Going Global – Blake’s Afterlife

Scholar Jason Whittaker, who has written extensively on William Blake over a period of thirty years, shares his first encounters with the work of this visionary and why they led him to explore Blake’s reception in the contemporary world as well as in Blake’s own times. It’s a lifelong interest he shares with so many others that now brings us Global Blake, a new project and an online conference.


It was in a darkened room at Tate Britain – in the final days of the old millennium – that I saw the light.

This isn’t a metaphor. I was attending the Blake exhibition at the Tate in 2000, and the final installation was ‘Cleave 00’ by the conceptual artist Cerith Wyn Evans. Overhead, a glitter ball was pulsing with light, flakes of reflected phosphorescence shining as they fell away across the shadows of the walls. Those pulses were significant – Morse Code projections of Blake’s poetry, according to the catalogue description. The installation itself was inspired by one of Blake’s small watercolour and pencil sketches, ‘The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall)’, in which the prophet (or, perhaps, Blake himself) was depicted seated at a table, a glowing globe above him as he wrote down the words dictated to him by an angel. The strange, bare perspectives of the room within a room remind me of a Giorgio de Chirico painting or a Rachel Whiteread cast – and I was mesmerised.

Showing A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall) circa 1819-20? William Blake 1757-1827
A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall) circa 1819-20? William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Edwin C. Cohen and Echoing Green 1989 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T05716

While there was part of my brain that was reading the explanation of ‘Cleave 00’ and thinking, “Very clever” in a slightly mocking fashion, I was also enjoying it as an immersive sensorium – somewhat akin to the kind of experiences felt in Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms or standing beneath Olafur Eliasson’s ‘The Weather Project’, a huge glowing orb that lit up Tate Modern in 2003. I’d also long been inspired by the very same ‘dreamachines’ that had been part of an earlier exhibition by Evans. The stroboscopic devices first created by Brion Gysin were intended to induce hypnotic states – to open the doors of perception, as it were – and I’d had a great deal of fun as a student cutting out sheets of card before affixing them to turntables into which a light was suspended in order to bring on my own hallucinations.

The Tate exhibition of 2000 opened my eyes to Blake in several ways, one of which was also extremely significant – and not one intended by the curators. Outside the museum, on the black iron railings that surround the steps leading to the old entrance, someone had affixed a sheet of photocopied A4. On this piece of paper was one of Blake’s images for J. G. Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, showing an African woman being whipped and with a caption protesting some of the sponsors at Tate for pharmaceutical exploitation in Africa.

I was visiting Tate with a good friend of mine, Shirley Dent, who at that time was completing a PhD on Blake’s reception in the nineteenth century, and these two episodes – Cerith Wyn Evans’s ‘Cleave 00’ and the photocopied poster outside the museum – became the opening and closing vignettes of the book that we would write together, Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827.

Placing Blake – past and present

My own initial encounters with Blake had begun more than a decade before while I was an undergraduate at the University of Birmingham. I’d left school with a sketchy notion of the poet of The Tyger and London, and was aware that he had produced some paintings, but it was at university that my perceptions of the artist were transformed. Two of his works electrified me: the first was the image of ‘The Ancient of Days, which I kept as a poster on the wall of my room; the second was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I had been raised as a good Catholic boy, and to read a prophet who dined with Ezekiel and Isaiah while proclaiming that true poets were of the devil’s party quite literally turned my world upside down. I was nineteen, and I often tell people who ask about such things (which happens on a fairly regular basis, considering my professional interest in Blake) that reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was the moment that the lights went on in my mind – and that they have never gone off since.

In the intervening time before visiting the Tate 2000 exhibition, I had immersed myself in Blake’s esoteric visions of British history, eventually converting my PhD into a book, William Blake and the Myths of Britain. A key factor in this first decade of my Blakean life, however, was that I tended to firmly place him in the past. Like many literary scholars of the time, particularly those working in fields such as Romanticism, I had become a confirmed historicist (at a time when it was still fashionable enough to be called the New Historicism – capitalisation required). To understand Blake, or any writer and artist, fully, we must study them in the environment that created them. I do not disagree with this as an important principle of scholarship, and it has been very important to my most recent book, Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, in which I very much seek to place Blake within the fascinating world of London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But this obsession with the historical Blake was beginning to resemble that other obsession of an older generation of scholars with the historical Jesus as opposed to the living Christ.

