My Blakean Life

I have been lax in celebrating William Blake’s birthday, which passed by recently, on Nov. 28th. A Londoner almost all of his life, he was born in 1757 and died in 1827, just short of his 70th birthday. He’s best known for The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and within that, the poem “The Tyger,” and also for an excerpt from his long poem Milton a Poem which was set to music by Hubert Parry in a piece called “Jerusalem” (And did those feet…), a composition used as a school song for many schools around the world also famously covered by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Selections from “Auguries of Innocence” are found in the Tomb Raider movies, his art in the Hannibal Lecter movies, and his poems are probably used for lyrics by contemporary musicians more than any other poet from any time. There are book-length lists of Blake poems set to music. 

I didn’t learn about Blake in school, however — I learned of him when I heard the song “William Blake,” which was written by Terry Scott Taylor for the band Daniel Amos on their Vox Humana album. Hearing that song was enough to get me to rush to — remember these? — a B. Dalton Bookseller, where I picked up a copy of the Viking Portable Blake. That started me on a journey that took me through graduate school, a dissertation, my first book, and then two Rock and Romanticism books. But it was all about music and literature from the beginning, not just the stuff they make you read in school, as it was for Blake himself, who originally sang many of those poems at dinner parties to his own original musical compositions. He was said to have a good singing voice, and scholars of music notated his compositions at the time, though those are lost to us now. Roy Starling was my first instructor in Romanticism, and he made Romantic poetry come alive for me, as he did all the literature he taught to all of his students at the college and high school levels. 

I chose Blake because I wanted a subject of study that I could attend to for twenty years without getting bored, and he has not disappointed. In addition to my own writing about Blake, I was also privileged to work with Michael Phillips on three occasions for Blake printmaking demonstrations, one of these resulting in an exhibit at Rollins College and another in an exhibit curated by Lee Fearnside that consisted of contemporary artists inspired by Blake alongside Phillips’s own reproductions of Blake’s work through his reproduction of his printmaking methods. 

And Blake has informed and inspired my own creative work — following in his footsteps I’m working on my own reworking of Milton’s Paradise Lost as a steampunk western as well as assorted collections of my own poetry. We will see where it all leads, but I remain grateful for what Blake has meant to me.

I should end this with Blake’s own words… 

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Birthday…

Today was my youngest son’s birthday. That means my wife had to make him a cake. Now, you need to understand that she can’t just make him a cake. She has to browse the internet for photographs of intensely detailed, creative, and artistic cakes that very talented people spent many hours making. That wouldn’t be so bad, but my wife isn’t particularly talented as a sculptor, painter, or even weird cake maker, and even if she was, she doesn’t have hours to devote to any one thing on any given day. So what she does is get ideas and approximate.  This year was a Star Wars year:Image

My revisionist reading interprets this work as following an Empire Strikes Back snow theme. Yoda and friends and enemies are on floating blocks of ice, shocked momentarily as they initially find themselves adrift among birthday candles. But, I fear, that is not the intent of this work. The blue background is sky. The white flecks are stars, several of them clearly about to go into supernova. We’ll call the candles comets. Now of course the extent to which this art realizes its intend is immaterial. One the one hand, it pleased its audience, while on the other, it served its purpose.

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Our chilldren are sugar-highed and spoiled for at least the next two days.

I feel that I need to recall my son’s birth on his birthday — don’t worry, though, no gory details. We were living in northeastern Pennsylvania, just off I-80 by the New Jersey state line. I was reading for my last exam in graduate school, English Romanticism.  The exam date was about a month away. My wife was working with midwives in New Jersey. So please picture the scene: very early January, northeastern PA (in the Poconos), my wife’s first baby, and we have to drive at least an hour to the hospital to deliver.

And her water breaks and she doesn’t tell me. She decides to relax in the bathtub.

By the time we get to the hospital she is almost ten centimeters. The delivery was a bit scary at times — Penn’s heartbeat would drop whenever she pushed near the end — but she wound up fine and Penn too. The midwives were happy with me too. But this is my fifth child. I’ve been through it before and am a bit older.

I’ll have to describe my learning curve in later accounts.

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