William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 2 – London, England

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn the first post in her series marking publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, writer and translator Adriana Díaz-Enciso shared her unexpected introduction to William Blake on a family shopping trip from Mexico to Texas. Adriana now continues the story, recalling her adventures breaking into Blake’s world — and Blake’s London: attempting to understand the writings, images and vision of a man she felt to be a free spirit with an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art. “He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him.”


At some point, I thought that maybe if I translated him, I would manage to break into his world. I therefore translated his early series of poems to the Seasons. The translations were published in a poetry leaflet, to the editorial board of which I had been generously invited by older and much wiser poets than me. Its name was Magia Menor, after Borges’ verse, “To write a poem is to work a minor magic.” It was beautifully printed, a work of love, and I wish that my copies had not been lost when, many years later, I left Mexico. I would like to read those translations of mine now, even if I fear they weren’t that good. The fact was, in any case, that I still hadn’t managed to fully grasp Blake.

When I had moved to Mexico City, several years after those first translations, I once thought that the only way through was to translate the whole of Blake’s poems. I never got to start. It was such a daunting venture… After all, one of Mexico’s most deservedly beloved poets, Xavier Villaurrutia, had made a humbler attempt with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and who was I to try the harder stuff?

Still, I kept on pulling my Penguin edition from the shelf and reading, until it was so battered I had to replace it with another copy, this time with Elohim Creating Adam on the cover. Wondering what it was that this poetry kept on withholding from me, I was nevertheless convinced that it was of infinite value.

Beginnings of a Blakean novel 

For a while I let the matter rest… a bit. But I couldn’t forget altogether that Blake’s work was waiting for me. When in 1995-6 I was writing lyrics for Babel, the third album by Mexican rock band Santa Sabina, I thought the album required Blake to make a brief appearance, and this materialised in a kind of ‘sound collage’ of his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Baudelaire’s Les Litanies de Satan and a text of my own. And I read on. Slowly, I was getting closer.

Then, around 1997, I started making notes for what would then be my third novel. 

Its subject would be a question: what is the meaning of human pain? I was then reading lots of what we may call hermetic writings: Paracelsus, works on alchemy, Giordano Bruno and Frances Yates’ work on him and the Hermetic tradition. This reading material obeyed a longing. Like so many others before me, I was looking for a transcendent meaning of human life. I also wanted to know whether the seemingly inexhaustible pain endured by humanity could be lived and understood in such a way that we could rise above it and find healing in wisdom and compassion so great that they would escape description.

There was a strong Christian element in my wondering, via Julian of Norwich, St Theresa of Avila and other Christian mystics, though I was also eagerly reading Sufi sages such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi, Al-Ghazālī, and Henri Corbin’s works on both Avicenna and the ancient Iranian mystic tradition, with its archetypal Celestial Earth and the imaginal world. I couldn’t fail to see the evident coincidences between the concept of imagination elucidated by Corbin and that of William Blake.

The Christian preoccupation can partly be explained by the fact that I was raised a Catholic, attending a nuns’ school from age seven to 18. I had always been drawn to the figure of Christ, and I guess that I sincerely tried to be a fervent Christian, but soon the Church itself stood in my way. Its motions seemed empty to me, devoid of the mystery of serious ritual. Also, as my social awareness developed, I found the obvious link between mainstream Catholicism and power in Mexico; how the Church, save few exceptions, had become allied to the most conservative and un-Christian mores. I quietly stepped out of the Church, but I wanted to be fervent. I kept on being fascinated by Christ, even if the literal interpretation of his being the son of a divine Father was always hard for me. What took a hold on me was that most beautiful symbol of a god who becomes human to share man’s pain (rather than atoning for his sins). The more I read Blake, the more I agreed with his unique vision of Christ.

Soon, the idea started to take root in me that this novel should have the work of William Blake as its foundations.

Then, on 22 December 1997, a horrid massacre took place in the village of Acteal, Chiapas (a state in South East Mexico), when 45 indigenous people — including children and pregnant women — who belonged to the pacifist group Las Abejas were murdered by a paramilitary group while they were praying. The horror of this attack shook the country, and I couldn’t stop wondering whether such extreme suffering, and the impunity which followed the crime, could be just an occurrence in an indifferent universe; whether there was no transcendence, no redemption, no meaning.

