My Streets Are My, Ideas of Imagination

Niall McDevitt is a walking artist who specialises in the revolutionary poets of London, particularly Blake, Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Yeats. Who better, then, for Finding Blake to ask to share a post with us on finding William Blake on the streets? 

If Blake was telling the truth when he said ‘My Streets are My, Ideas of Imagination’, then we should look for William Blake in the streets.

As well as the great writings and the magical paintings, there is an infinity of Blake sites in London, Britain and the wider cosmos. 

The first site I encountered was his baptismal font. I’d had the honour of having an early poem included in a display by London Buses. Friends of the Earth organised it and Roger McGough chose the poems. Off-Duty was my first mature poem (though I’ve written many immature ones since.) It was displayed on routes 38 and 73 for a year. Apparently there were 7 million passenger journeys in that period so I could lay claim to a vast readership. At the end of the year we were given laminated editions of our poems and went on a mystery tour by bus. 

The destination turned out to be St James’ Church, Piccadilly. The church is a Wren masterpiece and the marble baptismal font by Grinling Gibbons is a masterpiece within a masterpiece. Blake was baptised there on December 11th, 1757. It was probably the first occasion on which he saw images of Adam and Eve. 

The busload of poets were invited to read their poems in turn by the font. As well as mine, I sang an acapella version of Blake’s London

After that experience I was hooked on Blake and Blake sites. London was transformed. It was as if I had been baptised again and had a new guardian angel. Not bad for a lapsed Catholic. 

William Blake in ‘The Spirit of Soho Mural’, squeezed in between John Logie Baird and William Hazlitt.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Since then I’ve gone on to develop a series of William Blake walks as well as many other poetry-related walks. ‘The William Blake Walk’ became well known, was written about by the author Nigel Richardson, and ended up included in an article on The Great British Walks. In the year of Blake’s 250th anniversary, I went round the route with a BBC sound technician. They didn’t tell me exactly what they had in mind. 

On November 27th – the day before Blake’s birthday – The Poet of Albion was broadcast, featuring such luminaries as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Tom Paulin. The show was presented by Jenny Uglow and interspersed with chunks from my walk, booming from the very streets Blake had lived, studied, worked and died in. There was perhaps only one drawback about The Poet of Albion: a preposterously jolly tribute to the hymn Jerusalem by none other than Boris Johnson, whom I think of as a kind of Urizen in nappies. 

Jeremy Reed with Helen Moore and Niall McDevitt performing at the site of Blake’s birth, William Blake House.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Other walks I have invented are The William Blake / Wat Tyler Walk which commences where Blake died and finishes at his burial place. En route, it takes in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Gordon Riots of 1780. The latter was the major London insurgency of Blake’s lifetime, and he was an eyewitness to its defining moment, the burning of Newgate Prison, which was like a ‘storming of the Bastille’ nine years in advance. 

Looking south, I have developed another exploration which fuses two areas and two poets. The Rimbaud Blake Waterloo Lambeth Walk tells the stories of French poet Arthur Rimbaud living in Stamford Road in 1874, and of Blake’s decade in Hercules Road from 1790-1800. The big question is: could Rimbaud have known of Blake, or seen a Blake illuminated book, or even read Blake? The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Blake and A Season in Hell by Rimbaud are two of the greatest prose poems in the western tradition. 

A monument to Blake’s friend John Flaxman on the site of Flaxman’s house where Blake attended lectures by the philosopher Thomas Taylor.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

After a West End walk, an East End walk, and a southern peregrination, the last of the four directions is north. I am currently researching a walk ‘From Tyburn to Primrose Hill’, as well as a Hampstead walk specially commissioned by The Idler

One of the sites I am looking for is the site of The Jew’s Harp Tavern, cited in the prophetic book Jerusalem. Its footprint is probably in Regents Park, above Portland Place. It might be near the bottom of the Broad Walk, or on the Redhill Street of today. Did Blake have a glass of porter there? All I know is, it will be hard work finding the exact spot, but no pub will be there to quench my thirst. 

Niall McDevitt in Bunhill Fields.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Notes

Niall McDevitt is the author of three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010), Porterloo (International Times, 2013) and Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage (New River Press, 2016). He is a walking artist who specialises in the revolutionary poets of London, particularly Blake, Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Yeats. He blogs at poetopography.wordpress.com

You can find a 2009 piece that Niall wrote for BBC London on William Blake as Urban Shaman and Psychogeographer in the Blakean articles page of our Blakean Archive. And you will find details of the various literary walks — including the Blake Walks — that Niall leads, at the New River Press site.

