A close-ish look at London…and a subsequent spiraling outwards and inwards.

I’ve been ill recently and thus invoking Blake, as I often do, to get through the drudgery of bodily enforced rest (what ‘invoking’ Blake means will become clearer as you read on…).  Here are some of the wanderings/wonderings that ensued from me staring at the image below…



…One way in which the baggage of a history of interpretations can – at least in part – be lost, seems to be in cultivating an attitude towards close reading a text in which the personal reflections and resonances springing from the process are given primacy. Putting something like auto-ethnography at the heart of the process of reading Blake’s madness madly. As an experiment, I decided to spend a period soaking up the plate 46 of Songs of Innocence and Experience – London, seeing what links would flow forth from my previous encounters of the poem, my memories of ‘innocence and experience’ and the presence of the (facsimile) plate as object sat in front of me…

…The first thing that strikes me about the plate is the illustration at the top. In comparison to some of the other plates in the series, there is a firm division between sections – marked by the strong line that seems to be the floor beneath the elderly man and the child, and the pale blues and straws of the section below on which the title is written. I feel – perhaps because of the colours, perhaps the cloud like patterning on the right of the page – that this area around the title is almost like a sky beneath the feet of the two figures, suggesting to me a hypogeal or at least ulterior world existing simultaneously with that one in which they walk…

…What is happening in this section with the figures feels profoundly to do with light: the child is leading the elderly figure (by the beard?) from the dim left hand of the image into the beam of light that strafes the otherwise dark wall behind them. A simple interpretation would centre upon classical/biblical tropes of light and darkness as good and evil, of the child leading the figure of the adult into the light, and those notions, I think, are undoubtedly something Blake is drawing upon in the image. Yet I notice there is something terrifying happening in this light beam. The older man, turned away from whatever the source of the light beam is, has a degree of detail in his expression, brows and cheekbone evident by the shadows they cast, a hint of what I take to be a kind smile (but why?) on the part of his lips visible above his beard. He is defined in the interplay of the darkness and light across his expression. Yet the child’s face, flooded by the light source, is nothing but a spectral outline and a dark blob of an eye…

..What does this say about innocence or light? Maybe that it is a state where self is weak, or non -existent, where the scoring of persona into the person by forces of experience has not taken place. Or perhaps, since this child is, seemingly, leading the older man forwards through but away from the source of the light, this self-erasure comes from his turning back, like Lot’s wife looking back towards Sodom. It’s while looking closely at this child figure that I notice its right hand. At first I thought it was reached out as it is simply because of an aesthetic neatness, mirroring, when taken in with the other arm reaching up into the older man’s beard, the diagonal made by the beam of light itself. But that in itself sparks another look at that light beam, and I realise it ends with what looks like a door frame. Why doesn’t it pass this point? It defies the way that light as a physical property should work. It also makes me realise that this door is something more than embellishment or background setting, and that, far from simply being held out in an elegant pose, the child’s left hand is reaching to touch or open this door, this door which stops or swallows all the light…

…Or, having had a break for coffee and looking more closely again, the image seems to suggest that this door leads into the ulterior world in which the poem is printed. Having initially noticed the strong division between the upper and lower sections of the plate, I am now struck by how powerfully the beam of light ties the two together, as the line that is the left side of the beam in the top section becomes the boundary between the cold blues and the yellows that crosses the bottom section, a sunbeam through what I earlier described as the sky of the ulterior world. I start to see other (fearful) symmetry’s between the two sections and as I do, also notice that the child, but not the older figure, casts a long shadow. This troubles me deeply, I feel it in my belly, but I can’t fathom exactly why…

…I return to the plate after collecting a parcel (a printer cartridge, which seemed also a lens by which the poem interfered with my day..). I walked the mile there and back on foot, bumping into two people as the shadow the child cast obscured my vision and I stumbled along the pavement. Queuing in the sorting office, I couldn’t get rid of the gut ache it caused, and the image also of that face melting away under the radiance of the light source, leaving only its eyes (or their sockets)…

