Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White joins fellow contributors to the latest issue of the Blake journal VALA in exploring Blake’s connection with nature.
VALA — the free online publication celebrating William Blake’s art and legacy in exciting new ways — is published by our friends at the Blake Society and co-edited by Finding Blake contributor Jason Whittaker. The magazine-style publication includes articles that showcase art and artists influenced by Blake, it spotlights particular works by Blake, examines politics, arts, literature, religions, music and the environment and shares responses to art, life and teaching inspired by Blake.
Issue 3 is dedicated to exploring Blake and nature, with 36 essays and other contributions, and many artworks. Included is an essay by Finding Blake’s very own James Murray-White. In Alive and Dead in the Vegetable Underworld, he talks about Blake’s role as a poet/painter/prophet of the imagination, compared with poets such as John Clare, Wordsworth and others as ‘grounded nature artists per se’ — but how William and Catherine’s three years in Felpham provided a “transformative sojourn [that] connected them both to earthy elements.”
James talks about the process of making the Finding Blake film and the insights. “My feeling then … is that Blake saw the natural world and the ‘more than human’ as background to the human predicament, that nature is the place into and out of which we might emerge and must ascend or descend: the wilderness, the wild sea, the forest, the wild creature. For Blake, we belong within the human experience of mortality, and less to a place or an anthropological tradition of the human tribe interacting with other species and becoming dominant within the original garden of Eden.”
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity […] & Some Scarce see Nature at all But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. — Blake’s Letter to Revd Dr John Trusler, 23 August 1799
You can read the full essay and enjoy all the other creative and insightful content of VALA III here on the Blake Society site. And you can watch the online launch event here, with a number of the issue’s contributors talking about their pieces.
Other Finding Blake contributors have written on their own connectedness with nature and Blake’s relevance to our relationships with the natural world: for example, in Seeing the Wood Through the Trees reconciliation ecologist Pete Yeo celebrates Blake’s testimony to nature as ‘imagination itself’ with an exploration of how our ‘plant blindness’ is perhaps giving way to a ‘probiotic turn’ and the vegetal realm’s role in our need to more fully engage our individual and collective imaginations with the challenges of our times.
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces a new addition to the project’s film archive, with a reading by Sasha Dugdale of her award-winning poem, Joy, in the voice of Catherine Blake.
In anticipation of the launch of our ‘Finding Blake’ film in early autumn, we have great delight in launching online here today a stunning short film of Sasha Dugdale’s poem Joy, through the mouth of Catherine Blake, read by the author herself…
Catherine & William Blake — a spiritual union
Published in 2017, and winning the 2016 Forward Prize for best single poem, and the 2017 Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award, Joy is a long monologue from the mouth of Catherine Blake, reflecting upon William’s death, and their life together.
Long known as Blake’s muse and beloved partner, Catherine was beside William as he painted, wrote, and printed. She is thought to have assisted him with — and even completed — many of the masterworks. This nuanced piece fleshes out this strong and spiritual woman. It is an epic poem of love, and grief, and the spiritual union that bonds those with genuine and authentic connection through lifetimes of creativity and deepening knowledge.
Joy from James Murray-White. Produced by James Murray-White, as part of the Finding Blake Project. A Sky-larking Film, 2020.
With huge thanks to Sasha, for her energy and patience, to Jonnie Howard for filming, Dale Suttie for sound recording, B.T Lowry for the edit, Lola Perrin for the music, and Matthew Taylor for the use of the wonderful venue that so fits the atmosphere of Sasha’s words — Othersyde, in Cambridge UK.
We offer this work as a gift for these unusual times, and in hope that all beings find some joy…
Joy, by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Carcanet Press (2017).
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White reflects on the troubled times we find ourselves in under lockdown with Covid-19, and on what’s ahead for the Finding Blake film — and, with joy, to some extras we’re looking forward to sharing.
Well, what strange times!
We know that Blake didn’t live through a pandemic, although he understood the coming of industry as the harbinger of the spiritual crisis in the West that started then and has brought us to this point today. This time of corona — a virus passed from animal to human, likely to have transferred across in the so-called ‘wet meat’ markets of Wuhan in China — is happening because the process of industrialisation, now fully developed into the capitalist economy, has expanded so rapidly in these years since Blake’s death in 1827.
So-called ‘economic growth’ has spread like wildfire across the globe and literally eats into territory that was and should be the exclusive dominion of ‘the others’: the beautiful wildlife we share this planet with — the bat, the pangolin, the wild boar, the butterfly, the snow leopard, and of course the tiger — hunted in China for the medicinal values of its organs, or to be shipped around the world to be ‘preserved’ and gawped at in zoos.
