Scholar Jason Whittaker, who has written extensively on William Blake over a period of thirty years, shares his first encounters with the work of this visionary and why they led him to explore Blake’s reception in the contemporary world as well as in Blake’s own times. It’s a lifelong interest he shares with so many others that now brings us Global Blake, a new project and an online conference.
It was in a darkened room at Tate Britain – in the final days of the old millennium – that I saw the light.
This isn’t a metaphor. I was attending the Blake exhibition at the Tate in 2000, and the final installation was ‘Cleave 00’ by the conceptual artist Cerith Wyn Evans. Overhead, a glitter ball was pulsing with light, flakes of reflected phosphorescence shining as they fell away across the shadows of the walls. Those pulses were significant – Morse Code projections of Blake’s poetry, according to the catalogue description. The installation itself was inspired by one of Blake’s small watercolour and pencil sketches, ‘The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall)’, in which the prophet (or, perhaps, Blake himself) was depicted seated at a table, a glowing globe above him as he wrote down the words dictated to him by an angel. The strange, bare perspectives of the room within a room remind me of a Giorgio de Chirico painting or a Rachel Whiteread cast – and I was mesmerised.
While there was part of my brain that was reading the explanation of ‘Cleave 00’ and thinking, “Very clever” in a slightly mocking fashion, I was also enjoying it as an immersive sensorium – somewhat akin to the kind of experiences felt in Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms or standing beneath Olafur Eliasson’s ‘The Weather Project’, a huge glowing orb that lit up Tate Modern in 2003. I’d also long been inspired by the very same ‘dreamachines’ that had been part of an earlier exhibition by Evans. The stroboscopic devices first created by Brion Gysin were intended to induce hypnotic states – to open the doors of perception, as it were – and I’d had a great deal of fun as a student cutting out sheets of card before affixing them to turntables into which a light was suspended in order to bring on my own hallucinations.
The Tate exhibition of 2000 opened my eyes to Blake in several ways, one of which was also extremely significant – and not one intended by the curators. Outside the museum, on the black iron railings that surround the steps leading to the old entrance, someone had affixed a sheet of photocopied A4. On this piece of paper was one of Blake’s images for J. G. Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, showing an African woman being whipped and with a caption protesting some of the sponsors at Tate for pharmaceutical exploitation in Africa.
I was visiting Tate with a good friend of mine, Shirley Dent, who at that time was completing a PhD on Blake’s reception in the nineteenth century, and these two episodes – Cerith Wyn Evans’s ‘Cleave 00’ and the photocopied poster outside the museum – became the opening and closing vignettes of the book that we would write together, Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827.
Placing Blake – past and present
My own initial encounters with Blake had begun more than a decade before while I was an undergraduate at the University of Birmingham. I’d left school with a sketchy notion of the poet of The Tyger and London, and was aware that he had produced some paintings, but it was at university that my perceptions of the artist were transformed. Two of his works electrified me: the first was the image of ‘The Ancient of Days‘, which I kept as a poster on the wall of my room; the second was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I had been raised as a good Catholic boy, and to read a prophet who dined with Ezekiel and Isaiah while proclaiming that true poets were of the devil’s party quite literally turned my world upside down. I was nineteen, and I often tell people who ask about such things (which happens on a fairly regular basis, considering my professional interest in Blake) that reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was the moment that the lights went on in my mind – and that they have never gone off since.
In the intervening time before visiting the Tate 2000 exhibition, I had immersed myself in Blake’s esoteric visions of British history, eventually converting my PhD into a book, William Blake and the Myths of Britain. A key factor in this first decade of my Blakean life, however, was that I tended to firmly place him in the past. Like many literary scholars of the time, particularly those working in fields such as Romanticism, I had become a confirmed historicist (at a time when it was still fashionable enough to be called the New Historicism – capitalisation required). To understand Blake, or any writer and artist, fully, we must study them in the environment that created them. I do not disagree with this as an important principle of scholarship, and it has been very important to my most recent book, Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, in which I very much seek to place Blake within the fascinating world of London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But this obsession with the historical Blake was beginning to resemble that other obsession of an older generation of scholars with the historical Jesus as opposed to the living Christ.
During the decade I had been working on Blake, I noticed from time to time that plenty of other writers, artists and musicians I was interested in expressed their own fascination with the engraver and poet. Whether it was William Burroughs, Angela Carter, J. G. Ballard, the Surrealists, Chris Ofili, Patti Smith or Julian Cope – all of them had intriguing things to say, and not always complimentary. Indeed, this spirit of contrarieties was something I would grow more and more to appreciate about Blake, that just as he had attacked and rewritten Milton and the Bible out of his love for them, so plenty of later artists and writers would attack and rewrite Blake – as well as emulate him – out of their love for him.