…I notice that now I am looking at that shadow from the eyes of the older figure, seeing that face as an aporia in an otherwise three dimensional image, a face shaped framing of a flaming light – like film burn at the end of a roll of stills. I start to think this pair of figures are also one, like in memories when two selves co-exist uneasily with one another. I contemplate this idea of the child as innocent and childhood as the state of innocence, and inevitably try to remember that state in myself. Yet as I scan back through my memories, flooded by scents of pollens and farms as I leave the city for the Yorkshire Dales, the images of before I first _________ burn until unrecognisable. I can’t work out whether this is a loss or a protective mechanism. I feel 80 years old, like the grandfather figure in the painting (I have decided now that he must be a grandfather) and feel my memories pulling me back with the stomach churn of vertigo, the tug at the chin. But the face I look to to lead me towards them is always burning away…

…London has no corresponding poem in The Songs of Innocence, one of only a few poems in the two collections where this is the case. What relevance, I wonder, does this have to the child’s erased face? Are children born experienced or robbed of innocence so early in the world of London that a constitution of innocence is impossible? Is that why the child’s face is undefinable? I think of the infant’s tear in the last stanza of the poem, blasted by whatever the harlot’s curse is, is there something here about intergenerational trauma in industrialised society? Are the manacles hereditary (like the postulated psychotic ‘disorders’ which have become so set in the concrete of language)? I am starting, I realise, to look at the words, so I should really turn to the poem, albeit with that molten non-face inevitably hanging over the encounter…

…So to the text, and I can’t help at this point reflect on my first encounters with this poem. It was also, after The Tyger in a book of children’s verse my parents read to me from, the first encounter I’d had with Blake, at least as a (at the time nascent) critical reader. I was at school studying for GCSE’s, not particularly hard working, and more interested in a strange pursuit of religion or perhaps spirituality. I would sit staring long into the screen of a candle flame’s flickers on my bedroom wall, trying to suss out some kind of meaning, or just dying temporarily inside the dancing light, drifting away into other things. And yet something about this poem, first heard as another pupil read it out to the class from an anthology, made my mind stand to attention. I realise now this had a lot to do with mishearing and thus my very first encounter was already somehow askew…

…as someone who lived largely and willingly in a dreamlike state (not much has changed perhaps), I instantly took the first ‘wander’d’ to be ‘wondered’. Therefore I begun by thinking of someone purposefully thinking about something, and thinking through the medium of something else I got wrong (this might be the fault of the boy reading the poem out…)- I took ‘charter’d’ to be ‘charted’ and thus something to do with maps. This had no doubt got something to do with the fact that I had (and still have) a bit of an obsession with maps, using them as prompts to plot and take imaginary journeys through the landscapes cartography suggested. As well, it may have been because my knowledge of the Thames at the time was more topographical that experiential, having poured over maps more than I had visited London, and the idea of the Thames being charted thus made sense. Yet I also thought of something being charted as in understood, or well explored, and took the practice wondering by means of these charts as a way of making them new, as I was used to doing in my own mental life at the time. I was always reinventing the world and my spiritual beliefs in order to escape difficult encounters, bullying, fears, ideas and, perhaps, what I took to be the impending assuredness of adulthood…

…so these first understandings of the first stanza were all informed by misreadings, and yet such readings still inevitable bear on my readings of the poem in the present day; I explore the relationships between these misreadings and the way I look at the poem now. Let’s start with the wander/wonder. To wonder is to purposefully contemplate what something might mean born from ‘the desire to know something’ but also in some sense to doubt. To wander is to amble aimlessly and without direction, or perhaps, if its applied to the operations of the mind, to think without structure or path. Perhaps Blake/the voice of the poem was in some sense taking what would later be defined as a ‘derive’. Perhaps wandering is a form of liminal madness from which other ‘truths’ can emerge to topple the industrialised and dark London the poem portrays. Perhaps purposefully (and the tone of the poem is purposeful…the rhythm forceful, the form tight…) being directionless is a state the poem is drawing value from, an exoneration of a state of aimlessness as the antidote to industrialisation. I realise that actually my sideways look at the world, even as a 15 year old, was perhaps constituted of wondering as wandering or wandering as wondering. Similarly, though my notion of charted was again misheard charter’d, the activities now seem to converge and resonate together within my mind. Are charters in some way a mapping procedures of industry and law, defining what is and isn’t legitimate, and therefore what is legitimately real in the industrialised society…

