Blake & Nature Spirituality: 1 – Universal Awareness

In Divine Madness James Fox described how he’d found in Blake’s work a poetic and visual representation of a psycho-spiritual philosophy that accounted for his own embroilment in the machinery and over-thinking of the rational ego, and the suffering that follows from that. He’d found in Blake glimpses of a consciousness freed from the egoic state. In the first of a new three-part series, James expands on his experiences of mental states and of universal awareness. Later posts will elaborate Blake’s doctrine of the four Zoas, and outline a project James is working on: a manifesto, a programme of practice and study to cultivate a mental space that has an understanding of its place in the world. 


Following a chance meeting with Robin Hatton-Gore at Blake’s new gravestone in August, following its unveiling the day before, I was invited to give a talk to the Mental Fight Club, a charity of which he is a trustee and which aims to assist recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects. Blake is regarded as the spirit guide of the club through founder Sarah Wheeler’s love of his work. The material here is based on the talk I gave at the Dragon Café in Borough, London, in November 2018. 

Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion (copy E, printed c1821) Source: The William Blake Archive www.blakearchive.org

Mental fight

A few years ago I would awake in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, my nerves jangling, a vice around my forehead and a nauseous feeling of something sour and rotten welling up. Unable to return to sleep I would get up, make a cup of tea and settle down in another room with a notebook and pen to sort out my problem. I would try to work out, think out, what it was that was disturbing my sleep and producing the unpleasant physical sensations. 

As well as my day job in publishing I was working in my spare time on a philosophical project of my own, which was intended to solve (don’t laugh) all those apparent dilemmas that philosophers have been working over for more than 2,000 years – and continue to do so today. What is the meaning of life? Where is it to be found? Are we really annihilated at death? What is the ultimate nature of the world, of ourselves and of our relationship to it?

This was an over-ambitious project, following on from a PhD in the history of philosophy, alongside work editing academic texts. My rational faculty was in overdrive – though I could not see this at the time. And so the knotted ball of string that was my mind, the stress of which was waking me in the night, was pulled yet tighter when I got up to think my way out of my problem.

I had always been interested in the fundamental nature of the world. One of my earliest memories is of my mother teaching me astronomy prior to attending primary school. My first proper job had been in the natural sciences – meteorology. But I was also interested in the fundamental nature of ourselves as human beings – and this had led me into philosophy. The desire to pull together my philosophical interests and express them in my latest project was therefore my raison d’être – and so, despite finding myself in a situation where I was suffering from stress and insomnia, I could not give up this project that was overtaxing me. And nor was I prepared to change my day job or my other day-to-day living arrangements, out of a concern that it would disrupt my supposed life’s work. Worse was to come. Writing, something I had always done since my first novellas at age ten, became an increasingly fraught process, adding to stress. I was creatively blocked, able neither to realise my raison d’être nor to change my situation.

A universal awareness 

During those disturbed months I would find solace in a secluded grove I frequented on the edge of Dartmoor, near to where I live. Rarely encountering other people there, the only sounds are those of the birds, the breeze in the trees and the grass and the gently flowing stream.

On one such visit, after sitting in the sunlight for some time, trying to relax and calm the ideas competing for attention inside my brain, each with their own self-imagined importance and urgency, I opened my eyes to see the tree by the stream had been invested with some strange, new, enhanced presence. And as I gazed upon it a light-headedness possessed me, as not just the tree but everything in my experience – the very nature of experience itself – began to undergo a transformation that was both alien, entirely novel and unknown. This was not frightening, but came with the immediate sense that something very remarkable, very unusual, was announcing itself to me.

Jerusalem, Albion Rising - a universal awareness. From The William Blake Archive
Jerusalem, Albion Rising Source: The William Blake Archive http://www.blakearchive.org/

Had the world changed or had I changed? The raging swarm of ideas that had been plaguing me had been miraculously taken away: whether a million miles away, or even annihilated entirely, essentially beyond the world I now found myself in. My mental space, cleansed of thoughts, had become a crystalline substance, as had the world of things: my mind and the world were one. There was nothing left of ‘me’ except as a particular point of view in space and time at which a universal awareness was disclosing itself – to itself.