Blake's reception: Showing the cover of 'Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake', by Jason Whittaker
‘Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake’, by Jason Whittaker

During the decade I had been working on Blake, I noticed from time to time that plenty of other writers, artists and musicians I was interested in expressed their own fascination with the engraver and poet. Whether it was William Burroughs, Angela Carter, J. G. Ballard, the Surrealists, Chris Ofili, Patti Smith or Julian Cope – all of them had intriguing things to say, and not always complimentary. Indeed, this spirit of contrarieties was something I would grow more and more to appreciate about Blake, that just as he had attacked and rewritten Milton and the Bible out of his love for them, so plenty of later artists and writers would attack and rewrite Blake – as well as emulate him – out of their love for him.

Mapping Blake’s reception

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Radical Blake. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was just how much of the subsequent two decades would be given over to mapping out the reception of Blake in art, literature, music and culture. I had blithely assumed that there would be one, maybe two books to write covering the subject, but over the intervening years I have both contributed to and greatly enjoyed seeing other academics produce works that show the ways that William Blake has shaped the modern world. Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki demonstrated just how important Blake was to twentieth-century Japan, while Colin Trodd explored his influence on the early modern art world, Linda Freedman traced his impact on American literature, and Sibylle Erle and Morton Paley drew together scholars from across Europe to illuminate his afterlife on the continent. The list goes on – and there are others, including Roger Whitson, Tristanne Connolly and many, many more, who have become good friends through our shared (often contrarian) love of William Blake.

For much of the past decade as well as writing more formally about William Blake I have often shared my thoughts on the poet and artist through a blog, Zoamorphosis.com. While I have occasionally lamented the obscurantist tendency which caused me to register that particular domain name (taken from a 2007 paper I had given on the mutations and transformations of Blake in popular culture), I am also rather fond of what I have come to think of as a playground for Blake studies, where experimental ideas regarding his work and reception can be explored and enjoyed. The site has recently been updated and refreshed – most of the work has been done behind the scenes to bring it up to date with contemporary technologies, but there is also a new approach to projects, both current ones such as a series of short videos I’m producing about Blake’s work, Zoavision, and as a site for future work, such as on Blake-inspired music and a new book on the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2022.

Global Blake

One significant project that is ongoing, and represents a high point for me in terms of reception studies, is Global Blake, an international conference taking place this month. The original notion to bring together different visions of Blake from around the world was proposed to me by David Worrall, back in 2006, but credit for the current conference must go to Sibylle Erle, my co-organiser and the person who, more than anyone, has worked to bring Blake scholars from around the globe to explore what this Romantic artist and poet means to them in different countries and continents. We have been overwhelmed by the responses and wealth of rich detail produced by our original call, and we hope that Global Blake can serve to drive the intellectual appreciation of this once-neglected artist in an international context. After two decades exploring what Blake means in the two centuries after his death, I’m looking forward to many more years finding new Blakes in new locations.

Showing the website for Global Blake online conference, January 2022
Click to visit the site for details and registration for the free online international conference.

Notes

For more information on the Global Blake project, visit globalblake.zoamorphosis.com. The free online conference runs from 11th to 13th January 2022 and features an array of keynote speakers and panel sessions. 

NB: On Wednesday 12th January (8pm) there is a special live screening of 'Finding Blake', the film, with an introduction and Q&A with James Murray-White, its director and the founder and creative force behind our own project. James discusses the completion of the film in this Finding Blake blog post.

Jason Whittaker is Head of the School of English and Journalism at the University of Lincoln. He is also managing editor of VALA, The Journal of the Blake Society and co-organiser of Global Blake with Sibylle Erle. He regularly blogs about Blake’s reception at Zoamorphosis, where you’ll find articles and links to various other projects by Jason.

Jason’s latest book, Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake (2021), is published by Reaktion Books. Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness will be published by Oxford University Press in May 2022.

Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827 by Shirely Dent and Jason Whittaker (2002) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Jason’s book William Blake and the Myths of Britain (1999) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Jason mentions several other scholars’ work on Blake:

The Reception of Blake in the Orient, edited by Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki (2014, Bloomsbury) brings together research from international scholars focusing attention on the longevity and complexity of Blake`s reception in Japan and elsewhere in the East. “It is designed as not only a celebration of his art and poetry in new and unexpected contexts but also to contest the intensely nationalistic and parochial Englishness of his work, and in broader terms, the inevitable passivity with which Romanticism (and other Western intellectual movements) have been received in the Orient.”

Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World 1830-1930 by Colin Trodd (2012, Liverpool University Press) explores how William Blake achieved classic status. “What aspects of his art and personality attracted and repelled critics? How was the story of his afterlife coloured by debates and developments in the British art world? Moving between visual and literary analysis, [it] considers the ways in which different audiences and communities dealt with the issue of describing and evaluating Blake’s images and designs.”

William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture by Linda Freedman (2018, Oxford University Press) covers a wide range of forms including prose, newspaper and periodical publication, the novel, music, theology, film, visual art, and poetry.

The Reception of William Blake in Europe edited by Morton D. Paley and Sibylle Erle (2019, Bloomsbury) “is the first comprehensive and systematic reference guide to Blake’s influence across Europe. Exploring Blake’s impact on literature, art, music and culture, the book includes bibliographies of major translations of Blake’s work in each country covered, as well as a publication history and timeline of the poet’s reception on the continent.”

You can view John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) online at the British Library. John Gabriel Stedman, a Dutch army officer, joined hundreds of other troops to fight against and suppress armed rebellion in Surinam. His diary of his voyage and time in the colony formed the basis of his Narrative, and William Blake made the engravings, based on Stedman’s own drawings. 

The Tygers of Wrath – a Lesson in Dissent

Tamsin Rosewell at Kenilworth BooksTamsin 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.

Permission granted

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.

A recreation of William Blake’s star-wheel printing press, made by BLAM Furniture Makers fas part of the recreation of Blake’s Lambeth studio for the Apprentice and Master exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (2014-15). Image: BLAM Furniture Makers

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.

Permission granted - dissent. Showing The Silent Unwinding by Jackie Morris.
Tamsin’s copy of The Silent Unwinding, crinkled and dripping with ink
Tamsin Rosewell and Jackie Morris in collaboration © 2021
‘Hail many-coloured messenger’ – Iris, one of Prospero’s spirits
Tamsin Rosewell and Jackie Morris in collaboration © 2021
‘Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises’
Tamsin Rosewell and Jackie Morris in collaboration © 2021
Ariel helps raise the storm’
Tamsin Rosewell and Jackie Morris in collaboration © 2021
Ariel trapped in the tree by the witch Sycorax ‘Thou hast howled away twelve winters’
Tamsin Rosewell and Jackie Morris in collaboration © 2021
‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’ Prospero and the enslaved Caliban
Tamsin Rosewell and Jackie Morris in collaboration © 2021
‘Wast done well?’ Ariel seeks release from Prospero.
Tamsin Rosewell and Jackie Morris in collaboration © 2021
End papers: ‘On the bat’s back I do fly..’ Ariel flies off in search of summer.
Tamsin Rosewell and Jackie Morris in collaboration © 2021

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?

Permission granted.


Notes

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.

Look out for more work from Tamsin Rosewell in The Blake Society‘s publication, VALA later this year.

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.

You can find out more about The Unwinding and The Silent Unwinding by Jackie Morris and Unbound Publishing at The Unwinding and The Silent Unwinding.

You can read an account of William Blake’s innovative design and printing process in “Printing in the infernal method”: William Blake’s method of “Illuminated Printing” by Michael Phillips, published in the Interfaces journal.

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…” 

Auguries of Innocence: the Connected and Consequential Cosmos

Reconciliation ecologist Pete Yeo took inspiration from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence in a new-found understanding of the natural world through chaos theory and fractals. Here, he shares his appreciation of Blake’s words and their popularity for how they speak directly to the heart of the matter.


To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Why is it that these opening lines of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence have become so well-known? Might the answer draw out a dichotomy in our modern relationship with the cosmos, yet still augur well for our necessary reconciliation with the web of life?