Mapping Blake’s reception
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Radical Blake. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was just how much of the subsequent two decades would be given over to mapping out the reception of Blake in art, literature, music and culture. I had blithely assumed that there would be one, maybe two books to write covering the subject, but over the intervening years I have both contributed to and greatly enjoyed seeing other academics produce works that show the ways that William Blake has shaped the modern world. Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki demonstrated just how important Blake was to twentieth-century Japan, while Colin Trodd explored his influence on the early modern art world, Linda Freedman traced his impact on American literature, and Sibylle Erle and Morton Paley drew together scholars from across Europe to illuminate his afterlife on the continent. The list goes on – and there are others, including Roger Whitson, Tristanne Connolly and many, many more, who have become good friends through our shared (often contrarian) love of William Blake.
For much of the past decade as well as writing more formally about William Blake I have often shared my thoughts on the poet and artist through a blog, Zoamorphosis.com. While I have occasionally lamented the obscurantist tendency which caused me to register that particular domain name (taken from a 2007 paper I had given on the mutations and transformations of Blake in popular culture), I am also rather fond of what I have come to think of as a playground for Blake studies, where experimental ideas regarding his work and reception can be explored and enjoyed. The site has recently been updated and refreshed – most of the work has been done behind the scenes to bring it up to date with contemporary technologies, but there is also a new approach to projects, both current ones such as a series of short videos I’m producing about Blake’s work, Zoavision, and as a site for future work, such as on Blake-inspired music and a new book on the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2022.
One significant project that is ongoing, and represents a high point for me in terms of reception studies, is Global Blake, an international conference taking place this month. The original notion to bring together different visions of Blake from around the world was proposed to me by David Worrall, back in 2006, but credit for the current conference must go to Sibylle Erle, my co-organiser and the person who, more than anyone, has worked to bring Blake scholars from around the globe to explore what this Romantic artist and poet means to them in different countries and continents. We have been overwhelmed by the responses and wealth of rich detail produced by our original call, and we hope that Global Blake can serve to drive the intellectual appreciation of this once-neglected artist in an international context. After two decades exploring what Blake means in the two centuries after his death, I’m looking forward to many more years finding new Blakes in new locations.
For more information on the Global Blake project, visit globalblake.zoamorphosis.com. The free online conference runs from 11th to 13th January 2022 and features an array of keynote speakers and panel sessions. NB: On Wednesday 12th January (8pm) there is a special live screening of 'Finding Blake', the film, with an introduction and Q&A with James Murray-White, its director and the founder and creative force behind our own project. James discusses the completion of the film in this Finding Blake blog post.
Jason Whittaker is Head of the School of English and Journalism at the University of Lincoln. He is also managing editor of VALA, The Journal of the Blake Society and co-organiser of Global Blake with Sibylle Erle. He regularly blogs about Blake’s reception at Zoamorphosis, where you’ll find articles and links to various other projects by Jason.
Jason’s latest book, Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake (2021), is published by Reaktion Books. Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness will be published by Oxford University Press in May 2022.
Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827 by Shirely Dent and Jason Whittaker (2002) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Jason’s book William Blake and the Myths of Britain (1999) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Jason mentions several other scholars’ work on Blake:
The Reception of Blake in the Orient, edited by Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki (2014, Bloomsbury) brings together research from international scholars focusing attention on the longevity and complexity of Blake`s reception in Japan and elsewhere in the East. “It is designed as not only a celebration of his art and poetry in new and unexpected contexts but also to contest the intensely nationalistic and parochial Englishness of his work, and in broader terms, the inevitable passivity with which Romanticism (and other Western intellectual movements) have been received in the Orient.”
Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World 1830-1930 by Colin Trodd (2012, Liverpool University Press) explores how William Blake achieved classic status. “What aspects of his art and personality attracted and repelled critics? How was the story of his afterlife coloured by debates and developments in the British art world? Moving between visual and literary analysis, [it] considers the ways in which different audiences and communities dealt with the issue of describing and evaluating Blake’s images and designs.”
William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture by Linda Freedman (2018, Oxford University Press) covers a wide range of forms including prose, newspaper and periodical publication, the novel, music, theology, film, visual art, and poetry.
The Reception of William Blake in Europe edited by Morton D. Paley and Sibylle Erle (2019, Bloomsbury) “is the first comprehensive and systematic reference guide to Blake’s influence across Europe. Exploring Blake’s impact on literature, art, music and culture, the book includes bibliographies of major translations of Blake’s work in each country covered, as well as a publication history and timeline of the poet’s reception on the continent.”
You can view John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) online at the British Library. John Gabriel Stedman, a Dutch army officer, joined hundreds of other troops to fight against and suppress armed rebellion in Surinam. His diary of his voyage and time in the colony formed the basis of his Narrative, and William Blake made the engravings, based on Stedman’s own drawings.