Blake and the Pandemic

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.

Pestilence, by William Blake (circa 1795-1800) http://museums.bristol.gov.uk

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.

William Blake’s ledger stone at Bunhill Field, 2018. By GrindtXX – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bunhill_Blake_2018.jpg

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.

Finding Blake invited poet Sasha Dugdale to read her poem 'Joy' for us.
Sasha Dugdale, filming a performance of ‘Joy’ for Finding Blake
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2019 sky-larking.co.uk

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…


Notes

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. 

 

 

Finding Blake in Nenthead

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares a taste of a talk that he and poet Clare Crossman, a fellow Finding Blake contributor, gave on 19th October in Nenthead in Cumbria.


At the invitation of curator Maxine, with an audience of 30, we set up the screen in front of the lectern at the beautifully restored old chapel that is the Nenthead Arts and Visitor Centre and I showed a range of clips from the project so far, and shared the history of how it came to be.

Some of the selected highlights included the experience of going into Jordan’s Mine in Dorset, and on having such an immersive experience in the Kindersley workshop experiencing the letters being cut for Blake’s new stone, right through to engaging with scholars and creative minds through the interviewing process, to an assessment of getting ready for the final push and finishing the film. 

Clare Crossman speaking at Nenthead Arts & Visitor Centre
Clare Crossman speaking at Nenthead Arts & Visitor Centre

Clare spoke deeply and with careful reflection of Blake as mystic and as a continuing inspiration, through both nature references and remarks on city life and culture in his work. She used her body of poems and study in associated areas to illustrate her talk.

Extinction Rebellion

I started by referencing the recent Extinction Rebellion in London, which I had been involved with for four days, and had brought some of that energy with me to Cumbria. Immediately before this talk I had come from a woodland in the North East, where I’d met a local Extinction Rebellion  group — XR NE — talking about rewilding as the ultimate act of rebellion, and gathering seeds to further forest the planet as one of the most positive actions we humans can do.

There is no evidence Blake planted trees, though he certainly engaged with them, and it’s clear in my mind he would have supported the values of XR and shared the strong wish to throw off the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of a system that conspires against creativity and the inner/outer spiritual nature of the individual. He is an inspiration in seeking connection to all that is good and holy in this life and in this world as we know — until we transform ourselves internally as well as the world externally.

XR Capitalism poster
XR Capitalism poster

Here is the XR poster I used as an opening graphic for the Nenthead event.

A Finding Blake screening in Nenthead

I captured this footage of the start of the event — although this was just a camera on a tripod to record it, so apologies for lack of light and focus, and it not being complete. It was just meant to capture a taste of our talk and screening. 

We shall be bringing the Finding Blake film to Nenthead for a screening in the New Year!

FB Talk Nenthead October 2019 from James Murray-White.


Notes

You can find out more about Nenthead Arts & Visitor Centre — “England’s highest arts and visitor centre” — and the restoration of the chapel at Nenthead Arts and Visitor Centre

Extinction Rebellion North East is on Facebook, and you can read James’s Finding Blake post on his earlier experiences with Extinction Rebellion, Blake in the Midst of Rebellion! 

Reflections on A Poison Tree

Poet Clare Crossman was one of our first contributing authors at Finding Blake, and we welcome Clare back with her reflections on A Poison Tree, a key poem in William Blake’s work, published in Songs of Experience in 1794.


I re-read A Poison Tree again recently because I run the south Cambridgeshire Poetry society, Stanza, and was looking for poems about Truth, which is the theme of this year’s national poetry day.

Adrian Mitchell, a great lover of Blake, was a necessary poet in the mix. The lyrics of his song The Truth were just what I needed and then there was Emily Dickinson, Don Patterson, WH Auden, and all the other poets on the National Poetry Day site.

