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!

 

Serge Arnoux, Surrealism and William Blake

Robert Campbell Henderson becomes our latest contributor, beginning a series of posts for Finding Blake with this intriguing account of an unexpected French connection with the legacy of William Blake, through an accidental discovery at a scrap yard…


Proverbs of Hell: a French connection 

It’s not so easy to find or write something new about William Blake. Hopefully, this might just be an exception. A few weeks ago I made a visit to a scrap metal yard in Sarlat, France, looking for material for my printmaking. Boy did I get lucky! I bought some copper plate destined for the furnace and it turns out I’d bought 27 etched copper plates by deceased French artist Serge Arnoux, based on some of the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from 1790.

“Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”. Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

The plate above, and my print from it, is labelled “Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”, which in Blake’s original is: 

Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

All the plates are in a surrealist style and from my initial research seemed to have been destined for a book. I can’t be certain at this stage but I believe they were made in the seventies. Looking at the plates, I think only around a dozen of them were actually ever printed.

La sexaphysique du texte

Arnoux often collaborated with other artists, including French poet and composer Leo Ferre and American poet M.S. Merwin, making illustrations in a similar surreal vein. He also made and published books under his own name.

‘La sexaphysique du texte’

The images above are from one of his own books, La sexaphysique du texte. Interesting title! The booklet was printed in large folio format, 23 double pages with typography and layout in the manner of the surrealists.

From plates to an exhibition

For me as a printmaker, to find etched plates by another printmaker, the late Serge Arnoux, and discover that they were based on work by poet, writer and of course printmaker William Blake seems like fate. It can only be an interesting journey of discovery! 

I am going to print all the plates, with full accreditation to the artist. I am writing a blog about the project and the ultimate goal is an exhibition of the work — hopefully in the UK, but certainly France. 

Here are a few more of the prints from my initial proofing exercise, as a taster for what is to come. The original titles in French, and what I believe to be the corresponding line from the Proverbs of Hell in English, read from left to right. Of course, I assume being from the Blakean world you already figured that out.

 

“La prudence est une vieille fille riche et laide que l’incapacité courtise.” Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by incapacity.

“Des pierres de la Loi on a fait des prisons des briques de la Religion on a fait des Bordels” Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.

“Femme nue, chef d’oeuvre de Dieu” The nakedness of woman is the work of God. 


Notes

Robert Campbell Henderson is involved in printmaking and photography, just for the fun of it. Before 2000 he never really made any art as he was, in his own words, busy with the “day job.” At the age of fifty he did an MA Photography, followed by a burst of activity participating in exhibitions and setting up an art gallery in Norwich, UK. He retired to the South of France in 2006 where he taught himself printmaking and set up his own darkroom and print studio. You can explore his work at www.photokennel.com

Robert wants to share his experience of researching, printing and hopefully exhibiting these plates over the coming months. You can read Robert’s blog at his site (which also includes more on Serge Arnoux) and we will be sharing more of his accounts of this intriguing French connection here at Finding Blake.

As the Wikipedia entry on Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell notes, “In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell. These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The diabolical proverbs are provocative and paradoxical. Their purpose is to energise thought.”

Several of his proverbs have become famous:

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

And another  

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead

has given the title to a recent translation of Olga Tocarczuk’s 2009 novel, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead, which the Guardian’s review describes as not just a murder mystery but “also a primer on the politics of vegetarianism, a dark feminist comedy, an existentialist fable and a paean to William Blake.” Another reminder — as with the plates of Serge Arnoux — that Blake’s importance and influence travel beyond the borders of his own place and times.

Finding Blake, Looking Back and Forwards

Six months on from our website’s launch, Finding Blake creator and driving force, filmmaker James Murray-White offers this update on work to date and to come, focusing on those elements which will form part of the full Finding Blake film next year.

 


I wanted to update all our many readers and subscribers with what’s going on with Finding Blake, particularly since the great ceremony in August to unveil the new gravestone at William Blake’s burial site, which had been a big event to focus on. It was such an experience to be there on the day, with so many Finding Blake supporters and other Blake devotees!

