Latest Blog Posts

My Streets Are My, Ideas of Imagination

Niall McDevitt is a walking artist who specialises in the revolutionary poets of London, particularly Blake, Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Yeats. Who better, then, for Finding Blake to ask to share a post with us on finding William Blake on the streets? 

If Blake was telling the truth when he said ‘My Streets are My, Ideas of Imagination’, then we should look for William Blake in the streets.

As well as the great writings and the magical paintings, there is an infinity of Blake sites in London, Britain and the wider cosmos. 

The first site I encountered was his baptismal font. I’d had the honour of having an early poem included in a display by London Buses. Friends of the Earth organised it and Roger McGough chose the poems. Off-Duty was my first mature poem (though I’ve written many immature ones since.) It was displayed on routes 38 and 73 for a year. Apparently there were 7 million passenger journeys in that period so I could lay claim to a vast readership. At the end of the year we were given laminated editions of our poems and went on a mystery tour by bus. 

The destination turned out to be St James’ Church, Piccadilly. The church is a Wren masterpiece and the marble baptismal font by Grinling Gibbons is a masterpiece within a masterpiece. Blake was baptised there on December 11th, 1757. It was probably the first occasion on which he saw images of Adam and Eve. 

The busload of poets were invited to read their poems in turn by the font. As well as mine, I sang an acapella version of Blake’s London

After that experience I was hooked on Blake and Blake sites. London was transformed. It was as if I had been baptised again and had a new guardian angel. Not bad for a lapsed Catholic. 

William Blake in ‘The Spirit of Soho Mural’, squeezed in between John Logie Baird and William Hazlitt.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Since then I’ve gone on to develop a series of William Blake walks as well as many other poetry-related walks. ‘The William Blake Walk’ became well known, was written about by the author Nigel Richardson, and ended up included in an article on The Great British Walks. In the year of Blake’s 250th anniversary, I went round the route with a BBC sound technician. They didn’t tell me exactly what they had in mind. 

On November 27th – the day before Blake’s birthday – The Poet of Albion was broadcast, featuring such luminaries as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Tom Paulin. The show was presented by Jenny Uglow and interspersed with chunks from my walk, booming from the very streets Blake had lived, studied, worked and died in. There was perhaps only one drawback about The Poet of Albion: a preposterously jolly tribute to the hymn Jerusalem by none other than Boris Johnson, whom I think of as a kind of Urizen in nappies. 

Jeremy Reed with Helen Moore and Niall McDevitt performing at the site of Blake’s birth, William Blake House.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Other walks I have invented are The William Blake / Wat Tyler Walk which commences where Blake died and finishes at his burial place. En route, it takes in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Gordon Riots of 1780. The latter was the major London insurgency of Blake’s lifetime, and he was an eyewitness to its defining moment, the burning of Newgate Prison, which was like a ‘storming of the Bastille’ nine years in advance. 

Looking south, I have developed another exploration which fuses two areas and two poets. The Rimbaud Blake Waterloo Lambeth Walk tells the stories of French poet Arthur Rimbaud living in Stamford Road in 1874, and of Blake’s decade in Hercules Road from 1790-1800. The big question is: could Rimbaud have known of Blake, or seen a Blake illuminated book, or even read Blake? The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Blake and A Season in Hell by Rimbaud are two of the greatest prose poems in the western tradition. 

A monument to Blake’s friend John Flaxman on the site of Flaxman’s house where Blake attended lectures by the philosopher Thomas Taylor.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

After a West End walk, an East End walk, and a southern peregrination, the last of the four directions is north. I am currently researching a walk ‘From Tyburn to Primrose Hill’, as well as a Hampstead walk specially commissioned by The Idler

One of the sites I am looking for is the site of The Jew’s Harp Tavern, cited in the prophetic book Jerusalem. Its footprint is probably in Regents Park, above Portland Place. It might be near the bottom of the Broad Walk, or on the Redhill Street of today. Did Blake have a glass of porter there? All I know is, it will be hard work finding the exact spot, but no pub will be there to quench my thirst. 

Niall McDevitt in Bunhill Fields.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Notes

Niall McDevitt is the author of three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010), Porterloo (International Times, 2013) and Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage (New River Press, 2016). He is a walking artist who specialises in the revolutionary poets of London, particularly Blake, Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Yeats. He blogs at poetopography.wordpress.com

You can find a 2009 piece that Niall wrote for BBC London on William Blake as Urban Shaman and Psychogeographer in the Blakean articles page of our Blakean Archive. And you will find details of the various literary walks — including the Blake Walks — that Niall leads, at the New River Press site.

The line ‘My streets are my, Ideas of Imagination’ comes from Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion — one of Blake’s prophetic book, which “tells the story of the fall of Albion, Blake’s embodiment of man, Britain or the western world as a whole. The poetic narrative takes the form of a ‘drama of the psyche, couched in the dense symbolism of Blake’s self-constructed mythology.” (Wikipedia)

I behold London; a Human awful wonder of God!
He says: Return, Albion, return! I give myself for thee: 
My Streets are my, Ideas of Imagination.
Awake Albion, awake! and let us awake up together.
My Houses are Thoughts: my Inhabitants; Affections,
The children of my thoughts...


Jerusalem in South Molton Street

This month Finding Blake launches a series of eight short video posts featuring readings of some of Blake's poems. We start the series with Matt's powerful reading of Jerusalam, Blake's most famous poem.

We took actor Matt Ray Brown to London to film him reading these in Blake's flat in South Molton Street. In this exclusive series, filmed and sound recorded by Finding Blake's Jonnie Howard, we showcase eight pieces -- some well known, some not so well known -- and delight in that they are being read probably in the very place they were written!
Jerusalem 

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.


