Blakespotting: News about William Blake in January 2019

One of the most impressive examples of Blakean inspiration to start off 2019 was his use by Refik Anadol, whose astonishing immersive installation, the Infinity Room, was showcased during the Winter Gallery Crawl in Pittsburgh. Created using a series of lasers, the room draws upon Blake’s quotation – later cited by Aldous Huxley – that “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Born in Istanbul and currently living in Los Angeles, the small cube – each side 12 feet in length – contains mirrors on the floor and ceiling to support, according to an interview with TribLive, “the idea that there is no gravity”.

A significant new literary release at the end of 2018 and which began to receive reviews in January was the fourth novel by Mexican writer, Adriana Díaz Enciso. Entitled Ciudad Doliente de Dios (“The Doleful City of God”), it tells the story of Cristina, a girl abandoned in an orphanage by her parents, who has mystical visions that lead her to a knowledge beyond her years. With an image of Los englobing the fallen body of Urizen as a huge drop of blood for its cover, the book is framed in the cosmogony of William Blake, and a post giving an insight into her thoughts on the Romantic poet and artist can be found at Finding Blake.

Musical sightings and performances included a profile of Martha Redbone for Berkeleyside, whose 2012 album The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, remains one of the best Blakean compilations ever recorded; she also performed at the Weill Hall, Sonoma State University, on January 24th. Jim Jarmusch (whose 1995 film Dead Man cast Johnny Depp in the role of accountant in the wild west, William Blake) and Jozef Van Wissem, announced a new album – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil – which draws upon the ideas of Blake, Swedenborg and Helena Blavatsky and is to be released in early February. Another announcement was the new album Inside the Rose by These New Puritans: due out in March, some of its music including the titular track claim the inspiration of William Blake.

The month ended with a performance by Patti Smith at the Camden Roundhouse that attracted rave reviews. Appearing in London at the close of January, Smith’s set included a series of her own music, cover versions of artists such as U2 and Midnight Oil, and recitals of readings of her own work, Virginia Woolf, Robert Burns, and, of course, William Blake. Ellie Porter, writing for theartsdesk.com, remarked on her “ceaseless energy”, while Emily Finch at CamdenNewJournal described her as a “booming bright light”.

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. 

“A Blakean Year”: 2018 in Review

2018 began in spectacular fashion with the opening of an exhibition at Petworth House in Sussex on January 13. Entitled William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, the exhibition concentrated on Blake’s experiences and art from 1800-1803 when he lived at nearby Felpham, as well as other works subsequently created by him for the Earl and Countess of Egremont who lived at Petworth. It was for Elizabeth Ilive that Blake produced one of his most ambitious works, A Vision of the Last Judgement, which rightly formed the centrepiece of this display of some of his most exceptional paintings and prints.

Other exhibitions from the beginning of the year included Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries at Carnegie Mellon University, where Wilding formerly taught, and demonstrating her multiple influences, including Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and, of course, William Blake. Also on show from February to April was “Tales of the Unseen”, work by Siggi Ámundason, whose large-scale pen drawings reference William Blake as well as eighties anime, Goya and Francis Bacon.

Musically, the big news at the beginning of 2018 was the announcement of U2’s £xperience + Innocence tour to accompany their 2017 album, Songs of Experience. More affecting to me personally was the death of Mark E. Smith, frontman of post-punk band The Fall, in January, whose life was probably best summed up by the headline “Mark E. Smith Was a Complicated Bastard“. He was also something of a fan of William Blake, demonstrated not least by his cover of “Jerusalem” for the album I Am Kurious Oranj. Other releases in winter and spring included two albums that referenced Blake songs – Shawn Colvin’s The Starlighter, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Englabörn & Variations, including the tracks “Cradle Song” and “Holy Thursday” respectively. There was also, in March, a new version of “Jerusalem” released as Team England’s official anthem for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, as well as the premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Songs of Illumination in April.

Blake-influenced publications in early 2018 included the quite astonishing comic, Her Infernal Descent, which was released in five parts throughout the year. A reinterpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a middle-aged woman is led through hell by Blake as her spirit guide, offering satire and commentary on life in the twenty-first century as well as a rather profound portrayal of loss. This was joined in April by the publication of Polaris Ghost by Eric G. Wilson, a collection of short stories that reference Blake throughout, as well as Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a new collection of prose poems that offered her response to the election of Donald Trump among other things. Julia Fine’s wonderful debut novel, What Should Be Wild, offered Blakean elements of horror and fantasy in the style of an Angela Carter fairy tale.

2018 was, as ever, a busy one for The William Blake Archive, which saw a number of new publications, including new copies of JerusalemUrizen, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, as well as entirely new additions in the form of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue and his Notebook. The major addition, however, was Vala, or The Four Zoas, which now makes widely available the fragile manuscript of Blake’s most ambitious epic poem.

