The Little Black Boy

For the fourth of our readings from Blake's poems, actor Matt Ray Brown performs The Little Black Boy. Our recording of this poem from The Songs of innocence and Experience was filmed by Finding Blake's Jonnie Howard at Blake's South Molton Street home.

The Little Black Boy 

My mother bore me in the southern wild, 
And I am black, but O! my soul is white; 
White as an angel is the English child:  
But I am black as if bereav'd of light. 

My mother taught me underneath a tree  
And sitting down before the heat of day, 
She took me on her lap and kissed me, 
And pointing to the east began to say.  

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. 

And we are put on earth a little space, 
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,  
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face 
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove. 

For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear  
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice.  
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care, 
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice. 

Thus did my mother say and kissed me,  
And thus I say to little English boy.  
When I from black and he from white cloud free, 
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:  

Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear,  
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.  
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair, 
And be like him and he will then love me. 

Finding Blake’s Linda Richardson says of The Little Black Boy: “Almost immediately we hear echoes from The Song of Songs, a passionate love poem about union with the Divine, found right in the centre, at the heart, of the Bible. In The Song of Songs, we meet the ‘beloved’, a Shulamite woman who had been darkened by the sun, the very archetype of God. Perhaps this is where Blake first felt that deep movement and compassion in his spirit towards one of difference, one who feels ‘bereav’d of light’. The poem dances with the metaphor of light and dark and indicates that those who sit in the light of God will become different will become dark and beautiful from exposure to the brightness of Divine radiance.

“At a first reading we might imagine Blake’s The Little Black Boy to be a troubling racist poem, but if we hold steady to the end we will find that it transcends race, transcends light and dark, because we discover that in fact the Little Black Boy is far better prepared for heaven because he has been able to ‘bear the beams of love’ through struggling with the disadvantage of the darkness of his skin. In fact the little black boy has become so good and gracious, he is able to shade the little English white boy who is unprepared for the heat of Divine union. 

“Finally, all colour and race are transcended, and when the cloud of superficial colour difference is removed like a cloud, we will see that we are all alike, loving one another without any prejudice where together we can ‘lean in joy upon our fathers knee’.”


Notes

Matt Ray Brown reads eight Blake poems for Finding Blake and appeared in the original film for our Crowdfunder video. You can find all Finding Blake videos, as they are posted, on the Finding Blake Films at a Glance page in our Blakean Archive section. You can explore Matt’s work as an actor, including his showreel at Mandy.com, ‘the world’s largest creative community of actors, film and TV crew, theatre professionals, child actors, voiceover artists, dancers, singers, musicians, models and extras.’

‘Jerusalem’ – a Song, an Idea, Few Can Resist

James Murray-White reflects on the enduring, but shifting, resonance of Blake's famous lines on 'Jerusalem' for visions of 'England's green and pleasant land.' His choice of this iconic poem also introduces the launch of Finding Blake's series of powerful readings of this and other Blake poems, which we recorded in Blake's house in South Molton Street, London.

This month on Finding Blake we’re launching a series of eight short video posts featuring readings of some of Blake’s best known poems.

We took actor Matt Ray Brown to London recently to film him reading these poems in Blake’s flat in South Molton Street. In this exclusive series, filmed and sound recorded by Finding Blake’s Jonnie Howard, we showcase eight pieces — some well known, some not so well known — and delight in that they are being read probably in the very place they were written!

We will start the series with Matt’s powerful reading of Jerusalam, Blake’s most famous poem; so do watch out for that in the next few days. In the meantime, I wanted to share my own reflections on what that poem has come to mean in different contexts today.


I recently watched this new version of composer Hubert Parry’s interpretation of Blake’s Jerusalem:

In this version, featuring athlete Jazmin Sawyers singing the poem, musician Tokio Myers interprets it as the anthem ushering the England Team into the recent Commonwealth Game. The athletes stand by, humming the words as a chorus, rather unsuccessfully I feel (you may differ, and other versions of the same arrangement are available).

