Local BBC Sites

Page last updated at 14:05 GMT, Wednesday, 12 August 2009 15:05 UK
Urban shaman and psychogeographer

Design for Blair's Grave by William Blake

Niall McDevitt
By Niall McDevitt

1. William Blake is the first urban shaman of the first industrial city. He is London's 'technician of the sacred', a magican and healer as well as poet. The psychology of Blake and geography of London combine in an astonishing way, 200 years ahead of the psychogeographers. He is - of all the great Romantic poets - the one who made London his own. Byron, Shelley and Keats may as well be Italians; Wordsworth and Coleridge may as well be bumpkins. Beginning with the 'Golden Square' ward he was born in, Blake single-handedly transforms the base metals of London into alchemical gold:

"I write in South Molton Street what I both see and hear,
In regions of Humanity, in London's opening streets."

2. Blake is a religious poet but one who believes neither in God nor Church. God is 'Nobodaddy' (ie. Daddy Nobody) and the Church is the Whore of Revelation. Blake looks to a past before organised religion and looks to a future without sectarian strife, insisting that 'All Religions Are One' and that all are inspired by 'The Poetic Genius'.

He regularly invokes the triumvirate of great English poets - Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton - as antidote to the overly scientific and rational Bacon, Newton and Locke. Imagination is primary:

"The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton's Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright."

3. For Blake - as for the Old Testament prophets - there is no difference between poetry and prophecy. A poem is an inspired teaching. (It was Tom Paine who taught this to Blake, one of the many reasons why Blake so admired him).

4. Blake's take on Christianity is radical/libertarian/aesthetic e.g. "Jesus and his Apostles were all artists". As such, Jesus is "the Divine Humanity" and "Jesus the Imagination". He is an emblem of artistic freedom - in its fullest sense: "I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination". Blake also celebrates "Forgiveness" and arbitrates for a society ruled by the virtues of "Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love".

5. 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? (Can you imagine if the Israeli national anthem was called 'London'?) 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.

6. Blake is an Anglo-Celtic poet who is always returning Britain to its ancient roots in Albion, its Celtic heritage. For him, the 'bard' is the native equivalent of the Jewish prophet and is anti-authoritarian. The 'druid' is the equivalent of the 'priest' or 'pharisee' and is authoritarian. Blake is anti-authoritarian because he passionately opposes the Powers-that-Be engaging - as the druids did - in "human sacrifice" e.g. the public hangings at Tyburn or the Battle of Trafalgar.

7. Blake's level of compassion for all human beings and for all living creatures is unparalleled in English poetry. His tenderness of soul is huge, as is his anger when he witnesses any type of social injustice:

"A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
A dove house filld with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell through all its regions"

8. Blake's message is urgent. He is not a comic poet, an entertainer, a light versifier. He writes to transform individuals and, thereby, to transform society. The third verse of London contains an acrostic (ie. the first letter of each line spells a word that can be read vertically):

"How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appals,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh,
Runs in blood down palace walls"

Blake is not only describing the sweeper's cry and the soldier's sigh, he is asking us to 'HEAR'.

9. Blake's gift of prophecy is evident in the way his work re-invents itself so as to be utterly compelling for each new generation, from the pre-Raphaelites to the Symbolists to the Irish Modernists, to the Beats, to the British Poetry Revival, and beyond. What better credit crunch poem is there than 'Holy Thursday'?

"Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak and bare.
And their ways are fill'd with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e'er the sun does shine,
And where-e'er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall."

Written in the 1790's, this is chillingly relevant. Child poverty is to blame on the "cold and usurous hand" that feeds it ie. the banking system.

10. Dismissed as "an unfortunate lunatic" in his lifetime by the influential critic Robert Hunt, there are still those who oppose him. A consensus has formed among such writers as T.S. Eliot, Jacob Bronowski, and Michael Schmidt that Blake's longer poems are no-go areas. This is rubbish! If you like Jerusalem the lyric, you'll love Jersusalem the epic; only you'll just have to work a little harder! Drawing on ancient magic, philosophy and symbolism, he is trying to teach us how to align the four aspects of our being: intellect, emotion, intuition and sensation. Until we do this, we will not be whole. Albion himself has fallen into error and fearfulness, and will not be saved until he is re-united with his female emanation, Jerusalem.

Niall McDevitt is an Irish poet living in Hammersmith. His psycho-geographical walks through London follow the trails of Shakespeare, Blake, Rimbaud, Yeats and many others.

For information and bookings call 07722 163823.

Walking in Blake's footsteps
17 Aug 09 |  Arts & Culture
Putting Blake back on Lambeth's streets
09 Jun 09 |  People & Places
BBC Poetry Season: Christina Rossetti
17 Jun 09 |  Arts & Culture
BBC Poetry Season: T S Eliot
17 Jun 09 |  Arts & Culture
In pictures: William Blake
17 Dec 08 |  In Pictures
10 things to know about William Blake
09 Jun 09 |  Arts & Culture


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific