe, has been subject to much speculative scholarship over a century and a half. While resisting the temptation to attempt to explain too much of my own opinions as to its meaning (upon which I speculated a great deal in my first book, William Blake and the Myths of Britain back in 1999), my allusion to Da Vinci is significant: the Vitruvian Man was meant to display the essential proportions of the ideal human body, and Blake’s Albion is also intended as a universal figure, his idiosyncratic everyman. To select this as the very first image that visitors to the exhibition encounter offers an important frame for the subsequent rooms, marking Blake as an artist who is both British and universal in his aspirations.

In the two areas dedicated to “Blake Be an Artist”, the works include a number of his drawings as well as watercolours of biblical subjects, such as those illustrating the story of Joseph and his brethren, and ends with the series of ink and watercolour washes for his unpublished poem, Tiriel. This section was generally fascinating for me in terms of demonstrating the development of Blake as an artist in the 1770s and 1780s, but I wonder how it must have appeared to visitors unfamiliar with his work. Very simply: William Blake was not a particularly good painter before the 1790s, and while his combination of mannerist, gothic and neo-classical techniques in his earliest work is fascinating to the art historian and student of Blake, there is very little in the way of star attractions to compel the eye of the viewer, with two exceptions (one of which is not even by Blake). The first of these is a gigantic book of engravings from the Shakespeare Gallery commissioned by John Boydell in the 1780s, opened to Richard Earlom’s reproduction of Fuseli’s depiction of Lear casting out Cordelia. Blake was tangentially involved with the Boydell project, having been commissioned to produce an engraving of the gloomy finale of Romeo and Juliet after a painting by John Opie, but his limited involvement was telling: while no means an outsider to the London art scene, Blake was never central to it. The second image, this time by Blake, is a particularly wonderful image also drawn from Shakespeare: “Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing” is a delicate watercolour that shows Blake’s emerging talent as a colourist but also, after the stiff, column-like patriarchs of his early biblical illustrations and the drawings for Tiriel, also shows his ability to bring dynamism to his figures. It is tempting to view Tiriel as something of a dead end, both visually and poetically for Blake (and I am being deliberately harsh here): Blake is not so much neoclassical in his art at this point as archaic but without the grandeur of the pre-Hellenic sculpture that he would invoke later in his career. Similarly, his imitation of Shakespeare’s tragedies – particularly Lear – is rigid and wooden rather than majestic: we are witnessing the formation of an artist who remains, at this stage, largely derivative in his work. As such, it is a true pleasure that the first Room of the exhibition ends with a dance to match the joyful posture of “Albion Rose”.

Upon the two visits I made when the general public were present, the distinction between Room 1 and Room 2 – “Making Prints, Making a Living” – was vivid and immediate. The first room contained a significant number of visitors, many of whom I suspect were already politely curious about Blake but perhaps wondering what all the fuss about. On both occasions, however, the second room was packed – and with good reason. This returns to the theme of many an earlier exhibtion: Blake the printmaker. Although Blake’s output could vary in terms of its qualities, he was without doubt one of the great artisans of his time. This is immediately evident in some of the commercial work that he produced, such as the reproduction of Hogarth’s painting of the climax of The Beggar’s Opera, an intaglio engraving that would have taken a great deal of time to complete and is exquisite in its detail. Similarly, his work on Thomas Stothard’s The Fall of Rosamund is meticulous – although, ironically, the technical perfection of these pieces makes them somewhat forgetable: Blake was a great engraver, but then the commercial print industry in eighteenth-century London meant that there were plenty of other very good engravers. Ironically, it is where a certain crude vitality comes through, as in his engravings for John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, that his commercial work becomes memorable. Blake’s depictions of the torture of rebel slaves are some of the most troubling images to emerge from the period that, unsurprisingly, continued to be used in abolitionist texts throughout the nineteenth century.

Important as the commercial work is – the curators rightly observe that “reproductive engraving… was the backbone of his working life” (p.52) – it is the presence of the illuminated books that attracted the interest of most visitors. An exceptional feature of the current exhibition is the number of illuminated books that are present as bound books: while, like everyone, I am used to printed facsimiles in this format, I have become used to seeing Blake’s originals as separate prints over the years. Obviously, this means that the books themselves tend to be fixed at a very limited number of pages on display, but the range present in a single case show the sheer variety of the format of the book at a glance, from the tiny emblem books The Gates of Paradise to the large folio edition of Europe A Prophecy. To demonstrate the variety of Blake’s designs within a text, there are selections of Songs of Innocence and of Experience displayed very eye-catchingly on plinths (a feature which attracted the attention of every visitor I spoke to at Tate) and, along the walls of one space, a complete set of America a Prophecy, allowing viewers to compare the designs from plate to plate within a single edition and also to compare coloured printed versions to monochrome plates and, indeed, a bound copy of the book.

The third room, “Patronage and Independence”, shares some of the innovative display features of its predecessor, with large plinths set up to break up the presentation of individual plates, with others then set up around the walls. Divided into three sections, this part of the exhibition concentrates on two incredibly important figures in William Blake’s life – Thomas Butts, the civil servant who was the patron for many years during Blake’s life, and William Hayley, the well-connected poet established in Felpham, Sussex, who drove Blake to distraction but also provided him with much-needed support when the artist was tried for sedition in 1804. Upon entering this particular space, I was immediately struck by what, for me, was one of the cleverest arrangements in the entire exhibition – the placement of two of the Red Dragon paintings alongside “Satan in his Original Glory”. While all of the Red Dragon paintings, which take their inspiration from the Book of Revelation, tend to be reproduced together, the appearance of Satan as beautiful, prefallen angel, reminds us that Lucifer, the most perfect of God’s creations, would also become the great beast and that his pride was as much a source of spiritual ugliness. (One of the most amusing conversations overheard at the exhibition involved this painting, when a member of the public asserted that the curators must have labelled the painting incorrectly as Satan could not be this beautiful.)

The first two sections, dominated largely by the biblical paintings for Butts, as well as the illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost and a separate gallery for the magnificent large colour prints, easily dominate the viewer’s eye and demonstrate how, in contrast to much of the non-engraved work of the 1770s and 1780s, by the mid-1790s Blake had become a truly original artist with his own specific visual language and style. Strictly speaking, “Newton”, “Nebuchadnezzar” and the other large colour prints that were produced between 1795 and 1805 (and several of which were purchased by Butts) are prints rather than paintings, but this is nitpicking over Blake’s status as a visual artist. These works are among those pieces that establish him easily as one of the greatest British artists ever, indeed, an artist whose work can be compared to the Renaissance or northern European masters. Alongside these, the translucent watercolours for Paradise Lost are an astonishing boon (particularly as I am always surprised when I see the originals just how small they are – something about their spiritual allusions seems to indicate that they have been shrunk in reproduction from what must be more massive paintings, and yet the reverse is true). By this period, following his return from Felpham in particular, Blake had settled into a mature style which combined the grace of neoclassical art with a solemn formality that he associated with the art of the Middle East. This combination had been a feature of the “patriarchal” vision that Blake had experimented with from the beginning, but by the time of his large colour prints and the illustrations to Milton, there was a mastery of the classical human figure that is at once both deeply familiar from the long tradition of western art and somehow profoundly strange, as though the cherubim and seraphim of ancient Mesopotamia are being brought to life before our eyes.

In contrast to the work done for Butts (to which must be added the delightful watercolours for Thomas Gray’s poetry, commissioned by the artist John Flaxman as a gift for his wife, Anne), the art from the Felpham period is generally less rich, although two particular items stand out. The first of these, which was immensely gratifying to see, is a number of the heads of the poets that were painted by Blake to appear in William Hayley’s library. Although Hayley’s house no longer survives, we know from contemporary accounts that they were displayed high on the walls around his library, and the curators have made the wise decision to place Blake’s works similarly high up, leading them to dominate the viewer’s gaze when they enter this part of the gallery. Another important work is “The Vision of the Last Judgement” which was painted for the remarkable Elizabeth Ilive, the patron of the arts and polymath who became the wife of George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont. In contrast to the recent exhibition at Petworth House, the home of Egremont, “The Vision” is slighlty overwhelmed by such a rich collection of Blakean artefacts but is still one of the great treasures of Blake’s career, a coherent vision of eternity that, in my opinion, surpasses Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in terms of its conception and intellectual coherence even if not in terms of scale and grandeur. For me, this has always been a painting that appears to capture the essence of an eastern mandela rather than the rigid hierarchies of Western Christian art.

