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

Morrison, ‘An American Poet’, and ‘English Blake’ are popularly espoused as voices of their nations. Both saw themselves as prophets, claiming at least to comment on and at most to influence the political and cultural events surrounding them. As part of their prophetic personae, they both invented new lineages for themselves, mystically adopting chosen ancestors that would tie them tightly to the kind of historical and creative inheritance they wanted for themselves and their countries.

Morrison tells a powerful memory of childhood trauma in ‘Dawn’s Highway’, one of the poems he recorded on his last birthday (it was put to music by the surviving Doors on An American Prayer):

Me and my – ah – mother and father – and a grandmother and a grandfather – were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truckload of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just – I don’t know what happened – but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.
So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta been about four – like a child is like a flower, his head is just floating in the breeze, man.
The reaction I get now thinking about it, looking back – is that the souls of the ghosts of those dead Indians… maybe one or two of ’em… were just running around freaking out, and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still in there.

Morrison’s personal mythology here is an attempt to attach himself to the shamanic traditions of native Americans, and also to opt for a more ‘authentic’ American identity than the one of oppressive white power that his biological lineage dictates (considering his father was an admiral in the US Navy, and very much involved in Vietnam).

In Milton, Blake describes becoming one with John Milton, Britain’s most imposing national poet:

The first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift;
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus enterd there;
But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe
(Milton 15[17]:47-50)

Milton had used his writing talents to support the English Revolution (including defending the regicide), and suffered for holding to his beliefs in the Restoration. Blake is asserting radical political authority as well as literary prowess by identifying with Milton.

Blake’s possession by Milton apparently has wide repercussions (‘spread over Europe’ – like Morrison, Blake is writing in wartime). The most conspicuous appearance of Morrison’s recurring lines, ‘Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding / Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind’, is in ‘Peace Frog’ on Morrison Hotel, a prophetic, apocalyptic song with its own specific geography: ‘Blood on the streets / in the town of New Haven’, where Morrison had become the first rock star to be arrested on stage (as Fong-Torres notes, p. 112). Like Blake, he takes elements from his own biography and mythologizes them on a global and cosmic scale. And like Blake he creates catalogues of places to illustrate the national reach of his prophecy: ‘Blood in the streets / of the town of Chicago’, ‘Blood stains the roofs / and the palm trees of Venice’, ‘The Bloody red sun / of phantastic L.A.’. In such a visionary city, he combines literal and figurative geography: ‘blood on the streets / runs a river of sadness’, and most remarkably, ‘The river runs red down / the legs of the city’, recalling Blake’s imagery of birth trauma and miscarriage (in Morrison’s notebook these verses were titled ‘Abortion Stories’, according to Jerry Hopkins in The Lizard King, p. 129). Compare also the ‘unborn living living dead’ of ‘The Unknown Soldier’, and

Nursery bones
Winter women
growing stones
Carrying babies
to the river

in ‘The Soft Parade’. However, the lines could also suggest loss of virginity (which has revolutionary force in the case of Orc and the Nameless Shadowy Female in the Preludium to America); or menstruation as the simultaneous potential of fertility and infertility, life and death; or indeed human sacrifice as practiced by women in Jerusalem. ‘Blood hath staind her fair side beneath her bosom’ (Jerusalem 67:43) in the extended narrative of the Daughters of Albion ‘drunk with blood’ (Jerusalem 68:12), while for Morrison the blood is also the woman’s as victim:

Blood! screams her brain
as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born
in the birth of a Nation

These lyrics are juxtaposed with a parallel set dominated by the repeated line ‘She came’: female orgasm is apocalyptic and violent for Morrison as it is for Blake at the end of The Song of Los, where

The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes
Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem:
Her bosom swells with wild desire:
And milk & blood & glandous wine
In rivers rush & shout & dance,
On mountain, dale and plain (7:35-40)

In ‘Peace Frog’, and more clearly in ‘L. A. Woman’, Morrison also creates ‘a City yet a Woman’ (Four Zoas, Night IX:223) as Blake does in the figure of Jerusalem, with a kind personification which perceives both simultaneously – ‘I see your hair is burning / Hills are filled with fire’ – and mixes both, blurring external and internal – ‘Drive through your suburbs / Into your blues’. (Note how personification is used toward social commentary: the suburbs are a direct route to depression.) They draw on a collective origin in Biblical prophecy, and partake of its depiction of Israel as a combination of innocent wife and abandoned harlot: ‘Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light? / Or just another lost angel’. Like Blake’s persecuted Jerusalem, ‘Never saw a woman so alone’. (Oothoon also, as rejected but righteous harlot / wife, and as ‘the soft soul of America’ (Visions of the Daughters of Albion 1:3), is a precursor of ‘L. A. Woman’.)

Both Blake and Morrison proceed from this kind of imagery to imagery of male power: as in Blake the call, ‘Awake! Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion / Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time’ (Jerusalem 97:1) leads to the predominantly phallic imagery of Albion’s awakening and reuniting with the Zoas, Morrison also moves from the L. A. Woman to the combination of resurrection and erection in his anagram, ‘Mr. Mojo Risin / Got to keep on risin’ / Risin’, risin”. Morrison sings, ‘L. A. Woman, you’re my woman’, while for Blake Albion’s rising also is catalyzed by union with the feminine personification of nation: ‘England who is Brittannia’, who is also Jerusalem, ‘enterd Albions bosom rejoicing’ (Jerusalem 95:22, 32:28). Morrison once said, ‘Los Angeles is a city looking for a ritual to join its fragments, and the Doors are looking for a ritual also. A kind of electric wedding’ (quoted by Federica Pudva, p. 133), like the ones evoked by Blake at the end of Jerusalem, and in the title of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