Finding Blake team member Linda Richardson says of this poem: “The scientific, rational and analytical mind will never be able to understand the full meaning of William Blake’s work and art, because he is not speaking that language. We might agree that his work is imaginative, but he is a mystic and a prophet, so the purpose of his work is not to impart information, but to pull us deeply into his imaginative world and more importantly than that, we have to let his words imagine us.”


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.’

‘Jerusalem’ – a Song, an Idea, Few Can Resist

James Murray-White reflects on the enduring, but shifting, resonance of Blake's famous lines on 'Jerusalem' for visions of 'England's green and pleasant land.' His choice of this iconic poem also introduces the launch of Finding Blake's series of powerful readings of this and other Blake poems, which we recorded in Blake's house in South Molton Street, London.

This month on Finding Blake we’re launching a series of eight short video posts featuring readings of some of Blake’s best known poems.

We took actor Matt Ray Brown to London recently to film him reading these poems in Blake’s flat in South Molton Street. In this exclusive series, filmed and sound recorded by Finding Blake’s Jonnie Howard, we showcase eight pieces — some well known, some not so well known — and delight in that they are being read probably in the very place they were written!

We will start the series with Matt’s powerful reading of Jerusalam, Blake’s most famous poem; so do watch out for that in the next few days. In the meantime, I wanted to share my own reflections on what that poem has come to mean in different contexts today.


I recently watched this new version of composer Hubert Parry’s interpretation of Blake’s Jerusalem:

In this version, featuring athlete Jazmin Sawyers singing the poem, musician Tokio Myers interprets it as the anthem ushering the England Team into the recent Commonwealth Game. The athletes stand by, humming the words as a chorus, rather unsuccessfully I feel (you may differ, and other versions of the same arrangement are available).

However, it stands as yet another take on the anthemic nature of the words, and the unusual way Blake has been taken to the heart (possibly quite a superficial heart) of the British nation. And of British culture — whatever that means, particularly in these difficult Brexit days as we try to understand a national psyche. So Jerusalem is sung at the Last Night of the Proms in the Albert Hall; it’s sung by the Women’s Institute at their annual general meeting, and by rugby players and old Etonians at their dinners; and in the piece below, featured in a Classic FM post, we travel from the pomp and spectacle of a Royal Wedding no less, to the continued ignominy of more sports stars mugging it for the cameras, led by a pretty terrified looking soprano:

Are we a nation that constantly needs a rallying call to the depths of ourselves to build a better place around us? And if so — and if Parry’s version keeps getting trundled out and we use it as a national salve — why haven’t we built Jerusalem here, in England’s green and pleasant land?

Why do we build on the countryside, allowing our cities to expand? Why do we value industry — any industry, from mining, through the exploitation of labour, to the current media industry and coming obsession with digital technologies and artificial intelligence — over rural agrarian values, or simple spiritual inquiry?

From my experience a few years ago, deep in a Sussex woodland (see The Unfolding and Unveiling) bringing forth these lyrics amongst a group of ‘we once were strangers and now we’re friends’ festival-goers, to seeing all these versions online, it feels that Blake has caught the culture, and the culture has caught a small, fragmented part of him and his experience and vision. Finding Blake continues and honours that.

And for the record, my favourite version is as arranged by folk singer and musician Chris Wood, who has kindly allowed us to use the opening bars on some of our clips. Chris has been deeply influenced by Blake and by fellow poet John Clare: their empathy for the man in the street, the simplicity and ability to look deeply at every situation, every moment. I love the slower, measured pace of Chris’s version – it seems to encourage, while remaining rooted in a pastoral idyll. This is exemplified in this performance, filmed in the wonderful Green Backyard, a few miles up the road from me in Peterborough. Rather that than imperious Britain at its worst, pulling itself up by the short and curlies in the midst of the battlefields and times of despair that our corrupt leaders have walked us into……..

Shine Forth.


Notes

This recent post at Interesting LiteratureA Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, does it what it says on the can and looks at the meaning of the words. Is it a patriotic paean to England or,  perhaps, scathing satire? Interesting Literature also discusses other Blake poems, A Poison Tree and London, and is well worth checking out.

Poet Niall McDevitt, in his piece Urban shaman and psychogeographer,  signposted on our Blakean Articles page, says of Jerusalem: “Blake is a British-Israelite who sees ancient parallels between Albion and the Holy Land. His hymn Jerusalem is such a powerful statement of this belief that it unites all the warring factions of his country, and draws in everyone. Though unofficial, it must be the finest national anthem available to humanity. What could be more charmingly perverse than a national anthem which contains the word ‘satanic’ and which is named after somewhere else? … Despite his British-Israelism, there is no doubt that if Blake were alive today he would look upon modern Jerusalem with despair, and would be furious at the conditions in which Palestinians are forced to live.”

And musician Jah Wobble said that “For years, people were telling me that I’d love William Blake, but I had never felt like poetry related to me. When I thought of Blake I thought of Jerusalem and Last Night of the Proms and all that flag-waving, which put me off … I don’t think anybody really understands Blake. Songs of Innocence and of Experience seems pretty straightforward, but even there if you scratch the surface it gets really heavy. He’s been hijacked by retired colonels in Surrey who think he represents their Albion, and he absolutely doesn’t. Blake was nonconformist and imaginative and rule-breaking. If Blake had been my age in the 1970s, he would have been on the punk scene, without a doubt. He was a regular London bloke who worked for a living.” You can find Perspectives: Jah Wobble, musician, on William Blake via our Blakean Articles.