Look on the rising sun: there God does live And gives his light, and gives his heat away. And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
— from The Little Black Boy, by William Blake
And, in a far more minor way, coronavirus has now prevented us from getting our Finding Blake film into the world, and its bigger message of being part of the beautiful, strange and varied canon of creative responses to Blake’s life and legacy that have emerged since his death. I’m really proud of this piece of work being part of the legacy of responses to these values: the ‘golden thread’ of ethics and belief, and questioning and care that Blake (and many others) tapped into. Values that are so much needed in this beautiful and tragic world today, at this time of climate crisis, planetary warming, social injustice. There is now a growing recognition of human anthropocentrism — which sees us as being the ‘dominant’ species at the top of the tree, but cutting off the roots below — of which this tragic pandemic, which will have devastating consequences for our interconnected tribal species, is probably just one part. Blake knew, and communicated through his images and words, the true ecological and spiritually connected web of life.
More joyous things to come
So, we held a preview screening at the Kindersley Workshop. This was for Lida (the creator of the new ledger stone for Blake’s burial site at Bunhill Fields in London), and friends and funders, and it was a joyous, small event, with much discursive response in the Carpenters Arms afterwards. I’ve taken all that feedback away and am making some minor structural tweaks and tech/sound adjustments right now. And I’ve started the process of arranging screenings UK-wide — but this process was on lockdown anyway as Finding Blake is being considered for the UK’s flagship documentary festival for June (hint: in a northern city famous for steel) and, naturally, the film couldn’t be publicly screened until then if it gets in.
We’re looking forward to screening publicly post-corona, though we’ve been invited to screen at another UK documentary festival in November! Don’t know the details just yet, or any restrictions but hope to soon (hint: in a bijou seaside town, where Pears used to play and allegedly Morrissey has a house). I’ve been reaching out to all the people who appear in the film to thank them and share news with them, and some screening opportunities are emerging there too.
Given that we are all on lockdown, I’m hoping that we can get Finding Blake online in some pay-per-view capacity sooner rather than later. All details on that will be announced here, as will all the extra Blakean offerings: I have been making the extra scenes, outtakes and scrumptious other pieces that I couldn’t squeeze into the film into a package alongside the main feature. We hope to drip-feed some as extra teasers for the film here.
And we’ll start that off — although we can’t give an exact date yet — with an exclusive film of poet Sasha Dugdale reading her Forward Prize-winning long-form poem Joy. From the mouth of Catherine Blake, Joy is an absolutely exquisite piece of work and Sasha, currently poet in residence at St John’s College Cambridge, gave a morning over a year ago now to come into a beautiful old Victorian house being renovated beside the river in Cambridge, and be filmed reading her piece. Sadly, I couldn’t use this within Finding Blake — a case of bad planning on my part, juggling so many pieces of the Blakean puzzle together at the same time — so the footage is being crafted into one beautiful unique film of its own by a master editor in Canada. Again, that piece will be exclusive to this Finding Blake project, so we’ll announce it and release it here.
The walls are wordless. There is a clock ticking. I have woken up from a dream of abundant colour and joy I see his face and he is a shepherd and a piper and a god I see him bent by the gate, setting the fire, and he is a fallen demon I see him listening to the wind and sorrowing I see wrath and misery, fire and desolation A thousand fires in ancient London And then the grass comes silent silent with the hardest colour of all The mirth colour the corn colour the summer night colour A thousand thousand summer nights pass And children weave their daisy chains and place them on the heads of fallen idols He wept he wept more tears than there were days And never changed the door lest, he said, we drive an angel from it And every morning he dipped his brush in wrath and mildness And out of him tumbled the biggest things of all All of them righter than the rightest calculation And truer than any compass Yet where they were right and true none could say And how they were right and true none could guess But I knew I knew He was an eye, and the eye wept and frowned and smiled The eye watched The eye watered The world was a mote in that eye
— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale
Finding a time to reset
Until then, we hope you’re finding creativity and inner strength and resilience during this strange tough time. There will be difficult days ahead, and it feels like we as a species-community need to tackle this crisis in so many ways: medical, scientific research, social isolation, political and in a very humane, spiritual, soul-searching way. Most of all, with compassion and care and with genuine grief and a fully authentic response to the joys and the tragedies of life. It’s time to reset.
I’m in Oxford, where Finding Blake has much of its roots: where I saw the fabulously inspiring ‘Apprentice & Master’ Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean in 2014, and to where I returned (and they so generously flung open their doors to us) to film David Whyte; and then later to film Carol Leader give her talk on using Blake in her psychotherapeutic practice. So it’s a treat to be self-isolating within this other ‘hallowed’ city, so similar and yet so unlike my home city, the ‘other place’, Cambridge. I’ve offered the Ashmolean Museum a ‘thank you’ screening, so hopefully sometime later this year Blake will be back within those walls again.
I’m looking very closely at both the tiny things — the grains of wheat to feed the birds (isn’t there such rich birdsong now there are so few cars and so little sounds of industry?), planting vegetable and sunflower seeds a-plenty, and also remembering to look up, to look at the trees that frame so much space, and the light that bleeds into our retina and allows us to see. Let’s use the inspiration of Blake within these strange times…
Joy, by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Carcanet Press (2017).
You can view our trailer for the Finding Blake film in this recent post from James.