The Lark, watercolour over traces of black chalk
Artist: William Blake
Source: The Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org

I’m now wading through the many wonderful hours of footage I have. You can see many of the clips at the Finding Blake films at a glance page in our Bleakean Archive. Some of the highlights for me include: 

Finding Blake, documenting his new memorial

I have great memories — caught on film — of visiting Jordan’s Mine to see where the stone was cut; accompanying master letter-cutter Lida Kindersley as she chose the stone; being with her in her workshop for much of the process, as she bevelled the stone, then drew the letters for the inscription — and then the lovely long, slow process of the letters being cut. Amongst all that, there is an interview with Lida about Blake, talking from the heart as she cuts the letters that would soon mark his final resting place!

Leading wonderful interviews

Finding Blake has brought us opportunities to meet and talk with so many fascinating people with a shared passion for Blake:

  • Poet David Whyte, giving it to us from his heart in the depths of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (a special day that really felt like we had Blake on our shoulders!);
  • Psychotherapist Carol Leader, talking to us from her consulting room in London;
  • Writer and priest Malcolm Guite, in his study at Girton College, Cambridge;
  • Rapper Testament, delivering his powerful reflections on Blake’s influence on him, speaking on the streets outside a London theatre;
  • Blake Society chair Tim Heath, talking about his passion for Blake in Blake’s only surviving rooms in London

Participating in Blakean events

We’ve filmed at a number of talks by leading experts in different fields, including:

  • Carol Leader’s stimulating lecture in Oxford on Satanic Error – the value of William Blake’s mythology for clinical practice and everyday life;
  • William Blake, Biblical Prophecy and Jesus, a pair of talks in a Cambridge church by Reverend Malcolm Guite and Reverend Christopher Rowland, both vicars with an interest in exploring Blake from religious perspectives;
  • the Unveiling Ceremony itself, with all the wonderful speeches, candle-lighting, and personal responses, including an as yet unidentified African song, by the grave!

Creating original performances

William Blake’s creative vision speaks to many people and appeals to the genius of other creative practitioners and performers. We’ve been very fortunate in the generosity of talented actors in offering their interpretations of the man’s poems on film. 

  • Finding Blake invited actor Matt Ray Brown to read several of William Blake’s poems on location in Blake’s rooms at South Molton Street, London, including Jerusalem, The Tyger, and The Little Black Boy;
  • During our interview with David Whyte at the Ashmolean in Oxford, David delivered his reading of The Garden of Love.

Bringing personal projects into harmony with Blake

During the cutting of Blake’s new gravestone, Lida and I agreed a barter: she would make a memorial stone for my lovely mum’s ashes, and I would film it. What a wonderful trade! I’m editing that project now, whittling down many hours of beautiful conversation and cutting, as well as the sounds of the workshop, and silence too. Naturally, the conversations flowed between Blake and many aspects of creativity: including Lida talking about her late husband David, the master of letters and steeped in the craft’s heritage from Eric Gill and beyond. It’s a lineage that is so present within the workshop today, in the work of Lida and her two sons Vince and Hallam, and expert cutter Fiona (who completed mum’s memorial stone), plus a range of apprentices — and former apprentices who come in to help on other jobs as and when.

So I wanted to share with you here two outtakes from that other project (which might possibly be used in the Finding Blake film but, if not, can happily rest here on our project page) which give another flavour of the creative work:

‘Reaching the golden vein’ outtake 1 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

‘Bank it up’ outtake 2 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

Next steps for Finding Blake

So I’m working through all this material, and more, making notes and beginning the edit. And I’m now thinking hard about the third option within the film: either dramatic recreations of some of Blake’s art, or an element of animation, or projection. Possibly a combination of all three!

I’ve always felt passionate that we could bring Blake’s images to life on-screen, in addition to the spoken words and other elements. This feeling has been particularly over the past year as I’ve stood in front of a Blake image, be it in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge or Tate Britain in London, or at the magnificent show at Petworth House in Sussex; many of these images shine out and dazzle with their bright illumination and their sprite vision.

So, I’m in discussion with several folk on these ideas, and we are awaiting some responses to funding applications, and further discussions.

I have been talking with an institution about possible screenings of the finished film late next year, which I will announce hopefully when finalised. We have agreed to a showing of a rough-cut of the film, or pieces of the film, with The Blake Society, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, in January. We’ll post about that nearer the time …

In the meantime, I’m back on the edit, and the numerous other projects that consume my days.

Linda Richardson has kindly donated her canvas of Tyger, which she painted with children at a primary school in her village (see her post here with the children’s Bleakean art too!) so that Finding Blake can auction this to fundraise for the project: more details to come soon. We thank Linda for that generous gift.