A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song

Joseph A. ThompsonWe welcome Joseph Andrew Thompson as our latest author for Finding Blake. Joseph is a composer, musician, writer and the creative mind behind the duo Astralingua. Their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, features their adaptation of William Blake’s poem A Poison Tree. This song is released today and Finding Blake is delighted to publish this account of its development to mark its release. 


William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience immediately enthralled me upon first read. A high school friend had lent me his worn copy, and I read, amazed by its elegant simplicity. It presented itself like a children’s storybook, complete with illustrations, perfect rhyme, and steady meter. Yet, beneath this playful facade was a masterwork, rife with meaning, craft, metaphor, and vision.

When I learned of the existence of other editions, I ventured to the bookstore to pore through any I might find. I would have been very delighted at purchasing my own illustrated copy, but with only a pittance to spare that day, settled instead on a text-only pocket version by Penguin that I found amidst the larger hardcovers.

Astralingua - Blake & Guitar
Astralingua – Blake & Guitar. Photo: Astralingua © 2018

Discovering A Poison Tree

The little songbook easily fit in my coat pocket and for the first six months of possessing it, I carried it around with me, reading it in quiet moments. It was still with me in college, when on many an evening, a fellow songwriter and I stood in my humble apartment, passing it back and forth, reading aloud the poems in different voices. Always a favorite, A Poison Tree was memorized, and often read in a voice not unlike Montresor’s, from Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. In time, the book eventually made its way to a pocket of my carry bag, where still to this day it stays, like a most trusted talisman.

One evening a few years ago, while working on my band Astralingua’s coming album Safe Passage, my music partner Anne R. Thompson and I were at once struck by the idea of adapting one of Blake’s songs to music. Needing no deliberation, the obvious choice was A Poison Tree, as few among my friends had not at one time or another heard me slyly recite it. Excited by the idea, I retrieved my shoulder bag and found my little copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

As I flipped through the pages, I thought back to my college days with the book, and suddenly recalled an old song on which I had worked then. Absorbed in Romanticism, I had been writing in a Blakean mood of sorts, but dissatisfied with my lyrics, had since left the song unfinished. Now, I wondered if it might in some way fit A Poison Tree. Almost magically, with but a few changes to the original melody, it did so seamlessly, leaving me to wonder if this marriage of the two had not always been my true intent.

Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua.
Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua. Design: Astralingua © 2018

In the midst of Safe Passage

And thus our version was born and grew. That night, Anne and I giddily sang it together, myself on guitar, and her reading from my pocketbook, harmonizing the melody. In production, we tried to give it an Old World minstrel sound, to place it closer to Blake’s era. With the voice and melody, I sought to convey the revelling dark glee with which, in my imagination, I always hear it read. During the sequencing, the song was placed in the middle of the album, at a darker part of its narrative.

Safe Passage is a discussion on mortality, isolation, struggle, and the movement between worlds. A Poison Tree, with its dual realities — that of the narrator and that of his unsuspecting foe — fits right in with the other tracks. Rich in possible interpretations, it helps press further the album’s central questions: How, if at all, can safe passage be attained? Who or what provides it? Who denies it?

Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson
Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. Photo: Lisa Siciliano © 2018

I hope our adaptation brings the listener just as much joy in hearing it as I got from creating it, and more so, brings a smile to the face of a great poet in the sky.

You can hear A Poison Tree from today via our bandcamp link here: 

Additional:

And you can now also enjoy this video presentation of Astralingua’s A Poison Tree — words and images by William Blake. 


Notes

Astralingua are composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. The nomadic space-folk duo explores life’s unknowns, blending haunting vocal harmonies, radiant strings, and otherworldly soundscapes into crafted songs that fall somewhere between classical, folk and psychedelia. You can discover more of their work at astralingua.com and at bandcamp.  

Their album Safe Passage is available for pre-order now, and will be released in early March 2019:

You can find Blake’s poem A Poison Tree at Poetry Foundation and there is a short analysis of “one of English literature’s most striking explorations of the corrupting effects of anger … one of William Blake’s miniature masterpieces” at interestingliterature.com. And don’t forget that there’s more to explore in the Blakean Articles and Other Blakean Artefacts pages in A Blakean Archive!

 

Fallen, Fallen Light Renew!

Finding Blake welcomes Gareth Sturdy, a trustee of the Blake Society, where he has a special interest in bringing the poet’s work into schools and was part of the team responsible for laying the new monumental stone at Blake’s grave. In his post, Gareth shares five scenes with Blake, illustrating his own story of this great poet and how the man and his work have reappeared throughout his life. 

