The ArtsEmail This Article Print This Article

Blake: “A man with fire in his eyes”

Katherine Ann Fender

Inspired by Blake
The William Blake Festival, Oxford
Ashmolean Museum / Blackwell’s of Oxford
18-31 January 2015

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night…

Burning. Fire. Flame. Whether in word, image, whisper or song, depictions and discussions of Blake throughout the Festival—his works, visions, mind—were fuelled, fed, by the “flame of fire” Blake so often describes and alludes to in his own works. Indeed, this flame of fire was literally, strikingly, seductively situated at the gateway to the Festival’s final event: the Ashmolean’s LiveFriday “Heaven & Hell” event, heralded by a glowing beacon in the darkness of a cold January night.

This final image echoes the embers of words uttered at the very outset of the Festival. While conscious of the ostensible (and seemingly irreconcilable) jarring of sound and sight, abstract and material in my contrary metaphor, here, I do think it is a fitting one. For a real strength of this Festival was the impressive diversity of disciplines engaging with Blake’s works. Scholars in English, art history, neuroscience and theology afforded—both independently and collaboratively (through panel discussions)—fascinating academic insights into the study of Blake’s life and works. Likewise, innovative interpretative possibilities were highlighted—and often enacted—through dramatic and even hip-hop performances of Blake’s poetry, as well as by literary and personal responses to the content and influence of Blake’s works by authors such as Iain Sinclair, Caspar Henderson, and Marcus and Julian Sedgwick.

A key figure throughout the Festival was Philip Pullman: President of the Blake Society. Describing Blake as a “master of language” and “a man with fire in his eyes”, Pullman not only spoke with lyrical prowess of Blake’s poetics, but also of his personal indebtedness to the poet. Pullman credits Blake with inspiring him to persevere with the process of writing his novels during a deeply difficult period: “I couldn’t move an inch, like a ship stuck on a sandbag”. Blake sparked the fire of his imagination to write once more, drawing on “the inspiration of someone who had absolutely no worldly success…undaunted, unstoppable, uncompromising…true to the vision he had.”

Harking back to my earlier mixed metaphor, one of the most exciting aspects of the Festival was the foregrounding of not just word and image, text and visual art, but of sound and text: a Blakean contrary of sorts. Both the launch event and the LiveFriday featured nerve-tingling choral performances of works based on, or influenced by, Blake’s texts. The Sheldonian Theatre and the Ashmolean Museum alike proved to be ideal venues for recreating the “chorus solemn & loud” Blake describes in Milton. Haunting, incredibly atmospheric, fragments of sound broke forth—like shards of ice exploding in a fire—from figures in black, dotted around the venue: individuals, standing alone, singing as a collective body in accordance with Blakean philosophy. These performances were truly phenomenal—for me, the most memorable moments of the whole Festival.

Contrasting nicely with these were family-friendly events such as “Tyger Tyger Saturday” and the “Balloon Debate: Blake and his Contemporaries” at Blackwell’s Bookshop. A scenario was staged: William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft and Lord Byron were travelling together in a hot air balloon which had been irreparably sabotaged by a seagull; only one was to survive. All passengers—played or defended by key literary and academic figures like Pullman, Diane Purkiss and Lyndall Gordon—had to make a case for their literary hero to be the remaining passenger. Jonathan Bate offered a fantastically theatrical portrayal of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sipping on a glass of red wine while making comically disparaging remarks about his contemporaries: Blake with his “strange visions”, for instance, was just “plain weird”. The debate was highly entertaining while very informative—prompting many giggles and questions from the audience.

There were aspects of Blake’s work and life, briefly mentioned by Pullman, Sinclair and Henderson, which would enrich a future Blake festival were they to be afforded further attention. Firstly, Sinclair and Henderson both referenced Blake’s well-known engagement with the political—they enthused about ways in which his works were “burning through some elaborate structures”, his words constituting “burning lava under the rock of so much sentiment”, respectively. Secondly, Pullman emphasised the role and significance of Blake’s wife, Catherine, in inspiring, producing and sharing his works and lifelong vision. The Ashmolean exhibition, “William Blake: Apprentice & Master”, features a wonderful portrait of Blake created by Catherine; critical enquiry into and creative responses to their artistic collaborations would, no doubt, foster further fruitful dialogues regarding Blake’s visionary works.

Katherine Ann Fender is a third-year doctoral student in English at St John’s College, Oxford.