The middle of the year saw a number of Blakean citations in film and television, not least the Criterion Collection of reissue of Dead Man for blu-ray, which prompted a number of retrospective reviews, such as this at Glide Magazine. Much more controversial was the release of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, a bloody serial killer movie that notes Blake’s “The Tyger” as a model and which, frankly, did not receive great reviews. By contrast, more people were impressed by the fact that season two of Westworld offered multiple quotations from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence as a running theme for its depiction of mankind’s inhumanity to robot. Will Franken’s Red, White & Blake sought to rescue the Romantic poet from bland, liberal academics such as myself, offering a heartfelt plea to return Blake to his position as national writer and artist.

Significant news was Tate Britain’s announcement of a huge forthcoming Blake exhibition, and there was a truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art by Jack Handscombe, a student at Edinburgh College of Art, who produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”. Elsewhere in the arts, a new piece of choreography and music inspired by Blake, entitled Apolión and directed by Jerónimo Búffalo, was performed at the Art Centro de Arte UNLP in Buenos Aires. In London, a new show in London was announced, Wirework (originally written by Daleen Kruger in Afrikaans in 2009 but translated into English this year) at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas, Wirework explores how they created an extraordinary museum, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake.

The biggest event of the summer, however, was the unveiling of a new gravestone, 191 years after his death on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.

Celebration of Blake’s life and work was also a reminder of some of the other figures, as well as Mark E. Smith, who had been influenced by Blake in some way and died in 2018. These included Alice Provensen – who lived to the glorious age of 99. For some forty years she had worked with her husband, Martin, on illustrations until his death in 1987, before continuing a solo career into her nineties. Her books included the wonderful A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard.  She was followed shortly afterwards by Bob Dorough who helped Ginsberg set Blake to music and was more famous as the composer of Conjunction Junction. Likewise, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).

As the year turned to autumn, mid September saw a return of the three-day celebration of Blakean arts, Blakefest, which took place on 14th-16th in Bognor Regis. Blakefest has become a fairly regular cultural and artistic festival, with Lene Lovich and a tribute to George Harrison headlining at this year’s event. Other art shows included an exhibition at the Levy Gorky gallery in New York, featuring a selection of works by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecu and Jaspar Johns. Entitled “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”, the full show included work by 27 artists and unfolded over three floors in a pattern that was inspired by Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

The autumn also saw publication of one of my personal favourites, the translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Taking its title from one of Blake’s proverbs of hell, the novel was originally written in 2009. Described by Sarah Perry at The Guardian as “an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature”, it is one of the most profoundly Blakean novels ever to have been written.

The year ended with a series of Blake-inspired music: the exemplary pianist, Harriet Stubbs, released her debut album, Heaven and Hell: The Doors of Perception,  which opens with an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”. Composed by John Adams in 1977-8, this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks due to the narration by Marianne Faithful which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This was followed in December with a new musical adaptation of “A Poison Tree” by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. The track is also to be included on their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019. And, just squeezing in before the near year, was Johanna Glaza’s wonderful Albion EP, a setting of parts of Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion to music, which we’ll be reviewing later in 2019.

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Review: Harriet Stubbs – Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception

Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception is the debut album by classical pianist, Harriet Stubbs, who first began to display her prodigious talent when she was awarded a scholarship at the age of five to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. During her time there, this apparently led James Gibb to make an exception to his rule of never teaching children to train her. That the talent of this Yamaha artist is prodigious becomes clearly evident after only a few moments of listening to this album, which aims to bring together a range of modern and more traditional classical music. As well as demonstrating the virtuoso skills of Stubbs, it will also introduce a new audience to compositions that they may not otherwise encounter. The Blakean connection comes, according to the booklet accompanying the album, through her work with Russ Titelman to transform the doors of listeners’ perceptions, “a Blakean philosophy” of progression from innocence to experience and then to higher innocence.

The Blakean connection is also clear in the opening track of the album, an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”, composed by John Adams in 1977-8: this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks included here because Stubbs has added a narration by Marianne Faithful, one which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The effect is strangely hypnotic and extremely compelling, with Faithful’s raking, rasping tones serving very well as the voice of the devil. In an interview with the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, she indicated that Patti Smith and Meryl Streep were also potential narrators, but that Faithful had been the most enthusiastic.

