A new post on my YouTube channel in which I talk to John Higgs about his new book – William Blake Vs the World – and we geek out over our shared love of Blake.
A new post on my YouTube channel in which I talk to John Higgs about his new book – William Blake Vs the World – and we geek out over our shared love of Blake.
To mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante, the Uffizi gallery launched an online presentation of illustrations of Dante’s works in March, with the potential for a real-life show to follow in the Autumn, drawing on its extensive collections. While Blake himself was not included in the exhibition itself, it led a number of commentators to reflect on his contribution – among others – to bringing the Divine Comedy to life, as in a thoughtful article by Jackie Wullschläger at the Financial Times and a talk by Luisa Calè for the Blake Society.
April marked a significant piece of Blake inspired work in the form of a short film, BLAKE NOW, featuring the work of five poets who were asked to reflect on the significance of William Blake and create new poems. The church of St James’s Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised, and the poetry society brought together Sophie Herxheimer, Joseph Coelho, Ankita Saxena, Ruth Awolola and Natalie Linh Bolderston, some of them reciting their poetry in the church, others considering the effect that London had on his writing and art as well as their own. Many of those participating observe how they grew up with Blake and how his understanding of vision and imagination shaped their perceptions. You can see the video below.
If Blake Now concentrates on Blake’s influence on multicultural London, another, perhaps more surprising vision for lEngland’s green and pleasant land post-COVID was announced in a regeneration plan for Bognor Regis. While the seaside resort is probably most famous today for being the site of a large Butlin’s holiday camp, it is only a few miles away from Felpham, the village where Blake lived and worked under the patronage of William Hayley for three years at the turn of the nineteenth century, and where he conceived and probably wrote the stanzas that would later become famous as the hymn “Jerusalem”. There has long been a “Blake Trail” through the town and, as such, the new proposals include development for the Big Blake Project, a mult-use cultural centre inspired by Blake and including a theatre/performance and exhibition space, as well as workshops and classrooms alongside places to eat. This part of the south coast has for many years now taken a great deal of pride in the Blake connection and could be a significant stop for Blake afficionados in years to come.
Elsewhere in the arts, Sym Gharial followed up his debut LP as Primitive Ignorant – Sikh Punk – with a new EP in April. Infant Joy on Midnight Streets takes its title from two of Blake’s poems and in a profile for Under the Radar he explores tensions in London and death threats that were made to him as an anarchist punk Sikh. The opening and closing tracks, “The Sun Does Arise” and “The Sun Does Arise II” also take their influence from Blake.
In other news, some of Blake’s poetry has been translated into Persian by Kambiz Manouchehrian and published in a 500 copy edition by Cheshmeh Publishing in Tehran. This is not quite the first such translation – Mehdi Meshgini issued a collection of translations in 2007, although these were published in Canada and, according to Iran’s Book News Agency (IBNA), Manouchehrian’s is the first such signifcant work to appear in Iran itself. And finally, in a new book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, by the Japanese artist Makoto Fujimara traced how he had found inspiration from Blake to consider God the artist who calls us all to be co-creators.
The song title “Rose” (Mer de Noms, 2000) of the American progressive rock band A Perfect Circle (which is a side-project of the singer and a guitarist of the band Tool, Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel), caught my attention immedeately as I felt strongly reminded of “The Sick Rose” (Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789, 1794). And I was not disappointed. The first stanza clearly echoes Blake’s poem. The later parts do not seem to have much in common with the poem at a first glance (something I can hopefully dispute), making for a creative adaption that references “The Sick Rose” only to depart drastically from it. The poem serves as starting point for a new story-line. This Rose fights back and escapes its attacker.
“The Sick Rose” can be interpretated in the context of a damaging effect brought about by sexual intercourse. Rose and worm can be seen as representative of the human genitals respectively. In the song, the worm has been exchanged for a snail, thus erasing the sexual connotations of the song or at least weakening them. Yet this does not make for a softer or gentler version; it is only the focus that has been changed. The parasitical attacker is just as destructive as Blake’s. I argue that he is not only compared to a snail, but also to two creatures associated with the devil, namely the Beast, and Baphoment (referenced as a goat).
The song emphasises the stillness of the victim. The attacker is not to be disturbed. The victim submits to the will of the other. The Rose is moved by the wind, an image of passivity that implies that the Rose is not only bend, but it is bend in different directions and is totally at the mercy of the will of the wind.
This stupor is later compared to the utter stillness of an animal trapped by headlights. While the static rose cannot escape the snail, the animal looking at the approaching headlights has fallen into shock and cannot flee to safety. Blake’s metaphor has been paired with another that carries a very similar meaning, but also brings about a decisive change. The worm “flies in the night,” an inexorable approach bringing doom, which can be compared to a car speeding towards a terrified animal on a dark road. The car with its lights on also “flies in the night.” Yet, Blake’s worm is “invisible,” whereas the racing car, or better, its headlights, are both threat to life and cause of the stupefying terror. The victim has the attacker in plein sight, yet remains still as the snail / Beast / Baphoment must not be disturbed. This fixation is mental.
However, this is only partly true, because the narrator of the song refuses to be a helpless animal on the road anymore. S/he refuses to be a victim; s/he refuses to keep still in suffering. S/he puts up resistance against the snail and addresses it directly. The snail has become a “you.” The Rose describes the victim of an abusive and / or toxic relationship who must find the strength to escape.
And this is where the meaning of “Rose” changes. In the later lines, it does not refer to a substantive and a passive plant anymore; it becomes a verb and implies action. “Rose” has two meanings, first it describes the plant as a metaphor for the helpless victim, but then it describes the active resistance against the attacker. The narrator tries to regain his or her autonomy by repeatedly confirming his or her own existence and power to act.
