Setting William Blake to music

Page 1

by Joseph Andrew Thompson

My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, yet its perfect verse – a mix of hymn, nursery rhyme, and ballad – spoke to the mature listener. This was a book from a different era, with its own norms, but in mine, I had not yet encountered such a juxtaposition. I admittedly became a ‘Blake-head’, and though I went on to immerse myself in his extraordinary body of work, I have since returned again and again to this songbook with great joy.

 

As it does to so many Blake admirers, ‘A Poison Tree’ has always stood out to me amongst the collection’s poems. Blake placed the moral at the beginning, in a uniquely metered quatrain that serves as a rhyming proverb, complete even if read apart from the rest of the poem. Its meaning is simple: Speak your anger and it will dissipate, but bury it and it will grow. More so, voicing your anger is natural and perhaps preferred when directed at friends. With enemies, though, the opposite is true. It is from this second scenario that the dark narrative of the poem develops, laden with metaphor. In short, it relays that suppressed wrath can grow like a tree, which may one day bear a poisonous, yet tempting, fruit. Around this tree the fates of the speaker and his foe intertwine. Though Blake spoke to the conscience of his own time and culture, what makes ‘A Poison Tree’ appealing to so many is his use of universal imagery. With basic, easily recognized, and relatable symbols (friend, foe, anger, tears, fears, forbidden fruit, etc.), Blake tells an intriguing parable that is left open to interpretation. It is applicable across all cultures and eras, conveying a struggle that is common to all mankind.

In the title of the book, Blake refers to the poems as ‘Songs’, and it has been said he would at times sing them in social gatherings to the delight of those in attendance. Indeed, the opening song, ‘Introduction’, contains these couplets:

Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee, (1-2)

Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe,
Sing thy songs of happy chear: (9-10)

And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear. (19-20)

 

That these are works of a musical nature is evident, and as a composer, I have always found it hard to read this collection without imagining the kinds of melodies Blake might have paired with his words. In keeping with his storybook design, I hear them as simple, memorable songs, at times sweet, and at others, sinister. They might be sung in a playful voice, and when accompanied, illustrated by a vivid musical texture.

 

It is in this manner that I therefore approached the poem, when, while writing and recording my band Astralingua’s upcoming album Safe Passage, I elected to set ‘A Poison Tree’ to music. I used a basic ABAB form, alternating keys, and wrote the melody to be catchy, slightly taunting, and with enough space and pause throughout for the consideration of each line. Imagining the song as  something that a band of minstrels might play before a royal court – a theatre piece of sorts – I coloured it with mandolins and lutes, hoping to conjure in the mind of the listener a sense of the Old World that serves as the setting for many a fairy tale. I aimed for a version that would be fun and entertaining, yet still contain a deep message for the King to ponder.

 

Though only four stanzas long, ‘A Poison Tree’ is a poem of many layers, and fits well within the overarching themes of Safe Passage. The album discusses mortality, isolation, struggle, and the movement between worlds, all the while asking the questions: What is Safe Passage? From where to where is it granted? Who or what provides it? Who denies it? ‘A Poison Tree’ drives further this enquiry with its enigmatic tale of wrath. Is the narrator consumed or satisfied by his anger? Does the unsuspecting foe simply fall prey to a the narrator’s trap, or is it his own corrupt thirst for the ‘shiny apple’ that is his undoing? For what else is this narrative a metaphor? Finally, the duality of worlds operating within the poem – that of the schemer and that of the deceived – are mirrored in the other songs of Safe Passage, which intimate dreams within dreams and parallel realities dissolving into each other.

It has pleased me to no end that I should find such occasion to incorporate something of Blake’s in my own creative work. It is a union, an homage, and the continuation of tradition. Most importantly, it spreads even further the work of a great visionary Master. The world needs more poets and men like William Blake and with this adaption I hope to delight those that know him and introduce him to those that yet do not.   Enjoy!