In her essay on Morrison and Blake, Federica Pudva points out that ‘London was for Blake a real city and at the same time a spiritual and symbolic reality, part of a broad divine vision’ while in Morrison’s vision, Los Angeles was ‘the umbilicus of the world’ and a microcosm of fragmented modern society (p. 132-3, my translation). Morrison called Los Angeles a ‘”genetic blue-print” for the United States’ (Lizard King p. 301). In a poem, ‘The Guided Tour’, he writes,

“I am a guide to the labyrinth”
city is inside of body made manifest
meat organs & electrical
power plants (American Night p. 143)

reminiscent, in reverse, of Los searching ‘the interiors of Albions / Bosom’, which involves coming ‘down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London’ (Jerusalem 45[31]:3-4,14). Though the alienated modern city in Morrison owes much to Baudelaire and, as William Cook examines in detail, T. S. Eliot, Pudva finds that Morrison’s flâneur-like observation of prostitution in the city in his poem The Lords – ‘a ring of death with sex at its centre’ – is rooted in Blake’s ‘midnight streets’ and ‘Harlot’s curse’ in ‘London’ (p. 127-8).

We might see Morrison grasping more than content in the Songs if we take ‘People are Strange’ as commenting on the contingent voice of Songs of Experience and playing with the use of persona it offers.

People are strange
When you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you’re alone

emphasizes the kind of interior realities which may contribute to the compulsion of the speaker in ‘London’ to ‘mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. ‘Women seem wicked / When you’re unwanted’ distils the combination of blame and pity in the ‘Harlot’s curse’ seen as infecting the city and blighting both birth and marriage with death. ‘Faces come out of the rain / When you’re strange’ is like the fragmentation of faces and voices without bodies in ‘London’, and ‘Streets are uneven / When you’re down’ is a direct statement on psychogeography. If the song was inspired by an enlightening Laurel Canyon sunrise, as Robby Krieger narrates (in Fong-Torres 95-6), then it is located (or projected) on Morrison’s home territory as ‘London’ is on Blake’s.

secondary sources:

Cook, William. ‘Jim Morrison: A “Serious Poet”?’ Literary Kicks: Opinions, Observations and Research. 12 July 2003. http://www.litkicks.com/JamesDouglasMorrison

Fong-Torres, Ben, and the Doors. The Doors. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.

Pudva, Federica. ‘The Devil’s Party: Jim Morrison e William Blake’ Anglistica Pisana 2:1 (2005) 119-37.

David Dabydeen’s Slave Song

Today is the birthday of the poet, novelist, and critic, David Dabydeen, who was born and raised in Guyana before coming to Britain to study, reading English at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Dabydeen, who is a professor at the University of Warwick, has published several novels and collections of verse, as well as studies of eighteenth-century art and literature including Hogarth’s Blacks (1985) Black Writers in Britain 1760-1890 (1991).

Dabydeen’s strongest connection with William Blake lies in his 1984 collection, Slave Song, written in Creole and using Blake’s famous illustrations to John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). Two of the four illustrations from the Narrative included in Dabydeen’s book are engraved by Blake, the other two by Francesco Bartolozzi who was also sometimes employed by Joseph Johnson, the radical publisher who hired Blake to complete some commissions for him in the 1790s.

Dabydeen describes Creole as a “naturally tragic language”, one formed by slavery, indentured labour and brutality, which is littered with obscenities like “fresh faeces” (Slave Songs, p.14). Unsurprisingly, the songs and poems in the collection depict a world where pain and labour are the norm, as in “Song of the Creole Gang Women” and “The Servant’s Song”, or where rape, murder and violence are commonplace (“For Mala”, “Slave Song”). Dabydeen does not wallow in dejection, however, and there are also moments of tenderness and beauty in the collection, as in “Guyana Pastoral” or “The Canecutter’s Song”.

The four illustrations from the Narrative are of a slave being broken on the rack, a rebel Negro, a female slave with a weight chained to her ankle, and a Surinam planter in his morning dress. The first, engraved by Blake, is the most shocking, depicting a slave bound to a wooden frame, one hand hacked off and his body covered with welts as another slave is forced to beat him to death. This is placed against the title poem, but the slave of that song also fantasises what his “gold flooding” cock could do – “Me still gat life!” – and that as long as such life continues there will be an Orcish, diabolic desire that refuses to submit to oppression for ever.

Although Dabydeen does not offer an analysis of the images he includes, among the most powerful of anti-slavery image (although Anne Mellor sees such illustrations as part of a pornographic obsession with slaves’ bodies), that Blake’s vision had a significant hold on Dabydeen’s accounts also becomes evident in another of his books, The Counting House (1996), set on the Albion Plantation in Guyana in the late nineteenth century. The sugar cane factories become the dark satanic mills of Victorian industry, a dark mirror of the British empire which maintains such economic slavery long after the ostensible slave trade had been abolished. While Mellor and some others often see in Blake an erasure of difference, the sublimation of black and white into a higher white empire of Jerusalem, the fact remains that few other poets have so celebrated opposition to slavery and consistently offered a voice to those who suffer its effects – and wish for the joy of release. As he wrote in a short lyric, “Merlin’s Prophecy”:

Tho born on the cheating banks of Thames
Tho his waters bathed my infant limbs
The Ohio shall wash his stains from me
I was born a slave but I go to be free

Ten things you should know about Jerusalem

Once again Blake’s “Jerusalem” is in the news. While the famous hymn is incredibly popular at weddings in particular, it appears that so many ministers are banning it that the Church of England has issued new guidelines stating that it is neither too nationalistic nor too militaristic. This is one that returns every so often, and for the past couple of decades the Church has had a problem with “Jerusalem” – something that is not entirely surprising considering Blake’s own attitude to organised religion and, unfortunately, the hymn’s occasional but pernicious associations with the far right.