The selection of Adams as a vehicle for Blake’s philosophy is almost certainly not accidental: after all, it was Adams who began composing his piece for orchestra, Fearful Symmetries, in 1988 after the success of Nixon in China. His minimalist style, indebted to John Cage and with some similarities to composers such as Philip Glass or John Cage, is extremely evident in Fearful Symmetries, with its strong parallelisms and repetitions, although the arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates” tempers this considerably. Adams himself described the original as a “modulating square wave” that circled through the fifths, but the addition of Faithful’s voice breaks up the linearity of the music, an incarnation of Orc in opposition to the potentially Urizenic qualities of minimalism that transforms the listener’s perception of the track entirely.

After such a strong start – in Blakean terms – the rest of the album appears to move in a different direction that does invoke the Romantic artist so directly. This is by no means a comment on the qualities of Stubbs’s performances, which are always superb, from Mozart’s “Rondo in A Minor” onwards. Described by Hermann Abert as one of the “most important keyboard Rondos ever composed”, Mozart’s composition provides an excellent opportunity for Stubbs to display her virtuosity via its multiple embellishments and chromaticism. The lightness of her performance here does not bring with it the intimations of despair that some commentators have observed: instead, the doors of perception are being opened in very different ways, a world of sensual delight through which the listener can experience something of eternity.

There follow five pieces from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, Op 34 rather than the later (and longer) Op. 87, Preludes and Fugues. Like that later series of compositions, this version also circles through the major and minor keys, of which Stubbs includes No. 10 in C-Sharp Minor, No. 9 in E Major, No. 4 in E Minor, No. 20 in C Minor and, my favourite of the Preludes here, No. 14 in E-Flat Minor. The simplicity and passion of her performance here was the one that moved me most personally, although throughout all her own dedication and talent constantly shines through.

Of the remaining pieces, only one seems to invoke Blake again, however obliquely: Sergei Prokofiev’s “Suggestion diabolique”, number 4 of his 4 Pieces for Piano, and the one where the composer sought to challenge the strict roles of tonality, could be interpreted as another intrusion of the voice of the devil, although to be honest the relations to Blake are tangential at best. This is not to detract, however, from her virtuosity on all tracks. The most profoundly affecting for me, and my favourite from the entire album, is Ferruccio Busoni’s “Chaconne in D Minor”, adapted from Bach’s “Partita No. 2”. Busoni arranged this for piano in 1888 (writing it down in 1892) and it is a stunning piece of music: he was drawn to it because, among other things, it demonstrated how Bach made Beethoven possible, and its impressive range once more allows Stubbs to shine. This is also the moment, according to the liner notes, when experience enters the listener’s perceptions, and certainly there is a shift in the tone of the album with Busoni’s piece. Like other pieces, such as Alexander Scriabin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-Sharp Minor”, the technical demands are ones that Stubbs rises to with technical proficiency combined with passion, conveying fully the romantic and impressionistic sensations of such music superbly.

The album concludes with Gorgy Ligeti’s “Études, Book 1: No. 5, Arc-en-ciel”, a haunting track on which to end. A traditional form of étude (in contrast to those of, say, Cage), this shows a general theme of Heaven and Hell that contrasts with a number of contemporary composers such as Dmitri Smirnov or, more recently, Daniel Kidane: with the exception of Adams’s Phrygian Gates, the whole album has stronger links to traditional and romantic forms. The comparison is slightly unfair: Stubbs is a superb performer and arranger rather than composer, and many of the pieces included here offer wonderful opportunities for her to demonstrate her abilities.

Then why Blake? While the album identifies itself as “Piano Music Modern and Less Modern”, with the exception of Adams’s “Phrygian Gates” this is not a collection that often challenges the listener in the style of “difficult” modern classical music. Rather, its intention seems to be to open up a range of piano compositions to a new audience and thus to transform perceptions. In her interview with Trinity Laban, she observes that the aim of her album is to “cleanse its [classical music’s] listeners’ doors of perception, to encourage them to re-evaluate what classical music should be”. Unlike G. A. Edwards (who wrote an excellent review on his blog), I have a strong interest in how Blakean themes emerge in such music: strictly, they are motivated most strongly and obviously through her arrangement of Adams, but elsewhere Harriet Stubbs seems also to be infused with a sense of romanticism and energy that was the eternal delight of William Blake.

 

Harriet Stubbs, Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception, Suite 28 Records. RRP (audio CD) £14.54, (download) £7.49.

 

Astralingua: A Poison Tree

Friday 6 December saw the release of a new musical adaptation of William Blake’s song of experience, “A Poison Tree”, by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. Based in Denver, Colorado, their music features mandolins, cello and ghostly harmonies in a mixture of classical, folk and psychedelic sounds. The track, which you can hear below (and see the accompanying video), is from their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019.

Here they tell Zoamorphosis some of the ways in which Blake has influenced them and their music.

