‘All Things Begin and End in Albion’s Ancient Druid Rocky Shore’

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews two recent books on Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’, from Jason Whittaker and Edwin John Lerner, exploring Blake’s work and its adaptations as both story and as mental fight.

I’m [re]minded to start this review of two recent books on Blake’s Jerusalem after hearing further controversy on the radio this morning of the trustees of Blake’s cottage in Felpham — where William and Catherine lived between 1800-1803, and he wrote the words for the poem — appealing for further funds (£3 million, I believe) to save the structure from collapse. I have mixed feelings about this trend for writers’ houses to become shrines, unless they offer something really different and entirely in keeping with the visions and aspirations of the artist who lived and created there. The original ambitions of these trustees, at least on their website, were articulated very curiously and boldly, but as time has progressed, while their ownership of the cottage is secure this mirrors the bricks, mortar, beams and thatch becoming more precarious, and the whole project has become more mired in human shenanigans. And now this further appeal for cash.

But, I’ll return to that later.

Professor Jason Whittaker’s book, Jerusalem: Blake, Parry, and the fight for Englishness, is a big, bold exploration that uses Blake’s work as a touchstone for a look at what constitutes Englishness today. I’m a big fan and friend of Jason’s — I admire his journey as a scholar through ‘popular’ culture and his brilliant articulation of how creativity holds the mirror up to us, for better and often for worse. His work in Blake studies, most notably the website Zoamorphosis has been truly inspiring. Particularly the groundbreaking, immediately post-lockdown online Blake symposium, Global Blake, which brought scholars from all over the world and so many disciplines together in virtual space to show how Blake’s work and the artist’s presence in the world has touched into and influenced so many corners, people, and places. And as I type I remember there are many presentations I want to return to and watch again on their archive. ‘Finding Blake’ was screened as part of the event, with a Q&A between Jason and me available somewhere there too.

The second book in this beautiful mix is Jerusalem: The story of a song by Edwin John Lerner. A tour guide and writer from Sussex, he wrote it during lockdown after having been invited into the cottage by the trustees. Lerner articulates his love of the myths of King Arthur and Glastonbury, and indeed the publisher, Chronos, is a historical non-fiction imprint.

So right from the off, I note we are dealing with both a ‘story’ (Lerner), and a ‘fight’ (Whittaker), and am intrigued where both may lead us. I love that two books on this deep subject arrive at roughly the same time — and hopefully, more to come.

Englishness — imagination and aspiration

Starting with Lerner’s Jerusalem, the author quickly flies through a useful potted history of Blake’s life and times, describing his journeying between London and Felpham and back — no more or less than other biographies but with a more specific look at the writing of the epic poem itself in Chapter 8, ‘Journeying to Jerusalem’. He then unleashes what is clearly his true passion; a deeper history of the place and mythological culture of Glastonbury, with all the legends and layered perspectives upon this wonderful Somerset town.

There is so much within this book, it’s clear he has much to share and bottomless energy to delve away into whatever takes his fancy. I learned so much about the composers Elgar and Parry — more than I feel I needed to. I found irksome the amount of space he devotes to the film Calendar Girls: it randomly crops up as an aside in the introduction, then gets almost a whole chapter later. Again, the connection between the original ownership of the song by the Women’s Institute and how they have used it, and as a metaphor for women’s suffrage, in Lerner’s hands all this history becomes too dense.

Given that the Finding Blake project on our website here has been developed because of the finding of the location of Blake’s mortal remains, I was dismayed to read his aside about this tremendous piece of detective work by Luis and Carol Garrido as “rather morbid” (p.14). Finding the location of the remains and the history of how they came to be lost, has in my opinion, sparked a wave of new interest in Blake since 2018, and has been entirely positive in bringing his legacy higher in the mind’s eye of the cultured public. It has also brought interest in Catherine, his wife and muse, which I feel has catalysed the Blake Society to also get behind honouring her remains with a new grave, and promoting her as well. 

That aside, Lerner is a gifted storyteller, with a passion to weave his knowledge together and bring us a layered backdrop to how the poem became a song, and how it has filtered through elements of society, class, culture — and all our peculiar British institutionalisation of ourselves — with all the ramifications of imagination and aspiration, and how we all may interpret differently.