While the nation debates (once again) whether it is suitable for banns or only to be banned, here are ten things about the poem to help you make up your own mind:

  1. The stanzas beginning “And did those feet…” were, as is widely known, originally published as part of a Preface to Blake’s epic poem Milton. During his lifetime Blake only printed four copies of this poem – but the Preface only appears in two of the three copies published in 1811 and was omitted in the version from 1818. While it may have become his most famous poem, Blake apparently had other ideas.
  2. The feet in question are widely assumed to be those of Christ, drawing on a legend that Joseph of Arimathea brought him to this country. William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, was the first to suggest that Joseph was sent as an apostle to the British Isles, and this snowballed into the mythology that he had previously brought the young Jesus with him while trading. It is worth pointing out that while Blake (in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion in particular) does seem to have thought this at the very least a useful starting point for his own mythology, in his lyric he questions rather than states whether Jesus came here.
  3. The phrase “Chariot of fire” is taken from 2 Kings 6:17 where God protects Elisha from the Syrians: “And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” Interestingly, when the King of Israel seeks to destroy the Syrians, Elisha replies: “Thou shalt not smite them: wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master.” (22)
  4. There is a possibility that the “dark Satanic Mills” were inspired by the Albion Flour Mill which employed a steam engine built by James Watt and burnt down in 1791. Milton, however, is full of imagery of mills, as when the Bard who sings the song that opens the epic poem describes how “the Starry Mills of Satan / Are built beneath the Earth” which are used to grind down the souls of Albion’s children.
  5. While Sir Hubert Parry famously set Blake’s words to music in 1916, this version is rarely heard. In 1922, Edward Elgar scored Parry’s simpler melody for orchestra, providing it with a much grander and ostentatious sweep and it is this version that is heard at Last Night of the Proms and elsewhere.
  6. “Jerusalem” was adopted by the National Association of Women’s Institutes in 1924, having been sung by Suffragettes during the 1920s. In the same year as Parry’s composition, Bertrand Russell, a member of the Fabian Society invoked Blake’s vision when describing opposition to conscription during World War I, leading to its popular acceptance by the Labour Party alongside the Red Flag, a campaign slogan of the 1945 election being that Labour would “build a new Jerusalem”.
  7. The hymn seems to have been particularly popular during the 1960s, appearing in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Privilege (1967) and If… (1968), where the tensions between Blake’s revolutionary attitudes and the hymn’s adoption as an anthem of the establishment made it de rigueur as a motif for any director concerned to explore the limitations of a little Englander mindset.
  8. At the other end of the political spectrum, the British National Party has made a concerted effort to adopt “Jerusalem” as its own since 2000, when Nick Griffin sang it alongside former members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Friends of the BNP in Arlington, Virginia. After being charged with incitement to racial hatred in 2005, Griffin led BNP supporters in a rendition of the hymn outside a magistrates court in Leeds.
  9. The CofE’s current problems with ministers banning “Jerusalem” is nothing new: in 1996 the Church of Scotland elected to have it removed from its hymnals because of the content of Blake’s words, and in the same year Canon Donald Gray, chaplain to the Queen, refused to allow it to be sung at a memorial service in St Margaret’s.
  10. In sport, it was adopted as the anthem of the England cricket team after 2004 and is to be used by Team England in the Commonwealth Games from 2010 onwards. Its history as a football song has been somewhat trickier: Fat Les recorded it as the team anthem for the Euro 2000 games, but England’s poor performance and rioting by English fans at Charleroi tarnished its associations.

Zoapod 15 – The Devil’s Party: Blake’s Marriage and Milton

Zoapod 15: Of the Devil’s Party – Blake’s Marriage and Milton’s Paradise Lost

A reading of Blake’s commentary on Milton’s Paradise Lost in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, explaining the significance of his statement that Milton was “a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it”.

This podcast is taken from chapter four of the Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Blakespotting: Filming Jerusalem (via Facebook)

Occasionally there is a quirky project involving Blake that catches my eye, and this summer could bring a couple of potentially interesting filmic gems (or, at least, intriguing oddities) that both take their inspiration from Blake’s “Jerusalem”.

The first of these, and one to which I shall definitely return should it see the light of day, is a digital short starring Ray Winstone as William Blake. Directed by Ryan Andrews, Winstone was in Cardiff in May filming for the project. My (unfortunate) scepticism is that this is not the first time that Winstone has become involved in recording Blake’s life: the 2007 Sam Taylor Wood biopic, for which Winstone was slated to write the script, never appeared – Billy Nuts the Poet losing out to John Lennon for her 2009 movie Nowhere Boy.

Winstone would – in my opinion – make a decent, if somewhat idiosyncratic, Blake. Sexy Beast showed that he was more than capable of playing against type and there’s not much danger of Jerusalem (Andrews’s film) going all “nil by mouth”. Indeed, rather than proving himself the notorious daddy, the piece will be set in period costume and – as Andrews was selected from a shortlist of winners for the entry and the scope of this project is much less ambitious than Wood’s film, it may very well see a final release.

The second project, more recently announced, alternates in my opinion between being bonkers and a marvellous idea (which is a territory I hugely enjoy exploring). Paul McDonahue from Salford is looking to film a no-budget picture, also called Jerusalem, over the coming weeks and, to keep down costs, has been recruiting via Facebook – from where I take his following description of the movie:

An AWOL army soldier, disillusioned with the war, england and the government, arrives in the english countryside after the train he is travelling home on breaks down. Stranded there, he journeys cross country to the next train station meeting various characters and facing many social issues along the way all the while being pursued by the mysterious policeman as he tries to make his way home through England’s green and pleasant land.

