Friday 3 August 2007

Letter 4

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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England

As this is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet, painter and engraver, William Blake, and August 12 is the anniversary of his death in 1827, I would like to say a few words about this remarkable figure. At mid-day on Sunday, 12 August 2007 the Blake Society will be unveiling a new memorial to Blake at Bunhill Fields Cemetery, where he is buried in an unmarked grave. The exact location of his grave is recorded in the Dissenters graveyard and there will be shortly something more to see at Bunhill.

When I first started visiting London in the early 1970s, William Blake was inextricably linked to the city and the counter-culture that attracted me there.
I had recently bought Blake: Complete Writings with Variant Readings Edited by Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford 1969), read Michael Horovitz’s poetry anthology, Children of Albion (Penguin 1969) and his comments on Blake in New Departures magazine, seen Allen Ginsberg on television recalling being visited by the vision of Blake in 1948, and was finding books at Compendium Bookshop, in Camden High Street, called The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941) by Kenneth Patchen and The Kodak Mantra Diaries by Iain Sinclair, published by the Albion Village Press (1971). Blake was linked to the Beats and the hippies as a kind of founding grandfather. At the time this all seemed very special.

However, it was not particularly special at all. Within a year or so I discovered that the 1960s bohemianism was something of a replay of the 1860s complete with trips to Morocco and India, dropping out and smoking hash, free love, a reverence for and study of ancient religious texts, a fascination with the occult, and so on.

It was in the 1860’s that William Blake began to be seen as special and work began on interpreting his considerable output. Since then his work has been critically interpreted by successive generations of bohemian writers and artists. From Algernon Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites in Chelsea, through John Ruskin, W.B. Yeats, Geoffrey Keynes, Ruthven Todd, Kathleen Raine to Michael Horovitz, E.P. Thompson and Peter Ackroyd.

The first Blake biography was The Life of William Blake (1863) by Alexander Gilchrist. Wonderfully vivid and sensational, based on interviews with many of Blake’s surviving friends, it reveals that Blake conversed with spirits, saw angels in trees, sunbathed naked, reciting Paradise Lost, with his wife, Catherine, ‘like Adam and Eve’, and greeted his own death with song and faith in the everlasting. This book completely transformed Blake’s reputation from being a generally forgotten and ridiculed figure into one of eccentric substance.

Gilchrist, the neighbour of the Carlyle’s and Rossetti’s in Chelsea, died before the book was complete and it was his wife, Anne, that finished the work, with the help of the Rossetti brothers, and kept it in print. Anne later fell in love with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, writing the first critical essay on Whitman and went to live in Philadelphia, with her children, in an attempt to become his wife. They became life long friends.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a very bohemian household in Chelsea and amongst his early guests was Algernon Swinburne, an innovative poet and excessive character roughly in the mould of Blake. Swinburne wrote William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868), the first substantial critical work on Blake and like the Rossetti’s helped track down Blake’s publications. The Pre-Raphaelites clearly saw Blake as a like-minded forebear that was worth celebrating. (Incidentally there is a fine essay on Swinburne by Veronica Forrest-Thomson on the on-line journal, Jacket issue 20.) Swinburne established the link between Blake and the antinomian tradition and to some extent framed the reference by which we see Blake. By ‘antinomian’ the Victorians mean any religious group that does not obey the moral law of its leaders and does not see such behaviour as necessary for salvation. I prefer to use the term Dissenter as it emerged from the Seventeenth century as it implies and involves both a political and spiritual dimension and to see the alchemical and Neo-Platonist traditions as they were transmitted from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the nineteenth as something separate again. This is what I gleaned from my contact with the remnants of the Powys family. Too often Blake criticism divides into lop-sidedness. I think that we need put the social, political and spiritual readings of Blake together. Moreover, we need to recognise that Blake was imbued in the late eighteenth century European alchemical and Neo-Platonist tradition and to look closely at where his use of language came from. In other words, we need to be historically specific.