Room 4, “Independence and Despair”, contains the most innovative part of the exhibition which, unfortunately, was also one of the least successful for me. Dealing with the period following the return of Catherine and William from Felpham, the first image to catch the viewer’s eye is the large oil portrait by Thomas Phillips, commissioned in 1807 to accompany an ambitious project, Blake’s illustrations to a large volume of Robert Blair’s poem, The Grave. Included alongside the Phillips portrait is a copy of the white line engraving that Blake showed to the book’s publisher, Robert Cromek, a striking but highly idiosyncratic image that led Cromek to pull the lucrative engraving work from Blake and, instead, hire another artisan, Louis Schiavonetti, to reproduce Blake’s designs. Throughout the nineteenth century, The Grave was the work for which Blake was best known prior to the publication of Gilchrist’s biography, and my own unpopular opinion is that, in terms of his immediate posthumous reception, Schiavonetti and Cromek did Blake a favour even as they reduced his already straitened circumstances further. Blake’s own engravings would have been bold, modern to the point of futuristic but, rather like his astonishing print of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims (perhaps the first work of modern art to attempt to emulate medieval styles and typies), would have been utterly baffling to contemporaries. Thomas Stothard’s more fluid and naturalistic rendition of the Chaucer pilgrims is immediately recognisable as suitable for contemporary tastes – and much, much less memorable than Blake’s. It was, in the end, Stothard who made the money while to Blake would be reserved posthumous fame.

The work with Cromek is presented in a fairly standard format, although there are nice touches such as the fact that printed copies of The Grave are lined up to draw the viewer’s eye to the originals as they hang on the wall. Beyond this, however, the curators have tried something very bold: in 1809, Blake held his only one-man show, above his brother’s shop in Broad Street. As such, for the exhibition a room has been constructed to house paintings from that exhibition, to try and give a sense of the feel of how it must have appeared to visitors. Martin Myrone, who has written extensively about the failed exhibition and the accompanying Descriptive Catalogue, includes very thoughtful considerations as to what Blake was trying to achieve and its contemporary reception, but it does not really work as it stands. The main problem is that, as much of Blake’s work from this period is very sensitive to light, the room within a gallery is simply too dark to see the works properly. Tate has engaged in an extremely interesting concept, to digitally restore Blake’s spiritual portraits for Nelson and Pitt (which have darkened over time), projecting images of how they would originally appear over the originals. Unfortunately, this “restoration” cannot be left on permanently, meaning it is very hit and miss as to whether you will actually be able to see them (they only appeared for me on the third visit to the exhibition). Finally, with regard to the reconstruction itself, the fact that the curators are unable to restore the missing painting of “The Ancient Britons”, perhaps Blake’s most amibitious work ever, as well as the fact that another centrepiece – “Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims” – are also outside the room make it less successful than it should have been. Beyond the room, there is a large, full-wall projection of how Blake’s “frescos” could appear if transferred to full size in settings such as the parish church of St James, itself a very interesting idea, as well as close up screens of the texture and restoration of the damaged tempera paintings which, I must be honest, I felt was a waste of good gallery space.

This critical comment arises from the fact that “William Blake” ends very much on a high. In 1818, Blake began a series of friendships, starting with the artist John Linnell, that would transform the final decade of his life and lead to a truly remarkable artistic renaissance. It is from this period that we have his illustrations to Dante and to Job, his most monumental illuminated book, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, and a series of astonishing pieces of art including his woodcuts to Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil’s Georgics and “The Ghost of a Flea”. These final years saw Blake produce a series of astonishing pieces that would surpass that of most artists in terms of originality and execution, and after a largely empty room (very few visitors to the exhibition paused in the digital projection space) it felt frustrating to have these magnificent works cramped into one space. For example, on my first visit, I missed the fact that Blake’s illustrations to The Book of Job were present: they exist, as bound books (which is wonderful to see), but the opportunity to have selections of them displayed separately on the wall, such as the images of Leviathan and Behemoth, or the morning stars singing at the creation of the world, would have immediately drawn attention to one of the most perfect examples of Blake’s intaglio style. Similarly, while the curators did not wish to reproduce the entire 100 plates of Jerusalem in the exhibition, restricting themselves to the first 25 plates of Book 1, this was perhaps the only element where the 2000 show surpassed that of 2019. That said, it was wonderful to see the illustrations to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress on display, a series that is rarely shown.

And it is this observation that is more important than my critical comments. “William Blake” is not perfect – but then the perfect exhibition of William Blake’s works perhaps only exists in heaven. The most striking factor of this show is that it is so comprehensive; indeed, I suspect that for many visitors it must be overwhelming. Over the space of two days, I made three separate visits to the exhibition and, guided by decades of knowledge about Blake and his works, I still realise that this review remains a series of initial impressions that will be further refracted by subsequent visits. For example, I am very conscious of the fact that I have said very little about Catherine Blake in this review: much has been made by the curators and indeed media reports of her contribution, and indeed I was writing about this (along with Shirley Dent) after the 2000 show. And yet… even after three visits it is hard to make out that contribution aside from a portrait or two and a few comments in accompanying notes. In part, that is because of the success of the show: it truly demonstrates the range and variety of her husband’s art.

There are flaws, then, in the execution of the aspirations of Tate, and yet this show is truly astonishing. It is, quite simply, the best exhibition of Blake’s work that I have seen in my lifetime, and that appreciation has only grown with each visit. For the first, I was very lucky to be part of a private view (hence the early images showing largely empty rooms), but actually my subsequent visits as a member of the general public were, if anything, even more illuminating. Yes, it is frustrating not to be able to look at everything in the first rooms because of people lining up to stare at everything – yet this is itself the point. William Blake is remarkably popular. At one moment, I made a detour through the Clore gallery which houses the remarkable Turner collection. This was by no means empty, but it is Blake who – if only for a short time – commands attention. A particular joy for me after the 2000 show was how it stimulated renewed interest in Blake among artists, writers, directors and composers. I believe that the success of this show, recreating Blake as a great artist, will do the same for the next generation of those for whom imagination is the life.

William Blake is on show at Tate Britain, 11 September 2019-2 February 2020. Admission £18 standard adult (members free, reductions available). The exhibition catalogue, also titled William Blake, is available for £25 paperback, £40 hardback, written by Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon.

Review: Music roundup for early 2019

This year has been a very active year for adaptations of William Blake set to music. We have already covered a couple of new releases this year, such as Astralingua’s wonderful album Safe Passage which includes a version of the Song of Experience, “A Poison Tree”, as well as the avant guard album by Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil. What follows now is a roundup of some of the other new releases of the first part of 2019.

The first release of the year was by hip-hop/punk crossover band, Msngrs. Their album, Psychopomp & Circumstance, featuring synthesisers and modules with stripped-back percussion and clipped vocals transforms “The Tyger” into a rhythmic rap song and is rapidly becoming the most-listened to track by Msngrs on various streaming services. It is, I must be honest, a version that left me cold at first – precisely because it is so regular in its somewhat pounding beat. It has grown on me a great deal, especially insofar as the interludes with choppy funk guitar break that regularity to make it more of a fun dance track.

The next item is very different, both in terms of style and the fact that it is a complete album devoted to adaptations of the works of Blake. Fearful Symmetry: The Songs of William Mac Davis brings together eight settings of Blake’s works as well as another of other compositions by Mac Davis, a composer who has studied at the universities of Mississippi and Utah but has previously released little other work. This album brings together a number of pieces from previous years: there are elements of Britten’s experiments in chromaticism on some of the tracks, particularly “The Sick Rose” (an especially haunting piece) and “The Tyger”, while others such as “The Shepherd” and “A Cradle Song” share similarities with elements of more traditional English classical or even folk music. It is too simplistic to say that the more complex pieces are those from Songs of Experience – “The Lamb” for example, combines elements of chromatic piano scales, performed with a beautiful reserve by Robert Carl Smith, to accompany Lynda Poston-Smith’s voice, one which is often haunting and powerful. It is surprising that Mac Davis has not released more music earlier, as there are some particularly bold interpretations of Blake’s work in the classical tradition.