This song is a dark and modernised adaptation of “The Sick Rose.” The victim is not only compared to a plant, which arguably cannot move, but also to a terrified animal which makes clear that the victim is fixed mentally. This explicit reference to stupor illustrates that abuse has many faces. Whereas the scenario of rose and parasite basically remains the same, the snail eats the rose and lives from it, the song adds the new terror of a victim who must learn to consciously fight that which steals its life force instead of just tolerating it. The song touches upon a sensivite topic, namely the question why victims remain in an abusive relationship. It uses the Blake poem to shed light upon this issue by equaling the Rose that is physcially fixed with a deer transfixed by the headlights of an approaching car. Both cannot help their situation and both cannot escape. Yet, the song also makes clear that putting up resistance, gaining self-consciousness, and fighting back are the only means of survival for the Rose. The Rose must rise.
Listen to the song:
Blake, William. “The Sick Rose.” Songs of Innocence and Experience. The William Blake Archive. http://blakearchive.org/copy/songsie.z?descId=songsie.z.illbk.39 [16.04.2021]
Keenan, Maynard James, Howerdel, William. “Rose.” A Perfect Circle. Mer de Noms. Virgin Records, 2000.
The passing of an era was marked at the end of the month by the death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, described by Global Times as “the last great poet of the Beat Generation who helped to establish the counter-culture movement”. Born in 1919, Felinghetti was famous for setting up City Lights bookstore and publisher, through which he issued key books of the Beats – most notably Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 – and he was a key thinker in the political and moral stance of the counter-culture over the coming decades. He was also, with Ginsberg, a keen enthusiast of Blake, becoming involved in Ginsberg’s 1970s project to record a number of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He was recorded in 1972 singing “Ah! Sunflower”, “The Garden of Love” and “The Nurse’s Song” with John Fahey, and in an interview in 2016 he explained the importance of Blake’s poems to Ginsberg’s own works.
While exhibitions have been a rare occurrence in the age of pandemic lockdowns, one such event in February showed the ways in which Blake’s art remain relevant to contemporary practitioners. Richard Ayodeji Ikhide’s Future Past opened on 11 February at V.O Curations, the first of its exhibitions to mark the new gallery in Mayfair. Nigerian-born Ikhide who studied textile design at Central Saint Martins and a postgraduate diploma at the Royal Drawing School, has been artist in residence at V.O and draws on a wide range of inspirations, from prehistoric Japanese culture to European artists such as El Greco and Blake. In an interview with Steve Turner, he recounts how for his postgraduate studies he had to select an artist for his presentation:
I selected William Blake and I am so happy that I did. His emphasis on imagination, spirituality and open-mindedness resonated with me. I love that he railed against slavery in his poems and that he built his own mythology.
Future Past is open until 20 March and selections of his work can be seen in the Steve Turner online solo exhibition, Cosmic Memory.
Another cultural casualty of the COVID has, of course, been the film industry. Saint Maud, a British psychological horror movie that follows a hospice nurse, Maud, and her obsession with a former dancer in her care, received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and was slated for general release in April and May 2020. It was eventually shown on some screens in the UK in October 2020, but only received a limited US release in the USA at the end of January 2021, the same date that it appeared on DVD in Britain. Although it was well-received in the UK, American reviews were more mixed throughout February: the Chicago Tribune that some would appreciate the religious themes in the film “more than others”, while the Boston Globe recommended it even for those fans of horror whose tastes ran in a different direction. The movie’s difference in part stems from the work of writer/director Rose Glass, and performances by Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, and the Blakean connection is a gift of a book of Blake’s drawings made by the dancer Amanda (Ehle) to Maud (Clark). We’ll be following up with a review shortly.
One thoughtful article to appear during February was Pete Yeo’s ecocritical meditation on an evergreen and pleasant land for Finding Blake. First published by the University of York’s Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, Yeo’s work was adapted to make explicit the ways that he draws on Blake stanzas from Milton a Poem – more famously known as the hymn “Jerusalem” – for an understanding of the changing climate of Britain’s evergreen plant life. The long view of the biodiversity of the British Isles does, of course, show us a land which was not always so green and pleasant, not least when it was covered in ice age glaciers, yet contemplating the deep time of life in this corner of the Atlantic also leads Yeo to reflect on the comparisons between spirituality and unified physics, most aptly caught for him in Blake’s lines:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
The video below is a lightly edited version of a talk to the Blake Society on February 17, 2021, about some of the ways in which Blake’s theory of religion developed throughout his art and poetry.
Le Petit Prince (1943) is the most famous work of French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Its popularity has largely increased over the years, spawning a shop in Paris (one more item to add to my “next time I am in Paris” list), a theatrical production, an animated film, and even a theme park. The author celebrates his 120th birthday this year.
The tale is often deemed a children’s tale and still seems to stubbornly persist in schools’ or even universities’ syllabus’ as seen by the number of annotated and bilingual editions on the market. A pilot crashes in the desert, facing immediate death if he does not manage to repair his aircraft in time. This part of the tale is biographical. The accompanying photo shows Saint-Exupéry with his broken aircraft in the desert. The thus stranded narrator encounters a little prince, who is a child-like creature, but claims to have come from another planet and to have visited many other planets before. This encounter will change his life.
At a first glance, the parallels between the French tale and Blake’s work are on a superficial level. The tale can be read by adults and children alike, an attribution just as true for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” (1789, 1794) What is more, Saint-Exupéry tells his story by using both text and drawings, so his way of telling stories is very similar to that of the poet painter Blake. In a manner similar to Blake, image and text sometimes complement, sometimes contradict each other. The little prince explains for example to the rose he finds on his planet that there are no tigers on this planet, but the accompanying drawing shows a rose and a tiger, thus contradicting the re-assurrance of the little prince.