I cannot now recall when I first encountered these lines yet I suspect it was in the early nineties, around the time of my introduction to chaos theory and fractal geometry following a travelling scholarship to the USA. Whilst I may have begun with an intellectual interpretation of his poem’s beautiful opening invitation, his words would have resonated with my felt experience of the connective patterning of the world around me. I’m sure I’m not alone in having seen the macrocosm in the microcosm, and vice versa. Blake’s words are popular, I suggest, because they speak directly to the heart of matter.

auguries of innocence - repeating patterns in nature
A familiar fractal metapattern: what social scientist Gregory Bateson called ‘the Pattern that Connects’.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

Recalling that trip to the USA, and a mind alive with new-found understanding and meaning, I began to see further into the depth of the world as I toured nature preserves around the southeastern states. And not just with my mind; an artist’s feeling sense was being nurtured too. Atop a landmark granite outcrop in Georgia, I took a photograph that was soon to have great significance for me. The subject was simple enough, a crescent of lichen and moss initiating the process of plant colonisation around a small solution pool of less than half a metre square. With time, as weathering and root action proceeded, they would be joined by grasses, perhaps a shrub or two, even a pine sapling. In awe of the power of the vegetal realm, there I left it.

Vegetal beginnings; the solution pool atop Heggie’s Rock, Georgia.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

A golden thread 

On my return to the UK I began to satisfy my craving for more knowledge of chaos theory, the self-similar scaling of fractals and, inevitably, quantum physics. Within a better grasp of Life, how might I use this information in my work with plants? It wasn’t long before serendipity offered its help. The latest issue of a magazine subscription included a supplement on Australia, within which was a photograph that rather took my breath away. It was an aerial shot of a beautiful bay fringed by mangrove forest, this forest exhibiting the same light/dark green banding as the lichen (light) and moss (dark) in Georgia. The similarities can, of course, be explained rationally, and yet, for me, it was a heart-felt sign; here was a golden thread to follow.

The serendipitous, scaled-up vegetal crescent on the coast of Australia.
Photograph: Unknown

Plants have long ignited my imagination, and they had taken me to the States. These days I have a growing appreciation of the extent to which they have supported me throughout my life as I have searched for meaning in various ways and places. They have been both generic and specific totems. It is with deep gratitude that I now work with them as nature connection portals for others, supported by the latest discoveries in plant behaviour, intelligence and connectivity. My interest in physics has continued alongside, especially in recent years with the fascinating insights arising from the field of unified physics (readily accessible via the Resonance Science Foundation, for instance).

Auguries of innocence: a unified field

This new physics is radically evolving our modern worldview, evidencing the ancient spiritual mantra, known to Blake we might imagine, that “All is One”. The mind is now explaining what hearts have long felt; rather than having separatist dominion over a ‘clockwork universe’ of parts, we are an expression of a living cosmos that is far more than the sum of its interdependent parts. The ‘Ocean of Being’ is now described as an immersive, unified field of energy from which all physical matter is spun into patterned existence across an infinite scale. As plant cognition scientist Monica Gagliano puts it, “we are not in nature, we don’t go to nature. We are nature. We literally spring out of the planet.”

auguries of innocence - the cosmic matrix
The cosmic matrix, the “flower of life”, each circle actually an overlapping sphere in 3D.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

This unified field expresses the sacred geometry known to the ancients, its foundational structure represented by the ‘flower of life’ symbol, and its fundamental energy flow pattern by the yin yang symbol. Inherent to the latter is a reflexive learning and evolving mechanism known as ‘feedback/feedforward’. This is reflected, for example, in the Earth’s electromagnetic field or a halved apple. Simply use opposing fingers to trace a pattern exiting one pole, passing along either side, re-entering at the other pole, and reuniting via the core. In other words, what is given out to the world is received back, things work or they don’t. Just as Blake’s poem goes on to suggest, our actions have consequences for us in time, and we can learn and evolve accordingly.

