Ecopoet Helen Moore shares a poem inspired by Blake’s visionary painting The Ghost of a Flea — and her own close encounter with the insect. The poem features in her ECOZOA collection, which makes creative use of Blake’s mythology of the Four Zoas to address our contemporary experience of destructive industrial civilisation.
This poem was inspired by William Blake’s poem The Ghost of a Flea and my experience of moving (with the late poet Niall McDevitt) into a flea-infested flat, which the letting agents had to have fumigated.
I found their exorcism to be both desirable and morally uncomfortable, and the painting seems to hold that tension. In personifying the Flea, depicting a large, muscled, naked human figure, who seems like kin, Blake also makes him menacing, repulsive. I also saw links between the destruction of these creatures and the ongoing mass extinction occurring in our planet-home, as well as with our individual mortality.
The Ghosts of Fleas
After the painting by William Blake
Ah, the hooked tongues, the bristly thighs, those simple popping eyes that stare into their bowls,
empty now – no longer will these barber-surgeons let our blood; instead, rising in their hundreds
from above the house, a flicking, swelling extinction rite on August’s Blue Moon. And still our nerve-ends
jittered, maggot dreams creeping through the curtains – the unconscious mind knows the prisoner’s lice,
the cadaver’s wavy flesh. Be gone you carpet-dwelling fiends; be gone you leaping suckers!
This exorcism by a lethal gas that fogged the rooms, twisted mouth-parts & innards…
ah, these boards from which they flee; ah, the stars to which we’ll follow.
From ECOZOA by Helen Moore, Permanent Publications (2015)
Helen Moore is a British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, Nature educator and facilitator of outdoor wellbeing programmes. She has published three ecopoetry collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins(Shearsman Books, 2012), ECOZOA (Permanent Publications, 2015), acclaimed by the Australian poet John Kinsella as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and The Mother Country (Awen Publications, 2019) exploring aspects of British colonial history. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and works with students internationally. In 2021 Helen gave a keynote lecture on ecopoetry and landscape at PoesiaEuropa in Italy; and she collaborated with Cape Farewell in Dorset on RiverRun, an ecopoetry project drawing on fieldwork and research from scientists and farmers in Dorset to examine pollution in Poole Bay and its river-systems.
Helen’s collection ECOZOA is her response to the destruction caused by industrial civilisation. The foreword explains that theologian Thomas Berry named the approaching era — now commonly labelled along with the present under the human-centred name of ‘The Anthropocene’ — as the more life-centred ‘Ecozoic Era’. “The word ‘ecozoic’ has its roots in the Greek ‘zoe’, meaning ‘life’. In the complex mythology of William Blake’s epic poems Jerusalem and The Four Zoas, Moore sees the power of the imagination to address the ecological crisis we face. She contemporises Blake’s visions, showing how a rebalancing of the ‘four zoas’ enables us to heal ourselves and our planet, and to establish relationships with self and others that are embodied, heart-connected and able to get to the root of our problems. In this way, fear and limited thinking can fall away, opening up liminal spaces where our love of freedom can flourish and collectively we can sense the evolving futures we most desire.”
The Tate’s entry on Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea explains that artist and astrologer John Varley was a close friend of Blake and reported that “Blake once had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea. ‘This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect.’ While drawing the spirit it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’. In the painting it holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it. Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.”
Tamsin Rosewell is a bookseller and illustrator and sees Blake’s influence in both these spheres today, through the primacy of the imagination and the coming together of word and image. And she values Blake’s dissent and challenge to authority and orthodoxy, and his example of prophecy as revealing the world as it truly is.
I like to think of myself as Blakean. I’m a bookseller, illustrator, broadcaster and, through those things, an activist. Blake is very present in a modern bookshop; I’ve seen several generations of writers refer to, or be inspired by, Blake. There are direct references to Blake’s life and work in novels by great writers such as Tracy Chevalier, Julian Sedgwick, Malorie Blackman, SF Said, Thomas Harris, Marcus Sedgwick, Philip Pullman – and there are many others. I’ve heard writers talk in different ways about how they feel that Blake’s existence has somehow given them leave to create entire mythological worlds, permission to accept that contrary to what we are taught in the classroom, it is stories that hold their shape over time and continue to grasp a higher truth and sense of purpose, while ‘facts’, ‘accepted history’ and ‘the truth’ are shadowy and insubstantial. As a bookseller I am also very conscious of the primacy of the imagination – that is, in effect, what I trade in: the power of other people’s imagined worlds.
