Ecopoet Helen Moore shares a poem inspired by Blake’s visionary painting The Ghost of a Flea — and her own close encounter with the insect. The poem features in her ECOZOA collection, which makes creative use of Blake’s mythology of the Four Zoas to address our contemporary experience of destructive industrial civilisation.
This poem was inspired by William Blake’s poem The Ghost of a Flea and my experience of moving (with the late poet Niall McDevitt) into a flea-infested flat, which the letting agents had to have fumigated.
I found their exorcism to be both desirable and morally uncomfortable, and the painting seems to hold that tension. In personifying the Flea, depicting a large, muscled, naked human figure, who seems like kin, Blake also makes him menacing, repulsive. I also saw links between the destruction of these creatures and the ongoing mass extinction occurring in our planet-home, as well as with our individual mortality.
The Ghosts of Fleas
After the painting by William Blake
Ah, the hooked tongues, the bristly thighs, those simple popping eyes that stare into their bowls,
empty now – no longer will these barber-surgeons let our blood; instead, rising in their hundreds
from above the house, a flicking, swelling extinction rite on August’s Blue Moon. And still our nerve-ends
jittered, maggot dreams creeping through the curtains – the unconscious mind knows the prisoner’s lice,
the cadaver’s wavy flesh. Be gone you carpet-dwelling fiends; be gone you leaping suckers!
This exorcism by a lethal gas that fogged the rooms, twisted mouth-parts & innards…
ah, these boards from which they flee; ah, the stars to which we’ll follow.
From ECOZOA by Helen Moore, Permanent Publications (2015)
Helen Moore is a British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, Nature educator and facilitator of outdoor wellbeing programmes. She has published three ecopoetry collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins(Shearsman Books, 2012), ECOZOA (Permanent Publications, 2015), acclaimed by the Australian poet John Kinsella as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and The Mother Country (Awen Publications, 2019) exploring aspects of British colonial history. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and works with students internationally. In 2021 Helen gave a keynote lecture on ecopoetry and landscape at PoesiaEuropa in Italy; and she collaborated with Cape Farewell in Dorset on RiverRun, an ecopoetry project drawing on fieldwork and research from scientists and farmers in Dorset to examine pollution in Poole Bay and its river-systems.
Helen’s collection ECOZOA is her response to the destruction caused by industrial civilisation. The foreword explains that theologian Thomas Berry named the approaching era — now commonly labelled along with the present under the human-centred name of ‘The Anthropocene’ — as the more life-centred ‘Ecozoic Era’. “The word ‘ecozoic’ has its roots in the Greek ‘zoe’, meaning ‘life’. In the complex mythology of William Blake’s epic poems Jerusalem and The Four Zoas, Moore sees the power of the imagination to address the ecological crisis we face. She contemporises Blake’s visions, showing how a rebalancing of the ‘four zoas’ enables us to heal ourselves and our planet, and to establish relationships with self and others that are embodied, heart-connected and able to get to the root of our problems. In this way, fear and limited thinking can fall away, opening up liminal spaces where our love of freedom can flourish and collectively we can sense the evolving futures we most desire.”
The Tate’s entry on Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea explains that artist and astrologer John Varley was a close friend of Blake and reported that “Blake once had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea. ‘This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect.’ While drawing the spirit it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’. In the painting it holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it. Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.”
Tamsin 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…”
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares his recent experiences and reflections on the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, London, which opened last September and ends on 2nd February.
“a new kind of man, wholly original” -- from an 1863 biography, drawing on reflections of Blake’s followers
Just back from an afternoon with Blake at the Tate, I’d been processing on the train home …
Overall, it was an intense encounter: really busy for a Sunday afternoon, which results in conveyor-belt art appreciation, with shuffles and shoves to see and stand for a few moments in front of the image or text that grabs the eye; with my guerilla-style meanderings round the rooms, being led to the Blakes I know well or have wanted to meet for a while, or a colour or a line or an outstretched arm within an image calling for attention.
