Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces a special public event and an exclusive film for our project, courtesy of award-winning poet Sasha Dugdale. Sasha’s recent poem Joy brings us the voice of Catherine Blake, wife to William Blake and ‘vital presence and assistant throughout his life’.
And he is gone, fled singing to some place I cannot reach. His angels came and he sang to them and they told him they needed him more than I did… Merciless, merciless angels… Merciless angels who know nothing of human despair. And he went with them. He nodded and spoke mild words and was soon gone… And he left a shadow of grime on his collar and a warm bed. And the angels had tall wings, like steeples, or like sails and spread white like the King’s ship in dock, and they took him, only I couldn’t see them, but I know how they looked, for hadn’t he spent all his life in their company and mine? And didn’t they sometimes appear in white like good children, and sometimes like ladies but barefoot, with rosy pink staining their necks and hands and ringlets in their hair? Their sighs were angel swords and their smiles were beams of light. He smiled at me, as if to say can’t you see how bonny they are today, on this, my death day, and there’s the whole pity of it, for I couldn’t see, and I never could.
— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale
And so spake Catherine Blake, reflecting back upon the life and death of her life-long husband William in 1827; or so writes Sasha Dugdale, poet and translator, who in this wondrous monologue gives voice to one of the most silent muses the world has known — who inspired steadily her vacillating husband-genius, is known to have helped him print and paint his masterpieces, and to whom he dedicated much of his writings.
The monologue and its volume of other poems, Joy, won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 2016, and was described by the judges as “an extraordinarily sustained visionary piece of writing”. Sasha has written three other collections of poetry, is known for her promotion and translation of Russian literature, and is co-director of the Winchester Poetry Festival. She is currently poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge.
We at Finding Blake are delighted to announce that we will be exclusively filming Sasha reading her monologue, to be premiered here on our website and in the final Finding Blake film to be released later this year. On the same day — 11th April, at 7pm — Sasha will be giving a public reading of some of Joy and other work. The venue is a wonderful Victorian engineer’s house, undergoing restoration in the grounds of the Cambridge Museum of Technology by the River Cam. The house — now named ‘Othersyde’, with its lovely gardens and outdoor bar with views across the river onto a nature reserve in the heart of the city — is a new arts and escape rooms venue that I’ve been involved with for some time. This event is the finale of a winter series of literary & musical salons.
The event is on Thursday April 11th at 7pm. All welcome, though early booking essential as it’s a cosy intimate venue — with only 25 seats! Booking info is here, and then please email me for a Paypal link to secure your ticket.
For further information on Catherine Blake, see Wikipedia, and there is an essay on her by Angus Whitehead at the Blake Archive.
For further information about Sasha Dugdale, see her Wikipedia page. You can enjoy another excerpt from Joy at the Forward Arts Foundation, (where there is also an interview with her), and here is a review from the Poetry School. The collection Joy (2017) is published by Carcanet Press, and was Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award; the poem Joy was Winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.
To find out more about Othersyde, visit their Facebook page.
In her previous posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how finding Blake on a family shopping trip out of Mexico sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist and eventually caused her to embark on her own Blakean novel. Ciudad doliente de Dios would take her from horrific events in Mexico and a writing residency in the USA to Blake’s London. Here, Adriana completes the series, discussing her role in the work of the Blake Society, the publication of her novel and the meaning of Blake’s art as both path and goal.
Around the time I started rewriting the novel, I finally decided to get close to the Blake Society. So close in fact, that I became a Trustee for several years, then its Secretary. This is not the space to say what went wrong, which is documented elsewhere. I’d rather focus here on what nurtured me, what I learnt and what I enjoyed.
It was a joy and a source of renewed inspiration to see how Blake’s work and spirit are still alive for many people, including younger generations. I’ve found amazing, amusing or even daunting the passions that he can still stir — and I am fully aware that some might make similar comments regarding my own passion for Blake. Wondering who he really was in his homeland is very different from doing so in Mexico. The approach back there is by necessity more sober, focusing mainly on his work. Here in Britain, there are layers upon layers of symbolic dimensions touching on the aesthetic, the religious, the philosophical, the metaphysical, the social and the political.
Of course, all these were issues Blake touched upon through his life and work. And it says much about the power with which he did so that so many years after his death, throngs of people are still seeking his meaning, finding new interpretations… sometimes with such a fierce feeling of appropriation of Blake that it borders on worship. I’ll get there later.