Scenes with Blake: a dark, dusty stock cupboard …

… in a pokey corner of a suburban grammar school. A blonde vision of loveliness emerges, bearing gifts. My English literature teacher is handing me some books to read over the summer. She has no idea about the massive crush I have on her, and mistakenly thinks my enthusiasm is for my forthcoming A levels. We will study ‘Blake’, apparently. Who? There’s a pencil sketch of him in one of the frontispieces. Big, grey hat, by an artist called Linnell. He’s got something you can’t quite put your finger on. He looks… ill-fitted to the world. Wily. But with tired, moist eyes. He’s turned his head out of Linnell’s frame to stare directly into my mind, like he knows about my crush on my teacher. He can read me. Spooky. And so passes my first ever contact with England’s greatest visionary artist. I kissed the moment, and then it flew. The crush on my teacher didn’t survive the summer. Yet here I am, approaching middle age, still trying to come to terms with my association with Blake.

William Blake, wearing hat, c1825
Artist: John Linnell; draughtsman, 1792-1882
Source: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Creative Commons Licence www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Scenes with Blake: a big discussion desk… 

… in a classroom. Around it, a bunch of precocious, opinionated and argumentative teenage boys are loudly giving the world in general the benefit of their opinions. I’m fighting my corner, alone. I’m trying to insist that Blake’s poem is called The Echoing Green because the children and their laughter aren’t really there, they are all echoing inside the heads of Old John and the other seniors. It’s a vision of what was and is gone, but yet lives on inside the old folk. The darkening green is the place where loss is so strong it transforms into something beautiful. Come on, it’s completely obvious, even a child could get it, for goodness sake! But my classmates are not getting it, not at all. Where they read black, I read white. It feels as if the poet and I hold a view of reality that is crystal clear to us but baffling to the general consensus. Mr Blake and I bond over a shared secret. We were both born with a different kind of face; when we speak, we offend.

Scenes with Blake: a cramped bedsit …

… halls of residence, Liverpool University. The Berlin Wall fell a few days ago, weird atmosphere on campus. Need something diverting to read. Brought some books up at the start of term to adorn my shelf, make me look erudite to girls. What’s this one? Critical Essays on Blake, ed. Northrop Frye. Mr Blake and I haven’t had much to do with each other since school. Give it a try, why not? Then bang! “Fallen, fallen light renew…” Seizes me. “Night is worn and the morn rises from the slumberous mass.” The Fall…and the Wall… a sense of ideas slotting together. Frye wants to “examine one of Blake’s shortest and best known poems in such a way as to make it an introduction to some of the main principles of Blake’s thought.” With these four strange, terse stanzas, he succeeds. The words beginning to catch fire like dry kindling. They won’t stop burning for days afterwards. Feels like Frye has handed me a golden thread, and I’ve started to wind it, and the ball is getting bigger and bigger, faster and faster…

Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989. An Eastern guard speaks to a Westerner through a broken seam in the wall.
Photographer: Sharon Emerson 1989, Creative Commons
Source: Wikipedia

Scenes with Blake: small hours of Christmas morning …

… at home, underneath the tree lights. Freshly unwrapped, a copy of Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry. Reading, and reading, and reading, helplessly. Blake consuming me like wildfire. “Oh! Flames of Furious Desires”. Must get to the bottom of these insane injunctions: “the Bat that flits at close of Eve has left the Brain that wont Believe”, “Every Tear from Every Eye becomes a Babe in Eternity”, “If the Sun & Moon should Doubt theyd immediately Go out”, “We are led to Believe a Lie when we see not Thro the Eye”. Each phrase a bomb, going off under my worldview. Everything I’ve ever thought is up for question. I’m working through each perception, each thought, each philosophical supposition about the world and revising it. It’s painful. It’s incredible. Winding that golden ball has led me to a place that I never would have gone on my own. Now it feels like standing on the threshold of a mighty door, with only a small lantern in my hand. A kind of death, and an inspiration, simultaneously.

Fearful Symmetry, by Northrop Frye

Many, many scenes have followed. But since that one, if you look carefully, a single, humble figure can always be seen at the back of each one. William Blake is now a constant companion in my interior life. The death of my father. The birth of my sons. Who would I have become had I not, throughout, heard the voice of Mr Blake, advising that an excess of sorrow laughs and an excess of joy weeps? Each scene, a portion of eternity too great for the eye of a man like me. Where do we go to find language and images that are profound enough, modern enough, ordinary enough – human enough – to deal with these things? I go to Blake and he has never once let me down. The Bard of Soho taught me that the soul of sweet delight can never be defiled, that truth can never be told so as to be understood and not believed.