Joseph:

I’ve been interested in Blake’s work since I was about 16 years old. A friend lent me a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience and it amazed me. At first glance, it reminded me of the illustrated rhyme and story books I’d read as a child, which endeared it to me. It then became quickly apparent how rich it was in poetry, metaphor, craft, and vision. I bought a pocket copy by Penguin books and carried it around with me for quite some time. I would also go to the local bookstore and pore through whatever Blake collections they had, trying to find the best prints of his artwork.

His artwork was strange, anachronistic, and singular. I saw so many different genres of modern-day art reflected in his works from 200 years earlier – fantasy paintings, storybook illustrations, comic books, and animation. Blake exaggerated proportions, movement, and faces to create effects that I saw in all sorts of pop culture’s artwork. Figures sometimes seemed detached from their surroundings (Nebuchadnezzar), or as if leaping from the canvas. In many, there were layers upon layers of images, blended together like psychedelic paintings. Those were just my first impressions – the exciting things that grabbed my adolescent attention. As time went on, and I came to better understand and appreciate the fine arts, I realized what a master painter Blake was, how capable and detailed, and began to admire him even more.

They say Blake was considered “mad” in his time. I must be “mad” too, as I speak his language and he speaks mine. I imagine I like Blake for the same reason that a lot of artists do. His works weren’t popular in his age but it did not deter him. He didn’t change his style to suit the day. He painted and wrote his truth and vision. Because of that, there’s such pureness and honesty in his creations. His paintings and prints are filled with excitement, passion, and exuberance, and one senses in them the desire to communicate. When looking at his illustrations or reading his poems, you feel Blake’s earnestness. And when you take all this together, you get a sense of his likely isolation and loneliness, his reaching out for someone with whom to connect. In the end, you take his work personally, even though he’s communicating Universal Truths. Plus, his poetry makes you smile.

Rhymed and metered poetry takes work. You have to be more selective with what you say. No word or line can be wasted and you have fewer words from which to choose. A lot of poets have great command of rhyme, but their poetry is lacking. Other poets have beautiful ways of describing unique insights, but all without rhyme. Blake was a master of both. He was so joyfully playful. In his craft, more than just rhyming, he uses alliteration, plays with syntax, mixes and matches lines and schemes. There is such wealth offered to the reader.

Anne:

One thing that stands out to me about Blake, especially in his artwork, is how pure and defined his subjects are, both in emotion and physique. Looking at anyone he depicts, you see beauty, grace, grief, horror, shame, pity, strength, longing, and weakness all expressed – whatever characteristic it is, it is abundantly clear and undeniable.It makes his works so striking and evocative, and I think that’s often missing in modern art, music and media. Our culture now seems to embrace a nebulous, almost non-committal attitude, and characters are often aloof, vague, and undefined. Much the same with our emotions, where there is a prevalence of numbness, disaffection, and distraction. We’re overstimulated to the point of boredom. Maybe that’s why people fall for Blake the way they do when they discover him finally – they see the human experience expressed with such richness and in such volume, much louder and stronger than we are encouraged to experience it. Everything is full of passion and energy. He reminds us of our human capacity for real feeling.

 

“A Poison Tree” is available on Bandcamp, with Safe Passage also available for pre-order.

You can also see Astralingua’s video using Blake’s art on YouTube.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, November 2018

The main event of November was the anniversary of Blake’s birth, with at least one celebration taking place at the Theodore Bullfrog in London, where members of the Blake Society gathered to sing, play music and recite the poet’s words for an evening of entertainment. Elsewhere, plenty of Blake’s poetry appeared online, as with an article dedicated to his best poems in The Week. The magazine Town Topics also ran a piece on encountering Blake through Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg as a meditation on the Romantic’s birthday.

On a sadder note, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. His most recognisable work, the Siegfried Hall Arch, was first completed in 1966 but then redesigned in 1987 and, according to WOUB, restored in 2015 (illustrated above). Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).

Among the visual arts, November saw the opening of Extreme Nature! at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Largely dealing with excessive visions of landscapes and the natural world, this would appear unfamiliar territory in which to encounter Blake, but the curator Michael Hartman has the Times Union newspaper, taken a fantastical view of the world that allows him to include the Romantic artist’s illustration of Behemoth and Leviathan from the Book of Job to be included. The exhibition runs at the Institute until February 24, 2019.

A delightful artistic detail was the launch of a collection of plates designed by Richard Ginori and Ippolita Rostagno (the latter more famous for jewellery design). Called “The Road to Heaven is Paved with Excess”. According to Rostagno:

The collection ‘The Road to Heaven is Paved with Excess’ is inspired by the poet William Blake. The concept is that you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough. I love this idea because it wraps up exuberance and restraint into a constant dynamic, which is perfect for this moment in which maximalism reigns.

With each plate starting at £85, the collection is not cheap – perhaps fitting for the excess of maximalism. You can purchase the collection at Artemest.