And it was then that, fifteen years after finding Blake in a shopping mall in Texas, the meaning of his prophetic poems truly opened its gates for me. Acteal would become a pivotal point in my novel, and by then it was clear that the book would draw on precisely those poems which had eluded me for so long as its main source of inspiration. Their characters would be the novel’s characters. That was the beginning of twenty further years pondering on Blake.

Acteal. Collage by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018, with Press photo: Cuartoscuro
Acteal
Collage by Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018, with Press photo: Cuartoscuro

I took Blake with me, briefly, back to the USA: in the Spring of 1998 I was granted a writing residency at what was then called Ledig House International Writers’ Colony, to write the Blakean novel. I carried with me my Blake, my hermetic books, my grief over the multiplied bloodshed in my country, and my pondering. It was in the idyllic landscape of upstate New York where the first draft of the novel was finished. I don’t remember how many weeks I spent there. Six, perhaps? I had never before had such a chance to concentrate on my writing with no distractions, surrounded by nature, sharing the findings and the pitfalls of the process with other writers from many different countries. I remember those weeks as one of the moments in my life that Satan cannot find. 

A week in New York City followed, the novel still close against me while I sensed that my brief sojourn in heaven was quickly shifting into something less luminous.

Blake’s London calling 

I returned to Mexico City, which seemed burdened with the weight of violence, and enveloped in my own sadness as I confronted the collapse of my marriage. A nearly fatal pneumonia put a stop to work of any kind for a few months, and the end of 1998 passed by in a kind of blur marked by loss, grief, and the minutiae of convalescence. By January 1999 the doctor declared me out of danger, and that’s when I decided to leave Mexico, as suddenly as the other changes in my life had taken place. The answer to where I would go was obvious: London, of course, that “Human awful wonder of God.”

It was London because of all the literature by Londoners or set in London that I had read since I was little; it was London because of Virginia Woolf, thanks to whom I had been driven to take my writing seriously; it was London because of my beloved Charles Dickens, and it was London because of those visionary authors who had transformed it into a city beyond the limits of mundane existence, such as Arthur Machen and, of course, William Blake. I came here ready to start revising the manuscript of my novel, sure that it would be greatly improved by being in the streets that Blake had walked.

Battersea Power Station, Blake's London, by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Battersea Power Station
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

My love affair with London was passionate from day one. It was what I had dreamt it to be, what I feared it might not be, and more. My favourite books were alive here, and so was the spirit of the authors who had immortalised the city — some, we could even say, hallowed it. My own literary London included, of course, Blake’s London: Soho, St James’s Church in Piccadilly where he was baptised, his Lambeth and those of his works that they had on show back then at the Tate. Although this was mundane London, thriving on power and greed as it has always done, it was also, simultaneously, visionary London, where the material fabric of reality could be seen through for an equally powerful spiritual force to be revealed. The hardship and loneliness I experienced during those first years in the great city were no reason to leave: I had found here what I often called ‘the mirror of my soul’, and the most fertile ground for the development of my voice as a writer. 

This meant that, as I started revising my Blakean novel, I found it wanting. So wanting, in fact, that I destroyed its manuscript (both printed and electronic). But I kept all my notes. The structure remained, and so did its aim. It was just that I wasn’t telling it right. The years-long process to rewrite it started. It was a painful one: the struggle for survival meant that I didn’t have enough time or mental space for concentrating on such a complex book. Though I did write other books in those years (poetry, short stories and another, shorter novel), I felt grief and frustration because I couldn’t go forward with the Blakean story.

Notes for the novel’s chapters

Notes for the novel's chapters, by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Notes for the novel’s chapters.
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Still, I worked intermittently on it and kept as close as I could to Blake. I attended, for instance, the major Blake exhibition at the Tate, which ran from the end of 2000 to February 2001. That exhibition made me redefine the novel, as my understanding of Blake grew much deeper. My memory of that visit is of going round the exhibition for hours in a kind of trance, shaken by the contrasts between the exquisite beauty of Blake’s pictorial work and its violence, moved by the pathos of his endless struggle and the indifference he faced, and stirred by the way he transformed the cruelty and crassness of the mundane into the beauty and might of a greater reality. His was the way to live a life, the only way for a true artist. I was also struck with more poignancy by the utterly unique nature of his pictorial art and his poetry, inextricably joined together.

I bought at the Tate Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake, which became a soul companion through my lonely explorations of Blake’s London. It brought home the dimensions of Blake’s struggle in a world that failed to see, to feel and understand; a struggle which was therefore of art and of the spirit, for he knew they couldn’t be separated, and a struggle for transcendence, for the ultimate liberation of man through his imagination, which was ultimately divinity in him. Which other artist had spelled out our ultimate nature so clearly? Ackroyd’s biography guided me through further readings of the prophetic poems, so that my second Penguin copy was now starting to look as battered as the first one.