…on the idea of ‘marking’ my younger self had no such penetrating insights. I think I just read ‘mark’ as ‘saw’ or ‘see’. I probably even embarrassingly used it wrongly based on this misunderstanding in essays, something I was was in the habit of doing with new vocabulary I (thought) I’d picked up at the time. It was only later on in life that I saw the ‘marks’ in the faces the poem encounters as being something that the voice of the poem is active in making – it is a projection of weakness and woe onto the faces as much as it is a recognition of something innate. This is laden with significance in relation to madness, for to be declared mad itself is often the work of some other projecting the quality of madness onto you at least as much as them recognising something within you. Many readings of Blake, which I’ll look at later on, note his perceptiveness around areas of psychic relations that had not yet been defined or named- areas such as what Freud coined ‘projection’…

…Moving onto the second stanza, and the mental chains – the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ -have always been an image that has stuck with me since that first encounter. I was taught what to think of them almost immediately by my teacher, he saw them as to do with class or almost a caste style acceptance of place by members of society, and the unchanging role those people played in society. Although contained within the mind, this always suggested a somewhat visual image of peoples mind being bound somehow. And yet what the teacher, and indeed me myself, never paid attention to was the fact that the voice of the poem doesn’t see these manacles: it hears them. How do you hear a manacle? How does the aural bind you, being you? Maybe it has something to do with the naming or utterance that closes off other worlds of possibilities, bans difference, forces one into position. This, for someone with experiences like my own, will always lead to thoughts of psychiatric labels, those tools of the ‘shrink’ which do just that to human experience in order to subjectify and quantify, to bind our emotional response to suffering within a static framework, divorced from time…

…yet the voice of the poem is the one who is hearing the mind forg’d manacles, not those who’s cries and bans he hears them in. Again, like the marking earlier in the poem, it is something to do with the forces that guide the perception of the poems voice, rather than something innate. Is this poetic voice, I wander/wonder, playing the role of the shrink, flitting up to some panoptical viewpoint to look down cast the lives of others into his poem and vision? Or is this recognition of the manacles the first step to liberation from the system that binds minds with them? Is this a position of hopelessness or hope, or can it be both – sometime it feels like it – is the poetic voice a diagnostician? And is this what threatened my former diagnostician about poetry?…

…or is the colon where we should be laying our attention? ‘in every voice: in every ban’ – does this colon make a clearer causal link between voice and ban than we understand? Is is that, just by voicing a statement, we restrict the potential for other statements or modes or thought? Is every time we speak itself an injury to freedom on a micro level? Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I think that Blake would want this to be the way we read him…at least the Blake I make would. Thinking about the illuminations again briefly, I think about how important to Blake the method of his production was, the infidelity and differences in every version. The one I use above, the 1826 Library of Congress Copy Z, sparks these interpretations. Others are coloured differently, and take our journeys in conflicting directions, or perhaps contrary is the better word. What I mean is that Blake wants us to be doing this, this wormhole of thinking, reflecting, living. Otherwise he is the one with the keys to the mental chains; he wants the keys to be ours, or at least to share them with us or teach us how to make our own; he is not a jailor, though thinking this way always carries a risk of jailing yourself.

…there is a firm line drawn beneath the second and third stanzas on the plate, and with no clear purpose in relation to the images and illuminations I think it must be seen as part of the poem, despite the lack of indication in most typeset versions of the text. I wonder what the significance of it is, this cleaving flourish that chops the poem in two after the manacles are heard. Is it a limit of said manacles, a bounding line? Does it correspond in someway to the other clear divisive feature of the plate, the line beneath the floor of the child and the old man’s street in the sky? Or is there rather a link between its trembling nature, the firmness of the line under the title, and the sine wave of the line beneath the poems end? Not serving any real illustrative purpose, I wonder/wander whether the lines represent some kind of metamorphosis of the mental state of the poem. From one of the firm certainties of place and its naming (something that Blake comes back to often, most notably in the lists of places names mapping out the London of Jerusalem), from the stability of selfhood or self/other divisions, via this middle line, starting to flex, a threshold where solidity wavers, through to the pulsating vibration and interchange between contraries that the bottom line now suggests to me…

…Or, looking again later, it it just that the sine wave is a root structure for what could be a tree down the left hand margin, its waviness organic by comparison to the confident underline underpinning the city like the bounding wall in the illustration above?