Jerusalem, unsurprisingly, won’t have any stars but McDonahue said in a recent interview with the Salford Star that he will be working with a number of experienced actors such as John May (who has appeared in a number of small budget films as well as Channel 5 and BBC programmes). This is the sort of project that would have been impossible to see a few years ago, but I’m sure it will make it online if the director’s dedication to recruiting is anything to go by (one of my favourite posts to his group: “Hiya my names olivia ellis and my dream is to become an Actress if you need one let me know.”)

I’m unsure how much of McDonahue’s desire to deliver a “hard-hitting” message to the government will strike its mark, but I admire his brio and determination. Reminds me of someone else in the first decades of the nineteenth century, struggling in obscurity in London producing an epic poem of the state of Albion which the more famous (and ultimately doomed) artist Thomas Griffiths Wainewright described half-affectionately, half-mockingly as “a tremendous piece of ordance, an eighty-eight pounder”. Barely a dozen people read Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion during Blake’s lifetime, but more remember him now than a fashionable artist whose only claim to fame in the twentieth century is that he was transported for forgery and poisoning – and that he knew William Blake.

Why Blake hates fags (and other urban myths)

Recently, I have found myself involved in one of those rather odd email exchanges that occasionally occur around Blake. I had offered services to an aspiring author wishing to write about Blake and, after realising that the vision of Blake that they did see could turn out to be my vision’s greatest enemy, I recommended they have a look at some of my work.

A particular point of contention appeared to be an essay of mine that had recently been published as part of the collection Queer Blake, with several requests for me to explain what I had written and why. Not entirely to my surprise, the exchange between us deteriorated somewhat until I received the following message from the author’s agent:

P.S. As you might have guessed, or known intuitively, our camp disagrees with your interpretation of Blake, which with the queer BS seems more like a false Blake or even anti-Blake/Christ!

You give Blake a bad name with your queer garbage… look over our last e mail… and if you are gong to claim to be some kind of Blake authority start by citing his most important poem THE EVERLASTING GOSPEL and his wonderful relationship with God/Jesus… and drop the fag BS!

Do not really think there is any point in further communications unless you WANT A DEBATE!

I did indeed re-read The Everlasting Gospel, looking out in particular for the injunctions against fags: Blake does have quite a lot to say about sexuality in that unfinished work, especially in the section beginning “Was Jesus chaste? or did He / Give any lessons of chastity?” (E521 – you can read The Everlasting Gospel at http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/erdman.html). There is, however, not one mention of Christ’s opinion – positive or negative – on the subject of homosexuality, although there is a great deal on Mary’s adultery and, for me, the most important lines on Blake’s attitude towards sex generally:

That they may call a shame & Sin
Loves Temple that God dwelleth in
And hide in secret hidden Shrine
The Naked Human form divine
And render that a Lawless thing
On which the Soul Expands its wing
But this O Lord this was my Sin
When first I let these Devils in
In dark pretence to Chastity
Blaspheming Love blaspheming thee
Thence Rose Secret Adulteries
And thence did Covet also rise
My Sin thou hast forgiven me
Canst thou forgive my Blasphemy (E522)

Queer Blake was, among other things, a follow-up to Christopher Z. Hobson’s 2000 book, Blake and Homosexuality, in which he argued that Blake’s Milton a Poem, for example, was partly inspired by the Vere Street scandal of 1810 when two men were hanged and six others pilloried for sodomy after being arrested in a molly house. This was one of the events, Hobson suggests, that fuelled Blake’s disgust towards Moral Law which can be read repeatedly in his later works, and which the editors of Queer Blake endorse enthusiastically. Indeed, I am slightly taken to task by them for being “perplexingly diffident” in my own discussions of queer themes in Blake (guilty as charged). My own hesitation is not at all that I would agree with my correspondent in assuming Blake’s special relationship with Jesus makes him hate queers (and the illustration at the top of this post, from Milton, either indicates that Blake really was a bad artist who did not pay attention to the rather unfortunate positions of his figures or that he had a rather naughty sense of sublime humour). Rather, my hesitation on issues of Blake’s sexuality – as indeed, with regard to his religion or politics – is the ease with which anyone with an interest in Blake tends to read into him what they wish to find. In contrast to Byron, where the contexts of his own homosexuality are clear and increasingly self-evident, and immediately aid the careful reader in terms of understanding Byron’s work, the evidence for Blake’s opinions is frequently more circumstantial (although, it must be said, prolific, whether the sometimes strange illustrations to Milton or the lesbian relations between Jerusalem and Vala in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion).

The tendency for us to read black, white, pink or green when engaging with Blake’s works is one that occurs repeatedly in terms of the reception of Blake and is one reason for my caution (sometimes excessive) when ascribing meanings to his art and poetry. Other work that I have been doing in recent months has begun to look at the ways in which Blake is sometimes used by figures involved in extreme politics to the left and right, where a polarisation of Blake as anarchist or Blake as nationalist/racist provides plenty of examples of selective reading. Actually, I have a great deal of sympathy with anarchist readings of Blake, which personally I suspect are much closer to his ideals than the somewhat woolly liberal positions of readers such as myself, or the more doctrinaire Marxist attitudes still encountered – though increasingly less so in academia – online. I just wish the scholarship of Blake’s anarchist readers was more thorough.

More disturbing is the prevalence of far-right readings of Blake by English nationalists, which have proliferated over the past decade. My first assumption was that such interlocutors had not read Blake, and it is certainly the case that plenty of this material goes no further than an invocation of the Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem”. However, in a few cases it is unfortunately clear that commentators have read Blake, and find in his later works in particular a vision of Albion that, they believe, supports their case for the supremacy of a so-called indigenous race in the British Isles (that will be the Welsh, then).