I was reminded of A Poison Tree by one of the members during our discussion. The more we looked at poems the more it seemed that there was a very thin line between truth and lies, as we felt the truth can sometimes be unbearable. A Poison Tree was discussed because it was the one poem we all knew in which the effects of not saying how you feel or addressing anger can cause self-destructive anger and, as in the poem, death — or murder as some have suggested.

Directness and honesty is a tone that can be relied on in Blake. It is interesting to note that the original title of the poem was Christian Forbearance, an irony of course from Blake: a criticism of the buttoned-up and the easy Good. He disliked hypocrisy. 

The poison of soft, deceitful wiles

Blake stares into the face of what anger does to us by setting his thoughts in a simple balance.

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not my wrath did grow.

There is difficulty in speaking to the enemy and so, full of resentment, he nurtures the Poison Tree inside him (I imagine capillaries through which a cancer is spreading):

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

Blake notes that how he responds to the enemy is to pretend to be pleasant: ‘soft deceitful wiles’. He smiles through his anger. As Shakespeare wrote, “A man may smile and smile and be a villain”.

Hand-painted copy B of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, 1794 currently held at the British Museum.

In the third verse there is an elegant reversal, the apple in the Garden of Eden becomes a glittering object as if it has been touched by King Midas, not a beautiful piece of fruit:

And it grew both day and night
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine.

This apple does not belong in the Garden of Love, it has been created by things left unspoken and has become a symbol of deception and anger (‘My precious, my precious’). This apple does not cause the fall of man by being picked and eaten; it causes death destruction and an eerie acknowledgement of the way evil can fascinate and entangle.

Then there is the last verse.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veiled the pole:
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

I don’t agree with literal interpretations of the last verse. I think it is too deliberately ambiguous, and my feeling is that it means more that the evil has somehow spread and been recognised by both the foe and the speaker in the poem. In the dark ‘night had veiled the pole’ both people in the poem have become part of the destructive anger.

A destructive anger

I wonder what started this poem off? We have all had relationships that end in anger and silence, with both people involved feeling damaged. The singer-songwriter Beth Orton has written a wonderful melancholic setting for this poem which can be found on one of her finest albums, Sugaring Season.

But the poem I think is about real hatred and real dislike, where those involve dissemble and pretend to be opposite to who they are while harbouring a deep, destructive anger… The scenes in the last series of Peaky Blinders, showing Oswald Mosley at full throttle come to mind. In that instance, hatred of the other is masquerading as good sense and decency — which is in his case fascism.

Blake seems to be saying that however difficult we find it we must stand up to our real foes, and express our angers because if we don’t the consequences are terrible. Courage and forgiveness are also required, which can be found for a friend — but someone you really don’t like? That’s another matter. It is easier with a friend but maybe not impossible with a foe.

Good advice from 225 years ago. Oh, William Blake you were wise. You looked directly at hatred and what it does.

As Adrian Mitchell  (a great admirer of Blake) wrote 150 years later:

The truth is the truth it’s a strange kind of animal, so I stay awake listening for the truth.


Notes

Adrian Mitchell’s The Truth is published in Come on Everybody – Poems 1953-2008, published by Bloodaxe Books. And you can read The Guardian’s obituary for Mitchell, “in whom the legacies of Blake and Brecht coalesce with the zip of Little Richard and the swing of Chuck Berry…” who wrote Tyger for the National Theatre in 1971, “a time-travelling musical about a visionary 18th-century poet in today’s fallen times, with music by long-term collaborator Mike Westbrook.”

You can hear Beth Orton’s song, Poison Tree, on YouTube – and of course Finding Blake guest contributors Astralingua and Mick and Kate Stannard have also shared their own adaptations of Blake’s poem with us.

Clare has previously shared her reflections on Blake’s poem London with us here Finding Blake. And you can find her own poems at Clare Crossman – Poet & Writer as well as on ClimateCultures and the website for her project with James Murray-White: Waterlight — A Journey Along the River Mel.

You can explore more of Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with summaries, analysis and images of the original illustrations, at The Tate’s pages.