Very different is Light Mind Rising by The Mighty Ur: a mixture of prog-rock and experimental metal, the group work with figures such as the poet Steve Mcauliffe who provides the lyrics and vocals for many of their tracks. There is an echo of groups such as Godflesh as though interpreted via Julian Cope, and the group invoke Blake as a spirit throughout many of the pieces. It is most evident, however, in “Fourfold City”, which is not a direct setting of Blake’s work but rather a riff on London through Blake’s visionary poetics, with Mcauliffe invoking images of hope and angels in a cityscape that owes much to Blake’s Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and his Song of Experience, “London”. Blake figures as the poet into whom Milton entered via his left foot, and that prophet who had to break systems to create his own. The track – and indeed the album – becomes strangely hypnotic at various points.

More direct interpretations of Blake come via the album Visions of William Blake by Mick and Kate Stannard, a mixture of straighforward musical settings of various poems by the Romantic as well as spoken-word pieces with a musical accompaniment. The opening track, “The Garden of Love”, is a strong example, although personally I prefer the ones where Kate sings Blake’s lyrics – as in “A Poison Tree”. It is these tracks (which also include “Holy Thursday” and “The Lamb” – this veers in a very sinister fashion from Blake’s original text towards the end) which tend to accompany her voice with simpler guitar or string instruments that are most effective for me, although some of the other incantatory or spoken pieces, such as “The Sick Rose” can also be strangely appealing.

Finally, a more recent addition to the Blakean oeuvre is Nerina Pallot’s double A-side single, English/Jerusalem. Pallot has previously released five albums and was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award for her 2007 song, “Sophia”. This latest release is a an almost perfect combination of piano and her voice for “English”, and guitar for “Jerusalem”, which carries with it echoes of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, both in terms of range and the somewhat idiosyncratic singer-songwriter traits of both figures. “Jerusalem” is a fine rendition, but the real killer is “English” which is simply superb. It’s final line – “This broken-down Jerusalem is still my home” gives some sense of the ironic sense of the lyrics of the entire song. That said, her rendition of the Parry hymn is very fine, belonging as it does to the English folk tradition of performing the archetypal English song, which began with Don Partridge and has been heard more recently in the work of figures such as Chris Wood. This is a must-listen for any Blake fans for 2019.

 

You can hear all the albums and tracks listed here on Spotify:

Psychopomp & Circumstance
Fearful Symmetry
Light Mind Rising
Visions of William Blake
English/Jerusalem

 

Review: Devil May Cry 5

William Blake’s art and poetry has been well-received in Japan for many years. Nobel Prize-winner in literature, Kenzaburo Oe, has cited Blake as a significant source of inspiration. Several successful Blake exhibitions in Tokyo also signal that the English artist is a welcome addition to Japanese art connoisseurs. In a decidedly different direction, towards the low-brow and popular, Devil May Cry 5 has also struck Blake inspiration. True to the rest of the series, Devil May Cry 5 (DMC5) is an action-based, hack-and-slash video game. The term hack-and-slash is precisely what it sounds like; wherein the player utilizes an impressively imaginative arsenal of melee weapons used to beat up the baddies.

Capcom’s Devil May Cry is no stranger to fantastical literary allusions. The main protagonist, Dante, is named after the poet of The Divine Comedy. His coldly rational, and power-hungry twin brother is Vergil – as in, the ancient Roman poet that guided Dante through the Inferno. More phrases and nods from literature abound in the series, like Faust and Mephistopheles demons that you need to smash into smithereens. The phrase “give up the ghost,” found in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI and Julius Caesar, as well as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is reworked into a combat phrase for a snarky, young protagonist called Nero. While maneuvering a pummeling move with his cyborgic arm, he teases the diabolical beasts on their futile resilience: “Don’t wanna give up the ghost, do ya?!” Beyond literary allusions, the Devil May Cry universe has its own extensive universe gleaned from six video games, a manga series, comic books, three novels, and an anime series.

In order to provide the most cohesive understanding of Blakean influence in DMC5, I’ve chosen to focus on crucial elements of the storyline. For this reason, consider what follows as spoilers. If you do choose to play the game, there will still be twists and turns that I have not relinquished – so you’re in luck. Or as the beloved protagonist of the games would say, “Jackpot!”

The stylish playable characters in Devil May Cry 5. Left to right: V, Nero, and Dante.

A mysterious, tattooed man arrives at the Devil May Cry office and asks for Dante and his team of devil-hunters (Lady, Trish, Nico, and Nero) to help him exterminate a demon. Dante asks the strange man for his name, who replies: “’I have no name, I am but two days old,’ but you can call me V.” The reference to Blake’s “Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence, prepares the player for the oncoming barrage of Blake references. Over the course of the game, you realize that V is captivated by William Blake, as evidenced by his conversational references, adopting lines from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell as combat phrases, and when left in an idle position, flips through his book of Blake’s poetry and art. His fascination with Blake goes so far that he has named the demon they’re hunting after Urizen.

V explains that Urizen has planted a massive, demonic tree in the surrounding cities that exsanguinates humans to feed its thirst. After harvesting enough blood, the tree will bear a singular, fiendish fruit. Whoever is powerful enough to eat the fruit will assume the role of King of the Underworld. This information gives context to the opening title card of the game from “The Poison Tree”: “And it grew both day and night, Till it bore an apple bright.”

Eventually, after a few successes and upsets on the battlefield, V reveals that Urizen is the diabolical part of Dante’s brother. Vergil, encumbered by his humanity, excised his demonic and human divisions of his soul with a mystical sword. Resulting in the human embodiment of Vergil made manifest as V. Vergil’s insistence to annihilate this part of himself has proven largely successful, as V’s body is rapidly deteriorating, represented by his dependence on a cane, inability to move efficiently, and his skin cracking like dried earth. V’s deteriorating health factors into the gameplay of the character as well. Instead of Dante and Nero’s stylish and dynamic fighting styles equipped with an array of weapons like swords with motorcycle engines, bazooka-blasting prosthetic limbs, and a cowboy hat that spits destructive orbs – V uses demonic powers to summon familiars that can inflict massive amounts of pain on your enemies. The familiars take shape as: Griffon (an “avian monstrosity”), Shadow (a black panther that can shapeshift into needles, blades, and a ninja star), and Nightmare (an orc-like creature with gargantuan fists and lasers). As a character, V plays as a slow and deliberate type, underscoring the differences among this brazen troupe of devil-hunters.

From Nico’s Enemy Report on Urizen:
“Your target—the demon king. Thing is, I can’t find any mention of Urizen in any of my demonology texts. You’d think a guy who crowns himself king of all demons would be a little more infamous…”

Considering these differences, the group decide to split up to find Urizen, and Dante arrives first. He defeats Cerberus, the tri-headed canine beast that guards the underworld, and finds Urizen about to indulge in the diabolical fruit. The boss battle is challenging but not impossible, requiring the player to remain vigilant and change up their attacks often. Before you deliver the final blow to Urizen, the rest of your team shows up. V intervenes and asks for this final wish, insinuating he should be the one to kill Urizen. However, his intervention turns into a reunification of V and Urizen – culminating into Vergil.

DMC5 received a warm welcome from gamers. Metacritic, an online service that averages reviews from reputable gaming journals and blogs, determined it was “very good,” and received a reception score of 88%. The core, original team that created the series has reassembled to complete this game, including director, Hideaki Itsuno. Together again, they have created one of the most enjoyable installments of the series, thanks to their signature “stylized action” and impeccable technical aesthetic advancements. Devil May Cry 5 is absolutely bizarre, over-the-top, and campy which makes the use of Blake’s poetry and art so stimulating.