Blakean encounters and wounds
In the Blake Society I got to hear the most wonderful talks … and the most bizarre as well. Involved in organising several events, I’ll always be grateful for the chance to channel through them my wholehearted enthusiasm. There was a walk I led in Peckham Rye looking for Blake’s angels on trees; a midnight vigil in Blake’s surviving home in South Molton Street, waiting for our own Visionary Heads to appear as we echoed Blake’s gatherings with artist and astrologer John Varley; then there was the spirit of Orc, embodied in poet Jeremy Reed at the Occupy London encampment on a freezing December evening outside St Paul’s Cathedral; or taking children from Kids Company to read The Tyger to the tigers in London Zoo, the nonstop rain never dampening the children’s zeal.
There were also projects which met failure, such as that of founding Golgonooza, the City of Imagination built by Los, in the streets of London. I had envisaged having Blake’s images projected on buildings all over the city, making true his never materialised dream of being commissioned to paint murals. Then London would be, albeit briefly, a true visionary city. A completely unaffordable project, it was transformed into an illuminated talk at King’s College Arts and Humanities Festival: Golgonooza as the sacred city of the imagination; as the human body; as a reflection on failure. I said goodbye to the Blake Society, inviting Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist poet of great insight, to talk about Blake and about the imagination as the supreme human faculty.
To be involved in all these projects in Blake’s London was a joy, and a privilege — something I would have never imagined possible when I bought that Penguin edition in a noisy shopping mall. And for that, I am grateful.
It’s impossible not to mention here as well the 2014 Blake Cottage appeal. Part of its leadership, I gave myself to it with full devotion and hope. It was a beautiful project; the support it received from the public was the most poignant certitude that Blake’s spirit is still alive and touching many. Working on it, I am sure, kept me alive during rather trying times.
Part of the plan was to make Blake’s cottage in Felpham, Sussex, a ‘house of refuge’ for persecuted writers. This, I thought, would be quite a concrete way of honouring what Blake stood for — and precisely in the place where he was accused of sedition. The appeal’s original conception meant for the cottage to be the materialisation, through collective effort, of what Blake believed in as a man and an artist.
True, things didn’t go that way, and the problems that ensued nearly killed me (in compensation, perhaps, for the project having kept me alive for a long while?). Yet I don’t regret one bit having invested so much of me in the dream. I believed in what we were doing, and as far as my own experience goes, the path walked with faith becomes the destination. The ordeal also gave me the chance to have a first-hand experience of a Blakean prophetic poem unfolding live, with all its acute drama. It might have been trying, but no one can say it wasn’t interesting. If I lost my Innocence in the Blake Society and the Blake Cottage appeal, I gained loads of Experience. I am therefore grateful.
Finding Blake again: Ciudad doliente de Dios
For a while, the wounds were so bad that I couldn’t even hear William Blake mentioned without my stomach hurting, and so I walked away from him for the first time in over thirty years. My Blakean novel was finished but not published, and finding a publisher was proving hard. But healing came. I knew I’d be alright the day when, out of the blue, I decided to visit Bunhill Fields again. I sat there, by the fig tree and the old stone with its chipped corner — a place which has become hallowed by the pilgrimage of so many — as I had often done while writing the novel. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. I just sat there, watching the trees, the pigeons flying, people passing by. It was a very happy day.
I’m now ready for Blake again.
Which is a good thing, because, after a long wait, Ciudad doliente de Dios was finally published last December in Mexico, by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Things therefore became quite intense. The novel had to go to print in October, which gave me the shortest time I’ve ever had to read the proofs of a book of mine (and this is my longest one).
It being a book I finished five years ago, I was at moments tempted to rewrite again. It wouldn’t have been wise though, as it would have meant more destroying than building. On the whole, I decided to trust the writer I was then. It has been twenty-one years since I started working on this novel. I believe it has indeed reached the point when it has to go out into the world.
On reading the proofs, I was reminded of what a strange novel it is. I liked that. As a dialogue with Blake’s prophetic poems the visionary mattered more than any conventions of modern fiction, and it feels right to have been loyal to that intent.
I was struck too by the degree to which this is a Christian book, in the sense that Blake was Christian (I hope!). I felt somewhat melancholic. I’ve talked before of how I’d been a Christian who responded to the symbolic power of the myth while struggling with the dogma. Precisely in the years I was finishing the novel, I started to walk away from the remnants of my identity as a Christian, as I discovered Buddhism. There aren’t so many contradictions, and I even find much that sounds utterly Buddhist in Blake himself. Ultimately, the quest of my characters for the meaning of the cross and the figure of Christ is a quest for understanding of suffering, and it’s moved by compassion. The questions in it remain utterly genuine and alive for me.