I now experienced my own awareness as that of this universal awareness – and I saw, I felt, that I was eternal. The idea of my own death meant nothing to me now. Sure, my own body would one day cease to function organically and be transformed by fire or worms; but my awareness, my sentience, my very self – that was eternal. And so I found myself in a state of bliss, of the profoundest tranquillity – of the revelation of Heaven on Earth – in which a divine presence seemed to penetrate and radiate out of every thing, tranquillising all movement such that I seemed to become aware of a stillness in the motion of the leaves in the trees and of a silence in the sound of the pouring of the stream. And yet, this blissful state, this Heaven on Earth, I now saw, is present always – it is here now – we just have to awaken to it.

In this state I felt that I had arrived at that which I had been searching for philosophically for many years. The sense of completion, of having found the Holy Grail. Yet, as is usual with mystical experience, I found myself sinking back into the ego-world, the vision afforded me now reduced to a mere memory. In the return to my old state I found myself still creatively blocked, and the stress returned and the feeling of rotten acidic bilge water seeping up once more – if anything, worse than ever.

An opened door  

Previously I had been on a quest for treasure, the nature of which I knew not what. Now I knew its nature. Now I had touched the philosopher’s stone and had to touch it again. But how? For the treasure had been revealed to me. The door had been opened for me. I did not have the key myself. I had never had it.

Then one day, in the spring of 2017, I found myself in Glastonbury, browsing in a second-hand bookshop while Mrs Fox did some shopping of her own. Not looking for any special subject in particular – and Blake was certainly not on my mind – I somewhat apathetically pulled out a book simply entitled William Blake. It was written by John Middleton Murry, the prolific author of more than sixty books and editor of the Adelphi magazine. Murry was married to Katherine Mansfield and was part of a scene that included the likes of D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley. Both Lawrence and Huxley were interested in mysticism. The title of one of Huxley’s books on the subject, The Doors of Perception, is taken from Blake’s work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Doors rock group took their name from Huxley’s work.

John Middleton Murry
John Middleton Murry Source: Pinterest

I opened the covers of William Blake. Murry begins with a quote from Blake’s An Island in the Moon:

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.

Murry then writes:

There is the magic. One’s heart sinks to rest; and everything else becomes still. Stillness within, stillness without. For those voices are not heard with the bodily ear; that laughter breaks no silence … The clamour lapses into an eternal moment, and the world is born anew. The sentient soul is bathed in the waters of the spirit. The doors of perception are cleansed; and the world gleams forth with the bloom and brightness of a new creation.

As I read, a spiritual sun began to glow inside me. Almost immediately I sensed the presence of that key I’d been searching for since what Blake calls the Countenance Divine had shone forth for me in that green and pleasant grove on the edge of Dartmoor.

Murry continues:

This experience, whether it comes to us mediately through the creation of art, or immediately in a timeless instant of pure contemplation, is twofold in its character. It reveals the world without, and it reveals the world within. Objectively, that which we contemplate – be it sight or sound, directly or at one remove – is, as it were, clarified. The veil of quotidian perception is lifted. Subjectively, we are also clarified. The world and we, alike, are cleansed. Both pass into a new medium: the medium of Imagination, as Blake called it. In that medium we touch a new order of reality – a new reality in ourselves, and in the object which we contemplate.

I quickly saw in those opening pages of William Blake that Middleton Murry himself had experienced the Countenance Divine; and when I later began reading the book properly was satisfied that it was this, what Blake terms ‘spiritual sensation’, and all its psychological and philosophical aspects and ramifications, that is at the core of his work. 


Notes

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.

James attended the unveiling of Blake’s new gravestone at Bunhill Fields in August 2018. Here, you can see a short interview he gave there to Finding Blake’s James Murray-White.

Building on the Countenance Divine and universal awareness, in his next post, James elaborates Blake’s doctrine of the Four Zoas, and relates them to underlying ideas of the psyche that may be met with in various belief systems throughout history and across cultures.

Mental Fight Club describes itself as, “in essence, an adventure story.” Founded by Sarah Wheeler, drawing inspiration from poets Ben Okri and William Blake and other muses, the club’s mission is “to put on imaginative events for people of all mental experience. All our events seek to connect our inner and our outer world and ourselves to one another, whoever we may be.” Mental Fight Club created and meets at the Dragon Café. 

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.