 

Astralingua’s upcoming album Safe Passage is released on March 8th, 2019. It is now available for pre-order at Bandcamp.  

Joseph Andrew Thompson is a composer, musician, writer, and the creative mind behind the duo Astralingua. With a background in classical music and a keen interest in the spaces between this world and the next, he draws inspiration from classic literature, folklore, philosophy, astronomy, and the musics of old. Wandering the Land of Nod, he is ever at work on the next song. www.astralingua.com 

 

 

09.07.2019

‘Echo and allusion’: Tennyson and Wordsworth

by Jayne Thomas   In his 1879 essay on Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold maintains that by the publication of Tennyson’s 1842 Poems ‘the ear and applause of the great body of poetry-readers’ turn decisively toward Tennyson and away from Wordsworth, a transition of which Wordsworth himself was perhaps aware. Aubrey de Vere records a meeting between […]

Read More
16.06.2019

Childhood, Nature, Light and Sound:
Wordsworth and Mahler

by Fred Blick There is a rewarding connection between William Wordsworth’s literary work and Gustav Mahler’s musical compositions. They were both important exponents of Romanticism. Romantic artists throughout the nineteenth century were identifiable as being concerned with the pleasures, fears and pains of individuals and their relationship with Nature. I intend to show that the […]

Read More
21.05.2019

The ‘Rock of Names’

by Ian O. Brodie Behind and above the Museum at William Wordsworth’s Grasmere home, Dove Cottage, we find the celebrated, perhaps even infamous, Rock of Names, also known as ‘Sara’s Rock’. This reconstructed slab of a Lakeland volcanic outcrop used to be found, in situ, around half-way between the homes of the Wordsworths in Grasmere […]

Read More
24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More

Diets of the Romantic poets

Page 1

by Andrew McConnell Stott
Cartoon by Mike Barfield

The most notable meal in the history of English Romantic poetry took place on a Sunday afternoon in late December, 1817, as a garrulous group of men assembled at the London home of the artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon.
The guests included William Wordsworth, the essayist Charles Lamb, one of Haydon’s models, a gatecrasher, and a young unknown named John Keats. According to Haydon’s diary, it was a great success—a big boozy incitement full of laughter, argument, and discussion of topics as diverse as Homer, mathematics, and postage stamps—all in the shadow of the host’s enormous, jostling masterpiece, Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, which hung on the dining-room wall.
Christ's_Entry_into_Jerusalem
But while Haydon’s “immortal dinner” is never to be forgotten as a high point of Romantic conviviality, there is no record of what the men actually ate. This is perhaps not so surprising given that Romantic poetry is largely unconcerned with food beyond the occasional ripening ear of corn or grapes dangling above the lyre. But even poets have to eat—so what do we know of their diets?
Perhaps it’s telling that the most influential Romanticist was also the least concerned with food. Wordsworth paid scant attention to gustatory matters, celebrating at his table, as in his work, simple country provisions such as fresh bread and milk, cheese, and “hasty pudding,” a gruel of oatmeal boiled in brine. He did, however, accept edible gifts from admirers, and was once given an entire calf’s head.

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

In contrast, William Blake loved to eat and his wife Catherine was an excellent cook. She also had a habit of serving him up with empty plates as a reminder that he needed to start bringing home some money. Habitually broke, Blake maintained temperate appetites, eating cold mutton and drinking pints of porter from the local pub. (He was particularly offended by wine glasses, which he considered an absurd affectation.) Blake also accepted gifts from admirers, and having once been given a bottle of walnut oil that he didn’t know what to do with, decided to drink it all in one go.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

Two decades of opium addiction wreaked havoc on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s digestion (one of its chief side-effects was an awful, binding constipation). Subject to frequent and recurring “bowel attacks” that made him “weep and sweat and moan and scream,” he was off solid food for weeks at a time, and accordingly ate a lot of broth. He even dabbled in vegetarianism for a while, but believed it gave him insomnia. When he was well, Coleridge loved to go out to dinner, and his hosts never failed to find him the consummate companion—witty, erudite, able to recite long poems by heart, and with more natural intelligence than any writer of his generation—although he could also be a handful. At one dinner party, encouraged by the host, he smashed a window and several wine glasses, and started pitching the cutlery at the tumblers. Coleridge particularly loved apple dumplings.