William Blake has permeated media across all platforms and often, in a very serious way. One of the most discussed and reworked examples is Hubert Parry’s arrangement of lines from Milton, as “Jerusalem” — a rousing song for British soldiers at the time of the first World War (Listen to the podcast about it here). Diverging from this style of reworking, the references to Blake seem alien in the comical DMC5. While V clearly finds solace and stoic inspiration in the works of Blake, the surrounding atmosphere and dialogue of the game subvert the grave nature of V. It reminds me of a brief moment in Mean Streets (1973) by Martin Scorsese. An intense and bizarre scene of Tony entering a young tiger’s cage, explains that he, “really wanted to get a little tiger…ol’ William Blake and all that.” Tony, the owner of a seedy strip joint, is immersed in a world of sex, sin, guilt, lust, and murder. The same thing V is encapsulated in – all the other characters revel in vulgarity and silliness. Because of their high-octane action moves and saucy banter, V can feel downright insufferable. Why can’t he loosen up and have a little bit of fun? But that’s why it works. The creators know that their audience enjoy high art references but indulge in cheeky buffoonery. After all, the series title is a reference to the phrase “the Devil may care, but I do not!”

Devil May Cry 5 is a stylish romp of carnage, glitzy action, and mythopoetic ponderings of our internal desires. Campaign mode is single player but online allows for 1-3 players. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rated the game as “M” for Mature as there is blood, partial nudity, strong language, and violence. Available on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. Amazon price: £36.99.

Blakespotting: Blake news for April 2019

The start of April saw Tate Britain ramping up the publicity for its new Blake exhibition that will open in September. Among the stories carried in the national press, themes tended to emerge around the importance that will be given to the role of his wife Catherine – The Guardian wrote that it will celebrate her creative influence, while The Telegraph said that she would be placed at the heart of the exhibition – and the inclusion of the only self-portrait by Blake. Senior curator Martin Myrone told the Evening Standard that the portrait had a “jewel-like intensity” and The Daily Mail reported that this would be the first time it has gone on display in the UK. William Blake: The Artist will be on show at Tate Britain from 11 September until 2 February.

While the opening of the Tate exhibition will be the biggest event of the year, the most important event of the month was the world premier of Allen Bevan’s Ancient of Days on 15 April. Performed by the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus at the Winspear Centre for Music in Alberta, the opera was a multi-media work for chorus and orchestra, much of it spoken word and drawing extensively on Blake’s poetry, ideas and visual art. Toronto-born Bevan had completed his Masters at Edmonton and he himself conducted several of the parts on the night. The Edmonton Journal described it as a “verbal drama with incidental music”, with Timothy Anderson and Dawn Sadoway playing the parts of Blake and his Emanation, the whole comprising a “thoughtful work” and “an effective introduction to Blake.”

Paradise Club in New York held an event early in April entitled “The Devouring: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. A cabaret night where participants were invited to paradise and inferno, the show itself was performed by the Brooklyn collective House of Yes with a “theatrical feast” created by John Fraser. Hosted by Nik Alexander, The Telegraph described it as “not your usual theatre experience”, the organisers intended the burlesque to be a celebration of “what it means to be human”.

Finally, as April drew to a close, the music organisation WordSong, based in Boston, hosted Tyger Circus, a set of fifteen different compositions based on Blake’s poem “The Tyger”. Taking place on 26th, Krista River, Keith Phares, and Linda Osborn performed work by Adele Dusunbury, Howard Frazin, and Benjamin Pesetsky at the First Church in Boston, at an event that also marked the tenth anniversary of Wordsong. The month also saw the launch of Peter Linebaugh’s Red Round Globe Burning Hot, which begins with the execution of Colonel Edward (Ned) Despard after a plot to overthrow George III. Tracing resistance to the loss of commons throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Linebaugh draws upon Blake’s imagery throughout the book to draw attention (as he explained in an interview for Counterpunch) to how “Blake’s moment of truth is upon us”.

 

Review: William Blake and the Myth of America

William Blake as a writer and artist was clearly fascinated by America: while his contemporaries were shaped almost entirely by the French Revolution, Blake’s initial contact with revolutionary ideas was shaped by the War of American Independence. In turn, he was taken up enthusiastically by a number of writers and thinkers across the Atlantic, and in her book William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Linda Freedman explores a particular line of reception history in the American arts and literature, one which emphasises the Romantic’s assumption of a prophetic mantle. In her introduction, Freedman indicates a number of the ways in which Blake was interested in the Americas in his own work, most notably his illustrations to John Stedman’s Narrative, of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) and, of course, America a Prophecy (1793). She also draws upon more recent interpretations of Blake’s work that has greatly developed since David Erdman’s important but too-enthusiastic adoption of Blake as the thoroughgoing supporter of the American revolution, noting that what later writers influenced by Blake saw in him was an ethical writer who could give them the tools to critique as well as celebrate their country: “Blake entered American society at a time when slavery was still rife and civil war threatened the fragile experiment of democracy.” (p.7)

In fact, while Blake may have become increasingly important at the time of the Civil War, Freedman is also right to point out that – aside from a very few friends who kept his memory alive in the declining years of his reputation after 1827 – Blake was actually better known in America than he was in early Victorian England. Her first chapter, which explores his initial American appeal, notes that Blake’s writings appealed much more directly to the Transcendentalism of Emerson, who first encountered Blake (as did a number of American writers) through James John Garth Wilkinson’s 1839 edition of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. While Emerson drew back from Wilkinson’s Swedenborgianism, that movement was enjoying something of a revival in nineteenth-century America, and Emerson’s copy of the Songs established Blake as a writer of importance even before he read Gilchrist’s Life. The other entry point for Blake into American culture was via the Abolitionist movement, particularly through Lydia Maria Child, who published a number of Blake’s poems during her tenure as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard in the 1840s. Freedman provides a superb account of the trials that faced Child as editor, not least the difficulties of reconciling hard-line abolitionists to the wider population, as well as her search “for ways to recapture a sense of spiritual liberty that felt free from received error.” (p.26)

Having established the early importance of Blake to American cultural life, the second chapter of The Myth of America concentrates on the most important – if rather complex – relationship between Blake and Walt Whitman that cemented the two in American consciousness as the poets of “prophecy and democracy” (p.43). Freedman offers another extremely clear account of the relations between Whitman and Blake, which are less to do with the reception of Blake in Whitman’s work (there is no real evidence that he knew of Blake before writing Leaves of Grass) than with the milieu into which Whitman’s poetry is received in the United Kingdom in particular. As Whitman was the first critic to offer a wholesale appreciation of Whitman in his 1868 essay on Blake, so the two figures became increasingly entwined: early on, Whitman was happy to note the recognition that an important critic gave him, but as time went on he rankled at the suggestions that he somehow had copied Blake, a situation that was made worse by the continued linking of Whitman’s and Blake’s names by other Americans such as Moncure Conway and Whitman’s friend, John Swinton, who made the cardinal error of suggesting that the American poet must have known the English Romantic. By the end of his life, particularly through his friendship with Anne Gilchrist (entirely Platonic on his part even if she wished for more), Whitman was somewhat reconciled to Blake and chose his image of “Death’s Door” as the model for his own tomb, but he also continued to maintain a distance to the earlier artist during those final years when he “felt his poetic control over American national identity slipping” (p.61). Although many later Americans linked Whitman and Blake inextricably, for Whitman himself the legacy of the earlier artist was always a troubled one.

Chapter 3, on the early twentieth-century reception of Blake, is – with that on music – the least satisfactory in the book mainly because it has to do a great deal of work clearing the ground before Freedman can turn to Ginsberg. This is not to say at all that it lacks value: quite the contrary. Here we see the continuation of an important theme linking American and Hebrew poetry (which will, of course, become immensely important with Ginsberg), and Freedman does an excellent job of highlighting how Blake infused the social and poetic spirit of a multitude of American writers, including Waldo Frank, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Theodore Roethke. There is the occasional omission – Upton Sinclair included Blake as one of his socially-inspired poets in his 1915 anthology, Cry for Justice, but this is simply because so many writers need to be covered here. I have also bracketed off Freedman’s reading of Eliot which is excellent in its subtlety and attention to detail: she is convincing when portraying his depictions of Blake as especially resistant to the occult-mystical nationalism of W. B. Yeats and Edwin Ellis, which became prevalent in the early 1900s because of their ground-breaking edition of Blake’s collected works. Transplanting Eliot back to America, however, with his “expatriate imagination” (p.76), is not quite as effective as some of the other readings – the man who had renounced his American passport aged 39 would never sit easily alongside his former countrymen, although as he observed in a 1959 interview that the source of his poetry “comes from America” (The Paris Review, Spring-Summer, 1959).