What I feel he doesn’t do well is filter out some of the padding, or hone all this research down into a strong and cohesive narrative. Where he writes to excess on the history and outcomes of the three Olympic Games London has hosted, he loses this reader. When he is sleuthing around Elgar’s house, Brinkwells, in deepest wooded Sussex, or Parry’s Grade 1 listed 800-year-old pile, Shulbrede Priory, Lerner brings colour to his mapping, but I wonder if he’s just filling more pages for the sake of it.

“… the words of Jerusalem are easy to remember and it was not too much of a stretch to shoehorn them into an anthem sung to promote the cause of female suffrage. That is the great beauty of Jerusalem: it could be adopted by radicals and conservatives alike, both camps finding something in it to support their preferences. Radicals love Blake’s mystical worldview and his outsider status. Conservatives love the patriotism. Both sides enjoy belting out a good song.” (p. 77)

England cricket’s ‘Barmy Army’ performing ‘Jerusalem’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpScDWXEkFY

A second Bleakean clip on the radio this morning touches into this deep dive: ‘The Barmy Army’ are musical supporters of the English cricket team, cheering the team on and buoying up the crowd of supporters. As the Test Match is underway, Billy was invited on to national morning radio to play Jerusalem on trumpet — to inspire the rest of us to continue with “mental fight”?

I will not cease from mental fight

Mental fight: Showing the cover of Jason Wjittaker's book, 'Jerusalem'

Whittaker’s book, however, is much more details-focused and, with his academic eye and gift for exposition, is framed upon his argument that Blake and Parry’s versions of Jerusalem are both strange and at the same time familiar to those who invoke its vision. Whittaker is not shy from getting into the Brexit debate and seeking to untangle the poem/hymn from its use in that thorny arena, and its hijacking by a right-wing agenda for a nationalist view of what might constitute Englishness. Here’s a scholar willing to use his skills in a fight to rescue a cultural hijack.

Before he unpicks that, I really like chapter 5: ‘Bring me my bow: Empire’s End 1945-1976’, as he gets into the diversity of representations of the song across many mediums. He has done extensive listening to probably every recording and rendition, from folk versions (I looked for ages for British folk busker Don Partridge’s version but alas could not find it), to how it has been used in various films, theatre productions — including the magnificent ‘Jerusalem’ (2009) by Jez Butterworth, also reviewed by me on this site — books and every medium that exists. The level of detail he pours into this is extraordinary, and he makes his research a seamless river of creativity, with every nuance explored — from David Bowie and Mark E. Smith, to Morrissey’s caustic interventions.

He clearly differentiates between highbrow and pop culture, and uses of the words and themes, and dives into what resonates. I share this quote from singer Chris Wood, whose 2013 version I deeply love:

“It’s not the voice of many but a solitary voice. It’s the voice of a human reaching into himself to find a reason to carry on. The voice of a man shaken by the depth of indifference the world has for him and all that he believes in.” Chris Wood, None The Wiser.

There’s a willingness throughout the work that is not afraid to highlight the darkness inherent in Blake’s vision, which Parry’s hymn largely glossed over in its big-picture pitch for identity rooted in place. Whittaker knows it in Blake’s bigger work, and crucially he highlights where artists (of all genres) find it too and respond to it, as with Wood, and Marc Almond’s 2014 The Tyburn Tree (Dark London) (with John Harle). I’d like to highlight his elucidation of the inspiring writer Ben Okri’s 1999 poetry collection Mental Fight, which universalises Blake’s desire into a clarion call “to everyone, especially those who have been oppressed in any way, to engage in mental fight, to rise from a fallen state into redemption”.

Whittaker works hard to rebut the darkness of Blake-Parry’s hymn being adopted by the far right as well as the lumpen middle (in my view exemplified as much by the paradox of ‘New Labour’ as by the current Conservative government and the dying kicks of capitalism itself) and then dissects its tragic entwining around the paradigm of Brexit, and where the reality of this leaves us culturally with all our human friends in any other country around this world.