On a more serious note, The Japan Times included a short but very welcome piece on Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel Prize winner for literature whose novel Rouse Up O Young Men explores how the writer engages with his profoundly disabled son through the work of William Blake. The Romantic is quoted extensively throughout the novel which, as Damian Flanagan observes, provides a means to “probe the hinterland of the unknown not merely by rational analysis”. Along with Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and the recently translated novel by Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead (reviewed here), Oe’s book is a work that is deeply indebted to Blake.

Review: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I travel’d through a Land of Men,
A land of Men & Women too,
And heard & saw such dreadful things
As cold Earth wanderers never knew.

These lines, from William Blake’s “The Mental Traveller”, offer a motif for the most recently translated book by Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk. In her novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the narrator and central character, anina Duszejko (who dislikes her own name even more than those of other people), discusses possible translations of Blake’s English into Polish with a friend, “Dizzie”. Blake’s poem is an often grim vision of the spiritual history of individuals and civilisations, how hope and liberty are often crushed by Urizenic forces. It is against such forces that Janina and her friends – idiosyncratically named by her as Oddball and Good News, as well as an entomologist, Boros – strive throughout a novel which is a deep, sometimes despairing, often intensely funny, meditation on ecology and mankind’s relations with the animal kingdom, the “dreadful things” which most of us choose not to know.

Drive Your Plow is one of the most Blakean novels ever written, and I would number it among a small handful, including Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, Kenzaburo Oe’s Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! and J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, that are suffused throughout with Blake’s ideas and words. Not only does each chapter of Drive Your Plow begin with an aphorism from Blake’s works, but Janina constantly refers to the poet in order to navigate and ground her life and actions, with Auguries of Innocence being the key to her understanding of the cold Earth in which she finds herself. With one important exception that I will go on to at the end of this review – and which necessarily involves an important spoiler to discuss fully – Janina’s actions are constantly guided by the spirit of Blake.

Olga Tokarczuk has become more widely known in the Anglophone world following the Man Booker award given to the translation of her “constellation novel”, Flights, earlier this year, which also won the Nike award in Poland when it was first published in 2007. Trained as a psychologist, her work often deals with parables and mythic elements, and she has been attacked by members of the ruling Law and Justice Party and other “patriots” as a traitor for tarnishing the reputation of Poland with her criticism of xenophobia in the country (it will come as no surprise that Tokarczuk considers herself the true patriot, precisely because she delivers such criticisms). A powerful and intelligent voice in her home country, Tokarczuk’s increasing international reputation means that her latest novel, originally published as Prowad? swój p?ug przez ko?ci umar?ych in 2009, will also receive a much wider audience.

In contrast to the fragmented, nonlinear narrative of FlightsDrive Your Plow ostensibly is a slightly more conventional – if still decidedly offbeat – book that follows Janina as she is caught up in the investigation of a series of deaths in her home town near the border with the Czech Republic. At least one reviewer has compared her to Miss Marple (a foolish and, for reasons that become clear with the novel’s conclusion, impossible comparison), but to me here character, if not her actions, are more reminiscent of Gulley Jimson, the protagonist of Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Like Jimson she is odd and eccentric to most of humanity, though with the ability to form very deep and intimate relations with a few human beings, and, like him, William Blake is always at hand to provide an aphorism to explain the complexities of life. Indeed, the title of Tokarczuk’s novel is taken from one of Blake’s famous proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Unlike Gulley Jimson, however, Janina is filled with a profound anger of the world.

That anger arises from the fact that her town is filled with hunters who make it their business to commit murder against the living creatures of the wilderness that surrounds them. When it was released as the film Pokot (“Spoor”) in 2017, director Agnieszka Holland caught the intense beauty of the Polish landscape in winter and summer, a beauty that made the massacre of innocents even more brutal. As one character observes in the film, the town is one of many sites of holocausts that take place across the world every day: while some critics have observed that the cryptic title of Tokarczuk’s novel could refer to the bones of murdered victims whose bodies Janina finds, a reading that makes sense if it is viewed as a more conventional crime novel, my own temptation is to see these bones as belonging to more innocent victims – the deer, boar and even Janina’s dogs who are mercilessly slaughtered if they get in the way of the amusement of men.

The amusement of men is very much a theme of the novel, which also reveals a deep feminist anger: the attitude that allows men to kill animals with impunity also enables them to treat other women as mistresses and whores when young and with contempt when, as with Janina, they inevitably grow old. That the hero of the novel was once an engineer counts for nothing: now she is seen as nothing more than a crank obsessed with astrology and animal rights, getting in the way of the real business of the town, a business that is threatened as the corpses of a hunter, the police chief, a rich entrepreneur, the mayor of the town, and eventually its priest are discovered. When Janina informs the police of her belief that the animals are taking their revenge she is treated with derision, while her complaints to the authorities that living creatures are constantly being murdered are ignored.