Some years later, seeing the actual copies of some of Blake’s illuminated poems in the quiet of the Prints and Drawings Department in the British Museum left me in tears: no reproduction will ever be able to show the exquisiteness, the nuances, the delicacy and otherworldly beauty of those pages. You can sense in them, fully alive, the love, the care and the faith with which they were created. 


Notes

Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. You can catch up with the first post in her series about the writing of the book — William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 1 – McAllen, Texas.

In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana moves deeper into Blake’s London, and her novel takes shape as its characters seek their answers on the borders of the mundane and the visionary, visible and invisible.  

Another Jerusalem

Finding Blake welcomes back artist, musician, illustrator, songwriter and poet Salli Hipkiss, with a new poem – Another Jerusalem – and her account of the inspiration for this work in dream, and in the work and wisdom of Blake and other thinkers and writers.

Another Jerusalem 

I dreamed I danced beside a wall with unknown friends, maybe three.  
No music played but still within we heard a call and danced, beside a wall. 

The dream went on, the second night a bigger crowd was there. 
No words were passed but all were light of foot and many smiles were shared.  

Night three the crowd was bigger still, all dancing while the wall stood soft 
Somehow, though limestone made and marked where countless hands had pressed  

And whispered truths and prayers and dreams and curses...  
This time we chose freedom from speech and danced our stories.  

The next night still the party grew: all silent dancers, full of smiles. 
I woke in wonder that such vivid smiling people could be conjured just by dream. 

Where we have walls, where speech brings argument, disharmony: 
Bring only inner music. 
Bring no words. 
But dance with wild abandon  
Become friends with unknown dreamers 
Belong to all nations Come barefoot 
And dance. 

Salli Hipkiss © 6th April 2018. All rights reserved.

Writing an introduction to this poem seems a little out of place in some ways, suggesting as it does a move beyond words! However, a little placing in context might appeal to some people, so here goes…

Some acts of creation take years to come to fruition, and some, happily, come along almost effortlessly, and so it was with this poem. It really was inspired by a vivid dream that unfolded pretty much as the poem tells!

However, reflecting on the dream and writing the poem as a response, I found myself recalling real walls that exist or have existed or are sadly being proposed in current times. 

In April this year the Dalai Lama published a book for young people called A Call For Revolution. In it he presents the idea of a revolution of compassion. He remembers being present in 1989 as the Berlin Wall was dismantled by the young people of East and West Germany. He says:

“I feel very emotional thinking back to the moment when I arrived, candle in hand, at the site where the wall had been breached.  The jubilant crowd lifted me up onto the rubble. It was an extraordinary moment and I felt the breath of peace and freedom exhaling throughout the world.”

Inspired by such positive, peaceful, collective actions, through the book he calls for young people today to commit to a Charter of Universal Responsibility that actively leads to peace and the dissolution of constructed divisions, whether physical or ideological. 

Finding a common ground

Writing in the 13th-century the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī wrote the beautiful lines:

Out beyond 
Ideas of right doing 
And wrong doing: 
There is a field, 
I’ll meet you there.

I am intrigued by places that allow people to find ‘common ground’, or where they are at least able to put aside differences and meet with open hearts. The wall in my dream was not a specific place, but more a feeling for this kind of inclusive space. 

While reflecting on the dream, the wall that kept coming back into my mind was the Western Wall in Jerusalem, also known as the Wailing Wall, Kotel, or in Arabic as Ḥā’iṭ al-Burāq. I decided therefore to title the poem Another Jerusalem, reflecting both on modern-day Jerusalem and William Blake’s poem of the same name, and the famous song Jerusalem, which is based on text from Blake’s poem Milton

The Western Wall has deep meaning and history for Jews, Christians and Muslims and the Jerusalem walls are listed, along with the Old City of Jerusalem, on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. As one of the ‘status quo of the Holy Land’ sites it is a place of pilgrimage for all and now forms a fragile meeting point of cultures and religions, rather than a physical division.

The idea that a wall, originally designed to divide, to keep some in and others out, might inadvertently become a meeting point, resonated with the theme I had taken from the dream.  There are also many meeting points between different religions and ideologies that become evident when we look for similarities rather than differences.