The next chapter on “Ginsberg’s Prophetic Guru” is, quite literally, the centrepiece of the book. This is where William Blake and the Myths of America ties together most clearly the strands of prophecy and spiritual seeking, political and social demands for justice, and an awareness of what is perhaps best thought of as romantic irony, the scepticism of the poet and artist towards his or her own work and its achievements. Unsurprisingly, it is a much more coherent chapter than the previous one, for though Kerouac and other members of the Beats have walk-on parts to play, it clearly has a focus on Ginsberg alone, for whom “Blake was more than a poetic influence, he was a spiritual forefather” (p.89). It is Ginsberg more than any other who fuses together Blake and a reluctant Whitman (while also – and this is an important point – recognising the differences and separation between the two) to create the alternative soul of America that he sought to bring into being in post-war America. The first part of the chapter is, for anyone with any interest in Blake and Ginsberg, relatively familiar territory – from the Blakean influences on Howl to Ginsberg’s sense of prophetic calling after experiencing an auditory hallucination of Blake’s voice in Harlem in 1948: Freedman is perceptive and concise on all accounts, and what she definitely brings to this account of the early influence of Blake in particular is the fun that Ginsberg was having with his spiritual forebear. What was more enlightening to me (because I only have the sketchiest knowledge of it) is the relationship between Blake and Ginsberg after his trip to Japan in the 1960s, particularly his renewed sense of enlightenment while on the train to Kyoto, where he seeks a return to the body instead of the hedonistic drug culture which had started to dominate his thinking. Especially revealing is Ginsberg’s reading of “I saw a Monk of Charlemagne” outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and his increased understanding of “Blake as a disillusioned radical, who struggled with the same conflicts as people in modern America” (p.116). Urizen was as relevant to the potential threat of the neutron bomb in 1960s America as he had been to the forces of counter-revolution in Europe in the 1790s.

While the chapter on Ginsberg is probably the most important in this book, tying together as it does Freedman’s themes of prophecy,  history and a desire for social and political justice as important factors in the American myth, I preferred the following one on Robert Duncan. Much of this is due to the fact that Duncan’s relation to Blake is much less discussed than Ginsberg’s (although Ed Larrissy does combine the two in his book Blake and Modern Literature). Duncan’s family background – his parents were interested in theosophy and Swedenborgianism, and his own inclinations to anarchism place him closer to Blake’s own political views in many ways – are dealt with concisely and sympathetically, and Freedman, as ever, offers a nuanced reading of his career at Black Mountain College, as well as his more difficult relations with the anti-Vietnam protests (he opposed the war, but saw collective action as leading to further authoritarianism). Duncan wrote extensively about Blake in various essays, observing at one point that: “To take Blake or Dante as gospels of Poetry, as I do, is to testify to and to enter into the reality of a divine history within what men call history.” (cited p.121) Blake was also a direct influence on some of Duncan’s verse, for example “Variations on Two Dicta by William Blake”, as well as a refracted source as in “My mother would be a falconress”, which he wrote after reading Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Freedman’s reading of Visions is a virtuoso piece, exploring the complexities of that poem which can condemn rape and slavery while also realising the fundamental realities that a raped, enslaved woman lacks the power to change the society that wills such things. She is completely compelling in her understanding that “Duncan realized that Blake was a difficult and ethical writer” (p.133), one who refused simple resolutions for an ideological position but instead saw existence as “muddied”. She is sympathetic to the desire of the psychedelic generation to have their perceptions cleansed, but the discussion of Duncan’s relations with Blake point to a much maturer understanding of the Romantic’s influence on American history and mythology.

Chapter 6 offers another set of masterly readings, this time concentrating on the ecopoetics of Michael McClure and Gary Snyder (with a brief interlude that considers George Oppen) and how they engage with an ecological view of Blake that runs counter to the experience of many readers of Blake in the mid-twentieth century – that he believed nothing could be learned from external nature – and instead is decades ahead of the green revisionism of Blake that began to take place in the 1990s. Freedman is very much correct to assert that both McClure and Snyder adopt Blake “in ways that were naive and uncritical” (p.141), but her readings are also sympathetic to the reasons why they do adopt him, as well as conscious of the differences between them. Thus McClure, with his ranting, anti-intellectual and anti-idealist approach to poetics takes Blake’s diabolic energy as a call to return to the body, as in his essay on Blake in Meat Science Essays (1963). Snyder, by contrast, sees in Blake a much calmer reflection on man’s relations to the environment, influenced by his engagement with Buddhism via the teachings of D. T. Suzuki and with anarchism both via American libertarian traditions and Chinese Taoism. (It is also worth noting, although not covered by Freedman, that Suzuki also provided links to west coast craftsmen, artists and poets to the mingei movement inspired by Soetsu Yanagi who, through his introduction to the Romantic by Bernard Leech, became one of the first intellectuals in Japan to write on Blake.) Freedman observes that although he distanced himself increasingly from the Beats after reading with Ginsberg in San Francisco, he connects more closely to the mythopoeic formulation of the myth of America – particularly in its lineage from the American transcendentalists and their interests in environmentalism – than McClure’s deliberately contrarian work.

Like chapter 3, chapter 7 on the music of the counterculture and its immediate aftermath, is not as compelling as others because it has to do so much work in a short space. Unlike the earlier chapter, this one would easily have benefited from being divided into two chapters; as the recently released William Blake and the Age of Aquarius demonstrated, there is a great deal still to be written on the psychedelic culture of the 1960s. In addition I also feel that, in contrast to most of the poets that Freedman concentrates on in her book, a more critical sifting of her subjects here would have been beneficial, in that their appreciation of Blake varies wildly. Dylan, for example, while a great songwriter, appears to me to have only really slenderly known Blake, a point which is excellently made by Luke Walker in Rock and Romanticism; likewise, despite famously taking his name (via Aldous Huxley’s appropriation) from Blake, but did not necessarily delve more deeply into the Romantic’s works than the Songs of Innocence and of ExperienceThe Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Auguries of Innocence as Tristanne Connolly suggests. A more critical stance to these two big hitters would, in my opinion, allow a Blakean light to shine much more clearly on the two other figures considered in this chapter: Ed Sanders, of The Fugs, and Patti Smith, both of whom I believe have had a much deeper engagement with Blake. In the case of Smith, this has been truly profound and ongoing over many decades – along with the French Symbolists, Blake is probably the most important poetic influence on her career; by contrast, Sanders’ use of Blake is more restricted but more delicate and truly affectionate towards his Romantic predecessor. As well as setting “How sweet I roam’d” to music – one of the best adaptations ever – The Fugs’ 1969 “Homage to Catherine and William Blake” shows a real understanding of Blake’s oeuvre as well as a free-spirited, funny and truly subversive reworking of Blake that goes far beyond Jim Morrison’s rock god pomposity.

Chapter 8 on Blake and countercultural theology is one of the most interesting in the book, mainly because it deals with figures who only tended to be dealt with tangentially in Blake studies and thus benefit from greater analysis – namely Thomas Merton, Thomas Altizer and Norman O. Brown. Altizer and O’Brown are the main subjects of this section (and, as with the remainder of the book, the opportunity to concentrate in lengthier detail on her subjects allows Freedman to explore them in greater depth). In contrast to the rather mixed chapter on music, the discussion of alternative radical theologies in the 1960s also allows Freedman to examine a more explicitly Christian element of the prophetic theme that runs throughout William Blake and the Myth of America. The thoughtfulness of both Altizer and Brown is evident in that both “shared an immensely metaphysical approach to reality, an obsession with circularity over linearity, sensual response, and a philosophical commitment to the principle of coincidentia oppositorum, the union, integration, or interpenetration of opposites.” (p.195) Unsurprisingly, for both scholars Blake’s notions of Contraries was greatly appealing, and Freedman demonstrates how each thinker used a Blakean dialectic with considerable sympathy for their attempts to establish an alternative Christology to that of St Paul, one which would avoid the apostle’s authoritarianism. She is also excellent in placing these in the contexts of the death of God controversy that exploded in the mid-decade – as well as the fact that Brown in particular was far from radical in his personal life while, in works such as Love’s Body, presented some of the most prophetic and open-minded views of the decade.