That it is Janina who sees herself as the angel of these creatures’ vengeance is, strictly speaking, the least Blakean aspect of the novel, a submission to corporeal assault rather than mental fight. Yet even this stems from a deeply considered misreading (if misreading it is) of Blake’s Auguries. Most people will know the poem from its famous opening invocation to “see a world in a grain of sand”, and some will also recognise lines such as “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage”, but I suspect that few would understand just how profound the anger of Blake’s poem is. While Auguries of Innocence is a celebration of the innocence of living creatures, it is also motivated by rage against those men who abuse such animals and, through their abuse, become inured to the poverty and injustice inflicted upon their fellow human beings. For Blake, ecological justice does not operate in isolation from social justice, and this is a vision that is shared by Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. When Janina is told that she is crazy for telling one of the villagers not to kill animals, she responds with a Rintrah-like rage:

At that point I felt a surge of Anger, genuine, not to say Divine Anger. It flooded me from inside in a burning hot wave. This energy made me feel great, as if it were lifting off the ground, a mini Big Bang within the universe of my body. There was fire burning within me, like a neutron star. I sprang forward and pushed the Man in the silly hat so hard that he fell onto the snow, completely taken by surprise. And when Moustachio rushed to his aid, I attacked him too, hitting him on the shoulder with all my might. He groaned with pain. I am not a feeble girl. (p.72)

Like Rintrah, like Orc, like one of the devils with whom Blake converses in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Janina follows a morality that is askance, skewed from that of her fellow men. It would be more than possible to read the violence that she commits as profoundly immoral, operating against other men, but for me that ignores the deep rejection of a false society that she is forced into by men who do not care for all the blood on their hands, nor for the damage they wantonly inflict on the world around them. In a remarkable scene towards the end of the novel, Janina is forcibly expelled from a church for railing against the priest who blesses the hunters. This priest corrupts the story of Saint Hubert, a murderer of animals who is converted to Christianity when he feels compassion towards his prey, into a panacea for those who wish to kill. The church, like the police and the school in which Janina occasionally works, are symbols of a mundane, deep-rooted repression that is sanctioned by church and state. When such daily violence is blessed by angels, Janina believes that she has no choice but to cast her lot in with devils.

 

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018. RRP: £12.99.

William Blake: the man and the music

For the past couple of months I have been recording a series of radio programmes for Siren Radio, the community radio station housed at the University of Lincoln. The first three of these are now online and will be followed up next month by a programme dedicated to David Axelrod, the Los Angeles-based composer whose first two albums were based on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

The aim for each programme is to take either a work by Blake and discuss how it has been adapted to music by various later composers and songwriters, or to concentrate on a single artist who set a number of Blake’s works to music. The first one (on the hymn “Jerusalem”) has a few glitches as I get used to the format, but those are starting to be ironed out by the second (on “The Tyger”) and the third (“Holy Thursday”).

Click on the images below to listen to each episode.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, September and October 2018

The big event in August was the unveiling of a new grave stone to mark the actual resting place of William Blake in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields, and which was covered on Zoamorphosis at the time. While most news stories about the new stone appeared by the end of August, in the Church Times, Lucy Winkett, the Rector of Blake’s parish church, St James’s, Piccadilly and who spoke at the ceremony, offered a reflective essay on what William Blake would have to say to us today as a prophet for both his times and ours.

Mid September saw a return of the three-day celebration of Blakean inspiration, Blakefest, which took place on 14th-16th in Bognor Regis, the town next to Felpham where Blake lived from 1800 to 1803 and where he wrote his famous poem, “And did those feet…” Blakefest has become a regular cultural and artistic festival, with Lene Lovich and a tribute to George Harrison headlining at this year’s event. Organiser, Olivia Stevens, told the Chichester Observer that Blake “was the inspiration for so much that has happened since” and that the festival would bring “a lot of great art and music and culture to Bognor”.

One extremely significant release in October was a translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Taking its title from one of Blake’s proverbs of hell, the novel was originally written in 2009 and is now available in English, following the success of her 2007 novel, Flights, which was translated last year and won the Mann Booker prize for best translation. The novel, described by Sarah Perry at The Guardian as “an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature”, is quite simply one of the most Blakean novels ever to have been written. An offbeat whodunnit centred on Janina Duszejko, it is extremely funny, suffused with references to Blake’s works, and we’ll be carrying a review of it here soon.