There is, for me, an important point in these various appropriations of Blake, particularly when an attempt to understand his works moves beyond reading him in the immediate contexts in which he lived and worked. That final point is an important one, because Blake – like many writers and artists – is a vital figure insofar as he can be seen to communicate with an audience in the twenty-first century. There are, for example, plenty of readers who take pride in “English Blake” without indulging in extreme racism, just as there are those who find inspiration in his critiques of political power without requiring the abolition of the state. As an example of how such appropriations can take a bizarre turn, however, I would like to take a detour through one of my favourite misreadings of Blake (and one that has happily been made innocuous by more than a century of quarantine).

In 1893, W. B. Yeats and Edwin John Ellis argued in their edition of Blake’s work – an important, if often erroneous, contribution to early Blake scholarship – that Blake was descended from Irish stock via one John O’Neill from Rathmines, Dublin. Yeats discreetly dropped the assertion in his later writings about Blake, although the idea found some currency at the turn of the twentieth century, being repeated, for example, in John Sampson’s otherwise impressive scholarly edition of Blake’s poetical works published in 1905. Kathleen Raine, in an essay on “Yeats’s Debt to Blake”, published in her 1990 book Yeats the Initiate, observes how strong was Yeats’s desire to make the kinship between him and Blake even closer, and one can almost imagine the false syllogism that took place: “All the best poets are Irish. Blake is one of the best poets. Blake must have been Irish.”

A similar syllogism, it seems to me, must take place for those readers of Blake who believe that he has no truck with homosexuals:

Blake was a Christian.
All Christians hate homosexuals.
Blake hated homosexuals.

For a brief time during my career, I am ashamed to say, I devoted some effort to attempting to disprove the first assertion – patently nonsensical and more to do with my own rejection of the Catholicism in which I was raised. There is no doubt that Blake was a Christian – it is one of the clearest messages that comes out of his writings. The question as to what sort of Christian he was, however, is a much more difficult one to answer. Even without attempting the (in my opinion pointless) task of determining a particular domination that would be closest to his beliefs, the second of the above assumptions can easily be traduced: one could, after all, assert the equally foolish assumption that “All Christians love homosexuals (because they love everyone)”.

When trying to ascertain a position as to what Blake thought regarding a particular topic, there are obvious starting points. A return to the texts is self-evidently important, but with a writer as frequently obscure as Blake (although, it should also be noted, one who could also display incredible clarity in his writing) determining what he meant can be a fraught task, which is why there is quite an industry in Blake studies. That many of the most startling phrases in his poetry are often dramatised and placed in the mouths of different characters should make us wary of ascribing them to Blake himself, just as we would be wary of arguing that every line of Hamlet or King Lear demonstrates Shakespeare’s unsullied opinion. For a long time it has also been clear that many of Blake’s later readers did not have access to the poet’s words in the fashion which he intended, that is as illuminated books, but I am cautious of a tendency to assume that value can only be ascribed to Blake’s words when they are read in the original contexts he intended. After all, this becomes more than a matter of bibliography, for the requirement to attain as “true” a reading as possible must also engage with the difficult task of understanding the complex historical situation in which Blake lived. No scholar should ever shirk from this task, but I am also loathe to neglect the subsequent insights into what Blake can mean for later generations and communities when he is taken out of those contexts and read in a new and sometimes radically different light.

The exchange of emails with which I began this post was, for me, a dramatic reminder of entirely different interpretive communities which I rarely engage with. The mild scepticism which I included in my essay for Queer Blake had less to do with Blake and homosexuality per se than with what I perceive as the difficulty of reading contemporary attitudes towards sexuality back into Blake’s works, fulfilling a hermeneutic circle in which we find the whole of Blake’s texts justify an attitude that we discover in a part. That said, my scepticism is actually towards an unproblematic celebration of heterosexuality in Blake, there being (for me) difficult passages that indicate more troubled attitudes on Blake’s part to sex between men and women – I’ve still yet to read any clear denunciation of homosexuality anywhere in Blake’s poetry and prose, or to witness it in his art. Of course, to other readers, that may be no more than my tendency to read black where they read white.

Where my antagonist hit closer to home – and knew it – was in denouncing any reading on my part as the product of a specialised, academic institutional process – precisely the kind of organisational interpretation that Blake appeared to despise, for example in his annotations to the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds: “I am not trying to be adversarial, but you seem to read  black where we read white as our Blake speaks in parables to the blind etc. and I am not trying to be mean, but as pointed out in last e mail by asking you if you ever read annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds a work that witnesses Blake’s antipathy for the English Royal Academy (gag) and the highly educated. Sorry to say  with your PHD, you are automatically in Blake’s enemy camp as he detested the highly educated citing that Christ was a carpenter and  many of the disciples fishermen and that the highly educated are the world’s greatest villains!” It is not a false mea culpa to say that I have often wondered about this and also in a return email offered the line from Milton, “For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.” I’ve never supported “Corporeal War”, but I’m only kidding myself if I do not recognise that I am – in some ways – a hireling. I remember as an undergraduate being struck by the force of Bertrand Russell’s comment on those university professors who were happy to adopt the dismissive attitude of Socrates towards Sophists being paid for philosophy while drawing down a salary themselves.

As such, this interchange has given me an opportunity to pause once again and reflect on what – if any – authority I have for my interpretations of Blake, the question of interpretative authority being one of considerable importance to me. As a matter of course I have rejected the notion that specialist training is an essential pre-requisite to understanding Blake: sometimes it may help, at other times it may actually hinder. For me, an especially important observation was made by J. Hillis Miller’s remarks in an essay “Reading Unreadability: de Man” in which he discussed de Man’s ideas around the “ethicity” of reading. The stars of the text – the words on the page, the historical circumstances of the author’s life – are real, but they are always mobile, often variable, sometimes seen dimly, sometimes clearly – Cepheid-variables rather than the eternal sol invictus (to draw on another metaphor from the ill-tempered exchange between Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser). What is more, the reader always perceives imaginatively for there is no such thing as “mere physical perception”: every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight closed by our senses five. If complete objectivity is a myth, however, this does not open the way to the solipsism of the reader. The stars, to repeat, are real, and it is incumbent on the critic to observe them, always aware that he or she does so imaginatively: an “ethicity” of reading is one that recognises both the imperative to observe and that to be imaginative. As Miller comments on de Man, such ethicity does not assume the foundational beginnings of language, nor the triumphal return of language to a reality that validates it; rather, it obeys another imperative, the demand that language be read but that we take responsibility for our own judgements without the false security of an ultimate authority. In my mental fight, I assert that Blake more often than not believed in a free sexual commonwealth, and will frequently cite evidence of that fact – while also, I hope, not ignoring those passages that trouble me and appear to contradict his general opposition to the Moral Law – but it is also an unceasing combat, sometimes with Blake himself, but also with those other communities of readers who read black where I read white.