Writing in the 18th-century, Blake boldly illustrated the aphorism: “All Religions Are One.”

‘All Religions Are One’, by William Blake 1788
Public Domain: Wikipedia

This recalls for me another lovely poem by Rumi:

Spring overall. But inside us
There is another unity.
Behind each eye
One glowing weather.
Every forest branch moves differently
In the breeze, but as they sway
They connect at the roots.

In our increasingly multi-cultural societies it feels as if we could possibly be closer than at any other time in history to realising that we are all part of one big family tree: that we all “connect at the roots”.  In the way of this is a clinging to a simplistic world-view that divides people into ‘Us and Them’.

In Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion Blake describes:

…two contraries which are called Qualities and with
Which every substance is clothed, (they) name them good and evil
From them they make an abstract…

The italics on ‘Qualities’ are my own, for although this is the usual transcription, I can’t help wondering if the word Blake might have had in mind was ‘Dualities, which also fits with the general flow of his ideas. ‘Dualities’, polarising notions of good and evil, lead too easily to concepts of ‘Us and Them’.

A short distance away from Jerusalem today the Israel and Palestine conflict remains unresolved. A new wall is being proposed along the Mexico and USA border, to many people’s dismay. Surely at this time humanity needs to be putting its creative energy into moving beyond the kind of divisive ‘abstract’ thinking that Blake was exploring: thinking which can too easily make an ‘evil’ out of a ‘contrary’.

The Dalai Lama has written:

“In November 2015 after the Paris terrorist attacks, I faced up to the failure of religion. Every religion persists in cultivating that which divides us, instead of uniting us around what brings us together… There is an urgent need to go beyond religion. It is possible to live without religion, but can one live without love and compassion? The answer is no.”

A creative force for peace

In Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion Blake talks of: “Striving with systems to deliver individuals from their systems”

There seems to me something generous in Blake’s forging of his personal mythology or ‘system’, in his rejection of the oppressive qualities of religious doctrine, and his own unique interpretation of Christianity. His personal striving for freedom of creative imagination paves the way for others to follow their own paths, leading to a multiplicity of visions: a route that in turn leads perhaps to unity and universality through diversity.

Blake writes :

I must make a system, or be enslav’d by another Man’s,
I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to create.

Creativity is such a powerful force for peace. Indeed peace is often found more easily when adversaries focus on a joint creative or collaborative project, rather than on the ‘serious business’ (usually through talking) of creating peace itself. Similarly peace of mind or even happiness usually elude us when we focus on them as ends in themselves, but ‘find us’ when we focus on positive external endeavours, especially those that benefit other people rather than just ourselves.

Thus, maybe it is all our ‘business to create’. To make our own ‘systems’ but to recognise they are our own and to therefore recognise that others’ ‘systems’ are theirs and equally valid. This moves beyond tolerance somehow and becomes refreshingly immediate and both inclusive and expansive.   

At my most optimistic, I like to consider that perhaps even the controversial current proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the USA might inadvertently act as a meeting point, pulling many individuals and nations together in voicing their common feeling that the wall shouldn’t be built, and that those seeking refuge across borders all around the world should be helped rather than punished.

The voice of compassion

In Blake’s Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion his feminine figure of Jerusalem:

…stretchd her hand toward the Moon & spoke
Why should Punishment Weave the Veil with Iron Wheels of War
When Forgiveness might it Weave with Wings of Cherubim…

I think Blake was ahead of his time in giving Jerusalem a feminine character and attributing to her the voice of compassion. Writing in 2017 the Dalai Lama says:

“I have a dream: Women will become national leaders… I call upon the next generation of young women to be the mothers of the Revolution of Compassion that this century so desperately needs.”

Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 2, copy E.
Relief etching with watercolour additions.
William Blake
Public Domain: The William Blake Archive

As I write these lines, the full moon is just rising over the birch trees close to my house, reminding me again how connected we all are over time and space and across differences in ideology: connected by our views of the same night skies and illuminating celestial bodies and through the tapestries of our dreams.

I can’t claim to hold company with any of the great poets, writers, thinkers and leaders I recall here, but in its humble way I hope my poem Another Jerusalem, adds another voice to the gentle but urgent call for unity, inclusivity and compassion, rather than duality and antagonism, alongside the recognition that it is all ‘our business to create’, in order to achieve a lasting dance of peace. 