The penultimate section, on Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, takes a very different perspective to the main part of the book and, as Freedman observes, “provides an important counterpoint to Blake’s standing in psychedelic counterculture” (p.214). Bellow, as she points out, could not be more different to the majority of the figures considered previously, although in some respects this is perhaps due to the fact that the Blake of the Beats and the counterculture had drowned out those alternatives which were very much in evidence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American society, as with the abolitionists or trade union movements. Bellow’s Blakeanism, suggests Freedman, is subtle but significant – and “a timely critique of Blake’s assimilation into what Bellow perceived as the sham Romanticism of the counterculture.” (p.215) Freedman is incredibly incisive at this point, picking up on some of my own reactions to certain shallow appropriations of Blake that do indeed take place in some (although by no means all) of the main players in the counterculture. It is through Bellow’s Herzog that Blake is explored most directly in readings of London, offering some insights into both Blake in particular and Romanticism more generally after the Holocaust. The one criticism that I have of this last chapter is that, once more, Freedman tends to move through some of her subjects too quickly: Bellow is dealt with in considerable detail, but Vonnegut and Bradbury are skirted over too quickly and – in a much longer work! – would have benefited from her insights into their writings.

Bellow as the antithesis of the counterculture, in which the substance and proper struggle for morality and identity as indicated by his invocation of Blake in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), is an interlude in the main trajectory of William Blake and the Myth of America: it is a vision of Blake that does not take on the characteristics of the bardic and prophetic tradition that dominated the vision established by Ginsberg in particular. What we may see, in effect, is two understandings of Blake as inheritor of the Jewish tradition of prophet – the ecstatic Ezekiel of Ginsberg and the more gloomy Jeremiah of Bellow – in which the role of the Beats has, not entirely rightfully, taken pre-eminence. There is, of course, more than enough room for both reception histories, and it is possible to see how Freedman could have written a different book if she had given more space to those currents outside the Beats and counterculture. The final chapter, which explores some of the later reception history of Blake in America, is something of a mixed bag: it offers a truly wonderful reading of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, as well as Paul Chan’s cartographical art from the early 2000s, but it also demonstrates just how much is missed in this study from the post-sixties era. Blake in pop cultural forms from the eighties to the millennium and beyond includes the Hannibal Lecter books and films, folk and jazz musical traditions such as M. Ward and the Dave Taylor Octet, and the many classical composers of the twentieth and twenty-first century from William Bolcom to Jonathan Lovenstein who have taken Blake as their inspiration. I do not wish to end on this criticism: Freedman is very clear that her work is tracing a particular bardic and prophetic vision of Blake through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that concentrates on the counterculture with some important counterpoints (notably Bellow), one that rightly draws attention to the religious spirit of his American reception. What her excellent work does for me is to demonstrate what other work needs to be done on Blake in America. What William Blake and the Myth of America admirably shows is that the “Blakeanism of the counterculture forged a place for the creative imagination in the redemption of modern America” (p.254). The dangers of such energies were that they too often could become destructive and nihilistic, but they also ensured that during the Cold War visions of America were not held entirely in thrall to the Urizenic machine.

Linda Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. xiii +273, RRP £55.00.

Music reviews: Tender Symmetry, Ghost Gamelan, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil

2018 and early 2019 have seen a number of interesting musical settings of Blake’s poetry or compositions influenced by him, three of which are reviewed in this music round up.

The first album is Tender Symmetry by Michael Price is the follow up to his 2015 debut, Entanglement, and its 2017 successor, Diary. Having begun his career as a music editor for film and television (for which he won an EMMY award in 2014), Price had achieved considerable success before releasing his own compositions, and for his third album he has decided to base the various tracks on work by William Blake. The various tracks were recorded at a number of National Trust locations, including the ruins of Fountain Abbey and Quarry Bank in Cheshire; the reason for these on-location recordings is that the album as a whole is also intended as a meditation on the sense of location. In some cases, this is – to be honest – redundant: I wouldn’t have known where the recordings were taken place without the luxurious sleeve notes, but in one case at least, “Willow Road”, the echoing effect on the singer’s voice is electrifying.

Tender Symmetry is a work which frequently alludes to Blake rather than necessarily setting lyrics from the poems to music, although this does happen on some of the tracks on the album, such as “Speke” (“The Garden of Love”) and “Willow Road” (“Ah! Sun-flower”).The album as a whole moves away from Price’s electronic-themed work to focus on orchestral settings, the effect of which can be extremely beautiful – “Speke” is an exceptional example of this, with the delightful soprano Grace Davidson and the Shards choir. Throughout, however, the entire album is delightful, whether the simple cello and strings of “Willow Road” or the more fulsome orchestrations of “Quarry Bank” and “Shade of Dreams”. The majority of the tracks on the album are relatively minimalist (think a step up from Michael Nyman), while a few bring more depth to their arrangements.

The use of Blake is indicated via reprints of his various poems, including “Holy Thursday”, “The Lily” and “A Cradle Song” as well as those mentioned above, in the beautiful booklet that accompanies the album. Without the liner notes, in some cases it would be fairly obscure as to why Price incorporates these lyrics alongside his beautiful music: with the various settings, it strikes me that the overall effect is to use Blake as a particular example of English music, by which I mean an especial sense of place rather than anything remotely approaching nationalism. Blake functions as a genius locii for the songs, offering a pastoral vision for these classical settings. The whole creates a beautiful, if slightly esoteric, adaptation of Blake’s words.

The second track reviewed here is from the 2018 album, Ghost Gamelan by Susheela Raman. Raman, who was born to South Indian parents in London and raised in Australia, offers a fantastic combination of classical Indian influences with some of the more alternative of European and western traditions. Whereas many performers dealing in a fusion of east and west tend to focus on pop or rock traditions, Raman is as likely to name check the industrial band Throbbing Gristle, or the work of her long term collaborator, Sam Mills, who was a founding member of 23 Skidoo. Having been nominated the Mercury Prize for her 2001 debut album, Salt Rain, which brought her blend of British-Asian music to a wider audience, she has often used Indian style dance rhythms, as in the wonderful “Chordhiya” from the 2005 album Music for Crocodiles, or the hypnotic “Half Shiva Half Shakti” on 2003’s Love Trap.

The allusion to Indian classical styles – which does not, by any means, indicate the full extent of Raman’s style – is important because of the refracted influence it has on the song from Ghost Gamelan which is reviewed here: “Rose”, the final track on the album, is a setting of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to music, and is unlike just about any version of that poem that you have heard before. If there is an echo – which I am fairly sure is unconscious – it is with the song “Love’s Secret Domain” by Coil, pertinent here because they were one of the spin-offs from Throbbing Gristle which Raman says have played a role in her musical style. Unlike Genesis P. Orridge’s original outfit, with its discordant, intense industrial noise, Coil were increasingly willing to experiment with eastern instruments and sounds on later music, merging these into aslant renditions of techno performances that were intended to transform the listener’s perceptions (hence their own fascination with Blake). This is not at all to say that “Rose” is directly influenced by Coil’s music, rather that the gamelans used for this track – the Indonesian hand drums and metallophones (a kind of xylophone) – create a haunting, slightly dissonant effect that does indeed change the listener’s understanding of Blake’s song. “The Sick Rose” becomes a strangely beautiful, strangely sickly echo of itself, making this one of the most memorable versions of that poem yet.

The final album is, in many ways, the most oblique: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil is the third in a series of collaborations between Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch, and is described by the pair as an exploration of “the theology of William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg” via the occult work of “Helena Blavatsky”. Of that comment, I’ll shall be much more scathing below, but it is worth noting two things: first of all, that Jarmusch’s interest in Blake extends back at least to his wonderful 1995 film Dead Man, and that with van Wissem (who describes himself as an “experimental lute player”) the duo have not been concerned in the slightest to play around on their various releases.