I’m also an illustrator – and I see Blake as one of the founding creators of the modern way of illustration. At a time when beautiful, illustrated books for adults are one of the biggest growth areas in the book market (after a period when they seemed to be designed to look as bland as possible to ‘compete’ with the concept of an ebook), I recognise that Blake’s books are some of the first in which we really cannot separate word and image. Today’s illustration isn’t about drawing scenes from stories; it is about adding to them, giving the written word another layer of interest and imagination. Many illustrators today will add things into a story through the images, things never mentioned in the words and often things only the child being read to will notice, because they’re the one looking at the pictures; or details that will only reveal themselves if the reader takes time to read the images as well as the words.
The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction
As an artist I refer to Blake constantly: for the power of expression in his figures, for his use of image and word combined, for his joy in being unorthodox, for the encouragement to challenge accepted teaching and authority. There’s also something about the confidence with which Blake expresses anger in which I find reassurance. There is a lot of pressure today to stay away from the arguments, be positive and smiling and peacefully mindful all the time. This is not my natural state and I find that being angry, allowing yourself to become that furious ball of dissenting energy can be a powerful and positive thing. It is anger that led to the abolitionist movement, and to women’s suffrage, to the campaign against apartheid – those things didn’t come about by people staying out of arguments. The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
I believe that as a creative spirit, and someone with a loud and clear voice in my field, I have a responsibility to use my art and my choice of books to challenge authority, to be unorthodox, and to add fire to the many stale traditions that my own industry holds so dear, the way that Blake added something bigger and bolder to the dry and dusty Anglicanism of his own time, and wore the bonnet rouge when it was dangerous to do so. I’m a deeply committed pacifist, but I do feel that I have a duty to take up the arms of intellect and imagination, and to fight when I see cruelty and injustice – bring me my bow of burning gold.
Hope and dissent
Recently I gave a lecture to a group of creative writing Masters students; one of the questions I was asked was “Do you think that hope is important in children’s fiction?” The answer is obviously ‘yes’, no book that was utterly without hope would sell well, and no adult walks into a bookshop and says: “I’d like a book for my child, but I’d like it to be really bleak and without any sense of hope, please”.
However, the question troubled me and I kept thinking about it for several weeks because I felt it was the wrong question. “Where do we find hope in children’s fiction?” is a much more pertinent question. It isn’t cheery, saccharine hope that children necessarily look for, it is the recognition of their dark and burning sense of injustice. Novelist, Diana Wynne Jones wrote this very well – she captured in her books that desperate childhood anger of not being listened to by authority, or of adults not seeing the full picture, when they – the children – can see the way things really are.
Children always have a very profound sense of justice; I’m 48 and I still remember the unfairness of school and the dismissive behaviour of adults. The children are the Prophets. The word ‘Prophecy’ has come in our use to mean something like ‘foretelling’, we use it to mean that x or y will happen in the future. Its truer, and earlier, Biblical meaning is more complex than that – it is also about revelations, interpretations and inspirations from the divine – perhaps more like ‘forth-telling’. In the Bible, the words of the Prophets that do involve a prediction of the future, usually also contain a message about the outcome being conditional on human conduct. Prophecy is about revealing the world as it truly is, often to those who have steered their world along the wrong path. It is the children who are often the ones who speak of the world as it really is, and the adults who veil it in layers of often unnecessary complexity and hide the bits about which they are uncomfortable. We spend a lot of time as adults telling children to control their anger and to recognise it as a negative thing that can harm other people. But what if anger and hope could be seen as connected? Can we not teach instead to remember the anger you felt at injustice? There is hope if we use that energy to dissent.