Anarchic Modernism: Blake and Herbert Read

Although the application of the term anarchism as a label for a coherent political doctrine wouldn’t have made sense to Blake (just as it would not have made sense to William Godwin, often appealed to as the source of philosophical anarchism), because the use of that term as principled opposition to compulsory government and state as opposed to the mere absence of government had not gained currency during his lifetime, there is no doubt that plenty of those who have followed after him have seen Blake as an anarchist.

Just as Shelley, who although he actually identified the tyranny of god, priest and king of tyranny with Anarchy in his famous masque remains the most anarchic of nineteenth century poets in the philosophical sense, so Blake’s necessary ignorance of a later political ideology cannot disguise how much he would influence anarchist thinkers, as in his mockery in The Book of Urizen of Urizen’s despotism:

One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure
One King, one God, one Law.  (4.37-40, E72)

Algernon Charles Swinburne, author of one of the first work of critical importance on Blake, was later to offer qualified support to the Parisian Communards and, in 1883, was one of several men of English letters who signed a petition by Victor Hugo protesting at the show trial of Pyotr Kropotkin, the most famous of the late nineteenth-century anarchist theorists. Nor was admiration for Kropotkin restricted to Swinburne: Olivia and Helen Rossetti, the daughters of William Michael Rossetti, were excited enough by their enthusiasm for the Russian anarchist to publish The Torch: A Revolutionary Journal of Anarchist Communism in 1895. It may be very true, as George Woodcock observes, that the “fiery earnestness” of The Torch soon burned out (Anarchism, 378), but it is more than mere coincidence that the teenage daughters of one of the most important early editors of Blake should have been inspired to write in support of an international idea that, in the 1890s, was the most important source of opposition to imperial ambitions.

After his death in 1827, Blake lay dormant for a generation: when he was rediscovered, for many internationalism was best espoused not by Marxism but by anarchism (a fact often forgotten due to the dismal successes of the Bolsheviks in 1917). Whether or not Blake was an anarchist is probably as useful as trying to work out his specific Christian denomination, but if we do feel the need to pigeonhole the man who had to create his own systems rather than be enslaved by any other man’s, it is probably the closest label we have to describe his politics. I can never be as enthusiastic as Peter Marshall who, in William Blake: Visionary Anarchist, signs him up as a card-carrying member, but I was rather irritated by the fact that Saree Makdisi’s essay on “Blake and the Communist Tradition” in the 2006 Palgrave Advances in Blake Studies focuses pretty much entirely on Marxism and post-Marxism to the neglect of more disreputable devils who actually spend more time discussing Blake than the figures he advances.

All of this serves as a preamble to the work of Herbert Read. Read (1893-1968), most famous as an art critic and one of the founders of the ICA, demonstrates a particular peculiarity of British anarchism. Although his public espousal of anarchism, influenced in particular by Kropotkin and Max Stirner, would have seen him imprisoned or at least excluded from elite society in just about every European country and the USA, in the UK he was knighted for services to literature in 1953. Of course (and this was noted by anarchist colleagues who were furious), his acceptance of that knighthood compromised his politics, as did his willingness to be co-opted by the elite art establishment of Britain. Yet although Read’s politics may thus often appear deserving of Lenin’s sneer against left-wing communism as an “infantile disorder” (dismissed by Lenin as petty-bourgeois “revolutionism”), Read’s theories of art (far more important than anything Lenin had to write on the subject) owe a great deal to anarchism – and not a little to William Blake.

Herbert Edward Read was born in the Vale of Pickering in Yorkshire, and his accounts of childhood are related in The Innocent Eye, first published in 1933 then reissued as part of Annals of Innocence and Experience in 1946 and revised once again as The Contrary Experience in 1963. In the first part of his biography, Read demonstrates the profound influence of Wordsworth (about whom he had written in 1930) in his accounts of Muscoates Grange, the farm where he was born, and his exile to Halifax following the death of his father. Yet implicit in the early title of this autobiographical work, and made explicit in his later versions, the importance of Blake cannot be underestimated. Though the  influence of Blake was to ebb and flow throughout his life, in many respects he was the most significant of pre-twentieth-century artists for Read,  not least because he combined the visual and verbal arts to which Read himself was devoted. As he wrote in an essay “Parallels in English Painting and Poetry” in his 1936 collection, In Defence of Shelley and Other Essays:

it is in the nature of romanticism to confuse the categories, to make painters poetic and poets painterly. The extreme case is that of the painter-poet, represented for example by William Blake, and later by Rossetti. There are some who decry Blake as a poet, others as a painter, but I feel certain myself that his genius finds equal expression in both mediums… In a case like Blake’s the geometrically impossible has happened: the parallels have met in some infinity of genius, and the conditions of our problem are thus cancelled. (247)

That meeting of parallels in “some infinity of genius”, a phrase that could almost have come from Blake’s own early tractates on the poetic genius, is treated by Read as almost unique (significantly, Rossetti as the only other candidate mentioned as a painter-poet is not interesting enough to be taken up again). Certainly Read knew of the work of a contemporary painter-poet, David Jones, although they were not friends despite sharing the experiences of the first world war, but the exemplum of Blake is perhaps the sole narrative for Read of the truly successful artist, the only one to have leapt the boundaries of a logic that had decreed the separation of word and image.