On first listening, I was tempted to agree with Grayson Currin’s remark that it would be harder to “conjure a more esoteric scenario for an album” than this one, and initially the album is heavy going. This is perhaps most true on the most overtly Blakean track – “When the Sun Rises Do You Not See a Round Disc of Fire” – which concludes the record, taken from a statement made by Blake that appears in Gilchrist:

When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.

This comment by Blake is clearly intended as a key to unlock the instrumental gnosis of the album: for Blake, all perception is shaped by imagination so that, unlike the miser who sees a gold coin, Blake sees angels rising into heaven. The joyful nature of this statement is transformed into an extended drone of guitars that conclude with a voice reading from Godfrey Higgins’ Anacalypsis. This work, with its subtitle – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions – is the kind of thing Blake would have read during his lifetime (HIggins published it fifty years after Blake’s death), and I have a suspicion that the combination of Blake and Higgins is due to Coleridge’s joke on Blake being an “ana-calyptic” rather than apocalyptic poet (the pun being that Blake does not reveal – the original meaning of apocalypse – so much as obscure).

This, if true, is… clever. Too clever, for me. On a very personal note, the summation of my own feelings towards Blavatsky are best summed up by Peter Washington’s excellent book, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, and too serious an attempt for me to combine Blake and Swedenborg should always bear the following quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in mind:

A man carried a monkey about for a shew, & because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conciev’d himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches & exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious. & himself the single (E42-3)

As some kind of theosophical treaty, then, I am unconvinced by An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, and for a more coherent experiment with Blake’s skewed theology I would still recommend Ulver’s 1998 album, Themes from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, though even that is a little serious for me these days. Yet in the end, these comments also are too serious: Swedenborg and Blavatsky are fringe figures, one at least of whom Blake was able to mock, and very few listeners to this album will have actually read either of them. As such, they create a mood rather than a serious structure for esoteric enlightenment – which draws us to the music itself. While obscure to begin with, some tracks – such as “The Unclouded Day” – quickly become more lucid, with van Wissem’s beautiful playing, and the elongated, heavy mood of tracks such as “Dark Matter” throb away in such a fashion that they provide a melancholy contrast that is hypnotic. If one is willing to draw aside the veil with a lightness of touch, this is certainly one of the most interesting albums to be inspired by Blake in recent times, though I for one cannot take it too seriously.

Michael Price – Tender Symmetry, Erased Tapes, 2018, £20.
Susheela Raman – Ghost Gamelan, Naive, 2018. RRP £11.99.
Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, Sacred Bones Records, 2019. $7-$19 at Bandcamp.

Review: Astralingua – Safe Passage

Ten years may be a long time to wait between debut and follow up, but the launch of the album Safe Passage earlier this month as the second release by space-folk duo, Astralingua, is a collection of thoughtfully crafted songs. Comprising vocalist Anne Rose Thompson and composer/vocalist Joseph Andrew Thompson, their first EP, Contact, came out in 2008; one reason it has taken them so long to release Safe Passage is because parts of it have been recorded in the Mojave Desert, others in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The duo, based in Denver, Colorado, are joined on this album by various musicians to provide string, woodwind and mandolin accompaniment and the overall effect is entrancing. Joseph Thompson has described their style as “spacey” – in the colloquial sense, but also referring to both the sensation of open space that they hope to inspire with their tracks, as well as the musical sense of slower tempos and long echoes. This creates a series of frequently haunting, always beautiful songs, which first came to my attention because of the their first single from the album, an adaptation of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”.

The first track on the album, “Plunge”, is the most upbeat of the songs included here, a beautiful start to the album with Joseph and Anne accompanied by a string octet with sections that echo The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It is a particularly rousing start to Safe Passage and is intended as a more stirring introduction to the tracks that follow. The tone changes immediately with the following track, “Visitor”, a more minimalist and much slower piece that begins with solo guitar and delicate vocal harmonies before other instruments slowly join in. The lyrics, including the haunting opening line, “Come with me my weary child, cold and all alone”, draw on various poetic references such as W. B. Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” and Geothe’s “Erlkönig”; the whole song is ambiguous as to whether the child has ascended into heaven or has died, and this melancholy theme continues throughout the rest of the album.

“Sweet Dreams” continues the pensive reflections introduced by “Visitor”, with the subtle Travis-style guitar accompanied by mournful guitar and, as with every track on Safe Passage, the harmony of Joseph and Anne Thompson’s voice is frequently breathtaking. “The Nimble Men”, the shortest piece on the album, is presented as a chaos of sound that breaks the softer themes of “Sweet Dreams” and “Space Blues”, one of my particular favourites: while dealing with the experience of travelling through physical and interior space, it demonstrates the ambition of Astralingua’s music, seeking to offer a musical meditation on awareness and experience. “Phantoms”, while also following the slow tempo of the majority of the album, strikes a very different, more forceful tone as the confident, minimalist piano solo is interrupted by mournful cello and then disturbed, cackling voices; with “NSA” – a reference to “No Strings Attached” – these three pieces can be seen as representing the pivot of the album, a meditation on loneliness that lead us to the single that was the initial inspiration for this review.

“A Poison Tree”, which was released at the end of 2018, is a superb interpretation of Blake’s Song of Experience. The simplicity of the guitar, mandolin and violin accompaniment create a sound that has – fittingly for this space folk duo – been described as celestial. It is an extremely original interpretation, with Joseph Thompson having said in interviews that he has wished to bring out the playfulness of Blake’s poetry. I would remark that this would seem a very unusual interpretation for such a poem that is usually seen as a darker meditation on themes of revenge, but – in a very different style – it can be seen also as a motivating factor in one other adaptation, the Britpop bounce of Blur’s Magpie, which was the B-side to Blur’s 1994 single, “Girls and Boys”. For me, when listening to the song it demonstrates more a sense of wistfulness, perhaps, that anger should lead to destruction: certainly it ranks as one of the very best popular interpretations of Blake’s poem.

The adaptation of Blake is followed by three very different tracks that are, however, linked by a slower tempo. “The Fallen” is, like “NSA” and “Space Blues”, one of the longer and more ambitious tracks on the album. It also includes a number of literary and folk references, such as to “The Unfortunate Rake” and “The Cowboy’s Lament” (which later influenced the Scottish song, “Willie McBride”) as well as echoes of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in the final word, “Nevermore”. “Passage to Albion”, which follows, is one of the most beautiful pieces on an album that brims with a range of sweet harmonies, while the final track on Safe Passage, “The Troubled Road”, is a much longer and somewhat darker piece: a narrative song, it follows the singer as he travels along the road that leads to the Styx, this lost Orpheus apparently unaware that he has died and is now entering Hades.

The space folk sound that Astralingua evoke on Safe Passage is entirely their own, but has echoes for me of other artists who sometimes fall into this category, particularly those who explore the more melancholy aspects of the genre, such as Fever Ray in “If I Had a Heart”, Grimm Grimm’s “Hazy Eyes Maybe” and the superb “Dead Queen” by Espers. You can listen to the album via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, or order the album from Astralingua’s Bandcamp page. It is delicate, melancholy and, with its tribute to Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, a completely original setting of one of the Romantic artist’s most famous poems.

Safe Passage, released March 8, 2019, and available as CD and digital download from astralingua.bandcamp.com.

 

Review: Naomi Billingsley – The Visionary Art of William Blake

Within Blake studies, Blake’s visual art tends to be studied less than his poetry and illuminated books. There have always been notable exceptions, of course, from Anthony Blunt on, but The Visionary Art of William Blake is an excellent contribution to an area of Blake studies – his painting and engraving not devoted to the prophetic books – that has been comparatively neglected. While Blake’s painting might be under-represented to some degree, since the turn of the millennium there has been some increase in critical works that consider the religious aspects of Blake’s works such as Susanne Sklar’s Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as Visionary Theatre and Magnus Ankarsjö’s William Blake and Religion, and in such contexts Naomi Billingsley’s new book is an extremely welcome addition.  Unsurprisingly given its sub title – Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination – the book concentrates on Christ (her own preferred term although Blake tends to use Jesus more frequently). Alongside a discussion of Blake’s Christology, Visionary Art presents an opportunity to discuss some relatively neglected works, such as the designs to Night Thoughts and the Butts temperas.