The line ‘My streets are my, Ideas of Imagination’ comes from Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion — one of Blake’s prophetic book, which “tells the story of the fall of Albion, Blake’s embodiment of man, Britain or the western world as a whole. The poetic narrative takes the form of a ‘drama of the psyche, couched in the dense symbolism of Blake’s self-constructed mythology.” (Wikipedia)

I behold London; a Human awful wonder of God!
He says: Return, Albion, return! I give myself for thee: 
My Streets are my, Ideas of Imagination.
Awake Albion, awake! and let us awake up together.
My Houses are Thoughts: my Inhabitants; Affections,
The children of my thoughts...


The Fool Called Blake

For the launch of Finding Blake on a day which is coincidentally both Easter Sunday and April Fool's Day, artist Linda Richardson considers the need for William Blake today - the "strange, startling and deeply unsettling" figure who "saw the human inclination we have to limit our lives" and urges us to wake up.

You must have seen those poor fools who fall from life’s ragbag and haunt the streets of our cities wearing billboards screaming, “The end is nigh!” They are the stone in the shoe, the black seed between the teeth, the puzzle, the snag, the indiscretion in our orderly lives. But of course we don’t have orderly lives so when we come to town it is usually to buy something that will make our own ragbag lives more….(name your own desire here). The last thing we want is some fool telling us our lives are going to end before we have got it all nailed down and tidied up.

The fool for the day

Enter the enigmatic William Blake who may be England’s greatest artist, poet and prophet but who was considered by many of his contemporaries as just one of those poor, ragbag fools. He was described as superstitious, deluded and insane. And he was, and still is strange, startling and deeply unsettling because he lived in a world of vision and spirit which he declared to be the only reality that was eternal. He said, “Nature has no Outline, But Imagination has. Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has. Nature has no Supernatural, and dissolves; Imagination is Eternity.

When we considered which day to launch the Finding Blake Website, April 1st was suggested. I thought April Fool’s Day was a terrible idea and then immediately realised that it would be the perfect day and very Blakean. There can be no greater fool, it would seem, than one who would burn most of his work, declaring, “I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art. I want nothing whatever. I am quite happy.” 

Just read that to a contestant on The Apprentice, or Dragon’s Den. If you are weighing and judging William Blake with the checks and balances of a modern mind you will certainly think he is a fool.  And on the day I am writing this I heard at the early church service: 

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)

The roads of genius

In another seemingly foolish declaration, he said, “Improvement makes straight, straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.

Blake, it would seem, was a great non-dual thinker too, dissolving that ever repeated argument, ‘if God is so good how come he let’s bad things happen?’ Blake would say, “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.

Perhaps Blake saw the human inclination we have to limit our lives, striving to straighten them out, to make them in an image of something glamorous, or successful. The villains are jailed, the heroes are splendid, and it all ends happily, but in our hearts we don’t believe a word of it because it is not our experience. In reality, life is unpredictable at best, and we rarely skip round the bends in the roads of our lives, we often stagger and occasionally crawl. But without this struggle we are nothing at all.

The doors of perception

Now surely it is time to move from the surface of life and find the inner, spiritual life that Blake contended was the only reality. Now is the time to leave the story of more possessions, more fame, more success and begin that inward journey described by Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it was, infinite.”

These days we see that Blake’s influence and genius extends to contemporary poets and filmmakers, to writers like Rossetti, Kerouac, Salman Rushdie, Philip Pullman, and musicians including Patti Smith, Joan Baez, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and many more. Some would even make a case for calling him the most important poet and artist of all time. His great impact was in making a powerful concoction of ideological words and images and pouring it over the establishment.

Whilst being rooted in Christianity, Blake followed in the tradition of Jesus and was sharply critical of the established church, stating, “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priests lays his curse on the fairest joys.” It was Blake who invented the term, ‘the dark satanic mills’: words he used to define the three headed monster of State, Church and Industry, who were crushing and grinding the human spirit into a misery of squalid transactionalism.

This seeming ‘fool’ illustrated in words and images the slavery into which he saw the human being falling. Even more today than ever before is mankind creating his own oppression, utterly submissive because we will not wake up. Brexit is a clear demonstration of how easily we can be manipulated and how we will walk into one disaster after another, grovelling for leadership and desperate for meaning we are unable find within ourselves. Perhaps more than ever we need more fools like William Blake. Perhaps more than ever we need to wake up and listen to him.


Notes

Linda Richardson is an artist. Based in Cambridge, England, she makes work that engages the imagination and intuition and tries to make a creative space for the viewer to connect their inner nature with their outer nature to form ideas that are not rooted in convention, reason or rationality. However neither are they pure fantasy that provides and escape from humdrum life. Linda wants instead to awaken the senses to the beauty and wonder of the world in which we live, to activate the attention to the mystery of the human experience.

From the Head to the Heart – Acrylic on Paper – 36 x 46cm
Image: Linda Richardson © 2018
lindarichardson.net

You can find more of Linda’s work at lindarichardson.net

Fighting a Poverty of the Imagination

To kick off our new Finding Blake website, project creator James Murray-White reflects on what inspired him to create the project and invite others to join him in celebrating the vision of William Blake, a uniquely British radical.