The infinity of genius, the logical impossibility that Read appears to ascribe to the condition of Blake, is perhaps a condition of absolute freedom that Read also viewed as essential to anarchism. Although he never treated Blake extensively, in the way, for example that he treated Wordsworth, or Shelley, or Nash or the Surrealists, yet when Read does write of Blake, as when he describes him as “the English Nietzsche” in The Contrary Experience, there is no doubt as to Blake’s importance. Read’s sometimes official, sometimes unofficial, position as national advocate of modern art to an unreceptive British public added some piquancy to the role that the Romantic engraver was to serve, for Blake’s art simply did not make sense to majority of the public before the rise of Modernism. In a world before Picasso and Ernst, before Eliot and Pound, Blake’s art failed to connect and so it was hardly surprising that he had been unable to find a wider audience. Equally significantly, however, is the fact that to seek, to achieve, such an impossible art required a freedom that all political philosophies other than anarchism sought to circumscribe in some way. In pamphlets and books during the 1930s and 40s, such as Poetry and Anarchism (1938) and The Philosophy of Anarchism (1940), Read had little to offer as a political (or anti-political) and economic philosopher beyond the classical anarchist theories of Kropotkin, Malatesta and Godwin. He did, however, develop an aesthetic theory that meant – probably for the first time if one excludes writers such as Oscar Wilde and William Morris – anarchism could be considered a rich and fertile ground for the arts.

Blake is frequently present in Read’s work, although on first reading he appears peripheral to the critic’s main aims in espousing Modernism. As an art critic, Read’s principal concern was with the contemporary art of his day rather than art history (although he would frequently allude to the roots of modern art in Romanticism in books such as The Grass Roots of Art and Art Now). As a literary critic, he is more concerned with history, although it is Wordsworth and Shelley who dominate his critical efforts. To see Blake as unimportant, however, is to completely misunderstand Read, for whom Blake is the archetype of the artist.

It is not simply that Read values Blake’s technical abilities, although this is eminently clear in many instances, such as his introduction to Stanley Hayter’s New Ways of Gravure (1949), in which he lists Blake as one of the “four great artists” of engraving along with Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya, and for whom “art was something more than a reflection, however subtle, of the phenomenal world – that it is in some sense epiphenomenal.” (16) Throughout different essays and books, Read may alight on a particular artist, writer, or activist, whether Eric Gill, Shelley or Gandhi, but it is Blake who is frequently the synecdoche of this epiphenomenal vision.

The significance of Blake to Read’s philosophy and theoretical positions, as well as his practice as a writer, then, should not be overstated, but Blake remains a guiding vision. Other individuals may be the focus at particular times: when Read wishes to discuss the effects of Romantic creativity in writing, it is Wordsworth, Shelley or Coleridge he turns to at length; for political and philosophical positions, Kropotkin, Stirner or Nietzsche are more momentous; likewise, the role of the artist is to be analysed in detail via reference to Cezanne, Nicholson or Nash. However it is Blake alone who brings together all three strands of poetry, art and politics. Thus, as well as the artist of epiphenomenal vision or the prime example of English Art, Blake was the absolute voice of poetry in Annals of Innocence and Experience and The Contrary Vision, as well as his introduction to alternative philosophies of the self that lead him to Stirner and Read and, in The Philosophy of Anarchism, Blake is one of those invoked as the visionary of a new, anarchistic society:

Certain writers – and they are among the greatest – St. Francis, Dante, St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross, Blake – rank equally as poets and as mystics. For this reason it may well happen that the origins of a new religion will be found in art rather than in any form of moralistic revivalism. (The Philosophy of Anarchism)

A Vindication of the Daughters of Albion – Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was born in 1759, two years after William Blake, becoming one of the most important writers and thinkers of her day – although the full effects of her ideas were only to be felt a century after her death in 1797.

Wollstonecraft is, of course, most famous for her The Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792 and a follow-up to her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. While there were plenty of other answers to Burke, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man being the most famous, her defence of women’s rights was almost unique in the late eighteenth century.

While the Vindication had an important influence on Blake in the early 1790s, it was not the only link between him and Wollstonecraft. He knew both her and her future husband, William Godwin, through the publisher Joseph Johnson, and when Johnson decided to issue a second edition of her Original Stories from Real Life in 1791, Blake was hired to illustrate the book. Wollstonecraft, like Blake in Songs of Innocence, sought to take advantage of the growing market in children’s literature that existed in the final decades of the eighteenth century; Wollstonecraft’s aim was to demonstrate that women would be rational if educated properly, and while it is hard to imagine Blake agreeing with her emphasis on reason, he nonetheless produced six charming illustrations for the edition.

It was the Vindication, however, that appeared to have a more profound effect, most notably on Visions of the Daughters of Albion which he produced a year after Wollstonecraft’s extremely important tract. Ever since R. M. James’s paper on the reception of the Vindication in 1798, it has been recognised that her book was greeted with favourable rather than horrified reviews – those didn’t follow until Godwin’s ill-advised memoirs were published in 1798. As such, Blake’s positive response to the book was not unique – but it was exceptional for a male writer to devote a substantial work to her ideas. (I welcome corrections and amendments on this point, by the way, from any readers.)