When I look at Blake’s work, both his printing and his painting, there is much I don’t understand. I’d love to know exactly how he worked that gold leaf into the paint of The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth, a great painting in a small room at the top of Tate Britain. And I’d love to know exactly how he layered his inks, at what consistency, and in what order, in his star wheel printing press. If I knew how he created those images the temptation would be to replicate. But the fact that I can’t know his process means that I have the energy and the frustration to keep searching. I find that acceptance of not understanding very liberating too. When I was making a radio series about Blake I worried, as I’m not a Blake scholar in any formal way, that I didn’t know enough to be allowed to make such a radio series. The most helpful advice I was given was by a true Blake scholar who said “Anyone who claims to understand Blake almost by definition doesn’t”. To try to ‘understand’ Blake is possibly to miss the point. To me the point is the mystery, the consent for the imagination to be what it is, irrational and huge beyond understanding.
Blake’s encouragement to be unorthodox is hugely important to me both as a bookseller and as an illustrator. Publishing is a copycat industry – the success of one book spawns a hundred similar books, all created to try and grab a portion of that first book’s success. And yet often that one book that became so copied was itself something unconventional in its first moment, something that publishers couldn’t have quite anticipated catching fire. You can’t bottle and market something if you can’t anticipate what it is in the first place. And in 15 years as a bookseller, I’ve never seen any of the copycat books gain quite the same interest and success as the maverick managed before it was copied. Which leaves booksellers wondering why publishers bother with the copycat dance when it has never produced anything more than temporary, superficial interest. To produce the unconventional in our industry you need to have a measure of exasperation at publishing’s outdated traditions and etiquettes; and a level of anger at the way it treats authors and is dominated by a cliquey and privileged class of person.
One interesting moment came during the first lockdown with the publication of a book called The Unwinding – or rather with its companion title, The Silent Unwinding. The Unwinding is a collection of stories and previously unpublished illustrations by one of our greatest illustrators, Greenaway-Gold Medal-winning artist, Jackie Morris. With her (delightfully unorthodox and impishly maverick) publisher, Unbound, it was decided to publish the same book, but to remove not all the illustrations, which would be the conventional thing to do, but to remove instead the words. What is left is a sort of blank book, peppered with extraordinary and inexplicable illustrations: a woman wrapped in silk and fur dreaming of giant sky-swimming fish; a child curled up in a wilderness landscape, reading a book to a pack of protective wolves; a dragon bearing a palatial, royal tent occupied by an antlered woman and three polar bears. No explanation. It is a small and beautiful object, not unlike The Songs of Innocence and of Experience in size and format. Small enough to fit into a bag or pocket. It isn’t a great heavy art book, and nor is it a flimsy handbag notebook. It is what it is.
Jackie Morris’ idea for the book was to allow it to be a journal, a sketchbook, a dream diary – basically whatever its owner wanted of it. But for it to be that its owner would also need to feel comfortable drawing or writing on top of the art of one of our country’s great illustrators. That itself is an interesting challenge and raises questions about what printed, published art can be for. Is it just to revere, or can we accept that it is also there to urge others on, to be defaced by someone else’s imagination?
Jackie dropped me a note and asked me to add some of my own pictures alongside hers, and share them on social media, to indicate to people that they had permission to add to her work. I did. But I wouldn’t have done if she hadn’t specifically asked me to! It was a surprisingly big leap to pour my own painting on top of hers, so that our art combined and it is hard to tell which fragments she painted and what I added. I chose to illustrate moments in Shakespeare’s The Tempest for no other reason than I was thinking about it at that moment, and it seemed to fit with the strange images already in the book. I made a conscious decision to refer to Blake in those images, there are figures in positions that I’ve lifted straight from Blake’s pages and put into this odd world that Jackie and I created between us. My copy of The Silent Unwinding literally drips with ink.
Others followed. We saw people use The Silent Unwinding to write notes for future novels, for private poetry, as a diary during the worst times of fear and isolation during the pandemic, and as an art pad to express themselves. A strange little book, but a powerful one. And a lesson in dissent.
Blake’s biggest influence on my world is probably his permission. Permission to dissent? Permission to be unorthodox? Permission to challenge authority? Permission to defend others from injustice? Permission to subvert tradition?
Tamsin is a bookseller at 55-year-old independent bookshop, Kenilworth Books, in Warwickshire. She has been a judge of reading panels for children’s reading charity BookTrust, and an advisor on the Arts Council-funded Pathways into Illustration, which seeks to bring people from a more diverse range of backgrounds into mainstream publishing. She judges the Stratford Salariya Book Prize and lectures regularly to publishing and creative writing students.