Rose and tiger naturally remind further of “The Songs of Innocence and Experience,” both elements being central pieces of Blake’s poem collection. Here, too, the rose is rather a woman than a flower, but in the end, the killer threatening to end her life is not the tiger, but a relative of the lamb. In a fatal oversight, the narrator has forgotten to provide adequate protection for the rose which may provoke the sheep, which is nothing but a drawing, a drawing that is supposed to be alive, to have the rose for supper. The soft and innocent lamb has swapped places with the predator, the tiger, only to threaten the rose who is not sick, but will have to use her thorns to defend herself against the predator in her world, the herbivore (thus taking the place of the worm). Blakean characters appear and intermingle in a new way, thus evoking Blake and rejecting him at the same time. The Blakean references seem to fade in and out. The threesome of rose, sheep, and tiger seems to evoke Blake only to swap the roles of innocent creature and predatory beast.
As mentioned before, the sheep only appears as a drawing. This drawing, however, does not show the actual sheep, but only the box in which the sheep is sitting (a reference to quantum mechanics in its similarity to Schrödinger’s cat). When the narrator and little prince meet for the first time, the prince asks him to please draw him a sheep. The prince is choosy and finds fault with all the animals the narrator can provide, a pilot who has just crashed in the desert and thus has other pressing things occupyping his mind than the drawing of a sheep. He grows impatient and provides the drawing of the aforementioned box instead. Surprisingly, the prince can “see” the sheep inside the box and finds it befitting his expectations. What may be interpretated as the vivid imagination of a child, bears deeper meaning when seen in context of the tale. It is not only that he prince can see the sheep inside the box of the drawing, it is his firm belief that the sheep may eat the rose, a part of the real, materialistic world which wipes out borders between real and unreal, drawing and materialistic world, imagination and material world. The prince does not distinguish between the world that is real and the world that is drawn. Images are supposed to have just as much life as does the world around them; the prince believes that the sheep on his piece of paper is just as real as the rose he can touch. At the end of the tale, the narrator will share this world-view and worry about the rose to be killed by a sheep he has drawn himself. To the prince, imagination, or the painting, is as real as is the material world. He is a character Blake may have had sympathy for. His statement “To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination[.]” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217) is, naturally, much more complex, but surly evokes sympathy for the world-view of the prince.
As may be expected the prince finds it difficult to understand characters who are meant to represent adulthood and who are through and through Urizenic, a business man counting the stars to “own” them, a cartograph who is interested in cartography only without ever leaving his desk, a king who rules without subjects to follow his rules, a night watch who blindly follows a set of rules which has become useless as the conditions of his planet have changed. He concludes: “Les grandes personnes sont décidément bien bizarres. “(“The grown-ups are definitely very bizarre” (my translation)). (33) Adulthood seems to appear identical with everything that is Urizenic were it not for the narrator, whose complaints that he would rather have to focus on things like repairing his engine or finding a source of water are quite justified. Still, the world of the prince in which a drawing of a box can threaten the life of a flower clashes heavily with adults who are preoccupied with measuring, owning, creating rules or following rules. The narrator explains earlier in the text that adults are preoccupied with numbers and will only believe information when given a certain amount of figures in addition. This passage is not directly Blakean, but the very open criticism of science makes me think of Newton measuring the ground in front of him and Urizen doing the very same – both seeking the figures they need to believe in information. The fact that both of them fail to look at the world around them instead of the ground in front of them reminds me of the cartograph who refuses to leave his desk. Or the businessman who counts the stars to own them.
Seen together, these Urizenic characters form the contrary to the threesome of rose, tiger, and sheep. It is the prince who moves between these two worlds and tries to make somehow sense of them. He is, after all, a traveller of different worlds. He leaves his world to gain understanding, only to end up in worlds he cannot make head or tails of. Yet, he too lives by the principle that there is no progression without contraries and the contrary is something to be encountered in the world of adulthood. This short visit to the world of adulthood and subsequent return makes him a relative of Thel.
The only one who can help him gain understanding during his voyage is his friend the fox. The fox teaches him what must be considered the core teaching and most famous quote of the tale: “[O]n ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (“You can only see rightly with the heart. The essential things are invisible to the eye.” (my translation)). (55) This seems to directly echo Blake’s “The Eye sees more than the heart knows” which precedes Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) although both differ in their meaning.
In fact, both statements complement each other. Blake’s motto foreshadows Oothoon’s desperate attempt to actually talk to Theotormon who rejects her. She tries to communicate her plea to him, but he sits at the sea “conversing with shadows dire,” (P, 11) he closes his mind and heart to her alike. He may actually see what she explains to him, but his heart refuses to accept these truths. She laments: “does his eye behold the beam that brings Expansion to the eye of pity?” ( P, 11) Theotormon does not have an eye of pity. He was “form[ed]” by Urizen, the “mistaken demon of Heaven.” ( P, 8) Similar to the characters in the French tale representing adulthood who cling desperately to their Urizenic system unable to see how futile their activities are, Theotormon clings blindly to his system refusing to see its fault, injustice, and cruelty. The quote hints at a refusal to part with what the heart already knows and a subsequent discarding of information the eye sees but is deemed unfit for the already formed image found in the heart. This is the same mindset Saint-Exupéry’s adults live in. The king for instance does not accept the piece of information that he is alone on his planet and thus lacks subjects to rule over.
Saint-Exupéry’s quote, however, describes the world of the prince. The narrator explains that what makes certain objects and persons special to us cannot be perceived by the eyes. So, although the prince is horrified to find a garden of roses identical to the one on his planet, he learns that this one flower is special to him because he has an emotional bond to it. In a similar matter, Christmas presents gain their meaning through the accompanying festivities, dinner, mass etc. They are more than the actual item retrieved of a box, the whole procedure and idea of Christmas is attached to them and makes them Christmas presents instead of objects bought in the shop next door. All things we perceive carry meaning to us, and although all roses look the same to the eye, as do all foxes, it is one certain rose and one certain fox that have deeper meaning and value for the prince because he loves them. But the eye cannot distinguish between roses and foxes, only the heart can. His parting gift for the narrator is the starry night. Whenever the narrator will see stars, he will remember that the prince lives on one of them and this will be a happy thought for him. The starry night now carries meaning to the narrator it did not carry before because he has an emotional bond to the prince.