However, it stands as yet another take on the anthemic nature of the words, and the unusual way Blake has been taken to the heart (possibly quite a superficial heart) of the British nation. And of British culture — whatever that means, particularly in these difficult Brexit days as we try to understand a national psyche. So Jerusalem is sung at the Last Night of the Proms in the Albert Hall; it’s sung by the Women’s Institute at their annual general meeting, and by rugby players and old Etonians at their dinners; and in the piece below, featured in a Classic FM post, we travel from the pomp and spectacle of a Royal Wedding no less, to the continued ignominy of more sports stars mugging it for the cameras, led by a pretty terrified looking soprano:

Are we a nation that constantly needs a rallying call to the depths of ourselves to build a better place around us? And if so — and if Parry’s version keeps getting trundled out and we use it as a national salve — why haven’t we built Jerusalem here, in England’s green and pleasant land?

Why do we build on the countryside, allowing our cities to expand? Why do we value industry — any industry, from mining, through the exploitation of labour, to the current media industry and coming obsession with digital technologies and artificial intelligence — over rural agrarian values, or simple spiritual inquiry?

From my experience a few years ago, deep in a Sussex woodland (see The Unfolding and Unveiling) bringing forth these lyrics amongst a group of ‘we once were strangers and now we’re friends’ festival-goers, to seeing all these versions online, it feels that Blake has caught the culture, and the culture has caught a small, fragmented part of him and his experience and vision. Finding Blake continues and honours that.

And for the record, my favourite version is as arranged by folk singer and musician Chris Wood, who has kindly allowed us to use the opening bars on some of our clips. Chris has been deeply influenced by Blake and by fellow poet John Clare: their empathy for the man in the street, the simplicity and ability to look deeply at every situation, every moment. I love the slower, measured pace of Chris’s version – it seems to encourage, while remaining rooted in a pastoral idyll. This is exemplified in this performance, filmed in the wonderful Green Backyard, a few miles up the road from me in Peterborough. Rather that than imperious Britain at its worst, pulling itself up by the short and curlies in the midst of the battlefields and times of despair that our corrupt leaders have walked us into……..

Shine Forth.


Notes

This recent post at Interesting LiteratureA Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, does it what it says on the can and looks at the meaning of the words. Is it a patriotic paean to England or,  perhaps, scathing satire? Interesting Literature also discusses other Blake poems, A Poison Tree and London, and is well worth checking out.

Poet Niall McDevitt, in his piece Urban shaman and psychogeographer,  signposted on our Blakean Articles page, says of Jerusalem: “Blake is a British-Israelite who sees ancient parallels between Albion and the Holy Land. His hymn Jerusalem is such a powerful statement of this belief that it unites all the warring factions of his country, and draws in everyone. Though unofficial, it must be the finest national anthem available to humanity. What could be more charmingly perverse than a national anthem which contains the word ‘satanic’ and which is named after somewhere else? … Despite his British-Israelism, there is no doubt that if Blake were alive today he would look upon modern Jerusalem with despair, and would be furious at the conditions in which Palestinians are forced to live.”

And musician Jah Wobble said that “For years, people were telling me that I’d love William Blake, but I had never felt like poetry related to me. When I thought of Blake I thought of Jerusalem and Last Night of the Proms and all that flag-waving, which put me off … I don’t think anybody really understands Blake. Songs of Innocence and of Experience seems pretty straightforward, but even there if you scratch the surface it gets really heavy. He’s been hijacked by retired colonels in Surrey who think he represents their Albion, and he absolutely doesn’t. Blake was nonconformist and imaginative and rule-breaking. If Blake had been my age in the 1970s, he would have been on the punk scene, without a doubt. He was a regular London bloke who worked for a living.” You can find Perspectives: Jah Wobble, musician, on William Blake via our Blakean Articles.

 

 

Testament on Blake

To launch our new page of Finding Blake films - part of A Blakean Archive - and as the first of a series of mini-posts on the growing library of films we're producing for the project, here is a short clip of Testament talking to James Murray-White in London, the city that was home to Blake for almost all his life.

In September 2017, I interviewed and filmed rapper and beatboxer Testament in London on his passion for Blake.

Filmed in an alleyway off Leicester Square with the sights, sounds and smells of central London in our faces, Testament’s passion for Blake and the inspiration he has gained from studying him shines through. 

Testament talks Blake from Finding Blake on Vimeo.

Testament’s solo show on Blake, Blake Remixed, has been an inspiration for our Finding Blake Project, and we hope to collaborate with him in the future.

Notes

We’ve included Testament’s Blake Remixed project in our More Resources page, where we will also be adding more projects that discuss or respond to William Blake. If you know of projects, organisations and other resources we should add there, do use the Contact page to let us know. And don’t forget the collection of individual music, films, books and other materials that you can explore in A Blakean Archive