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

If the first generation of Romantic poets had an unhappy relationship with food, the second were little better. Lord Byron, scarred by being a “fat school-boy,” had transformed himself into a “leguminous-eating Ascetic” by the time he went up to Cambridge in 1805. But the fat wanted him, and he spent his entire life dieting, caught up in a vomitous cycle of binge and purge, fasting all week and then gorging himself on “a pint of bucelles [Portuguese wine] and fish.” While convinced that he always felt better when he was a bit heavier, he was similarly certain that the extra weight caused him to misbehave, and that it was his duty to “starve the devil out.” Byron rarely accepted dinner invitations and claimed to be especially repulsed by the sight of women eating, although at least some of this can be attributed to the creation of his own myth. When Byron went to Samuel Rogers’ house for dinner, he refused soup, fish, mutton, and wine, and when asked what he did eat, replied, “nothing but hard biscuits and soda-water” (Rogers eventually served him potatoes, “bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar.”) A few days later, Rogers met Byron’s best friend John Cam Hobhouse, and asked him how long Byron intended to continue with his diet. “Just as long as you continue to notice it,” was the reply.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall, National Portrait Gallery, on display at Dove Cottage

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was prone to forgetting where he was and who he was married to, frequently became so absorbed in thought that he also forgot to eat. A vegetarian from his teenage years, Shelley’s pamphlet On the Vegetable System of Diet (1813) equated rearing livestock and eating meat with man’s murderous urge to war and dominion. When he did eat, his sweet tooth held sway over an array of jam tarts, penny buns, and “panada”—a kind of boiled dough covered in sugar and raisins—and glasses of “spurious lemonade.” He also liked to test the inspirational qualities of various foods, and once badly poisoned himself by eating laurel leaves. Laurel is the garland of the poets, and also contains prussic acid. He also liked to lick tree sap.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, National Portrait Gallery

Finally, as poor, sickly John Keats spent most of his life battling the twin poetic evils of poverty and illness, he was forced to endure many months on restrictive diets that were intended to restore his health, but only made him weaker. When in good spirits, he was particularly partial to game—hare, partridge, grouse, woodcock and pheasant, which it was the fashion to hang almost to the point of putrefaction before cooking. He washed it all down with buckets of claret, and while the stereotypical image of a weakling Keats doesn’t really permit for him to be an heroic drinker, claret, he said, transformed him into “Hermes.” It was “the only palate affair I am at all sensual in.”

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

Andrew McConnell Stott’s books include The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness, and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, which won the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron which we review here. He is Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His Twitter ID is @amstott1789.
Andy Stott

09.07.2019

‘Echo and allusion’: Tennyson and Wordsworth

by Jayne Thomas   In his 1879 essay on Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold maintains that by the publication of Tennyson’s 1842 Poems ‘the ear and applause of the great body of poetry-readers’ turn decisively toward Tennyson and away from Wordsworth, a transition of which Wordsworth himself was perhaps aware. Aubrey de Vere records a meeting between […]

Read More
16.06.2019

Childhood, Nature, Light and Sound:
Wordsworth and Mahler

by Fred Blick There is a rewarding connection between William Wordsworth’s literary work and Gustav Mahler’s musical compositions. They were both important exponents of Romanticism. Romantic artists throughout the nineteenth century were identifiable as being concerned with the pleasures, fears and pains of individuals and their relationship with Nature. I intend to show that the […]

Read More
21.05.2019

The ‘Rock of Names’

by Ian O. Brodie Behind and above the Museum at William Wordsworth’s Grasmere home, Dove Cottage, we find the celebrated, perhaps even infamous, Rock of Names, also known as ‘Sara’s Rock’. This reconstructed slab of a Lakeland volcanic outcrop used to be found, in situ, around half-way between the homes of the Wordsworths in Grasmere […]