Notes

Salli Hipkiss is a poet, writer, artist, songwriter, and singer who for fifteen years has worked freelance as a creative practitioner and teacher/advocate of arts and sustainability, recently alongside being a full-time home-schooling Mum. Salli’s creative work has moved between art, music, illustration, songwriting, poetry, novel-writing and more.  She is passionate about human creativity and individual flourishing, and about environmental sustainability and regeneration, and is curious about how the two areas can be symbiotic, leading to a holistic vision of wellbeing. Some of her portfolio can be explored on her website: www.sallihipkiss.com

You can read about Blake’s poemJerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion at this Wikipedia page and hear recordings of the poem on the Blake Society’s site.

Check out our More Resources page for further sources of Blake poems and art.

Modest Things

Finding Blake is delighted to welcome artist, musician, illustrator, songwriter and poet Salli Hipkiss, who has very generously offered a poem she wrote in 2017. Modest Things brings her life-long love of William Blake to her growing concern with the problems of climate change and other environmental threats to human and other life.

As with many children, I first encountered Blake when my primary school teacher read The Tyger aloud in class. I remember being awed by the vivid creature that formed clearly in my imagination, and also being a little shocked and thrilled by the mis-rhyme of “eye” and “symmetry” which hinted that the rules of language were far from set in stone.

As an ‘A’ level English and Art student, Blake appeared again and I enjoyed responding visually, carving a mahogany dragon knotted around a wax rose inspired by The Sick Rose as part of my sculpture course. I feel I grew up with Blake. Since those beginnings I have continued to feel a strong kinship with the way he moves fluidly between vision, language, poetry, and advocacy — between eye and ear and mind and heart. 

The Sick Rose (Songs of Innocence and of Experience)
by William Blake , ca. 1825
Medium: Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and gold
Public Domain: The Met Museum, New York
www.metmuseum.org

I went on to gain a degree in Fine Art and Art History from Goldsmiths College and later an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art. I have worked as an art teacher at home and internationally. 

I am also drawn to Blake’s sense of an innate justice, especially his railing against forces which rob people of their natural, creative life paths and individual flourishing, or nature of its natural expression and abundance:  “A Robin Red breast in a Cage/ Puts all Heaven in a Rage”. And I delight in exploring the universal in his more mystical lines.

The poem I am thrilled to be sharing here was written in March 2017 in response to my own musing — and attempt not to be despairing — about the magnitude of the environmental problems facing our planet today. Seeking intuitively to find an imaginative, inner mentor to help grapple with these issues I found myself asking the question: “What would William Blake have done?” I felt a pulse of excitement as I recognised this could be the first line of a poem and I crafted the rest of the poem from there. I am very happy to discover the Finding Blake website and her community of like minds and feel honoured to be asked to share my work here. Thank you.

Modest Things  


What would William Blake have done when faced with climate change?
Would he have balked at mills rolled out at scales
His pastoral demons never could have seen?                                   
Should we be kinder to our visionaries living now?
Those with imaginations wide enough to see the enormity of what might loom:
(The unmarked loss of countless furred and scaled and feathered kin);
Those with ears that hear too loud
The faltering beats – yes, hearts as well – as Evolution fails her prismatic wings?
 
And oh how highly we value our Van Goghs now!
But a heart that flowers golden;            
An acute feeling for stars;
An affinity with infinity:
These are senses that can crack a soul too wide open
If not comforted and contained by softer, closer loves.
           
And so I take my garden patch, my childrens’ corner plot,
And pour into those earthen hands as many seeds and roots and worms as I can find.
I watch as dust and rain and sunshine gather in and cradle all these modest things;
Tendrils climb and walls turn green with shiny hearts that hold a Wren.           
What I can I do to help stall Evolution’s spin,
With pen and can and hoe and taking time to show
That trees that reach so high into the stars
Must grow deep roots to balance them below.


Salli Hipkiss ©1st March 2017. All rights reserved.

Notes

Salli Hipkiss is a poet, writer, artist, songwriter, and singer who for fifteen years has worked freelance as a creative practitioner and teacher/advocate of arts and sustainability, recently alongside being a full-time home-schooling Mum. Salli’s creative work has moved between art, music, illustration, songwriting, poetry, novel-writing and more.  She is passionate about human creativity and individual flourishing, and about environmental sustainability and regeneration, and is curious about how the two areas can be symbiotic, leading to a holistic vision of wellbeing. Some of her portfolio can be explored on her website: www.sallihipkiss.com

Millefleurs 2004 © Salli Hipkiss
sallihipkiss.com