Here is ‘London’ from The Songs of Experience (1793)

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

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

How the chimney sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appals;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

The poem concerns the mercantile city of London in the 1790s.

It begins with a first person narrator wandering each charter’d street, indicating with ‘each’ that it is the whole city under review, and registers the constrictions that he sees on every face. ‘Mark’ and ‘charter’d’ are repeated for emphasis. They embody the stanza’s dual sources.

‘Mark’ and the social ‘marking’ that Blake lists in the poem have a religious framework. The figure of the wanderer in the streets appears in Lamentations 4: 13-14 and in Ezekiel Ch 9: 4 where we read: ‘And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.’ Note the use of ‘sigh’ and ‘cry’ from stanza three.

‘Charter’d’ in the 1790s had a political connotation and refers to the ‘charter’ that gives rights as well as the ‘charter’ that established a monopoly and takes away rights. Blake uses ‘charter’d’ in both senses, stressing the loss of rights and implying that they are instruments of injustice. Blake’s involvement with the rights of man issue began in the late 1780s with his friendship with the St. Paul’s Churchyard bookseller and publisher, Joseph Johnson, with whom he socialised, and Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and other radical Dissenters published by Johnson. Blake also knew Tom Paine, who wrote ‘Every chartered town is an aristocratical monoploy’ in The Rights of Man (1791). The streets and rivers of London are reduced to the level of sameness by divisive social charters and are marked on the faces of the city. The ‘charter’d Thames’ is a reference to water rights and access to the river for trading and bathing. This is a time when London’s rivers are increasingly being used as rubbish dumps. By placing the rights issue within the context of London property, Blake instantly draws in an implicit history of struggle about access, boundaries and divisions between various authorities from the Palace of Westminster (King, Court and Parliament) with the people of the City of London. As a Londoner immersed in City history he knew about restrictions, the ‘every ban’ of stanza three.

In stanza two ‘In every cry in every man’ the narrator is himself implicated in the rottenness of society, much as the wanderer in the streets in Lamentations is polluted with blood. The stanza reinforces a sense of entrapment by its regular metrical beat and the stubborn insistence of ‘In’. The ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, linking objective manacles of repression and subjective failings, which he sees and hears, are present in his mind as well.

In stanza three the ‘I’ of the opening is replaced by ‘How’ linking the ‘Chimney sweeper’s cry’, the horror of which ‘appalls’, yet leads to inactivity and thus blackens the Church,
‘the hapless Soldier’s sigh’ caught up in a War not of his making, with blood running ‘down Palace walls’. The last line echoing both Lamentations 4, with its blind men polluted in blood, and by implication any recent bloody struggle.

In stanza four the victims from the dark underside of the Church, Crown and marriage speak. Line two’s ‘youthful Harlot’s curse’, can be read as both her shouting and passing on venereal disease to the Infant of line three and on to the marriage hearse of line four, all connected by a cash nexus. Blake ensures that the reader understands that this flow from one to the other is a process by the use of ‘How’ in line two. ‘How’ here also implies that this is a social transaction that is capable of being explored or refused. Mary Wollstonecraft and other radicals saw marriage without love as prostitution and wanted new rights for women.

The poem records the social marking of society, the blackening, daubing with blood, blasts, cursing in the streets and the shocking image of the ‘Marriage hearse’, which can be read as both anti-marriage and the outcome of venereal diseases. Note Blake writes ‘plagues’. The narrator is also marked and aware of the situation with its unavoidable logic that does not depend upon him at all. By the end of the poem these cries, sighs and curses that he hears are tangible signs of shame and active forces of destruction and through the use of the present tense are prophetic, illuminating and terrifying.

