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.
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.
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.
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 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...