To zoom in upon the specifics, back to Felpham and the area around Blake’s cottage and the origin of the work, I find it tragic to read that:

“The Arun District, of which Felpham is a part, voted by nearly two-thirds to leave the EU in 2016, one of many towns and regions dissatisfied with modern life, part of which dissatisfaction was the desire to ‘take back control’ of a modern world which seemed to have changed beyond all recognition.” (p. 194)

Awake! Awake! Awake!

I lived in the city of Jerusalem for five years, and while my time there felt very vibrant and energising, the divisions within the city — nationalities, contested spaces, polarities between right and left, religious and secular, notions of ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ — and (for me) the impact of all this upon the land and all the natural resources, made me examine this intense focus upon this place, and the value of that.

Whittaker refers to the “multiple battle lines” of the fight for the meaning of Englishness. Blake wasn’t wanting to replicate a place but something inherent in its spiritual underpinning, and this now to me feels an issue that Parry’s version ignores, or that much of the recent appropriations fail to see. The aim and ethos were never about a physicality, but about our shared humanness and the values we have as a species. And whether we have enough integrity and connection to the divine to ascend those steps or staircase into Blake’s vision of the eternal. It’s crucial to stress the brilliance in Blake’s work at pointing us to an interiority that needs to be found — the mental fight, and wielding the sword within, and without. Awake! Awake! Awake!

Concluding, I think again of the cottage in Felpham where Blake birthed this epic.

While Jerusalem is entwined with our cultural psyche, as explored through these two works, what of the bricks and mortar, with its mixed history and its place in the present, and all the future dreaming that creatives, directors, architects and historians can do? Is it simply about the money, or the will? Does three million quid to save, restore and revamp feel justified right now? I don’t need to write of the straitened times of this age, as we’re all in it and swamped or touched in some way.  Britain right now feels divided, and the national psyche ruptured. Awake! Awake! Awake!

Beneath the 1804 poem, Blake inscribed a Biblical quotation:

“Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets” (Numbers XI. Ch 29.)

Mental Fight: Showing William Blake's preface to Milton, with the poem 'Jerualsam'
By page of Blake’s book Milton, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15925662


Jason Whittaker’s Blake, Parry, and the fight for Englishness is published by Oxford University Press (UK, 2022).

Edwin John Lerner’s Jerusalem: the story of a song is published by Chronos Books (UK, 2022).

Zoamorphosis – The William Blake Blog is devoted to the afterlife and reception of Blake’s art and poetry, looking at how generations of writers, artists, musicians and other cultural figures have adapted his ideas. And the associated Global Blake is an international network of scholars working on William Blake and all aspects of his poetry and art.

You can find Jason Whittaker’s Global Blake interview with James Murray-White here on YouTube, and James’s review On Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ & Our Fallacy of Albion here on Finding Blake.

Chris Wood’s adaptation of Jerualsam is on his album None The Wiser (RUF Records, UK 2013) and you can see a live performance here on YouTube.

Alive and Undead in the Vegetable Underworld

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White joins fellow contributors to the latest issue of the Blake journal VALA in exploring Blake’s connection with nature.

VALA — the free online publication celebrating William Blake’s art and legacy in exciting new ways — is published by our friends at the Blake Society and co-edited by Finding Blake contributor Jason Whittaker. The magazine-style publication includes articles that showcase art and artists influenced by Blake, it spotlights particular works by Blake, examines politics, arts, literature, religions, music and the environment and shares responses to art, life and teaching inspired by Blake.

VALA Issue 3 - William Blake and Nature

Issue 3 is dedicated to exploring Blake and nature, with 36 essays and other contributions, and many artworks. Included is an essay by Finding Blake’s very own James Murray-White. In Alive and Dead in the Vegetable Underworld, he talks about Blake’s role as a poet/painter/prophet of the imagination, compared with poets such as John Clare, Wordsworth and others as ‘grounded nature artists per se’ — but how William and Catherine’s three years in Felpham provided a “transformative sojourn [that] connected them both to earthy elements.”

Showing the front page of James Murray-White's essay for VALA III

James talks about the process of making the Finding Blake film and the insights. “My feeling then … is that Blake saw the natural world and the ‘more than human’ as background to the human predicament, that nature is the place into and out of which we might emerge and must ascend or descend: the wilderness, the wild sea, the forest, the wild creature. For Blake, we belong within the human experience of mortality, and less to a place or an anthropological tradition of the human tribe interacting with other species and becoming dominant within the original garden of Eden.”