Art shows during September and October included an exhibition at the Levy Gorky gallery in New York, featuring a selection of works by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecu and Jaspar Johns. Entitled “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”, the full show included work by 27 artists and unfolds over three floors in a pattern that was inspired by Blake’s Auguries of Innocence. As Gorvy told Robb Report, the aim of the exhibition which ran from September 14 to October 24, was “to look intensely at each grain of sand and find within it a whole universe”. The end of October also saw the publication of forty-three pencil sketches by Blake on the Blake Archive, showing his “early debt to academic standards of precise copying and to the neoclassical emphasis on outline” according to the blog of the Archive.

Elsewhere, Blake made a brief appearance via his poem “The Tyger” in Joe Martin’s Us and Them, although that film will probably disappear without trace. There were also some musical interludes: “Jerusalem” was, as ever, a staple of Last Night of the Proms in September and U2’s tour of eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour wound to a close at the O2 stadium in London. More significantly, during October, the passing of Winston McGarland Bailey, better known via his stage-name, Shadow, saw a celebration of his life during which he was called “the William Blake of Calypso“. Bailey was a musician and songwriter who was born in Tobago and won numerous awards for his music, and was awarded a doctorate by the University of the West Indies for his music. Harriet Stubbs released a new album, Heaven and Hell: The Doors of Perception, which we’ll be reviewing soon,  and there was a great profile of Martha Redbone, who set many of Blake’s poems to music on The Garden of Love, in LexGo magazine.

Review: Visions of the Daughters of Urizon – What Should Be Wild, Julia Fine

Upon opening Julia Fine’s debut novel, What Should Be Wild, the reader is confronted by a dark ink blot of a family tree, a gothic sprawl upon the page that lists in fine, white text the lineage of the novel’s central character, Maisie Cothay, whose father, Peter, had married into the Blakelys. That family name is one of several shifting allusions to William Blake that are contained within the book. That ancestry descends from an unknown, white blankness at the top of the page (which, as is later hinted at, precedes some variant of the Ango-Saxon age) to a solid entry in black text that reads: Maisie B. 1990.

What Should Be Wild, then, is set in a time approximating the current age, although there are subtle hints that it is not our world but rather its dream image. The location, Coeurs Crossing, is somewhere that really belongs in a tale by Charles Perrault or the Grimm brothers, and this uncertainty allows Fine enough freedom to play with the atmosphere of this strange space without being tied to all-too familiar places. It is most similar, perhaps, to the Oxford of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, an author whose influence Fine has acknowledge in an interview with Qwillery magazine. The link to Pullman also allows her to subtly allude to another source, William Blake, and the key to the Blakely family does indeed include William, the father of Helen, born in 1660, one of seven daughters who is trapped near the house and whose story slowly unfolds throughout the novel.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the story of What Should Be Wild centres on Maisie, interwoven with the tales of her seven ancestors, all of whom have grown up in a strange house (a gloomy Manderley) named Urizon that was built by William Blakely. Maisie, as we discover in the opening pages, is one of a line of cursed women and is herself a literal marriage of life and death, able to kill and revive creatures with her touch. It is this morbid power that led to her mother’s death while she was still in the womb, and Maisie has grown up in Urizon alone with her father, Peter, an introverted, academic figure who married into the Blakely family and, for much of the novel, occupies an ambiguous position. When Peter disappears into the woods surrounding Urizon, into which it seems no man can venture and remain sane, and from which the daughters of Urizon cannot escape once they have entered, Maisie sets out in search of him accompanied by two companions, Matthew and Rafe. As the novel slowly progresses, so we learn more about Urizon, the seven women and the strange, black-eyed girl who spontaneously generated within the forest after the birth of Maisie.

Some reviewers appear to have had problems with What Should Be Wild in terms of its genre: although the novel seems to have appealed greatly to many readers, for others its uneasy classification as fantasy or horror or thriller has affected how they have approached it, especially in terms of pace or plotting. The dreamlike quality of the book certainly works against it as a piece of detective fiction, and attempts to construct it as a feminist version of Pushing Daisies also seem a little wide of the mark to me. In the interview mentioned previously, Fine indicates that some of her other influences include Karen Russell, Doris Lessing (whose The Golden Notebook is cited at the beginning of the novel), Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter, and Audrey Niffenegger has also warmly praised the book. If there is a genre to which this book belongs, it is perhaps Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, and as such another critical comment by some readers and reviewers – that the seven women do not really work as characters – was less important to me when set against a backdrop of zoas, emanations and spectres.