Read More
24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More

Romantic readings: Jerusalem, by William Blake

Page 1

by Pamela Davenport

William Blake was a favourite poet both for me and my father, Jack. Blake was a poet, painter and engraver, who used his artistic skills to condemn the institutions of government, army and the church, and the way the poor and vulnerable people were disenfranchised and marginalised. Some people view Blake as a complex character and an isolated mystic, seeing “a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour”. However, to me Blake was a radical prophetic poet and a visionary. At school, I was introduced to Tyger Tyger , and I became fascinated with the brilliant optical illusion and imagination contained within the poem. “Tyger Tyger burning bright In the forests of the night”. The pounding rhythm of the poem was an earworm, with the words constantly repeating themselves in my head.
However, it was through my Dad, who loved reading but was denied the chance of higher education, that I came to see Jerusalem as a fascinating commentary on industrial society. Jerusalem was my Dad’s favourite poem. I have lovely memories of how he would laugh out loud when key ‘institutions’ used it as their anthem, given the anti-establishment views the poem expresses. I also remember how pleased he was to see it used in the Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games in 2012.
Since Sir Hubert Parry set the poem to music in 1916, Jerusalem has gained in popularity. For some people the Last Night of The Proms would not be complete without the rousing renditions of this beautiful piece of work, and many it would be their preferred national anthem. But personally, I have never been entirely sure that Jerusalem fits comfortably with Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. As the poem gained in popularity, people have interpreted it as a view of an idealised England, but this distracts from the ideals and values which Blake hoped to express. The poem is open to many different interpretations, and some see it as an expression of nationalism. But to my Dad, Blake was far from a nationalist, and a much more complex religious and revolutionary character.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

This is apparent at the beginning of the poem, where Blake wonders whether Jesus once visited England to establish a society of universal peace. “And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?” The rest of the poem forms a series of questions, which are left for the reader to answer, from their own thoughts and imaginations.
The poem then moves quickly onto the clouded hills and the unforgettable image of the dark, satanic mills. Originating from Lancashire and from a family of mill workers, these words are tremendously powerful to me. Even in the twentieth century, life for mill workers was harsh, with long working days, excessive heat, air thick with cotton dust, and the deafening noise from the machinery. Health and well-being was not a major consideration. The success of the factory system came at a cost, a human cost.
Jerusalem contrasts the rural ideal of a harmonious and peaceful society with the crushing reality of an industrialised world: “And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark Satanic Mills?” The poem then becomes a rallying call, and Blake demonstrates his determination to fight for justice and change. In this way, the dark satanic mills became my Dad’s and Blake’s reality, as the green and pleasant land was not.
When I hear Jerusalem I think of my Dad and the values he instilled in me: for me, the poem represents the struggle for human not national identity, whether that’s against the ‘dark satanic mills’, or other more contemporary problems. That’s why I believe that it resonates with those who have no faith, as well as those who do. Like all favourite poems, Jerusalem has meant different things at different times of my life. I saw the film Suffragette, which tells the story of women’s fight for votes, and a fairer and more equal society. It reminded me that the rights to the poem were owned for many years by the Suffragette Movement. The prison cells, the forced feeding, and the continued fight for equality became their own version of the ‘dark Satanic mills’. For women it would take many years for any form of Jerusalem to be ‘builded here’.
So whatever the interpretation of Jerusalem, one thing is certain: the poem has staying power and has ensured that William Blake is still remembered today. His words are as relevant now as they were in the early 19th century: “I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land”. To my Dad and me, the poem became an expression for our shared desire for social change, and our hope for a better future. We sang it with pride at Dad’s funeral, a fitting tribute.

Pamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings including the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on social Care Values in Practice, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.Pamela D

09.07.2019

‘Echo and allusion’: Tennyson and Wordsworth

by Jayne Thomas   In his 1879 essay on Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold maintains that by the publication of Tennyson’s 1842 Poems ‘the ear and applause of the great body of poetry-readers’ turn decisively toward Tennyson and away from Wordsworth, a transition of which Wordsworth himself was perhaps aware. Aubrey de Vere records a meeting between […]

Read More
16.06.2019

Childhood, Nature, Light and Sound:
Wordsworth and Mahler

by Fred Blick There is a rewarding connection between William Wordsworth’s literary work and Gustav Mahler’s musical compositions. They were both important exponents of Romanticism. Romantic artists throughout the nineteenth century were identifiable as being concerned with the pleasures, fears and pains of individuals and their relationship with Nature. I intend to show that the […]

Read More
21.05.2019

The ‘Rock of Names’

by Ian O. Brodie Behind and above the Museum at William Wordsworth’s Grasmere home, Dove Cottage, we find the celebrated, perhaps even infamous, Rock of Names, also known as ‘Sara’s Rock’. This reconstructed slab of a Lakeland volcanic outcrop used to be found, in situ, around half-way between the homes of the Wordsworths in Grasmere […]

Read More
24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

Read More
30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

Read More
05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

Read More
23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

Read More
09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

Read More

Exhibition review: William Blake: Apprentice and Master

Page 1

An exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, until March 1st 2015
By Polly Marshall Taplin

This peerless exhibition, at the Ashmolean until 1st March 2015, is laid out in three rooms representing key phases in Blake’s career. There are prints, books, paintings, copper plates, sculptures and thoughtful, unpatronizing gallery texts, which explain parallel evolutions in Blake’s thought process and engraving technique.

We start with Blake’s education. “Thank God I never was sent to school,” he said, instead attending Henry Pars’s drawing classes from the age of 10. Young Blake had an allowance from his father to buy casts of antiquities for drawing practice, and prints at auction.

At 14, Blake was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire. An identifiable work from this time is an engraving after Michelangelo of “Joseph of Arimathea among The Rocks of Albion. Engraved by W Blake 1773 from an old Italian drawing. This is one of the Gothic Artists who build the Cathedrals in what we call the Dark Ages Wandering about in sheep skins & goat skins of whom the World was not worthy.” Blake returned to this engraving in around 1818 and the two are displayed side by side.

Blake was sent out of Basire’s workshop to draw Gothic monuments in Westminster Abbey for five years, and drawings, possibly by Blake, of Medieval effigies, are on display. In May 1774, permission was given to open King Edward I’s tomb. The drawings arising are here, unattributed but part of the Society of Antiquaries of London: Blake Westminster Abbey collection.
Dominating the first room is an enormous copper plate 660mmx1220mm of Le Champ du Drap D’Or, with Henry VIII in his pomp, the largest engraved plate made in the eighteenth century.
Blake’s engravings after Hogarth, with scenes from the Beggar’s Opera, are a particular delight.

Towards the end of this first room/period of Blake’s career, we see his first foray into published writing, with a copy of his Poetical Sketches, published privately in 1798. A sheet of pen and ink horses and lions intrigue, entwined with Blake’s early attempts to sign his name in mirror-writing, essential for the creation of his illuminated books.

The second room displays mostly prints. The first is Blake’s The Approach of Doom, a deeply moving artwork inspired by the death in 1787 of his younger brother Robert, aged only 24. The technique Blake invented in 1788 was inspired by a “visionary imagination” in which the dead Robert appeared to him and described a new process, enabling Blake to etch his poetry with an illustration, on to copper plate. Also on display are books from Blake’s collection that inspired this process.

The exhibition is laid out so that the development of technique is reflected in the choice of work on display, which reveals the evolution of Blake’s craft as both engraver and poet.
Here are inter al. Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, Visions of the Daughters of Albion; here not only The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but also Blake’s own manuscript notebook for it, open at a drawing from Paradise Lost. Hard by, a computer screen displays the British Library’s digital copy of the manuscript, allowing a virtual flick through this masterpiece.
At the centre of the exhibition is a reproduction of Blake’s workshop in Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, with its engraving press and tools seemingly waiting for Blake to burst through the door and start printing.