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity […] & Some Scarce see Nature at all But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself.
Blake’s Letter to Revd Dr John Trusler, 23 August 1799


You can read the full essay and enjoy all the other creative and insightful content of VALA III here on the Blake Society site. And you can watch the online launch event here, with a number of the issue’s contributors talking about their pieces.

Other Finding Blake contributors have written on their own connectedness with nature and Blake’s relevance to our relationships with the natural world: for example, in Seeing the Wood Through the Trees reconciliation ecologist Pete Yeo celebrates Blake’s testimony to nature as ‘imagination itself’ with an exploration of how our ‘plant blindness’ is perhaps giving way to a ‘probiotic turn’ and the vegetal realm’s role in our need to more fully engage our individual and collective imaginations with the challenges of our times.

Niall McDevitt (1967 – 2022):  Entering the Mystery

Writer Naomi Foyle joined the funeral service and wake to celebrate fellow poet and Blakean Niall McDevitt just a few days ago. Here she shares the spirit of that gathering for a friend, and memories of Niall — in an expanded version of a post she first shared on her Facebook page the following day.

Mors Janua Vitae – Death, the Gate of Life … and so it proved on October 12th, Niall McDevitt’s starkly beautiful funeral service at the Kensal Green cemetery East Chapel energised by a Blakean – and Yeatsian ‒ challenge to the priest, who tried to hurry things along, not counting on Niall’s brother Roddy McDevitt, who leapt up from his pew, vigorously refusing not to sing ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ to Niall’s setting!

Mors Janua Vitae
‘Death, the Gate of Life’. Photograph: Naomi Foyle 2022

The overflowing proceedings — people sitting in the aisle and standing out into the carpark — were also graced with a defiant rendition of ‘Jerusalem’, cut from the programme but led by a choir of women as the mourners slowly filed out, the funeral a hallowed portal to the wake at the Tabernacle in Powis Square – a rambunctious, epic, life-affirming event, generating over two hours of music, song, poetry and heartfelt testimonials in Niall’s honour. Anglo-Irish poet, self-taught Blakean scholar, Londonist literary walking tour guide, urban shaman, loyal friend, and devoted partner to the artist Julie Goldsmith, one of Niall’s phenomenal legacies is the vibrant and loving community his generous spirit has bequeathed us.

The service was live-streamed and will be available for viewing soon. All the contributions spoke to the heart of Niall’s presence and absence but, having not met Niall’s family before, along with his brother’s, those of his sister, the filmmaker Yvonne McDevitt, and niece, Dixie McDevitt, stood out for me. Yvonne sang an exquisite rendition of the Gaelic poem ‘Ag Críost an Síol’ (‘Christ is the Seed’), set by Seán Ó Riada, the renowned Irish composer and arranger who also tragically died young. Listening to Yvonne was an otherworldly experience, her spectral voice transforming the chapel into an ethereal chamber of yearning and solace. Dixie gave a passionate eulogy, recounting how Niall had taken her on a private Blake walk, and later (sitting under an overpass, I think) sang ‘The Wildflower’s Song’ with her and Roddy, so many times that she could recite it at her Cambridge interview — in response to the provocative question ‘Isn’t William Blake a little twee?’ She said that was the moment she got in. Like her uncle, Dixie was ambivalent about academia, but thanks to her he stormed the Ivory Tower: Niall took her entire cohort on a London walk, he and Roddy outdoing each other to ‘disturb passers-by with Shakespeare’, a lecture her peers agreed was the best on their course.