Tamsin’s three-part radio series The Poet and the Prophet, about William Blake, and her three-part series Apocalypse – The Idea of The End, both made for Resonance FM, can be found on her podcast page and listened to on most devices, free, here: Tamsin Rosewell | Mixcloud
More of Tamsin Rosewell’s art work can be seen on her Instagram Page, Hobs Lantern: @hobs_lantern.
The photograph of the recreation of Blake’s star wheel printing press is taken from the case study, A Press, by the furniture makers BLAM. The Apprentice and Master exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (2014-15), featuring Blake’s Lambeth studio, was curated by Michael Phillips.
In The Science of Life as Art and Dissent for Lady Science (2/7/21), a magazine for the history and popular culture of science, Christopher Martiniano discusses William Blake in the context of the authoritarianism of the government of William Pitt and the growing dominance of Enlightenment science. “To counter Pitt, English poet William Blake (1757-1827) challenged the Enlightenment thinking embedded in Pitt’s political philosophy and oppressive legislation. As a political and religious radical, Blake infamously undoes the Enlightenment’s mechanism of binary thinking, claiming that “[w]ithout contraries is no progression.” Blake believed in the necessity for opposites, not domination of one over the other. … Offering an alternative to the Enlightenment thought that animated Pitt’s authoritarianism, Blake associates vital, generative power with biology and imagination…”
Musician and songwriter Mick Stannard is 69 years old and has, in his words, “been doing music most of that time, in bands and solo”. Ever since an operation meant singing was no longer possible, he’s been recording instrumental albums, but when he recently came across his forgotten copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience Mick wanted to set some of these poems to music — and asked Kate, his daughter, if she’d like to sing them. Their album, Visions of William Blake, was released earlier this year, and Mick and Kate Stannard now share their experience of working with Mr Blake.
I think William Blake has been in my DNA for quite a long time. It feels as if Jerusalem has always been there. And of course it’s the same with The Tyger. Mind you, I’m only a beginner and don’t really know much about his ideas. My first musical influences were Vaughan Williams and traditional English folk; people like Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny. Finding out that artists like The Doors and Nick Drake were quoting him in their songs is probably what drew me to him. To be honest I never knew he was that big in ‘popular culture’.
I go mainly by instinct and to be honest I’ve taken a few liberties with the text of his poems (adding some words of my own and taking some of his out) so I’m not sure if a purist would necessarily approve!
Encounters with Blake
As far as Blake himself is concerned, I’m no expert or indeed scholar. Some years ago I went to an exhibition of his watercolours and it was like a kind of worship. The place was dark and each work shone out from its case like a little jewel. The detail in his paintings fascinated me. It was fantastic. That’s where I picked up Songs of Innocence and of Experience. This in turn (about thirty years later!) led me to the idea of setting these poems to music.
I guess it was pure chance. Kate and I had just finished an album, Welcome to Our World, and I was thinking about what to do next. I was looking in our bookcase for something (I can’t remember what it was) and just happened to come across the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bingo! The more I delved into it, certain poems leapt out at me from the pages and I could hear the music straight away. With Visions of William Blake, it all seemed to make perfect sense.
To take one example, I was amazed at how prescient the words to Holy Thursday are, speaking of poor folk living “in a rich and fruitful land”. I almost re-named our track Holy Food Bank Thursday. It seems that nothing much had changed since Blake’s day! Also I found the words to Earth’s Answer particularly powerful and The Lamb appealed to my sense of pastoral England. That’s where I tried to write music in the style of my hero, Vaughan Williams. Lots of strings, a harp and an oboe. Always an oboe for bucolic stuff!
A creative process
I don’t normally talk much about the creative process but I’ll have a bash. I’m basically a songwriter (of sorts) and love the challenge of writing lyrics and fitting them to music. Obviously with the ‘lyrics’ already taken care of by Mr Blake the process was a bit easier but no less of a challenge. I wasn’t aware which of his poems are well known and which others less so, and I think I chose the ones to have a go at by some kind of instinct — and of course those which appealed to me emotionally. They also had to scan pretty well and have a rhythm I could work with.