The exhibition then progresses through a display demonstrating the development of colour printing, showing how LeBlon split colour into the cyan, yellow and magenta we still use in printer ink today.

Blake’s large colour work simply takes one’s breath away. Newton and Nebuchadnezzar are here, and three versions of The House of Death, which lend a close insight into Blake’s artistic thinking.

In the last room, we come to the big tempura canvasses of the Heads of the Poets commissioned for the library in Felpham, Sussex where Blake had decamped from his native London. Milton and Dante are on loan from Manchester City Galleries.

In the corner, Blake’s life mask meditates upon his huge engraving of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, and a beautiful selection of late wood engravings that show a style that evidently influenced Samuel Palmer.

In the section called The Interpreter and the Ancients are examples of work by Palmer, and George Richmond, Blake’s latter disciples who hint at the man’s long reach into history.
This exhibition is refreshing in its focus on Blake as craftsman rather than ‘mad mystic’, though we see some notes damning Swedenborg from the margins: “LIES AND PRIESTCRAFT.”
There persists a received narrative of Blake’s career, that he was regrettably obliged to make a living as an engraver, due to his ‘real work’ of poetry and painting being ahead of its time, casting Blake as some autodidact idiot savant with a direct line to God.

This erudite exhibition gives the lie to this snobbish notion that a craftsperson is lower down the food chain than a ‘proper’ artist. Indeed, as you emerge from the exhibition with a headful of Blake’s genius, you come across a man in the gift shop, patiently, slowly dobbing blue-black ink on to intricate copper plates, then passing them through a real, old-style press with huge handles powered by nothing but human muscle. This craftsman in his brown apron is none other than the curator himself, Michael Phillips, a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford, who also trained as a printmaker to replicate Blake’s illuminated books.

There is so much more to wonder at here. I will be back for a second viewing, as this is a rare exhibition of one of Albion’s greatest creators, brought together with rare perception. I cannot recommend Blake: Apprentice and Master highly enough.
www.ashmolean.org
www.williamblakeprints.co.uk
#Ashblake
Polly Marshall
Polly Marshall is a writer and playwright with an obsession for the
Romantics. She received the Arts Council New Writing Drama Award 2000 for
her play Allegra on the brief life of Byron’s lovechild with Claire
Clairmont.

09.07.2019

‘Echo and allusion’: Tennyson and Wordsworth

by Jayne Thomas   In his 1879 essay on Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold maintains that by the publication of Tennyson’s 1842 Poems ‘the ear and applause of the great body of poetry-readers’ turn decisively toward Tennyson and away from Wordsworth, a transition of which Wordsworth himself was perhaps aware. Aubrey de Vere records a meeting between […]

Read More
16.06.2019

Childhood, Nature, Light and Sound:
Wordsworth and Mahler

by Fred Blick There is a rewarding connection between William Wordsworth’s literary work and Gustav Mahler’s musical compositions. They were both important exponents of Romanticism. Romantic artists throughout the nineteenth century were identifiable as being concerned with the pleasures, fears and pains of individuals and their relationship with Nature. I intend to show that the […]

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21.05.2019

The ‘Rock of Names’

by Ian O. Brodie Behind and above the Museum at William Wordsworth’s Grasmere home, Dove Cottage, we find the celebrated, perhaps even infamous, Rock of Names, also known as ‘Sara’s Rock’. This reconstructed slab of a Lakeland volcanic outcrop used to be found, in situ, around half-way between the homes of the Wordsworths in Grasmere […]

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24.04.2019

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver   There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. […]

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30.03.2019

A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant   A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as […]

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05.03.2019

Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the […]

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23.02.2019

When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds   The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how […]

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09.02.2019

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, […]

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    Cumbria, LA22 9SH

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