It is striking that Blake actually used the same explanation as Saint-Exupéry as to how we perceive things, only in an even more complicated way by pointing out that we all perceive different things because we give different meaning to these things:
I see Every thing I paint In This world, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a Bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way.” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217)
So, we are not only blind because we refuse to see with the heart to distinguish one rose from other roses and to value the beauty of a tree, the meaning we ascribe to things, be it the purse or the tree, is what makes them beautiful to us. There is no universal beauty and no universal truth that can be seen with the heart, because every heart sees something different. Saint-Exupéry’s quote is a simplified and much more positive outlook on this idea than Blake’s. It is exactly because the hearts of some people are hardened (considering that they see beauty in a money bag and regard trees as green hindrances) that they fail to see the essentials (taking that the beauty of nature is the essential). It is not their eyes which cannot see the essentials; their hearts are blind. As blind as Theotormon’s who cannot see the loving devotion of Oothoon. The eye sees indeed more than this hardened heart understands.
While the tale may not strike as explicitly Blakean, it echoes many of Blake’s ideas and topoi. Despite the lack of sexual references the child-prince who finds it difficult to understand the Urizenic and loveless world of adults combines problems of Thel and Ooothoon in his person. He too rejects the world of adulthood and he too criticises the inability to see love. He, however, returns with a better understanding of what love is and thus happily seeks reunion with his rose whom he now knows to be special. His journey is one towards understanding maturity. As mentioned above, while rose, tiger, and lamb are all part of his planet and thus stem from what he knows and loves as signified by his return, the Urizenic characters live on other planets. While his home planet may stands for childhood, imagination, and innocence, the other planets symbolise adulthood, Urizenic thought, and experience. Innocence and Experience thus become different worlds as well as different world-views opposing each other, exceeding the mere ideas of childhood and adulthood, in my eyes. And regarding these two world- views, I cannot help but imagine that the man who told a woman how he observed the funeral of a fairy might easily be friends with the little prince, thus transcending the border of childhood and adulthood all together. After all, the ability to see the essential should not be restricted to childhood. Reducing the tale to a praise of childhood misses out on the Blakean references that lurk underneath its surface. But probably the essential idea that imagination (for example the ability to see the beauty of a rose and a tree) should not be restricted to childhood can only be seen with the heart.
Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. London, Vintage Books, 1999.
Blake, William. Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Copy P. The Blake Archive. http://www.blakearchive.org/copy/vda.p?descId=vda.p.illbk.01 (2020) [14.05.2020]
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. Le Petit Prince, avec les illustrations originales de l’auteur. Weimar, Aionas Verlag, 2017.
The Little Prince. https://www.thelittleprince.com/ (2017) [14.05.2020]
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. https://www.antoinedesaintexupery.com/ (2018) [14.05.2020]
Featured Image taken from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sahara_Crash_-1935-_copyright_free_in_Egypt_3634_StEx_1_-cropped.jpg (14.02.2012) [14.05.2020]
During my near thirty years of studying Blake, there have been plenty of books and articles that I have been sent which cross the normal boundaries of academia and publishing and are also given as an act of friendship. I have a strong suspicion that this is something that is more common in Blake studies than elsewhere, but it is something that I felt very strongly upon reading John Higgs’ William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever.
This slender non-fiction title, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is not an academic text at all (and I mean that neither as a slight to William Blake Now, nor as a stab at my own profession). One thing that has always intrigued me about Blake is how he appeals to thoughtful readers outside academia: of course, this is also true of a number of writers and artists – Jane Austen is a contemporary of Blake who has a vibrant afterlife beyond the university – but Blake is one of those who has never been owned by the hirelings such as myself who populate universities. In this short book, Higgs provides nine essays – a series of brief spots of time (or, better, moments in each day that Satan cannot find) that are placed at angles to each other, like the surfaces of a gemstone. They form a wonderfully personal and frequently polemical consideration of Blake’s value to our contemporary times, that future age to which he called in works such as Milton a Poem.
That personal response is evident in the opening chapter, which brilliantly paints the occasion of the unveiling of Blake’s new grave – a stone commissioned by the Blake Society to mark the newly discovered spot where Blake’s body lay. Delighting in the sight of celebrities mingling with the hoi-polloi (as, indeed, it should be), Higgs remarks the Romantic’s unusual ability “to reach across society” (p.3) before focussing on his relationship with the English Beat writer, Brian Barritt, who stimulated his interest in Blake. Standing before Blake’s grave, Higgs has a revelation or vision, that he sees the golden thread that connects the engraver, writer and artist to our own age. For him, it is clear that the Beats form an important strand in that thread, bound through in the next chapter when he discusses the influence of Blake on Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Patti Smith. There has been a huge amount of interest in Blake and the Age of Aquarius in recent years – not least Linda Freedman’s William Blake and the Myth of America and Stephen Eisenman’s edited collection William Blake and the Age of Aquarius. Higgs clearly feels this connection strongly, but this is his entry point, the doorway to Blake’s influence: as he wrily remarks – “The 1960s were a long time ago… We are in a very different world now.” (p.15)
The relevance of Blake to now emerges in the following two essays. In some respects, the first of these – entitled, simply, “London” – is the most important. The Song of Experience is famously one of the most profound poems ever written on the city, and Higgs’s personal reflections on that poem lead him into a discussion of Englishness and national identity in which, amidst the divided Britain of Brexit, both remain and leave may be contraries of a personal character: “if you don’t have love for your home and neighbours, then any proclamation of love for those further away is suspect… if you condemn groups of strangers far away, then how true is your love for your home and neighbours really?” (pp.22-3) It is an optimistic vision of a division too often defined by rancour, but in the end both contraries must learn that opposition is true friendship if this island is ever to be more than a disunited kingdom.