…beneath this dividing line, the poem takes a turn away from a situation where the voice of the poem is overtly constructing the reality of the poem, to one in which the vision has taken full control and I, for a stanza, fades into the background. A chimney sweepers cry appalls the blackening walls of the church. A soldiers sigh is transfigured into blood flowing down the wall of a palace. The poem here moved me so deeply because it makes the cost of industrialised society clear with metaphors that also have a physical truth. The church’s walls blackening reminds me of the churches of my Sheffield childhood, many of which had not yet been sandblasted clean of the residue of industries sooty blanket: the sootiness of industry also being the physical environment of work that made sick and ulitmately killed the chimney sweeps of London, often before they reached adulthood. But the fact that the church was impotent or actively ignored or collaborated with industrialists in the development of a society in which such poverty could exist alongside its own wealth and power, and serving its growth, also appalled and blackened the institution metaphorically too. Similarly, the cost of the imperialism and expansionism of the country at the time was very much blood, of soldiers let alone their adversaries or victims at home and abroad. Yet there is also a potent metaphorical aspect to the image of the sigh being transfigured into blood, part of this potency deriving perhaps born from the reality of the human cost of the city, of nationhood and identity; self, state and religious…

…in the last stanza the “I” returns to stress the voice of the poems most damning impressions of the city it marks out. The way the “hear” at the end of the line is intersected by the dividing line between blue and yellow in the background in an almost identical way to the “hear” at the end of the “mind forged manacles” line makes me think the hearing here is meant to be a continuation of that mental binding. I remember not thinking much of this stanza when a young man, trained in the misogynistic and judgemental environment of the schoolyard, classroom and church, the very institutions Blake is railing against – albeit two hundred years later. I saw “harlot” as simply a deserving insult, almost a true statement about a person in the sex trade, who had to be morally corrupt or evil in some way. It shames me to say so, but I thought of her as nothing but a vile being, shouting swearwords at her poor child for crying at the cruelty of the situation that life is. And maybe the poem’s voice feels similar, but, without wanting to defend Blake against quite legitimate accusations of misogyny in his overall canon, I feel like something different is going on here. You see, as a Mad person, defined as insane or deviant by the diagnosticians and society as a result, I often felt cursed – cursed by my position in society and cursed internally by seeing myself through societies lens. Now when I read the curse here in the poem I see both a curse-as-swearword and curse as something a person carries with them – burdensome – inflicted on them by their situation and by the labelling of their response to it. And, having seen how society neglects to help those subject to abuse, I know too well – to my shame because I have done it – how being hurt leads to you being more likely to inflict hurt on others. This cycle of abuse and poverty which industrial societies almost cultivate as a by product and can’t seem to exist without, is the curse blighting both the infant and the harlot, and the institution of marriage, with the way it propogates misogyny and the strange fascism of the family (see terre thaemlitz’s Deconstruction project on this) is a hearse…trapping people by bonds mental and legal into systems that enslave them into the service of the state and capital just as the family, to protect itself from falling, must submit to such systems to survive, perform the rituals. At the same time, then (and now) infidelity was accepted and tolerated (for men). As Damrosch puts it, the sex trade, “officially condemned but in practice condoned, grew up for dissatisfied men; women’s need were not considered”. For Blake any system in which you became ensnared was a form of death. The hearse of marriage was perhaps all too real, especially in a time when many such arrangements were still loveless and focused on retention of status and possessions, though the Blakes’ doesn’t seem to have been that way…