Blake made a great impression on the Pre-Raphaelites, including William Morris and the Kelmscott Press, and through them by extension, on the advent of, and visual image of, early Modernist poetry in fine-printed small press publications. The linking figure being W.B. Yeats, whom with Swinburne, was the reason for Ezra Pound moving to London in 1908. Yeats was inspired by Blake and William Morris in his desire to be published in handcrafted books, from the Dun Emer and Cuala Presses, using processes outside of mechanical production.

Yeats, published by Elkin Matthews At The Sign Of The Bodley Head in the 1890s, was involved in the literary side of the Art Nouveau movement that saw Dial (1889-97) magazine, the illustrated quarterly, The Yellow Book (1894-97) and The Rhymers Club books published. There was a renaissance of artisan hand-based printing linked to creating language for the eye. Pound, Williams, Marianne Moore, Oppen, Laura Riding, and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press carried on this tradition.
Poets began thinking more about spatial relations on the page as well as the designs used to frame their work. This work is being carried on today by such presses as Adastra Press in the US and Five Seasons Press in the UK.

Many of Yeats’ friends in the Rhymers Club, that used to meet upstairs at the Cheshire Cheese pub at Wine Office Court off Fleet Street, were followers of Blake. Poets such as Arthur Symons, John Todhunter, Ernest Dowson, met there to drink, smoke hash, and read their work aloud. They were also concerned with cracking the key to Blake’s symbolism. None more so than Yeats who with the artist, Edwin Ellis, produced the three volume Works of William Blake: Poetic, Symbolic and Critical in 1893. Yeats’ study of Blake and his circle, Swedenborg, the recently translated Cabbala, and Jacob Boehme, led to the re-discovery of an unknown prophetic book, ‘Vala, or the Four Zoas’, in the possession of the Linnell family.
Yeats saw that Blake’s Four Zoas, or mythological entities, corresponded to the four quarters of London and offered him metaphors and visions, based on alchemy, the elements and zodiac, for an Irish and Celtic revival.

Yeats and Ellis re-discovered other books and their work marked another key stage in the retrieval of Blake’s output.
Their work was continued and set on a more scholarly footing by Geoffrey Keynes (1887-1982), who first wrote to Yeats in 1913. Keynes was part of the intellectual aristocracy. The elder brother of the economist, John Maynard Keynes, he married Margaret Darwin, a grand daughter of Charles Darwin. Educated at Rugby School and Cambridge, he was a friend of the poet, Rupert Brooke and close to the Neo-Pagans as his brother was close to the Bloomsbury Group. The Neo-Pagans were a loose group of Fabian, back to nature bohemians that enjoyed camping and nude bathing. They accepted free love as a principle but not as a practice. Full of sexual tension, they were dedicated to leisure, art and personal freedom. Keynes became a Consultant Surgeon, specialising in blood transfusion, and spent his spare time on literary scholarship and bibliography. He edited and wrote a dozen books on Blake between 1925 and 1975 and kept on adding to Blake’s Complete Writings.

The work of Blake’s that I currently read most often is The Marriage of Heaven & Hell (1790-93). It is a work that I sense will receive more attention in the future. The Marriage consists of an Argument, The voice of the Devil, Memorable Fancies, the Proverbs of Hell and A Song of Liberty. In different editions plates 4, 14 and 15 are placed in a different order. The distinct sections do not form a sequential narrative. It thus appeals both to a post-modernist and historicist sensibility.

Marriage is an alchemical term for the union of male and female, sun and moon, and other opposites. Heaven and Hell immediately invokes Emmanuel Swedenborg’s 1778 Treatise Concerning Heaven and Hell and Jacob Boehme’s Heaven and Hell (1622), which repudiates any belief in eternal damnation.

The Marriage is an alchemical text written after Blake’s break with the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church and for the radical Swedenborgians who were anti-clerical, mystical and Masonic. After April 1789, the New Jerusalem Church began to impose restrictions on its members and no longer accepted sexual love as holy for every member. According to the Church minutes of meetings, there was a fierce battle over sexual rights and privileges, followed by the exclusion of radical freemasons for supporting the French Revolution. The issues behind The Marriage then are rights and liberties.