The following chapter, “Blake Now”, is one for my blushes as my own observations on the froth of Blakespotting (a favourite activity of mine) form the basis for a multiplicity of scattered references to the poet and artist in computer games, films and social media. For Higgs, such sightings are rarely more than superficial: for my part, I delight in such superficiality as well as the deep struggles with Blake’s meaning, but this is one of those points where it feels I am reading (and mentally conversing with) an old friend, making the book a very personal delight. The following two chapters, as with so much of the book, are very personal and insightful considerations on the topics of understanding Blake and remembering him. The former returns once more to Blake’s grave, and the words of Bruce Dickinson as an example that “understanding Blake is not knowledge that you possess but an activity that you undertake” (p.34). The notion of a Blakean praxis or activity is one that is not pursued enough: after thirty years of studying Blake, I am never entirely sure that I understand the strange and wonderful visions that he wrote, engraved and painted, but I feel most profoundly that from those studies I have joyfully learned the error that comes when “you see with, not through, the eye”.
“On Being Remembered” dealswith the vagaries of reception and influence, particularly through the works of artists such as Tracey Emin who invoked Blake in her 2017 retrospective. Certainly his influence is much more wide-reaching than that of much more famous contemporaries, perhaps precisely because he is so difficult to possess as knowledge rather than practice. As a primary artist of imagination, the subject of the following essay, Blake has led many writers, artists and filmmakers to pursue their own vision – to create their own systems rather than be enslaved by others – and Higgs ends his collection with a wonderfully idiosyncratic reflection of a visionary experience of his own on Primrose Hill. It is London that perhaps resonates most with him; certainly it is the poem he returns to, tracing the protests of Extinction Rebellion and the opening of the London Olympics to the vision of London that appeared in Songs of Experience. Blake, perhaps more than anyone, with his profound insights into perception, art, spirituality and politics, “has prepared us for the world we find ourselves in.” (69)
John Higgs, William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019. 79pp. £5.99.
The news today of the death of Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer and artist most famous for experimental novels such as Lanark and Poor Things, is cause for reflection on a trailblazer in Scottish fiction who once described William Blake as his “favourite artist and author”.
Born in Glasgow in 1934, Gray turned to the novels which would make him most famous relatively late in his career, having previously worked on scriptwriting and painting. Lanark: A Life in Four Books, was published in 1981 when Gray was 46, to be followed by his erotic reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the book 1982, Janine, three years later. Lanark, for me still the most striking of his works for very personal and idiosyncratic reasons, won him various awards and led Anthony Burgess to call him the “best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”. Scott’s contemporary, William Blake, was much nearer to Gray’s ambitions not least in that both of them sought to combine image and word in a kind of illuminated book.
Lanark follows the journey of a young man, the eponymous hero of the book, who arrives in a strange version of Glasgow, Unthank, which owes more than a little to Dante’s visions of Inferno (as with Blake, Gray was working on a version of The Divine Comedy at the time of his death). Falling in with a group of young men and women, Lanark begins to feel alienated and to suffer from a disease whcih turns his skin into dragon hide. Between the story of Lanark in Unthank, Gray then tells the tale of a precocious man, Duncan Thaw, born into wartime Glasgow who suffers obsessive visions and eventually commits suicide.
Thaw and Lanark are linked in some way (as Thaw suffers from eczema, so Lanark is covered in dragonhide), and it may be that Unthank is a kind of hell in which Thaw finds himself after his death. While the journey through Unthank owes much to Dante, it is Blake who is perhaps the artist in whom Thaw is most interested, citing him at many instances throughout the novel. At the beginning of Chatpter 19, “Mrs. Thaw Disappears”, for example, we are told:
Thaw opened his diary and wrote:
“Love seeketh not itself to please Nor for itself hath any care But for another gives its ease and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.” So sung a little Clod of Clay trodden by the cattle’s feet, but a Pebble of the brook warbled out these metres meet. “Love seeketh only Self to please, to bind another to Its delight, Joys in another’s loss of ease, and builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”
Blake doesn’t choose, he shows both sorts of love, and life would be easy if women were clods and men were pebbles. Maybe most of them are but I’m a gravelly mixture. My pebble feelings are for June Haig, no, not real June Haig, an imaginary June Haig in a world without sympathy or conscience. My feelings for Kate Caldwell are cloddish, I want to please and delight her, I want her to think me clever and fascinating. (p.190)
Blake runs as rich seam throughout Lanark. Thaw spends a lot of his time at the Mitchell Library, looking at facsimiles of the Romantic’s illuminated books, indicating the influence of Blake and Beardsley – the two most important artists for Thaw – and he tells his father that he wants “to write a modern Divine Comedy with illustrations in the style of William Blake” (p.204). This alone suggests strongly that Unthank is a vision of the underworld after Dante (with a little of Milton and Bunyan thrown in as well), but that it is the Romantic poet rather than Virgil who is the guide to understanding this fantastical novel. Another key are the references to that incredibly Blakean novel, The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary: Gray cites Gulley Jimson, the Blake-quoting artist-protagonist of Cary’s book, in his Epilogue, clearly drawing on the Anglo-Irish writer as a precursor to his own experimental fiction.
The comment regarding Blake being Gray’s favourite artist came from an interview with The Scotsman in 2014, given at the time of publication of his collection of essays and occasional pieces, Of Me and Others. In it, Gray tells the interviewer, Susan Mansfield:
William Blake, my favourite artist and author, was used to people admiring his work saying: ‘Ah, it would never have been as great as this if you hadn’t suffered all these tribulations.’ And he said: ‘I’d have produced a lot more if I’d not suffered these tribulations.’
While admiring the strange and extraordinary in Blake’s work, then, Gray had little time for the stereotype of the suffering Romantic artist. Burgess was wrong to compare him to Walter Scott: aside from a shared interest in Scottish nationalism, Gray had little in common with his fellow countryman and mentions him only briefly in passing – as something to be endured in school. Scott was, in the end, too Tory for Gray, and his enduring interest in socialism made William Blake a much better fit.