Another matter I pondered on while reading the proofs is the extent to which the tragedies endured by the country where I was born take centre stage in the novel. Set on the visionary rather than the mundane side of reality, it doesn’t take place in any ‘real’ geographical spot. Its characters walk towards the sacred city, led by an image of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, the unfathomable suffering of a country called Mexico has been woven around the cosmogony of William Blake, in an effort to understand and to find meaning. I do hope, therefore, that Ciudad doliente de Dios honours all the people who have endured such suffering with courage and even — as is the case of the community Las Abejas, members of which were the victims of the Acteal massacre — with hope.
Blake: art as path and goal
It must be clear by now, the importance that William Blake has had in my life, as a writer and a human being. He’s an artist and poet who talks to me. One whom I honour and admire for the way he lived the extremely hard battle it was his lot to fight. A sublime and truly inspired but misunderstood artist who endured mockery, incomprehension and poverty.
However, William Blake is not a saint, and in coming closer to some other people’s appreciation of him, I believe that the kind of fanaticism encountered around him now and then is a great loss: a deviation of what really matters in his legacy.
There is no doubt that he lived an exemplary life, as a courageous human being who remained steadfastly faithful to his call, his passions and his principles, against all odds. He believed in the power of art and the imagination to transform human life by helping us break through the veils which hinder our awareness of transcendent reality. And he considered this power the essence of divinity in human existence. He devoted his life to that vision, and therefore to create beauty and meaning. What else can we possibly demand from him?
He gave us more than enough, and like any true artist, he demands in turn our full regard for his work, our full responsiveness. Any other extraneous meaning whimsically projected onto him is a deviation from this. Blake’s belief in being able to communicate with certain spirits (his brother Robert’s; the sages he saw on the shores of Felpham; and his angels) wouldn’t be more interesting than any other person’s perhaps unusual beliefs, had he not linked that faith to a greater, encompassing one: his faith in the human spirit, capacious enough to hold within it God, the universe and all the questions hence derived.
Furthermore, he was adamant about art’s paramount importance in the life of man, believing that a society which stands with its back to the arts is impoverished, lame and crass. Art was, to him, the vehicle, the path and the goal: what he dedicated his life to. If we make any claim to having accepted his gift for posterity, it is to his images and his poetry that we must turn — and they are certainly not for the literal-minded.
We live in times of confusion, when the arts are often understood either as a commodity, novelty, entertainment, a sorry mirror for the vacuous existence of the consumer society, or (with good but misguided intentions) as a by-product of sociology, which then becomes surreptitiously an instrument for social engineering.
All these approaches strip art of its transcendent principle, and when that happens, art is dead. The death of art means the death of a society’s spirit, of human freedom. That is why artists such as William Blake are important, and it is a thing to celebrate that there are many individuals in younger generations who understand this and want to make Blake’s art and poetry a part of their lives.
The art and the poetry of a man who lived on earth. Nothing more and nothing less.
Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.
In Universal Awareness, part 1 of his new series for Finding Blake, James Fox described his psychological experiences that he later came to understand through William Blake’s writings as either manacled, ‘egoic’ states (Blake’s Satanic mills) or liberated, ‘mystical’ states (Blake’s awakened Albion). In this second part, James elaborates Blake’s doctrine of the four zoas. This series is adapted from a talk he gave in November 2018 to the Mental Fight Club — a charity assisting recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects — and builds on his earlier post for us, Divine Madness.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell William Blake writes:
If the doors of perception were cleansed Every thing would appear to man as it is – infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees All things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
Blake’s mythological world refers to ‘four zoas’, from the Greek meaning ‘four powers’. These represent four primary aspects of our human experience, our human being you might say.
The first concerns our sensations, our raw sensual experience, the things of the world: Blake calls this first zoa Tharmas. The second is Urizen, our rational intellect, the power of nature in us that enables us to abstract generalities from our particular sense experiences and to apply the principles of logic to formulate ‘laws’ and predict our future experiences. The third zoa, a force which he calls Luvah or Los, is the power of desire: that which seeks to express itself, to realise itself creatively in the form of production or action – Art in general, according to Blake. The fourth is the power of Imagination, which he calls Urthona, to which are assigned ideas and images that arise intuitively and spontaneously, out of thin air as it were. It is through the Imagination that we may be provided with mystical experience.