A wake — the fullest range and depth of love

Wake for Niall McDevitt
“Niall’s mother Frances listening to ‘Hyacinths’ performed by Kirsten Morrison Nev Hawkins and Niall’s brother Roddy McDevitt.” Photograph: Naomi Foyle 2022

More than these achievements for them both, though, I was just so glad to learn that Niall had enjoyed such a close relationship with her; as he did with his stepson, the writer and editor Heathcote Ruthven, 32, who told me how Niall had become more and more loving and giving over the decade that he, Julie and Niall lived together. Niall’s life was cruelly cut short and he will be dreadfully missed. But I’m comforted to know that in, the time he had here on Earth, he experienced the fullest possible range and depth of love — profoundly romantic with Julie, of course, whose dignity and kindness to all present was notable on the day, but also intergenerational, paternal and familial. Helping to nurture the gifts of those two exceptional young people must have given him such a sense of pride and belonging. And meeting Niall’s mother Frances, who embraced me at the wake and told of her son’s firm grip on her arm the day before he died, I felt I’d touched the source of his famous vitality and warmth. It is also strengthening to know that Heathcote, in his work at New River Press, and Julie as Niall’s artistic collaborator, are imminently publishing Niall’s magnum opus, London Nation — a book that sounds by all accounts like a Four Quartets or Four Zoas for our accelerationist age, an advance copy of which, poet James Byrne told us in his tender eulogy, Niall was holding in his coffin.

Niall McDevitt in Hyde Park, with green parakeets. Photograph: Julie Goldsmith 2016

I met Niall over sixteen years ago, and in my tribute at the wake I spoke about the birthdate we shared, Feb 22, 1967 — the night Jimi Hendrix played the Roundhouse. There is an urban legend that the famous London green parakeets are descended from a pair that Hendrix brought with him and set free. Niall, I’m sure, would approve of apocryphal glory, so I’ll always associate the birds with him too, emblems of his style and vibrancy and defiant internationalism, darting like rare emerald kingfishers over the city he loved — the ‘kingfisher of poetry’ being evoked as well in the river of tributes Niall flowed through at the wake. Later Julie sent me a photo of Niall in Hyde Park, two parakeets eating out of his hands.

Wake for Niall McDevitt. Showing Naomi Foyle reading Niall's 'Visions of Sophia'
Naomi Foyle reading ‘Visions of Sophia (gardenless)’ from ‘b/w’. Photograph: Kirsten Morrison 2022

Immortal Dissenters

There was much talk on the night of Niall being always with us, and personally, I have always found that when someone dies they make their presence felt for a good while afterwards. At the wake I read Niall’s poem ‘Visions of Sophia (gardenless)’ from b/w, his debut collection from Waterloo Press, so on the way back home to Brighton, I accepted the gift of a black-and-white polka dotted scarf left for me at the entrance to Victoria Station — and the following morning I simply wasn’t surprised to see a b/w tyger framed by angel wings and a pirate skull burning bright on the train to work … Niall is with the Immortal Dissenters now, and we’re going to need all their help to get humanity back in balance with the planet: as I honour his endlessly creative Blakean spirit in the ways that I can, I’m keeping my eye out for all future messages.

“Nope, not surprised to see a b/w tyger on the train to work this morning … Niall McDevitt, ever will you burn bright xxx” Photograph: Naomi Foyle 2022


This post is an expanded and modified version of Naomi’s original Facebook tribute (13/10/22).

Naomi Foyle is a novelist and poet – author of ten poetry pamphlets and three full collections and has collaborated with artists, musicians and filmmakers on projects and spoken word CDs. Naomi’s website is www.naomifoyle.com

London Nation, Niall’s new poetry collection, is published by New River Press in November and can be pre-ordered now. “Niall McDevitt’s commanding new and final collection sees him return from Jerusalem to London via Babylon. These Londonist, dissenting, occultist poems take on as many forms as themes to reveal a linguistic shapeshifter in the Joycean vein. London Nation is a fourfold work in a beautiful hardback edition with artwork by Julie Goldsmith.”

His debut collection b/w (2010) is published by Waterloo Press: “His is not a brick-by-brick London but a London of the psychosphere, densely populated with genies, spies, artists, prostitutes et al on their chosen edges. A suite of mystical songs to ‘Sophia’ offsets the eviscerating satires. The Queen’s English is shadowed by Pidgin English. Political correctness is trashed, not from the right but from the left. Shakespeare, Blake, Rimbaud, Yeats are the city psychopomps. This is a unique book: Judeo-Apache, avant-folk, urban sha-manic. Read it with drum.”

You can read other tributes to Niall on our post in memory of this much-loved friend of Finding Blake, Niall McDevitt, 1967 – 2022. And Niall’s own post for us, from June 2018, is My Streets Are My, Ideas of Imagination.