Gray did indeed have much to say about the issues of Scottish nationalism as well as the ideals of socialism. Throughout Lanark, Thaw and his contemporaries discuss the possibilities of a Scottish parliament as well as ironic asides to the relative failures of the Scottish Arts Council to support an arts proper to the north of the border. Yet this is no appeal to jingoism – indeed, he is critical of the Scottish arts scene in general as well as declaiming against “Scottish chauvinism” more generally. In contrast to the more traditional romanticism of Scott, this seems to have been something that Gray has picked up from Blake: Albion is Blake’s vision of his homeland where he was born, but it is as much a perfidious as glorious country. Like Blake, Gray wished to use novels such as Lanark as a means to restore his country to their greater arts.
The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye claimed in 1951 that among the most ‘foolish’ ideas that had emerged about the visionary poet and artist William Blake, ‘The notion that he was an automatic writer is perhaps the most absurd.’ This imposition resulted, he argued, from literary students reading Blake’s words stripped from their original home, shorn of their artistic grounding. The dynamic between word and image, Frye believed, told a greater story, one closer to the intention of their creator. The association with occult technique apparently represented an ill-informed denigration of Blake’s creative integrity for the critic.
In some respects, Frye is right about automatic writing. The term itself was not in use during Blake’s time, emerging in the mid-nineteenth century in response to the practices of Modern Spiritualists. I also imagine that if Blake had been accused of being an automatic writer, he would have rejected it outright, the implication that he was simply an automaton unpalatable to him. Divine discourse, after all, was centred on spiritual empowerment, and Blake’s work was in part the fruit of his spirituality. By brushing it aside, Frye missed a powerful trick in understanding Blake’s work, however, one that places his creativity in a deeply ritual light.
Blake was an important practitioner in a trajectory of people who undertook mark-making in a ritual context; a liminography in which a chasm is temporarily created by rupturing the functions of writer and author. By relinquishing authorship, writers and artists used a ritual mechanism through which to manifest and articulate an individualised spiritual authority. In other words, this ritual paradox of authorship and authority facilitated an ability to democratise access to a power usually tied up in the hierarchies of Church and State. The creative work of practitioners was a personal sacrament to the divine communication.
Blake may not have been down with the discourse of automatism, but as will be shown he intimately understood the spiritual practice of writing and drawing, and would have recognised it in spiritualists and occultists, whatever terminology was employed. Indeed, liminography stretched from the late eighteenth century right through to the automatic writers of the fin de siècle, and beyond, and Blake’s role in this emergent tradition was vital. Placing him in this tradition is the intention here.
The scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had several encounters with Jesus Christ, including one when JC gave some unsolicited dietary advice to him in a pub in Clerkenwell. Thereafter he dedicated his life to elucidating the spiritual meaning of the Bible and paving the way for the New Jerusalem Church of Revelations, peppered of course with regular visits to the spiritual spheres to chinwag with their inhabitants. While he preferred to write up with a straight and rational head, he observed several forms of spiritual writing when journeying through the spheres, and experimented with relinquishing authorship.
Occasionally writings simply manifested, ‘There have sometimes been sent to me papers covered in writing; some of which are exactly like papers written by hand, and others like papers that had been printed in the world.’ Modern Spiritualists call this ‘psychography’. He also noted in his Spiritual Diary that spirits of the dead ‘could communicate their thoughts by words through another man, and even by letters […] and if they were permitted, they could write in their own peculiar style’. Ever the empiricist, he gave it a whirl:
I was ignorant of the series of things until after they were written; but this only in very rare instances, and only for the sake of informing us that revelations are made in this manner. Those paper [thus written] were therefore destroyed, because God Messiah was unwilling that it should be so done.
What emerged from his writings was a spiritual worldview that included the dispensation of a divine discourse inaugurating a new spiritual age, but which was centred around the question of permission and authority. His experiences became a blueprint for liminographers.
In the years after the mystic’s death, Swedenborgianism began to take shape in the religious landscape of Britain. On the one hand, there was those like Robert Hindmarsh (1759-1835) who took the mystic’s pronouncement of a New Church literally, and established a sect. For them, Swedenborg’s spiritual authority lay in his writings and the litany of the sect. On the other, however, were the mystically-inclined readers of his works. They believed the New Church would emerge from individuals and gradually transform existing institutions. Divine discourse, exemplified by Swedenborg’s experiences, was evidence of this progression. As such, they saw themselves as the medium of spiritual authority, not any sect or church.
Among the latter group was John Clowes (1734-1831), the Anglican rector of St John’s Church, Manchester, who was first introduced to Swedenborg’s work in 1773. According to his biographer, several days after reading True Christian Religion (1771) he was ‘powerfully drawn into a state of inward recollection’ and, ‘whilst he lay musing on this strange, and to him most delightful harmony in the interiors of his mind, instantly there was made manifest, in the same recesses of his spirit, what he can call by no other name than a divine glory’. He thereafter took up Swedenborgianism, but remained an Anglican.
Clowes argued vehemently against the establishment of the sect. After all, his own experience apparently proved the progressive nature of the mystic’s New Church, with himself an example of how the old Church would be transformed. He existed in a liminal space between the sect and Church, inferring both but being neither. In 1799, he wrote a letter to Robert Hindmarsh:
there was observed during almost the whole time of writing a sensible dictate from Spirits at my first waking in the morning, attended with inexpressible delight, and exciting by their presence such a holy awe […] This I have frequently expressed in the writing of sermons, many of which have thus been dictated throughout by spirits.
One of the first recorded examples of Swedenborgian liminography, Clowes’s ritual was attuned to the progressive New Church, so far as through the writing of sermons he was inaugurating an inner transformation within the Anglican church itself. As such, it subverted the institutional medium of spiritual authority, in favour of the power of direct Authorship.