In Blake’s work Milton we find the following illustration:
Here is Luvah, the power of desire and creative action; Urizen, the rational power; Tharmas, the power of sensation; and Urthona, the power of intuitive imagination. We can see a parallel here immediately with the work of Carl Jung, who also proposed four functions of the human psyche by which consciousness orientates itself:
Like Blake, in Jung we find a function for feeling, thinking, sensation and intuition.
Microcosm mirroring macroscosm
The same fourfold division of the psyche or microcosm is something that appears again and again in psycho-spiritual belief systems throughout history and across the world. It is present in the spiritual alchemy of the West and in shamanistic doctrines past and present, where particular emphasis is placed on corresponding the microcosmic or human qualities with those of the external world or macrocosm:
Thus in a typical alchemical or shamanistic arrangement we might find the power of the intellect as a microcosmic manifestation of the same power that manifests itself as the element of air in the macrocosm of the natural world; for our ideas, being rarefied and intangible, yet nevertheless moving us to action, relate most closely to invisible air, whose presence is known when it stirs itself as the breeze.
Similarly, intuition and fire are seen as manifestations of the same power, for inspiring ideas fire us up, they arise like lightning, they energise us like the Sun.
Our feelings have a propensity to flow, to spread and move out, like water in the stream, as they seek to express themselves.
And our bodily sensations are most vivid when they touch solid objects, such as the rock of the element earth.
Directional placement and displacement
The directional placing of these powers is nearly always related to the Sun, for it is by far and away the principal source and visible sign of energy. So, for example, intuition is placed in the east where the Sun rises – where the new energy and fire announce themselves.
What is key in all this is the intention to associate essential qualities of the human being to related qualities in nature, and — through various psycho-spiritual practices — to effect the felt experience that we are in fact, after all, integral to nature.
Blake himself attaches a similar importance to the directional placing of the four zoas:
So we have Luvah, the power to act creatively, at the east; Urizen, the rational power, at the south; Tharmas, the power of sensuality, at the west; and Urthona, the power of intuitive imagination, to the north. But when our microcosmic forces cease to be in alignment with those of the macrocosm — when we become psychically disconnected from the world, due to the rational faculty becoming over-bloated and tyrannising the other aspects of the psyche — then we fall from Heaven and enter the despondency of the ego-world. Blake describes this lapsed state as one in which the zoas have been displaced directionally:
Urizen is now in the west, Tharmas is in the east and Luvah is in the south. And this is the state most of us find ourselves in. But when Urizen is rehabilitated and the individual awakens spiritually, then the zoas are returned to their pre-lapsarian positions where they are once again aligned with the forces of the cosmos. Reason is returned to the south and once more functions as instrument, as emissary, of the spiritual soul.
At home in the world
In the last plate of Jerusalem Blake shows Los or Luvah resplendent, having built Jerusalem. Now, the ratio is the instrument of art and imagination. Now, Los is at home in the world, at one with its divine presence that shines forth in its elemental modes: the earth upon which he stands; the river, the Moon; the fiery Sun; the translucent air through which the stars and the infinite universe are seen.
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.
At the heart of Blake’s work is mysticism, specifically pantheism – a nature spirituality in which all things and oneself are conceived as infused by the Infinite, a single universal and infinite substance. In the words of the most famous philosopher of pantheism, Baruch Spinoza, ‘Deus sive natura’: God and nature as interchangeable terms.
The task that Blake has Los perform – the building of Jerusalem amongst the dark satanic mills of the Urizenic mind and the industrial world of its externalisation – is the spiritual awakening of the sons and daughters of Albion – we modern men and women – to a felt and lived experience of this nature spirituality. And the means by which this task is accomplished is through the re-placing of Urizen, the rehabilitating of the rational faculty, from one who supposes himself to be the master and originator of our actions and reifies himself as the supposed mental-ego, to one who instead serves our desires and our imagination, one who enables the spiritual nourishment of the soul.
James Fox is a philosopher and former researcher at the Open University and is a co-author of A Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy (Scarecrow Press, 2006). He is now mostly interested in mystical texts, especially pantheistic nature-based doctrines and practices which he sees as key to transforming our conception of ourselves in relation to the world: a transformation that can lead to the spiritual experience of total at-homeness in (at one with) the natural environment and hence to the feeling of a reverence and duty of care towards that environment. Prior to pursuing philosophy, he held a position in a climate research department at the UK Meteorological Office.
In the third and final part of the series, James outlines a Blakean-inspired project he is working on at present: a manifesto, a programme of practice and study, that has as its aim the cultivating of a mental space that has both an understanding of its place in the world and the experience of feeling at home in the world.
You can view William Blake’s manuscript of The Four Zoas online at the British Library.