I’ve been listening to music for a long time and my influences are very diverse, stretching from traditional English folk to 60’s psychedelia, punk, new wave, classical, thrash metal and avant garde. So I guess my selection was in part dictated by my broad musical taste, which allowed me to devise a particular setting for each poem. Earth’s Answer for instance is very much influenced by Pink Floyd, whilst The Echoing Green is (hopefully) pure Vaughan Williams and strange to say, some of the music in The Door of Death now reminds me (in retrospect) of the last scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey … Where the hell did THAT come from?
Messing around with the texts may seem a bit sacrilegious but it was the only way I could make the finished songs work to my satisfaction. It was simply a case of composing the music and making the words fit even if I had to add or subtract some. I hope William wouldn’t have minded! The Garden of Love wasn’t long enough so I added quite a lot of extra lines, and in The Lamb I took Blake’s lead when he says in Auguries of Innocence “the lamb misused breeds public strife and yet forgives the butcher’s knife”, and wrote an additional verse with that in mind.
In Holy Thursday I saw a direct parallel between the times Blake talks about and today’s austerity Britain so I wrote a final verse about homelessness. I couldn’t possibly have done a different melody for Jerusalem as it already has the best ever tune so I just put in a bit of Brexit chaos at the end to reflect what’s currently happening in our green and pleasant land!
So, many reasons for changing the texts, I guess, and I think it occurred to me as I was going through the poems, kind of spontaneously. The process of making words and music fit is indeed pretty mysterious. That’s why when you hit on something special, it’s really exciting. I’ve no idea where it comes from. A higher place?
Dad has always been interested in poetry, so I’ve been aware of William Blake among others for some time. Dad even used to write silly poems for me when I was young to make me laugh, and has always been creative. However I wasn’t very familiar with William Blake’s poetry before we started the album, and I didn’t know about his artwork either! But it’s been a really interesting project to work on together, and fun exploring both the light-hearted and the more sinister.
The poems and songs are all so different. I feel like I take on a different persona for each song on Visions of William Blake, and in a way sing as a different person. I think of them in a very separate way.
Usually we sit down and Dad gives me the poem to read through. I try to visualise and interpret the words quietly on my own, and then Dad plays me the music he’s recorded so far in headphones. Whilst the music is playing, I carry on visualising scenes or images and think about the words and then we go from there. We talk about what kind of tone of voice will work. For example, on Earth’s Answer the inspiration for my reading of the words was Gandalf from Lord of the Rings!
For me, with A Poison Tree it’s the storytelling of the poem. The scene I picture by the end of the poem is both chilling and beautiful, and it’s interesting (to me anyway) how peaceful it is, despite the hatred.
Visions of William Blake for the 21st century
I’ve been surprised at how many people my age and younger know of Blake, and have relatives who have studied his work or have a real interest.
I found it very interesting on first looking at Finding Blake to discover that the website and its users want to ‘re-imagine William Blake for the 21st century’. This very much articulated to me what I felt like we had also been doing with the album, whilst unaware at first of the Finding Blake site. By putting Blake’s words to music in 2019, and particularly for myself as someone who didn’t know very much about him before, I felt like I was in a sense ‘finding’ Blake.
To me, some of his poems are still very relevant now in 2019. For instance, like Dad has mentioned, the ideas behind Holy Thursday are still an issue now and it very much feels like nothing has changed in all these years. That poem could have been written in the 21st century.
Blake seems to have had a larger influence on people’s general way of thinking than I had ever imagined. I think this new Extinction Rebellion movement which is currently growing is something that Blake would have enthusiastically espoused. Also, areas of mysticism and spirituality, something I had never considered.
Mick Stannard and his daughter Kate have been recording music together for about a year. Mick has been playing for longer than he cares to remember and has many influences ranging from The Velvet Underground to Vaughan Williams. He has recorded ten solo albums and three with Kate, Visions of William Blake being one. Kate has a degree in photography and is currently working for a cancer charity in London. She also designed the cover art for all the albums.
Visions of William Blake by Mick and Kate Stannard features twelve of William Blake’s poems: The Garden of Love; A Poison Tree; Auguries of Innocence; The Tiger; The Echoing Green; The Sick Rose; The Lamb; Earth’s Answer; Holy Thursday; The Door of Death; The Angel; Jerusalem. It’savailable on Spotify, where you can also find their previous albums, and also available at Amazon as a download. You can buy the CD of Visions of William Blake direct from Mick: email him at mstannm[at]ntlworld[dot]com for details.