Visionary Art is arranged into five sections that correspond – generally – to several periods of Blake’s artistic production. These general themes (on resurrection and apocalypse, inspiration, community, Christ as universal form divine and crucifixion as self-annihilation) do not always match perfectly on to their corresponding texts, which include the illustrations to Milton and the designs for the Last Judgement as well as Young’s Night Thoughts. This is a function of any attempt to try and arrange Blake’s concepts into some kind of coherent schema that offers an interesting approach to Blake’s art other than a simple chronological survey, and Billingsley is not tied to that schema (including, for example, examples of resurrection imagery that is not restricted to Young), thus allowing herself flexibility. The only time it became problematic for me was in the discussions of the temperas for Thomas Butts, where it seemed occasionally she had to remind herself that as well as close readings of the images themselves she had set up a framework to discuss Christian inspiration. That said, this is an exceptionally good book for close readings of individual designs as well as overviews of Blake’s various series, with plenty of examples of detailed analysis of sometimes overlooked works.

The first section of Visionary Art, dealing with the designs and engravings for Night Thoughts, is exemplary, not least in that it provides an opportunity for Billingsley to demonstrate her extensive critical knowledge of the historical context surrounding the (failed) publication of Night Thoughts. She draws succinctly upon critics such as Eaves and the editors of the 1980 facsimile edition, building upon them with her own research to offer scholarship as is always evident throughout the book. Despite my previous comment, this is one chapter where resurrection as a thematic approach does work very well alongside a study of the failed project, with its emphasis upon Blake’s “endeavour to regenerate Young’s poem through a dynamic of creative conflict” (p.34). Several very interesting points also emerge in this section: that Blake, for example, is often very hesitant to use the image of the crucifixion, at least in the 1780s (hence the creative conflict of his emphasis upon images of resurrection rather than death); that he is not really a systematic theological thinker, at least in his visual series – a well-made point that is a recurring theme of the book); and that he seeks to emphasise an active Christology in which Jesus is full of energy and vitality as an example intended to transform the viewer.

The second chapter, dealing with inspiration and prophecy is, as previously indicated, where I felt the schema of Visionary Art was less successful. Despite this, the chapter offers once more an excellent reading of the tempera paintings for Thomas Butts (again, with some very good historical context) but occasionally it felt as though the dual demands – to provide as comprehensive reading of these paintings while also linking them to the overarching theme of inspiration and prophecy – could not always be reconciled. With regard to the thematic approach, I would have preferred something more wide-ranging across Blake’s entire oeuvre, but as an exploration of the Butts temperas in their own right this is one of the best accounts I have ever come across. Thus, for example, while considering the relevant critics such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson, Billingsley shows masterfully how the temptation to discover “a complete understanding of the series is impossible on secondary grounds, and may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” (p.65) With this in mind, she draws links very well between individual designs, such as those depicting Christ’s nativity and his life, a theme through many of the paintings, without being bound to try and explain the entire series as a coherent and systematic Christology. She is also extremely good at drawing attention to Blake’s innovations, such as his depiction of the baby Jesus springing upwards from Mary at the scene of his birth and, in a comparison with J.M.W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), draws attention again to how Blake’s paintings are intended to inspire the viewer rather than seek out the historical Jesus, this being a common factor of his Christology. As such, the Butts series is better read as “a web of recurring themes… in the context of Blake’s theological mythos” (p.86) rather than a systematic arrangement of narrative or theological ideas.

Chapter three, on Jesus as facilitator, concentrates on the watercolours created for Butts during and after Blake’s time at Felpham, offering a view of Christ’s ministry as a means of building a community. This is an ecclesiology that, as Billingsley rightly observes, is concerned less with church structures as with participants in the divine body of Christ. The watercolours produced during this time for Butts are often more vivid and memorable than the temperas, perhaps due in part to Blake’s renewed engagement with – even a reconversion to – Christianity during his time at Felpham. It is in this section that Billingsley offers some of her most insightful readings of images that are frequently neglected, such as The Hymn of Christ and the Apostles (c.1805), a depiction of the disciples playing musical instruments that is “a clear manifestation of Blake’s statement that ‘Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists’.” (p.127) The focus on the ministry of Jesus as an embodiment of the human form divine, a community of believers joined in the practice of art (which is, ultimately, to perform actions with love, care and devotion) works more effectively in this chapter, returning to a constant theme in The Visionary Art of William Blake, which is that by seeing these pictures the viewer is also intended to “internalise the processes of regeneration and inspiration” (p.131) and thus, by recognising their own human form divine, become part of that community.

In the following section, Billingsley explores how, in the penultimate decade of his life, “Blake was intensely engaged with fundamental questions related to art and Christianity” (p.164), exploring these particularly via his illustrations to Milton and various designs for The Last Judgement. Regarding the former, again she notes the slight variations and repetitions between the versions for Joseph Thomas, Thomas Butts and what was presumably an unfinished series for John Linnell. The focus on depictions of Christ, with five out of the twelve watercolours presenting the Son at the centre of the image, allow Blake to “Christologize” Milton’s poem, for example by making him central to the creation of Eve as well as the rout of the rebel angels, and she once again demonstrating her critical skills in a close reading of The Rout of the Rebel Angels that draws parallels and contrasts with The Ancient of Days, Christ circumscribed within a sun from which he casts error just as Urizen, similarly encircled, creates error. The centrality of Christ is another feature of Blake’s multiple designs for the last judgement, which also serves as a major source for his aesthetic theory. A common element of those designs (which take their inspiration from Michelangelo’s famous fresco for the Sistine Chapel) is the position of Christ at the centre of the image, which “does not make him a formidable law-maker, but subverts such a conception of God: that throne becomes the Mercy Seat and the book of Law becomes the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15).” (p.153) Such insight is one of the joys of Visionary Art, demonstrating a profound sympathy with Blake’s visual art as a means of conveying the complexities of his thought. The chapter, covering as it does the period of 1805-1811, also deals with a series of four unusual pieces – including The Virgin and Child in Egypt (1810) that are completely unlike anything else produced by Blake’s contemporaries, approaching almost the form of the icons of the Orthodox church.

Iconography and iconoclasm segue into the final chapter on crucifixion as self-annihilation. At first glance, this chapter would appear to contradict Billingsley’s earlier assertion that Blake disliked the crucifix as a subject, particularly considering later examples as on plate 76 of Jerusalem, but there is an important qualification: she is right to assert that he “regarded the doctrine of the Crucifixion as Atonement (the Son being offered as a ransom for humankind’s erring from the Father’s Law) as abhorrent” (p.168), and also notes that the subject was not popular in eighteenth-century art as probably too popish. Instead, in Blake we see a movement from cruciform figures, such as Orc in America, which are exemplars of violence upon the human form divine, to a vision of Christ’s ultimate generosity in self-sacrifice as the breaking of Urizenic law. As well as a close reading of the Jerusalem crucifixion and Michael Foretells the Crucifixion from Paradise Lost, she ends the chapter with a consideration of the same subject in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante Adoring Christ from his illustrations to The Divine Comedy, showing how Blake’s attitude towards the crucifixion became more positive in his final years.

The Visionary Art of William Blake is a compelling and scholarly contribution to Blake studies, which draws attention to often overlooked paintings and also reiterates the importance of Christ to his art, while avoiding the temptation to provide some kind of systematising tendency to his Christology. Rather, Blake’s relations with Jesus – as inspiration, source of revelation and, above all, the supreme example of the human form divine – is one which fluctuates and develops across his lifetime. If her thematic schema does not always map out entirely onto the historical survey of Blake’s work, this is due to an attempt to provide more than a mere catalogue of oft-neglected images. As a work of art history, placing Blake in the contexts of religious art in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this book is intensely rewarding.

 

Naomi Billingsley, The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination, London and New York: I.B. Tauris and Company, 2018, 256pp. RRP: £69.