It is engrained in our culture to follow the head from school onwards. I live in Cambridge, where the push to be educated and use the power of a good education to rise up the ladder is in the air. It leaches from the fabric of the traditional university buildings and the new buildings of start-up companies and business centres, the sixth form and village colleges … and I don’t suggest that it’s wrong, just that it is not the only way. Head must follow heart.

A transformation of the inner life

Kathleen Raine, who did so much to promote Blake’s vision through her own life and writings, wrote in her 1970 biography of him: “Blake gradually renounced politics for something more radical: not religion, in the sense of a system of beliefs and observances, but a transformation of the inner life, a rebirth of ‘the true man’. Politics and religion alike came to seem to him an evasion of ‘the one thing needful’.”

William Blake (World of Art Library), by Kathleen Raine (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1970)

I spent a day recently with dear friends who have two wonderful kids. We were out in a nearby village, exploring a new forest school that has recently opened up. The kids who were also exploring were probably kids of academics or, like all of us in this area, affiliated with the University in some way (I make part of my living right now filming University lectures). But here was the opportunity to snuffle through leaves, to make willow sculptures, to climb trees, play on swings, to learn how to make and tend an open fire and to cook potatoes on it: an early chance to play and to create.

Maybe these children, the me’s and the you’s of tomorrow – who will live in a post-Brexit dawn, with different political realities, new leaders, and a capitalist system at breaking point – will learn enough at this forest school, running amongst the trees with curiosity and imagination, to create personal systems of belief, self-sufficiency, and resilience to create a better vision – “to build Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land”.

A vision that shatters

I heard a piece on Radio 4 about homelessness, and the speaker talked of the danger of becoming caught in ‘the poverty of the imagination’, and it struck me that that’s the reason I’m doing this project: using the new grave stone to highlight the immense power of the vision Blake developed and left to the world. It’s a vision that shatters mental slavery and poverty of the heart, can restore and develop vision and intuition, and engender feeling back in our world. Finding our way back to knowing: “and we are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.”

A friend came by recently and talked of the unique mystical tradition that Blake developed and was part of, and how this is very different from the Eastern mysticism that many of us have sought out over the years, both in the East – in Tibet and, in my case, Mongolia – and through the influx of Tibetan and Thai monks and lamas settling in Europe. Blake’s visions were uniquely rooted within his London life and the three years he lived in Felpham in Sussex, and as far as I know the East was very far from his sphere of influence*. So it’s the unique Britishness of Blake that needs (again, in my view) to be savoured, explored deeply; and my job is to further pull out those shards of light and shining imagination, and bring them to a wider audience.


Notes

* If anyone knows of any research that brings east and west together within Blake’s work, please do let me know!

Poet Kathleen Raine‘s biography, William Blake was published in 1970 as part of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art Library series: ‘a classic study of William Blake, a man for whom the arts were not an end in themselves, but expressed his vision of the spiritual drama of the English national being. This volume presents a comprehensive view of Blake’s artistic achievements and a compelling and moving portrait of the life and thought of an extraordinary genius.’

Raine died in 2003, aged 95, and her obituary in the Guardian described her as “a poet who believed in the sacred nature of all life, all true art and wisdom, and her own calling. She knew as a small child that poetry was her vocation. William Blake was her master, and she shared his belief that ‘one power alone makes a poet – imagination, the divine vision’.”

The letter of William Blake to Revd John Trusler is quoted in an essay by Maria de Gonzales de Leon, A letter from the young William Blake in defence of imagination (12/5/17) on the website Faena Aleph; “In one of Blake’s most beautiful letters, the then 20-year-old poet – always uncomfortable with the social conventions of his era – assured his client that, despite having tried to follow the directions regarding the illustrations, his style was unique and unlike any other. The images he’d commanded had been dictated by ‘my Genius or Angel,’ one which he followed blindly. Blake’s final explanation is irrevocable: “I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!”

The British Library commentary on the letter (the images shown here are taken from their online archive) says that: “In this letter Blake sets out how his mind worked. Particularly the statement ‘I see every thing I paint in this world’, refers to Blake’s eidetic vision – seeing as real and concrete the images which appeared to him as visions. But he describes these visions also as an act of will: people can see beauty either in a coin or in the sun, Nature as ‘all Ridicule and Deformity’ (and here he is referring to works by artists such as Gillray and Rowlandson – the ‘caricature prints’ that have ‘perverted’ Trusler’s eye), while Blake says ‘by these I shall not regulate my proportions’ … On the outside of the letter Dr Trusler has written ‘Blake dimmed by superstition’; while Blake clearly had a dim view of Trusler’s view of art, calling it ‘caricature’.”