And yet when I sit to try to tell the truth of Blake for me, I find that it can’t be bought for a song. It takes all that I have, the price is everything: my house, my wife, my children. It is the labour of ages.

Scenes with Blake: a funeral or wake

A quiet summer Sunday afternoon, Bunhill Fields, London. Birdsong. An occasional siren. A disparate crowd. A hushed expectancy. A small group stands around a human-sized block of beautiful Portland Stone, while one of them reads some words of Blake, similarly bought by them with everything they possess. This is not the past, though, but futurity.

I have consistently followed and wound that golden thread for three decades now, until it has led me here, to be one of those responsible for laying this stone in this patch of London earth, under this tree and sky. To do the utmost I can to honour the artist who has done so much for me. When one sees such an eagle, such a genius, one really ought to look up as it soars to Heaven. But I look down, to read the inscription: “Here lies William Blake, 1757 – 1827, Poet, Artist, Prophet. I give you the end of a golden string, only wind it into a ball, it will lead you in at Heavens gate, built in Jerusalems wall.”

If Blake means half as much to you as he does to me, join me in futurity – in Bunhill Fields at 3pm on August 12th 2018 – and let us together lay his stone.


Notes

Gareth Sturdy is a teacher of physics, mathematics and English, who has also spent time as a national newspaper journalist and public relations practitioner. He is a trustee of the Blake Society, where he has a special interest in bringing the poet’s work into schools, and was part of the team responsible for laying the new monumental stone at Blake’s grave. He can be found on Twitter @stickyphysics

Find out more about the Blake Society in our More Resources page and the links there.

William Blake’s poem The Echoing Green was published in Songs of Innocence in 1789. You can find out more about it and read it in full in this Wikipedia entry.

Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry was published in 1947. According to this short Wikipedia entry, Frye later explained “I wrote Fearful Symmetry during the Second World War, and hideous as the time was, it provided some parallels with Blake’s time which were useful for understanding Blake’s attitude to the world. Today, now that reactionary and radical forces alike are once more in the grip of the nihilistic psychosis that Blake described so powerfully in Jerusalem, one of the most hopeful signs is the immensely increased sense of the urgency and immediacy of what Blake had to say.” The book is published by Princeton Univesity Press.

‘And fallen fallen light renew!’ is from William Blake’s Introduction to the Songs of Experience, taken here from the Poetry Foundation site.

Hear the voice of the Bard! 
Who Present, Past, & Future sees 
Whose ears have heard, 
The Holy Word, 
That walk'd among the ancient trees. 

Calling the lapsed Soul 
And weeping in the evening dew: 
That might controll,
The starry pole; 
And fallen fallen light renew! 

O Earth O Earth return! 
Arise from out the dewy grass; 
Night is worn, 
And the morn 
Rises from the slumberous mass. 

Turn away no more: 
Why wilt thou turn away 
The starry floor 
The watry shore 
Is giv'n thee till the break of day. 

Tyger School

To accompany last week's reading of The Tyger by Matt Ray Brown, artist Linda Richardson shares her experience working with Year 4 pupils to bring to life their responses to the poem. This classic poem from William Blake the storyteller never fails to engage the imagination!

One Friday a couple of weeks ago, I was artist in residence at Linton Heights School in Cambridgeshire, and had the wonderful opportunity of introducing William Blake to about 180 children. They loved him! I began each session by reading The Tyger, and encouraged them to listen, not just with their brains, but with their whole being. 

Painting and poetry is a full body experience, I told them, and they were a joy as they had genuine responses of wonder, excitement, curiosity, bewilderment and surprise. They brought their sketchbooks with them and I am sure William Blake would have loved the weird and wonderful images they drew. I encouraged them to react from their deep imagination, not their mind, and that there was no right or wrong way to respond. What a joy children are.


Notes

Linda Richardson is an artist. Based in Cambridge, England, she makes work that engages the imagination and intuition and tries to make a creative space for the viewer to connect their inner nature with their outer nature to form ideas that are not rooted in convention, reason or rationality. However neither are they pure fantasy that provides an escape from humdrum life. Linda wants instead to awaken the senses to the beauty and wonder of the world in which we live, to activate the attention to the mystery of the human experience.

Tyger, Tyger Image: Linda Richardson © 2018 lindarichardson.net

Here is the painting that Linda shared with the class at Linton Heights School, inspired by Blake’s poem, as seen in the photograph above.

You can find more of Linda’s work at lindarichardson.net

We shared actor’s Matt Ray Brown’s reading of The Tyger here, as part of Matt’s exclusive series for Finding Blake — filmed at William Blake’s home on South Molton Street, London.