There are various subtle reminders of William Blake throughout the novel – one location is Urthon Hill, for example, while a chapter on “Symmetry and balance” invokes the tyger and notions of contraries – but it is Urizon that most clearly links him to What Should Be Wild. The house is a literary emblem, part Rebecca’s Manderley, part Miss Havisham’s Satis House, also reminiscent of Poe’s House of Usher: its name is almost certainly intended to invoke the notion of Urizenic reason, the masculine imposition of which imprisons all the women of the novel, but Fine’s characterisation of the place is more sophisticated than that. Urizon is also a home, a haven, and its final destruction also represents the shock of uncertainty that freedom brings as well as its pleasures. That ambivalence also extends to the relationship between Maisie and her father, Peter: I kept expecting him to become more clearly malign but he is perhaps closer to a (rather less dynamic) Lord Asriel in Pullman’s trilogy. The relations between the two do appear to evoke a Blakean spirit, however: as in “The Little Girl Lost”, Maisie wanders like Lyca through the “desert wild” until she is found by her parents among the tigers and lions, asleep. The beast of prey here is the silent, malevolent black eyed girl:

What is this girl? All of the Blakely women wonder. Is she a demon, biding her time? Some sort of savior? The dark twin of the girl at Urizon? One of their own, unborn daughters made flesh? The girl was born within the wood, not taken later, like the rest of them. There is nothing of the outside world upon her. Nothing broken. No scarred flesh. (P.65)

This silent girl is as evil as the woods, but it is a wild evil outside the place of men that exists upon its own terms (and, as each of the Blakely women recall their experiences, less brutal than the evils of men, though perhaps ultimately more fatal). It is a marriage of sorts between Maisie and this girl that the novel aspires to. A more mundane struggle between good and evil angels takes place between Matthew and Rafe, Maisie’s male companions. In the case of Maisie at least, overt sexual awakenings are dealt with more subtly, although the literal bleeding that takes place is a violation as sickening as any rape (and resolved in as satisfying a manner as would occur in one of Angela Carter’s stories). Rather than a marriage of good and evil, the figures of Matthew and Rafe are perhaps best viewed as Maisie’s emanation and spectre, one who will fulfil her, the other a negation of her desires, one of the many feminist twists of Fine’s book that subverts Blake’s masculine model of the human psyche.

The conclusion of the novel, where Maisie meets her dark alter ego, reminds me somewhat of Blake’s Milton a Poem, where Milton confronts and reclaims his spectre, Satan. If that is the case (and not simply me reading too much into the book), then Fine once more teases and twists that conclusion, creating a true marriage of what has been inhibited and what should be wild, a union of heaven and hell. A text that may be closer to the author’s intentions is Visions of the Daughters of Albion, not only for its accounts of Oothoon’s brutal treatment at the hands of Bromion and Theotormon, but also for the determination of the hero and the clarity of her perceptions:

Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens: and the meek camel
Why he loves man: is it because of eye ear mouth or skin
Or breathing nostrils? No. for these the wolf and tyger have.
Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav’nous snake
Where she gets poison: & the wing’d eagle why he loves the sun
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old. (3.8-14, E47)

Oothoon’s understanding of the extra-sensory elements of the natural world seems to be a suitable model for the awakening of Maisie. Visions is also Blake’s early work that introduces Urizen as “Creator of men! Mistaken Demon of heaven” one whose “joys are tears! thy labour vain, to form men to thine image.” (5.3-4, E48). Although nowhere near as malevolent as Urizen, Peter has mistakenly tried to make his daughter into his own image, to protect her as much as to conform her, and if the house of Urizon is a haven it is also clearly a prison. The daughters of Urizon have frequently sought escape from its confines only to become trapped in turn in the woods beyond the house of men: Maisie’s union with the wild child of that forest is what finally liberates her.

What Should Be Wild is wonderfully written, and Julia Fine’s style is frequently beautiful and poetic without being laboured, as when she describes the end of the house which William Blakely built:

The forest spools and gathers, holds its breath until evening. In the dark it protracts to take a fuller span of William Blakely’s masterpiece, Urizon, Helen’s home. Mary’s home. Emma’s and Lucy’s. The ivy moves quickest, sneaking in through the cracks in the stone, under the doors, forcing them wider. The roots of the yard oaks crack like cramped legs and extend themselves, sighing as they stretch against the floorboards, popping them loose. Tree branches tap windows. Wild roses, sharp-edged and hideously sweet, thorn through and scent the parlors. The outside comes in. Centuries of stagnation have exploded into action; eternal life, an eternal inertia, releasing all the force it’s held at bay. (P.291)

Some readers appear to have been confounded by the pacing and plotting of the novel, and, in this respect, for her first novel Fine might have been better served by the more compact visions of Angela Carter, whose relative brevity made her easier for many to digest. This is the difficulty of literary fantasy, a genre that operates outside many of the restrictions of typical genre expectations. For those, such as myself, interested in how William Blake can be taken up and transmuted into a feminist tale of awakening and transformation, it is a thoroughly fascinating and beautifully poetic novel.

 

Julia Fine, What Should Be Wild, Harper, 2018. RRP, hardback: £20.99.