…I’ve often got to a point where I am perhaps as much talking about my own experiences and views than I am the poem, letting the close reading morph into some kind of essentialising analysis of today’s society. But then Blake often leads me towards this kind of thinking. It is as if he gives license through his writing to let madness run away with you, to see things from multiple viewpoints, from panoptical and introverted and dialogical and social angles all at once. This excess, this overwhelming sensation and expansion of thought, is homely to me these days, as a Mad person, though not easy. And yet it used to terrify me. Something about finding the same or similar sensation communicated so well in Blake’s writings de-stigmatised my self(ves) to myself and my relation to others. I realise this version of Blake as belonging to me, and to the mad, is down to the way in which I read Blake. But then isn’t the way we read experience a large part of Blake’s writing itself. How the poet ‘marks in every face’ according to his own state of mind, how the voices of his poetry map out different ways of seeing that make clear that such ways are polyphonus, and yet each voice still speaks with authority even when doubting. These contradictions become contraries and the spaces Blake defines poetically envelop them and are enveloped by them, subversive lenses to perceive injustices, authoritarian lenses which replace like with like and show the danger of convictions, much like Nietszche’s statement “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies”. These are lenses of myth that control, lenses of creation which limit themselves in wounding ways. Illustrations with lines so confident they erase doubt and so lead you to doubting the authority of the lines (which themselves become wobbly, like the aforementioned point in London)…

…I think of Blake’s complete works, the Erdman version staring at me from the shelf, spine buckled and tatty from the weight of its impact on the last few years of my life. I think of how many pencilled remarks of my own marginalia contradict each other; so many moments of contrary insight to be comfortingly derived from such sacred yet all too human words. I have contributed mine to Blake’s own marginalia which is also published therein. I think of Iain Sinclair’s lecture on “Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime” and how he refers to his copy of the complete works as “a personal I Ching, an almanac of divination.” and of (his) Blake as someone/thing he invokes – “I invoke Blake and step out into the world.”  For Sinclair, too, Blake’s Madness is an essential feature of his writing and something which too confident an analysis negates. As he writes, “A lot of the more cultured, socially succesful people of the era, the university poets, would have looked on Blake, if they were interested in him at all, as being one of the tribe of the mad”. The “necklace” of asylums which Sinclair traced around London demonstrated exactly what people did to the mad at the time: they pushed them to the edges. Perhaps they were far too eloquent as critics of society, as I see Blake, and as Laing sees the psychotic, to be permitted a place at the heart of it. “Malignancies” to be removed to the fringes, as Sinclair puts it. But perhaps just because society places no value on Mad (non)sense making. When it causes a disturbance they might be shipped off, like Blake down to Felpham, or myself on various occasions to a mental health respite centre, or worse, an acute ward. They may even end up in prison, or worse, as almost happened to Blake. But for the most part we focus on legitimatising their methods of communication or attempts to convey their experience, so as not to “corroborate” such delusions, so as to avoid the reality of their metaphors, or to resist their “reconfiguring of the topography”, as Sinclair would put it, of London, which for Blake symbolises the project of industrial society. For me this version of Blake is immensely attractive, this firebrand visionary revolutionary that Sinclair delineates in his lecture…but this vision of Blake doesn’t seem to accommodate sufficiently the suffering and confusion that exist alongside the prophetic insight in my Blake, in the way I read and empathise with his orchestra of poetic voices, as a Mad person. And I feel that Sinclair, for all his distaste for regulations and revolutionary fervour which he attributes to Blake as a spiritual guide, neglects or romanticises the Mad Blake I know and invoke…

…If we are to discuss Blake’s being mad or otherwise, aren’t we just joining a history of people entertaining such judgements one way or another from his own era up to the present day? Yes and no. The challenge a Mad perspective brings to previous versions of Blake is one born of the experience both of what constitutes madness (which can surely only be defined by those who’ve experienced it), and of what it feels like to read Blake in relation to those experiences. Mad studies challenges the notion that there can be empirical method to defining madness – but this is something many critics of Blake have attempted to do in their work. One such writer is Paul Youngquist in his book Madness and Blake’s Myth. His reintegration of Madness into a version of Blake is important, when the Blake the man who experienced and wrote from it had almost been faded into the background by Northrop Frye, Yeats and other critics’ explications of the entire work as some kind of bold and contiguous system of meaning. But his methodology for deducing Blake’s madness, though he tries to distance himself from the charge, is essentialising, based on what he calls “empirical observation of experience” which is exactly the kind of attitude by which psychiatry proceeds. He is anxious to avoid the language of psychoanalysis as he believes it becomes as much about the interpreter as the analysand, that its approach is “too literary to yield conclusive results”…but then proceeds with a system of interpretation which hides its biases behind a false objectivity, much the same as the one which Mad studies continuously challenges, as it challenges any approach that seeks to essentialise or generalise about human experience. It is exceedingly personal, to someone like myself, to see the biographical, poetic and personal set of writings and art which constitute today’s Blake being pathologised in such a way. And ultimately, Youngquist, though acknowledging the part madness has to play in Blake’s work, feels that it succeeds despite its madness rather than because of it: “Could it be that an artistic achievement as great as William Blake’s was born in the collision between a sound mind and its pathology?”…

