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The Little Black Boy

For the fourth of our readings from Blake's poems, actor Matt Ray Brown performs The Little Black Boy. Our recording of this poem from The Songs of innocence and Experience was filmed by Finding Blake's Jonnie Howard at Blake's South Molton Street home.

The Little Black Boy 

My mother bore me in the southern wild, 
And I am black, but O! my soul is white; 
White as an angel is the English child:  
But I am black as if bereav'd of light. 

My mother taught me underneath a tree  
And sitting down before the heat of day, 
She took me on her lap and kissed me, 
And pointing to the east began to say.  

Look on the rising sun: there God does live  
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.  
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive 
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday. 

And we are put on earth a little space, 
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,  
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face 
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove. 

For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear  
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice.  
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care, 
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice. 

Thus did my mother say and kissed me,  
And thus I say to little English boy.  
When I from black and he from white cloud free, 
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:  

Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear,  
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.  
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair, 
And be like him and he will then love me. 

Finding Blake’s Linda Richardson says of The Little Black Boy: “Almost immediately we hear echoes from The Song of Songs, a passionate love poem about union with the Divine, found right in the centre, at the heart, of the Bible. In The Song of Songs, we meet the ‘beloved’, a Shulamite woman who had been darkened by the sun, the very archetype of God. Perhaps this is where Blake first felt that deep movement and compassion in his spirit towards one of difference, one who feels ‘bereav’d of light’. The poem dances with the metaphor of light and dark and indicates that those who sit in the light of God will become different will become dark and beautiful from exposure to the brightness of Divine radiance.

“At a first reading we might imagine Blake’s The Little Black Boy to be a troubling racist poem, but if we hold steady to the end we will find that it transcends race, transcends light and dark, because we discover that in fact the Little Black Boy is far better prepared for heaven because he has been able to ‘bear the beams of love’ through struggling with the disadvantage of the darkness of his skin. In fact the little black boy has become so good and gracious, he is able to shade the little English white boy who is unprepared for the heat of Divine union. 

“Finally, all colour and race are transcended, and when the cloud of superficial colour difference is removed like a cloud, we will see that we are all alike, loving one another without any prejudice where together we can ‘lean in joy upon our fathers knee’.”


Notes

Matt Ray Brown reads eight Blake poems for Finding Blake and appeared in the original film for our Crowdfunder video. You can find all Finding Blake videos, as they are posted, on the Finding Blake Films at a Glance page in our Blakean Archive section. You can explore Matt’s work as an actor, including his showreel at Mandy.com, ‘the world’s largest creative community of actors, film and TV crew, theatre professionals, child actors, voiceover artists, dancers, singers, musicians, models and extras.’

The Tyger

The third in our exclusive series of actor Matt Ray Brown reading William Blake's poems is The Tyger - perhaps the most famous of Blake's poems, alongside the 'hymn' version of Jerusalem. As with the other sessions in this series, filmed by Finding Blake's Jonnie Howard, Matt was performing The Tyger in Blake's flat at South Molton Street in London, adding an extra magic to these films.

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


Finding Blake team member Mark Goldthorpe says of this poem: “Many of us have strong childhood memories of The Tyger being read to us at primary school or at home. Something of the power of the animal and of Blake’s depiction — through words such as ‘fearful’, ‘fire’ and ‘dread’ — impresses itself into our minds and persists in our imaginations. Just as master storyteller William Blake intended, of course. I wonder if he sensed that this poem was one that would certainly outlast him? The imagery of the tyger, a majestic large cat “burning bright” in the dark recesses of our psyches, connects us with something primeval. In Blake’s own experience, that primeval is the link between creator and creature, the mystery of each revealing itself (but only partially) to human consciousness, and the ‘balance of contraries’ between the light and dark aspects of creation: lamb and tyger, innocence and experience. For many of us now, perhaps, the primeval is that state of imagination which can rediscover itself in all-too-human imagery grasping at a more-than-human world. For the child, it is reality. And for the tyger?…”


Notes

Matt Ray Brown reads eight Blake poems for Finding Blake and appeared in the original film for our Crowdfunder video. You can find all Finding Blake videos, as they are posted, on the Finding Blake Films at a Glance page in our Blakean Archive section. You can explore Matt’s work as an actor, including his showreel at Mandy.com, ‘the world’s largest creative community of actors, film and TV crew, theatre professionals, child actors, voiceover artists, dancers, singers, musicians, models and extras.’

Artist Linda Richardson recently took The Tyger to share with pupils at Linton Heights School in Cambridgeshire. See her post, Tyger School, for further confirmation of the enduring power of William Blake’s great poem.

 

The Process of the Gravestone

Finding Blake's James Murray-White says "It has been a wonderful journey so far to be closely involved with the production of this new gravestone honouring William Blake, and it is only part way through! From visiting the stoneyard in January with Lida and Hallam to choose the huge piece of Portland stone that the slab would be cut from, to recently seeing it cut, cleaned, bevelled - and now upright in the studio with the letters drawn and the cutting underway - is an intricate, intimate knowledge of a process. I’m filming it, and I hope I can also convey the pleasure I’m having in visiting once a week or so, talking and listening through each stage, and recording it, and making short clips to illustrate it."

Triptych of images taken by James Murray-White while filming Lida cut more of Blake’s new gravestone at her Cambridge workshop: May 2018

I thought here I’d set out the process in its entirety, as explained by Lida:

  1. The gravestone is cut and cleaned at the stone yard, and then delivered to the Kindersley Workshop
  2. The stone is bevelled. This process takes a week, entirely done by hand
  3. The stone is put upright over the special area of the workshop designed for such large projects, with a hole in the floor to give full access.
  4. Freehand drawing of the letters upon the gravestone.
  5. Spellcheck: members of the Blake Society committee visit to check and approve spelling and design.
  6. Cutting begins.
  7. Washing the gravestone after letters drawn: final painting, staining, building completed.
  8. Preparation of the ground at Bunhill Fields: paving blocks, stone setting, landscaping etc.
  9. The ceremony! August 12th, 2018. The Blake Society are planning a beautiful ceremony with readings and a choir. Further details will appear here and on the Blake Society website nearer the time.

And Finding Blake will be there to make a special short film of the event. In the meantime, snapshots of the creation of the gravestone and of Finding Blake activities continue to be added to the project timeline in Our Story Continues.

We will midway through the process sit down and do a more formal interview about how she came to be commissioned, and her reflections on Blake, on letter-cutting, and the specifics of this stone, with much philosophy in-between, and I look forward to filming, editing, and sharing that.

An additional process to the creation of the stone was carried out by Lida and Hallam on behalf of the Blake Society: cutting chips of the surrounding discarded stone, to be given as mementoes to all who donate an amount to cover the cost of commissioning the stone and having it set. You can find out more about that on the Blake Society website.