Here’s a tiny clip of me immediately post-show, trying to gather some thoughts:
There are five rooms in all, each literally stuffed with images of all types. Which is pretty overwhelming, though quite glorious. This show focuses on smaller pieces, with the timeline in order of their production, whereas the last Blake exhibition I saw — at Petworth in Sussex — was smaller and seemed to focus on bigger and brighter images, with space around them. One of my favourites, ‘The Sea of Time and Space’ (1821) has come up from Petworth and was originally commissioned by Countess Egremont when he was down the road in Felpham. And it’s curious that the descriptor on the wall says that the subject of the painting is ‘a mystery’ whereas, post-Petworth, many of the interviewees for our Finding Blake film were keen to discuss it, dissect it and come up with multiple meanings……
The highlight of the show was the recreation of his 1809 independent exhibition in his then house in Broad Street, Soho — with some clever lighting really bringing four of the pictures to life: ‘Satan calling up his legions’ (1795 – 1800); ‘The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan’ (1805 – 09); ‘The spiritual form of Pitt guiding Behemoth’ (1805); ‘The bard, from Gray’ (1809). This effect really opened up these images, naturally displayed in the regulation, lower lighting levels.
Connecting the legacy?
In the next room was a projection showing these same paintings at a grand scale, which enables that intimate engagement with pigment and brushstroke I really long for in my standing with a Blake. However, what the exhibition does really lack is any more audio-visual material; why no film? Why no ‘experts’ talking about what Blake means to them? And why no material or an entire room connecting the continuing legacy through to our age and beyond?
There is the Tate’s room upstairs, with 20th-century artists’ responses to Blake, so why couldn’t the show be configured to lead into that, at least? Something like: ‘the artist as of his time and beyond’. I like the short and succinct titles for each room: ‘Blake be an artist’, ‘Making prints, making a living’, ‘Patronage and independence’, ‘Independence and despair’, and ‘A new kind of man’. It felt like the exhibition was solely concentrating on the man: inside Blake’s mind as he worked on each commission, or responded to the voices he heard, or reflected with his brush on the swirling politics and rush into the industrial / military / capitalist system happening in the London streets around him; his deep dive into a spiritual world, with visionary realms, clear choices between ascent and descent — strong arms to pull upward, glittering spiral staircases or watery graves, Job, Joseph, a heavenly Jerusalem, inspiration from Milton … and so much more.
It was great to see the portrait of Blake at the start of the exhibition attributed to Catherine: this has been highlighted by the media, for the first time acknowledging her place side-by-side with him, as both his support, his muse, and oftentimes co-creating or finishing the artwork for him (certainly the etchings). Those of us who have been studying Blake a while welcome this, and hope this acknowledgement serves as a significant nudge to recognise the role of partners in artists’ lives.
I recalled the big exhibition at the Ashmolean some years ago, which really kick-started my nascent interest in Blake. That went out of its way to place him in the context in the wider world; devoting the first room to Blake as student to James Basire, and having a series of stones that Blake took rubbings from; and then the end room being a collection of Samuel Palmer’s works, showing the beautiful lineage being passed along — as well as Michael Phillip’s recreation of Blake’s printing press as well, with the man himself on hand to make replicas. So, having these three exhibitions in my mind, I thank these great repositories of art and their curators for having provided me and the public with opportunities to see great Blakes gathered together (although the Tate has been pretty difficult to engage with — ignoring emails and then being less than forthcoming about sharing material on the recent projection on St Paul’s).
So now it is incumbent upon me to go away to get editing our film and bring ‘Finding Blake’ out into the world!
I’ve not been slack. I’ve been limbering up with my software, gathering materials and footage, conversing with a master editor overseas, and reaching out in advance to plan screenings hither and thither (including an exclusive preview for all the project’s sponsors and website friends), and letting Blake and this current stage of the Anthropocene swirl within my molecules reflectively through the solstice in quiet and wilder spaces and places: walking with the fox and ascending to Jerusalem from ‘England’s Green & pleasant land’.
If you’ve been to the Tate, we’d love to hear your reflections on the Blake show. Please send us in a comment or a post. If there’s one image in particular you didn’t know before, or one you’ve been wanting to meet ‘in the flesh’, or were disappointed with, or take issue with the thrust of the show overall — do share.
Tate Britain’s William Blake exhibition ends on 2nd February, You can find out more and read the exhibition guide here.
In an earlier post, The Unfolding and Unveiling, James shares some of his other encounters with William Blake, from childhood up to the present — including the Blake exhibition at Petworth House, Blake in Sussex, which he mentioned above.