August 12, 2015

William Blake and “the Imagination Which Liveth Forever” 

book rev

On the last day of his life, August 12, 1827, at 3 Fountain Court, off the Strand in London, William Blake, who was born in Soho in November 1757, stopped working and turned to Catherine, his wife of 45 years. “Stay, Kate!” he said, “keep just as you are — I’ll draw your portrait — for you’ve ever been an angel to me.” What followed that last drawing “has been told more than once in print,” and “can never be told without a sense of some strange and sweet meaning,” Swinburne writes, picturing “how, as Blake lay, with all the tides of his life setting towards the deep final sleep, he made and sang new fragments of verse,” which his wife heard as “songs of joy and triumph.” After telling her that they would never be parted, that he would be with her always, he died, says one witness, “in a most glorious manner.”

With the help of Peter Ackroyd’s definitive biography, Blake (Knopf 1995), it’s possible to visualize the scene that took place in the “plain, red-brick house of three stories” adjacent to the future site of opera impresario D’Oyly-Carte’s luxury hotel, the Savoy. The Blakes had moved into two rooms on the first floor in the spring of 1820. From their bedroom they could see a section of the Thames “like a bar of gold” between the buildings on either side of the court. In the other room there was a small fireplace, a table and chairs, and the table Blake worked on. As he busied himself with sketches, watercolors and engravings to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy, he looked more the working man than the artist, his clothes “threadbare, and his grey trousers … worn black and shiny in front, like a mechanic’s.” The rooms were “clean and orderly,” however, “everything in its place,” and the voices of children could be heard in the courtyard below. Listening, Blake was heard to say, “This is heaven.” One among those children, a young girl who had seen him on the street, with his “uncommonly bright eyes,” asked her father who he was, and was told, “He is a strange man. He thinks he sees spirits.”

The “Real Man”

“I cannot consider death as any thing but a removing from one room to another,” was Blake’s response when told of the death of an old friend. Yet six months before he died, the idea of “the removal” from Fountain Court to a house where he could be more properly looked after filled his mind with “terrible fear.” The cause of his determination to stay put, he admits in a letter, is “intellectual peculiarity, that must be myself alone shut up in myself, or reduced to nothing.”

In April 1827 he writes that he has been “very near the gates of death” and has “returned very weak and an old man, feeble and tottering, but not in spirit and life, not in the real man, the imagination which liveth for ever.” The same letter gives an idea of the work Blake and his wife were engaged in: “I am now painting a set of the Songs of Innocence and Experience for a friend at ten guineas. The last work I produced is a poem entitled Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, but find that to print it will cost my time the amount of Twenty Guineas. One I have Finishd. It contains 100 plates, but it is not likely I shall get a customer for it.” Just before his death, he was busy working on the image of a giant deity known as The Ancient of Days (shown here), an early composition he continued “making beautiful in color as already grand in design.” This was the vision he saw “hovering at the top of his staircase” and that “made a more powerful impression upon his mind than all he had ever been visited by.” In time that image, like so many other words and images created in the cottage industry of his workshop, found its way into the 20th and 21st century on all manner of decorative objects, cards, textiles, plates, and posters.

Flash Forward to 1965

Fifty years ago this May in a London alleyway called the Savoy Steps within yards of the spot where Blake sang his last song, Bob Dylan is displaying and tossing aside the flash cards of the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” while Allen Ginsberg, whose life was changed forever when he heard Blake’s voice in Harlem, silently prowls and pontificates on the fringes. Speaking of posters, sales of The Ancient of Days can’t compete in the pop culture marketplace with those of the poet and singer seen in the opening moments of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back. While it’s doubtful that Ginsberg and Dylan picked that alleyway knowing how close they would be to the place where Blake breathed and sang his last (Dylan happened to be staying at the Savoy after finishing his U.K. tour), they shared the connection and would get together in 1971 to compose, play, and record songs from Blake’s work including “Nurse’s Song,” “A Dream,” and the best known of his poems, “Tyger, Tyger,” which Dylan incorporated decades later into his song for John Lennon, “Roll On John,” where “burning bright” is the refrain coming round to its source in the penultimate verse: “Tiger tiger, burning bright/I pray the lord my soul to keep/In the forest of the night/Cover him over and let him sleep.”

Blake in the Culture

William Blake was an inspirational force in the culture of the 60s. Van Morrison conjures him in more than one song (William Blake and the Eternals, standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy”) and Blake helped change the course of Patti Smith’s life when a childhood visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art revealed that “to be an artist was to see what others could not.” In her song, “My Blakean Year,” the refrain is “One road was paved in gold, one road was just a road.”

In Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, a character named William Blake (Johnny Depp) unwittingly serves as a reincarnation of the poet for a well-read Indian named Nobody, who recites lines and passages from The Auguries of Innocence, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (“Expect poison from standing water”), and The Everlasting Gospel. There’s also a prostitute named Thel, after Blake’s Book of Thel, whose violent death in the film alludes to Blake’s poem, “The Sick Rose” (“O rose, thou art sick!/The invisible worm/That flies in the night,/In the howling storm,/Has found out thy bed,/Of crimson joy,/And his dark secret love/Does thy life destroy”). The soundtrack album features Johnny Depp reading Blake’s poetry.

These are only a few of the instances of Blake’s continuing impact on the consciousness of our time, in and out of academia and publishing, folk music and rock and roll, genres like fantasy and science fiction, in art, graphic novels, film, and television. In the BBC’s Top 100 Britons List, conducted by survey in 2002, Blake, who died in relative obscurity, scorned or forgotten by the literati, ranks 38th after Churchill (no. 1) and John Lennon (no. 8) and ahead of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlie Chaplin, Tony Blair, Henry VIII, Florence Nightengale, George Harrison, Chaucer, Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Bono, and Johnny Rotten, among 62 others. Without going into the reason why such lists are not to be taken seriously (Princess Di is two spots ahead of Shakespeare), what it says about Blake’s presence in our time is worth pointing out. Keats, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Tennyson, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, and W.B. Yeats are not on the list. Nor is Wordsworth, who once said of Blake, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”

Blake in Our Lives

A little over 39 years ago in the maternity ward of the recently demolished Princeton Medical Center on Witherspoon Street, a couple and their newborn baby were being detained by the hospital authorities. Not that they’d done anything criminal. It was just a question of identity. Before leaving, they were told they had to have a middle name for the infant. The task of arriving at a first name had been grueling enough. But a middle name? Was it really necessary? Couldn’t they phone it in later maybe?

The solution came in a handwritten card received that day from a fellow graduate student at Rutgers. It said:

I have no name;

I am but two days old.

What shall I call thee?

I happy am,

Joy is my name.

Sweet joy befall thee!

The poem “Infant Joy” was from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. No name, two days old — after exchanging a look, the parents wrote the name Blake on the form, and they were free to go.

The quotes from the letters are from the Centenary Edition of Blake’s Poetry and Prose edited by Geoffrey Keynes (Nonesuch 1927). Once again the Princeton Public Library provided an essential source, the Ackroyd biography. My copy of Swinburne’s William Blake (Chatto and Windus 1906) was bought decades ago at the Old York Bookshop in New Brunswick. I also consulted the facsimile edition of Songs of Innocence, which was a wedding present. The poster of the Ancient of Days hung on the wall above my desk when we lived in Bristol in 1973-74. Another Blake poster was above my wife’s desk. It was definitely a Blakean Year.