…Youngquist creates a false choice in the opening of his book, saying that the choice of how we define madness that we are faced with is one between “historical relativism” and “clinical determinism”. Reducing such a diverse and broad set of experiences and interpretations of said experiences to this is faintly ridiculous, and also still falls short of an interpretation where the voices of those labelled or identifying as mad are given any attention. Youngquist realises that the division is too neat, but his third way, “a phenemology of mental life” is restricted by his notion of a ‘sane’ common humanity which madness poses a challenge to. That madness changes the status quo can not be doubted, but the way in which madness arises is seen as an “aberattion” to Youngquist, rather than something related to the idea of a sane reaction to insane circumstance, or trauma and oppression. Youngquist introduces biography of Blake, but never draws the link between the way in which Blake’s visions interact with trauma – bullying as Basire’s apprentice and subsequent isolation, the loss of his brother and the related visions, the poverty, exile politically and mentally and other factors that made up his life experience and often seem to shape the visionary experience of the world. More importantly, he takes the seemingly popular view that Blake became ‘madder’ in the period after the Songs of Innocence and Experience, especially in the later phase in which he produced his longest prophetic works. There’s a whole lot of unraveling for me to do to explain why I think this position doesn’t match up with the themes Blake’s texts engage with, but for now lets just say that to the modern person, someone seemingly holding unshakeable belief in the power of their insight, someone like the voice of Blake in London, is judged far madder than someone who doubts these powers or feels cut adrift from society for expressing them. To me the later writings of Blake don’t reflect a descent into madness, but rather mark one of the most harrowing and yet beautiful accounts of what it feels like to be cut adrift because society labels you mad. The self doubts and stigma that arise internally as you are taught by powerful processes to doubt your experience and insights due to the way they digress from the social norm. Mad studies relates the experience of oppression, trauma and the mad experience explicitly, relating through narratives of personal experience and academic study the way in which pathology is a way of hiding the trauma and meaning making of distress, but it also marks the wounds inflicted by isolation, invalidation, and internalised self doubt which become inevitable for those who express their madness publicly, at least initially…as I continue to explore Blake’s work, I want this to be something we hold onto: how it might be the external relations that Blake has with society that leads the powerful voice of London to fragment into the myriad warring entities Blake uses to outline his worlds and his mental life in later texts. The distress and suffering that results from this isolation is all too familiar to many who have had and expressed Mad experiences and thoughts; it is not a question of our psychopathology but of societies refusal to engage with our thought unless its converted/perverted into a Sane-itised version.








A Nuclear Winter In An Artists’ House


This is an old poem, but one I remembered this weekend because the 5th November was when I wrote it a few years ago. I’m still quite fond of it.


Nuclear Winter in An Artists’ House

We’ve barely the money
for teabags and fags
so the broken bulb stays
in its bayonet stays,
jolting in bursts
of light dictating
our jumpy search
for sugar.

The Cat’s progress to
the water bowl is
stroboscopic, captured
snapshots of silver
and black leaping
on his Rorschach
back. His

glasspaper tongue
scratches surface tension,
sending ripples bouncing
into halos of blue light
across the rhythmic ribs
of a radiator spluttering in-
to life.

When we had more moments
of incandescence the
air was opaque with
smoke and conversation,
but now vapour breath
wreaths empty heads
quivering in rare
flickers of brightness.

Silent but for sniveling
at Fairy scented ghosts
rising from the sink,
we hear darkness descend
the stairs by teatime
and draw close,
glowing embers defying
ashtray grey as we
hunch- backs to boiler-
hugging ourselves
until our inky blood thaws,
rushing towards
hissing touch papers
in the distance.