In Visions, Oothoon, travelling to her lover Theotormon, is taken and raped by a rival, Bromion. Theotormon, discovering the pair, binds them together in a fit of jealousy, holding them both responsible for the crime and, at the end of the book, Oothoon responds with a powerful soliloquy denouncing masculine laws:

How can the giver of gifts experience the delights of the merchant?
How the industrious citizen the pains of the husbandman.
How different far the fat fed hireling with hollow drum;
Who buys whole corn fields into wastes, and sings upon the heath:
How different their eye and ear! how different the world to them!
With what sense does the parson claim the labour of the farmer?
What are his nets & gins & traps. & how does he surround him
With cold floods of abstraction, and with forests of solitude,
To build him castles and high spires. where kings & priests may dwell.
Till she who burns with youth. and knows no fixed lot; is bound
In spells of law to one she loaths: and must she drag the chain
Of life, in weary lust! (plate 5:12-23)

There are significant and important differences between Blake’s conception of proto-feminism and Wollstonecraft’s, an emphasis on sexuality rather than reason, for example – while subsequent lines in which Oothoon imagines procuring women for an orgy with Theotormon are troubling (Helen Bruder may be correct in seeing these as an example of just how far Oothoon is compromised by her slavery, rather than an expression of fantasies on Blake’s part). Nonetheless, what is most powerful about these lines and the poem as a whole is the way that Blake can move from the specifics of sexual oppression, for example within marriage, to an understanding of the wider extension of patriarchy and power.

Later Blake, for me, is much more disappointing with regard to his opinions on gender and sexuality: there is too much inveighing against “female will”, and while that brief dismissal does not cover anything like the complexity of his thought, this is one area that I am not willing to let him off the hook and race towards a positive interpretation. He was a great writer who sometimes rose above the conditions of his sex – but not always. One thing that is remarkable about his early work, however (and this is something that appears to have preceded his encounters with Wollstonecraft, or at least publication of the Vindication), is that he was a writer who, for a while at least, had a full and sincere appreciation of women’s conditions, not only their oppression but also what joys of motherhood, learning and general life were available to them in the late eighteenth century – joys that were often dismissed and denigrated by his more powerful contemporaries.

George Bean Group – Jerusalem

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

“Jerusalem” from Peter Watkin’s 1967 film, Privilege, performed by the George Bean Group. In the movie, Paul Jones plays Steven Shorter, a pop star whose career is manipulated to launch a new form of religious nationalism. Genuinely strange.

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

Who would William Blake vote for?

With the 2010 UK election contest now underway, I have wondered who William Blake would vote for. A few years ago, the answer would have been immediately obvious to me – if ever there was a Labour voter, I thought, it was Blake, but the answer in 2010 is much less clear cut.

Blake himself never voted, probably because he was not registered to in the restricted franchise of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (although his father, James Blake, voted in the 1749 Westminster elections, and a number of electors of the same class – including not a few Blakes – were active around Golden Square, where Blake was born, during his lifetime).

Blake’s own politics are fairly notorious – not least because of his trial for sedition at the beginning of 1804 – and Blake’s early biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, provided the following account of his enthusiasm for the French Revolution:

Blake was himself an ardent member of the new school, a vehement republican and sympathizer with the revolution, hater and contemner of kings and kingcraft. And like most reformers of that era… he may have even gone the length of despising the “Constitution”. Down to his latest days Blake always avowed himself a “Liberty Boy,” a faithful “Son of Liberty”; and would jokingly urge in self-defence that the shape of his forehead made him a republican. “I can’t help being one,” he would assure Tory friends, “any more than you can help being a Tory: your forehead is larger above; mine, on the contrary, over the eyes.”

Towards the end of his life, Blake also despised what he called the “Tory translation” by Dr Thornton of the Lord’s Prayer as a corruption of Christian virtue, writing his own satirical version:

Our Father Augustus Caesar who art in these thy Heavens Holiness to thy Name Thy Kingship come upon Earth first & thence in Heaven Give us day by day our Real Taxed Bread [& take]whatever cannot be Taxed> [debt that was owing to him]lead us not to read the Bible & deliver us from Poverty in Jesus For thine is the Kingship & the Power or War & the Glory or Law Ages after Ages in thy Descendents Amen

Saree Makdisi, drawing on such comments, placed Blake in the Communist tradition in an essay in the 2006 book Palgrave Advances in Blake Studies, but before assigning Blake to any party I have sometimes mulled over the following, from his Public Address to announce publication of his engraving of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims in 1809-10:

I am really sorry to see my Countrymen trouble themselves about Politics. If Men were Wise Princes could not hurt them If they are not Wise the Freest Government is compelld to be a Tyranny[.] Princes appear to me to be Fools Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life

Blake himself had plenty to write about politics, but I have often wondered whether his failure to vote was an almost-anarchistic refusal to engage with party politics of any kind. Certainly faced with the choice of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dems today, I find it hard to imagine him racing with prophetic pencil to scrawl his X against any of them. Despite their attempts to claim the hymn “Jerusalem” as one of their own, the BNP is out from the start (and that is not simply prejudice on my part: in Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion Blake explicitly talks about the English as emerging from a racial melting pot), and I don’t see him as much of a UKIP supporter: Albion falls when he excludes the rest of the world. Would he be tempted by Respect, the left-wing socialist unity coalition? It’s easy to see some crossover with some of their ideas, but I can’t envisage him stomaching the authoritarianism of Marxist-Leninism even if the UK Communist Party is generally a much more benign body (nor do I see him opposing objections to a capitalist, militarist EU, as the UKCP states as one of its objectives).

In the end, I am inclined to see Blake as a person who had little truck with voting per se – perhaps rather like Voltaire who saw the English nation as free once every four years to vote for its own slavery the following four. Of course, the franchise was so restricted, boroughs generally so rotten and parliament so entrenched in its own corruptions that politics at the turn of the nineteenth century had no potential to connect with the majority of the populace in general and Blake in particular. No parallels at all, then, with the situation today.

Who do you think Blake would vote for? Please add your comments below.