William Blake’s Newton (1795): colour print with pen & ink and watercolour.
Image: The William Blake Archive

And so, we come full circle. Whilst Blake took issue with the emergence of Science, most notably with his painting Newton, this adventure in reductive reasoning – the so-called Enlightenment that became what countercultural intellectual Charles Eisenstein calls the ‘Story of Separation’ – was perhaps a necessary detour for humanity. Putting a positive spin on the matter, the inherent and multivalent learning therein has likely moved us forward as a species, delivered us to a more informed space. I would like to think that my personal journey into disconnection has had a similar outcome in microcosm. It could be said that we have come full spiral; indeed, in 3D the yin yang’s energy flow pattern is in fact spiralling (for a visualisation, see the link in the notes below).

Better connection

As heart and mind, feeling and intellect reconvene in our crisis-ridden time there would appear to be cause for hope. Yet, however resonant our intellect, that is no guarantee of better decision-making. Consider the decades of appeals to society with respect to climate change. The world around us and its events need to be acutely felt for effective action to be taken – what has been called compassionate empathy – just as you might act on chronic pain within your own body. The revolution is love, as they say, and we care for what we love.

Thankfully our heart connection is always there for us; to modify an old adage, you can try to take the child from the cosmos yet you can’t take the cosmos from the child. The new physics is telling us that at the centre of every 3D yin yang, at whatever scale we choose – from proton to galaxy, we will find singularity and the intimate portal of connection with the unified field of the cosmos, or ‘Source’. Far more than a pump, the human heart, generator of the body’s largest electromagnetic field, is in every sense our centre of felt connection.

Auguries of innocence - the seed of truth
Whatever the scale, there is a seed of truth at the heart of matter.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

It is no coincidence that just when we most need to reconcile ourselves with our planetary home there is now a popular surge in nature connection activities, like forest school (for all ages) or foraging, alongside ecological campaigning. A beneficial aspect of today’s media is that they are helping us feel the collective trauma. The restorative power of our heartfelt connection, evidenced also in the rise of forest bathing and nature prescriptions, can even ‘resuscitate’ those numb to the world around them, to quote nature connection practitioner Danny Shmulevitch. It could be as simple as bathing in a starry night. The joy of the world is as much ours as its pain; as the yin yang symbol shows, they are intimately entwined.

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

These later lines from Auguries of Innocence further evidence Blake’s channelling of some mighty wisdom, describing the seed of truth at the heart of matter – our consequential connection to cosmos. What, I wonder, might have happened if Isaac Newton had interpreted his falling apple another way, coming to know that he had held infinity in the palm of his hand and eternity in that hour? Blake may smile wryly at the question, yet in fairness to Newton, I’ll close with a line from another popular text, the Desiderata by Max Ehrmann.

No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.


Notes

In his previous Finding Blake post, An Evergreen and Pleasant Land?, Pete finds inspiration in William Blake’s poem that later became the hymn Jerusalem when contemplating the impacts of our changing climate on Britain’s evergreen plantlife.

For more from Pete, see his website, Future Flora, and his similarly-named Facebook page for weekly musings. Lately, he’s felt a call to write more expansively on the need for a more holistic and reverential relationship with the plant realm (and hence all Life). At times the muse has felt rather Blakean.

You can read Auguries of Innocence and more of Blake’s poems at Poetry Foundation. In a September 2020 article on Blake’s four-fold imagination, Mark Vernon discusses Blake’s view of the limitations of the ‘singular’ vision of science as exemplified by Isaac Newton and illustrated in Blake’s painting.

Wikipedia, as ever, has useful introductions to chaos theory and fractal geometry, and there is more at the Resonance Science Foundation, a global research and education non-profit organization working for the unification of physics and science as a whole.

You can hear plant cognition scientist Monica Gagliano, as quoted by Pete, discuss plant sentience in this 2020 podcast from Camden Art Audio. For more on the ‘flower of life’ and yin yang symbols Pete discusses — and illustrates in his image, the cosmic matrix — again Wikipedia provides good overviews. Pete has provided this link to a more 3D illustration of the spiralling nature of the yin yang energy flow, as mentioned in his text.

Pete mentions the thinking of Charles Eisenstein on the ‘Story of Separation’, and you can watch a short video of Charles talking about the root of this separation on his website.

For more on the restorative power of connection with nature, see these pieces on forest bathing and nature prescriptions and the work of Danny Shmulevitch.

Finally, the full text of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata is available here.