The Marriage employs inclusive and open meaning within a terminology derived from the seventeenth century mystical and alchemical tradition that was readily available in London bookshops and had been the same sources of dissent for John Milton and the Ranters. (The historian, E.P. Thompson pioneered this wider approach to the intellectual roots of Blake’s mythology in Witness Against The Beast (1993).) Blake takes from these sources, especially the mystical and metaphysical writings of Jacob Boehme and the alchemical philosophy of Fludd, Agrippa and Paracelsus, and produced his own private symbolism. At root this satire on Swedenborg is a fusion of theosophy that posits the spiritual tradition, an alchemical union of men and women, against Christian orthodoxy, with it its systems of thought from empirical rationalism based on simple either / or dualisms. It is in a way the philosophical primer to the Songs of Innocence and Experience. The text works away at attacking certain mental attitudes, ‘contraries’, and is a sustained attack on repression of the divine universe. It shows the reader distinct choices, the ‘contraries’, philosophical and lived dualisms, highlighting passion, the tiger’s wrath, excess, exuberance, energy against restraint, doubt, prudence and social control. It delineates two cultures the untamed devil’s and tamed angelic, a reference to the conservative Swedenborgians seemingly afraid of sexual liberty. Blake’s devil culture vigorously opposes the mental attitudes, the contraries that block sexual freedom, most powerfully expressed in the line ‘Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of religion’. References to the natural and social world are combined to celebrate human potential and diversity. Blake’s distinct contribution to Boehme’s theosophy, from which he derives his philosophy of time and eternity, is in the memorable epigrams, such as, ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time’, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’, ‘The cut worm forgives the plow’ and the child-like allegorical illustrations that are so dissimilar to those in seventeenth century alchemy.

For Boehme, Man is protected by time from sharing the complete suffering of God. He has, though, to share that suffering as the price of entry into eternity. To enter the eternal is to become open to all of the agonies of time and the vision of God, the Alpha & Omega, the eternally present at each time is present in all beings, including animals.

Everything for Blake is not only holy but has a unique nature and perception. The central idea in Boehme’s theosophy is that reality in both its physical and metaphysical aspects is a living entity in constant tension between affirmation and suppression of the potential that exists in unity. Contraries, dualisms, yes and no, define each other, bringing forth new forms, new substance within the unity. This is the fundamental philosophy behind The Marriage. Blake refuses any neutralisation and easy generalisation of good and evil, heaven and hell, angel and devil, by making the contrasts starker and open to wider meaning. They reside, as the title suggests, in divine man and woman, for whom union is essential. Each epigram, such as ‘The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’, offers a pithy reminder of how to live and is addressed to all religions, all prohibitions. They attempt to show that individuals, represented by animals as opposed to angels, have different attributes and temperaments that cannot be contained within rules and laws. They create a moral relativism showing that there is no absolute good and evil, citing Milton’s interchanging of Christ and the devil as an authority, and placing him with the narrator in the devil’s party. Blake’s citing of Milton and Paradise Lost references for his readers the opposition between the Ten Commandments, a code of prohibitions, and the Gospel of Jesus, a gospel of love and forgiveness, and the seventeenth century political opposition to the Moral Law.

Blake’s Marriage is an alchemical marriage of heaven and hell requiring the two contraries to remain in opposition, neither submitting to the other, and arises from the energy between both. It is, at once, both a spiritual and political position and Blake proceeds to defend the virtues of desire and energy as marks of liberty.

Since the late Victorian period, Blake has been seen as the exemplary figure of the self-published artisan printmaking poet. He acts, as it were, as a reminder of the processed book as commodity and of the ineffectualness of the poetry market place. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell satirises narrow and dogmatic thinking and offers the diversity of the human and animal world as the site of potential human development. Such a work seems particularly acute and perspicacious at a time of religious conflict, international terrorism and extreme climate change.