Blake’s relationship with Swedenborgianism has been a continuing debate. A couple of points, however, are clear. Firstly, he owned and annotated several of Swedenborg’s works. Secondly, he and his wife Catherine attended the inaugural conference of the New Church sect. He later told his friend Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) that he regarded Swedenborg as a ‘divine teacher’, but as his first biographer noted, ‘he hardly became a proselyte or “Swedenborgian” proper.’ At the very least though, he apparently did agree with Clowes. A clue to his feelings about the sect can be gleaned from an annotation in Divine Love of Angels, ‘the Whole of the New Church is in the Active Life & not in Ceremonies at all,’ and elsewhere he disapprovingly underlined a person who ‘adheres to a sect.’
One aspect that Blake and Swedenborg did share was divine discourse. Robinson recorded a conversation in which the poet stated that he wrote, ‘when commanded by the spirits, and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published and the spirits can read. My MS. is of no further use.’ In a letter sent in 1803 to Thomas Butts about Milton:
I have written this poem from immediate Dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without Premeditation & even against my Will; the Time it has taken in writing was thus render’d Non Existent, & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life, all produc’d without Labour or Study.
It’s a remarkably similar description of the practice when compared to Clowes and Swedenborg. For Blake, it simultaneously lent a spiritual authority to his work, and in doing so subverted the traditional avenues of established churches, with their litanies and ceremonies. Relinquishing authorship underscored his own personal spiritual heterodoxy.
Swedenborg, Clowes and Blake all utilized the idea of ritual writing as a way of deterritorializing spiritual authority. As Kathleen Lundeen has noted, ‘Spiritualism, for Blake, is more than a metaphor for verbal mediumship, however; it is a prerequisite for writing with a freer tongue.’ Indeed, it was no metaphor, it was ritual. As liminography, writing and drawing was a process of authorizing spirituality, and with its emphasis on individual praxis and creative output, it subverted the orthodoxy of social and institutional religious hierarchy.
Interestingly, it was precisely in non-sect Swedenborgian circles that Blake was cherished after his death, particularly by the politician Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849). Unsurprisingly, therefore, when Modern Spiritualism began to emerge in Britain during the 1850s, it is precisely in these circles that it had the largest impact. Early writing mediums Garth and William Wilkinson, for instance, had reissued Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1839, and were friends with Tulk. Over time, a variety of terms proliferated to describe the practice, including ‘automatic writing’, ‘passive writing’, and ‘writing by impression’. Yet the ritual of relinquishing authorship and establishing personal spiritual authority remained its defining feature, and continued to subvert the religious landscape well into the twentieth century—through occultism, spiritualism, mind sciences and of course art.
In a response to a question on his fan site, The Red Hand Files, earlier this year, Nick Cave listed Blake as one of his favourite poets – alongside Stevie Smith, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson and a dozen others, describing them as the “poets whose company I consistently enjoy” (a phrase that may, either consciously or unconsciously, echo Blake’s comment in the album of the antiquary William Upcott as “one who is very much delighted with being in good Company”).
The connection between the two visionaries is hardly a new one. Indeed, by the early 2000s comparisons between Cave and Blake had become something of a stereotype. The Guardian called him “Ted Bundy with a William Blake obsession” (not, as it transpires, intended as a compliment in a fairly snippy review of the album Nocturama – admittedly not his best work), while Eric Carr, writing for Pitchfork, could throw away a smart jibe that until 1997 “the Nick Cave Songbook read like a set of William Blake Mad Libs filled in by undertakers, jilted lovers and John Wayne Gacy, with a few American folk covers thrown in for variety”. The psycho Blake/Cave comparison was a lazy, edgy meme for journalists who wished to portray themselves as literate without too much effort, although there were others who realised that the front man of the Bad Seeds was becoming a very different kind of person to the heroin-addicted figure who had destroyed his relationship with P. J. Harvey in the 90s. In a very good article for Salon in 2004, Thomas Bartlett only invoked Blake tangentially – to portray Cave as “A true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” – but the article overall treated the singer’s religious beliefs with much greater respect than was usually the case. A thoughtful tone was likewise struck by Russell Porter in The Beat Happening magazine (2008), who described Cave as writing with “a lyrical tone that owes as much to the visions of William Blake as it does to the street savvy tempo of William Chandler and Dashiel Hammet”.
Bartlett had made an astute observation that very few music journalists commented on Cave and religion. Almost certainly, this was due to supposedly secular reputation of pop music, which was commonly assumed to be fully of the devil’s party despite the well-known beliefs of figures as diverse as Prince, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As well as regularly invoking biblical motifs in his songs and his 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave spoke explicitly about his relationship to Christianity in a programme for BBC 3 Religious Services in 1996. Entitled “The Flesh Made Word”, the transcript and Cave’s recording is available at NickCave.it.
The piece, lasting some seventeen minutes, provides a fairly detailed, autobiographical account of Cave’s relationship not merely with his Anglican upbringing but, more pointedly, how his father’s desire to inculcate a love of literature in his son was also a kind of spiritual ecstasy, an elevation from the mundane to the “divine essence of things”: “although he would have laughed at this notion, what my father was finding in his beloved literature was God.” Unlike his father, this pursuit of God was something that Cave began to pursue explicitly, taking an interest in relgious art against the desires of his instructors who thought he should be interested in more contemporary forms. The deity that first appealed to the young singer was the retributive creator and destroyer of the Old Testament, making him “a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke.” While he was happy with this for a while, it was eventually through the gospels – lovingly evoked by Cave as “four wonderful prose poems” – that Cave returned to the Jesus of his childhood. This was around the period that, in Berlin, he began to write And the Ass Saw the Angel: Jesus still spoke all too often in the language of the father to the singer at this point, but Cave also began to recognise the importance of an imagination that was explicitly Christian:
What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. Clearly what Jesus most despised, what he really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolized by the scribes and Pharisees, those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law. What was Christ’s great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian church ever since, was the Pharisees’ preoccupation with the law in preference to the logos. Said St. Paul to the Corinthians: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” So how can one be elevated spiritually, if they are loaded up with the chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration, or for that matter God, be moral?
Cave only invokes Blake once in this piece: “To loosely paraphrase William Blake: I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.” This is, indeed, a very loose paraphrase, taking its inspiration from plate 3 of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion: “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves, every thing is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.” (E145) Cave invokes Shakespeare, Nabokov and Dostoevsky, but aside from the Bible it is only Blake he cites, and his chosen source is, frankly, astonishing: while various critics have noted the singer’s allusions to Blake’s lyrics – entirely understandable in a song writer – none have, to my knowledge, drawn attention to his familiarity with the difficult, late prophetic books. For me, the fact that Cave does not merely invoke Jerusalem but does so playfully suggests a possible familiarity that goes far beyond that of almost any other popular musician.
It is in the later prophetic books, I would argue, that Cave would discover ideas from Blake, most notably around the rejection of the Moral Law, that seem to have shaped his attitudes to the creative imagination. For Blake, “The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself” (E132), and against this very existence itself the poet placed the dead letter of the law, which Albion recognises in his fallen state:
O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law:
There Babylon is builded in the Waste, founded in Human desolation. (E169)
Zoe Alderton has written about this programme in “Nick Cave: A Journey from the Anglican God to the Creative Christ“, observing the profoundly literary route through which the singer approaches spirituality. While noting the paraphrase of Blake, she fails to recognise the significance of it however: that Cave appears to believe so profoundly that faith is bound up with imagination owes much, I would argue, to the earlier poet who wrote in All Religions are One that spirituality is itself the Poetic Genius. What is more, as the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a Bible of hell that retold an infernal account of Genesis via The Book of Urizen, Blake is a profoundly appealing artist to anyone seeking to understand a post-secular world while also avoiding the gins and traps of religion. Blake was a prophet and, like most prophets, he was without honour in his own country which worshipped instead the God of this world.
Of those writers who have noted Cave’s lyric indebtedness to Blake, Karen Welberry in an essay “Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter” (in the collection Cultural Seeds, edited by Tanya Dalziell and Karen Welberry) pointed out that “The Hammer Song” emulates Blake’s “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience, echoing the line “My mother groand! My father wept / Into the dangerous world I leapt” in the opening stanza which ends: “My father raged and raged / And my mother wept”. She also observed that Blake read the poem on a BBC TV programme, Poetry Nation, in 1994 (p.54). John H. Baker offers some excellent insights into the use of Blake in Cave’s verse, whether echoes in the Bad Seeds’ debut album, From Her to Eternity, to the revelation that Christ was an artist which was Blake’s vision of Jesus (in his edited collection, The Art of Nick Cave). The most profound lyrical connection to the earlier poet is to be found in the 1990 track, “A Weeping Song”. It was David Fallon, in his “Blakean Notes in 1990s Pop Music”, who first pointed out that the song, included on the album The Good Son, was a contrary from Songs of Experience to match “Laughing Song” in Innocence, going on to repeat Wellberry’s observations on “The Hammer Song” and adding further allusions in Murder Ballads. Certainly in the 1990s, William Blake seems to have been very much on Nick Cave’s mind. (In Blake 2.0, edited by Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly and Jason Whittaker, p.250.)
I would go further than Fallon to consider just how important the connection between “A Weeping Song” and Blake is. Cave does not merely allude to the earlier Romantic – which, as has been demonstrated here, is a repeated feature of the singer’s work. No: nearly 200 years after the publication of the original, Nick Cave decided to write another song of experience. This, for me, represents one of the most astonishing acts of imagination in the field of musical reception of Blake. Again and again the poet is set to music or even adapted more allusively by various performers, but to extend one of Blake’s most popular collections demonstrates a level of love and admiration that goes far beyond anything else encountered musically. The connection is also one that demonstrates Cave’s understanding of the deceptive simplicity of the earlier writer, whereby simple repetitions operate both musically and thematically to create a doorway to eternity via the simplest language of children.
Where Blake writes:
When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He. (E11)
This is a weeping song
A song in which to weep
While all the men and women sleep
This is a weeping song
But I won’t be weeping long
As with Blake’s Songs, the spare economy of these words is allusive rather than diminutive, part of two different worlds – innocence and experience – where the simplicity of childhood vision sees a world beyond everyday normality. This is one of the means by which poetry can elevate us into visions of eternity.
Which leads, ultimately, to Cave’s most recent album, Ghosteen. I am fully aware that, like a witchfinder general, I am often keen to sniff out Blake wherever I can find him. This article is not intended as a review of Ghosteen, which I am still very much slowly coming to understand, but as I have demonstrated the singer-songwriter’s interest in William Blake is both very longstanding and far from superficial. At least one reviewer, Elizabeth Aubrey for the NME, has drawn attention to the echoes of William Blake in lines such as “It isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be / With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief / and everybody hanging from a tree” from the song “Sun Forest”. Such echoes are certainly there, and the musical style of the album continues that of its haunting predecessor, Skeleton Tree, the first album released after the tragic death of his son. The song that electrified me was “Fireflies”, which opens:
Jesus lying in his mother’s arms
Is a photon released from a dying star
We move through the forest at night
The sky is full of momentary light
And everything we need is just too far
We are photons released from a dying star
We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar
And everything is distant as the stars
I am here and you are where you are
The image invoked here – Jesus as photon from a dying star – is perhaps something closer to a piece that John Berryman (another of Cave’s favourite poems) might write, and yet in the line “We are the fireflies a child has trapped in a jar” I cannot help but hear another lyric by William Blake, “The Fly”:
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
In the hands of another poet, this would be nihilism, and in the hands of another singer “Fireflies” would be an equally empty vision of death. Yet for Cave – guided by, I would argue, William Blake as much as those “wonderful prose poems” of the New Testament – what we come to in Ghosteen is that post-secular quest for a world of eternity, one that owes nothing to the religion of stocks and stones and everything to the creative imagination.