Robes of Promise

In my final year of school, one of the texts I studied in English Literature was Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (another was Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience – my fledgling foray into Blake studies). The play, set in the early eighties, focuses on a group of eight boys at the fictional Cutlers’ Grammar School in Sheffield who are preparing for an entrance exam and interviews to gain places to study history at Oxford and Cambridge.

 

Studying the play whilst myself going through the process of applying for a place at Cambridge was somewhat surreal. Whilst the admissions process has changed in a number of respects (the seventh-term entrance exam is no more and efforts to widen access have improved), I could identify with the experience of the History Boys in some respects, particularly because my school, like Cutlers’ Grammar, had little experience of students applying for Oxford and Cambridge, and as such was feeling its way in its efforts to guide me through the alien application process.

 

At the end of one of my interviews at Cambridge, after the interviewer had already made closing remarks and I was gathering up my belongings, I was asked how I found studying the play whilst going through the admissions process. I don’t know if that was part of the interview; I suppose everything in an interview context contributes to the impression of the candidate. I can’t remember what I said, but whether or not it made a whisker of difference, I was lucky enough to get a place to study Theology at Magdalene and very much enjoyed my time there.

 

I’ve been prompted to cast my mind back to this experience recently for various reasons. Yesterday (9 May 2014) was Alan Bennett’s 80th birthday, so his name has been doing the rounds on Radio 4 and twitter (among other places no doubt), and last week I spotted Frances de la Tour, who played Mrs Lintott in the original stage cast and the 2006 film, in the British Library. But the chief reason is that I’m going back to Cambridge next week to collect my MA (by a peculiar tradition, a Cambridge BA matures into an MA; see details on the University’s website).

 

I’ve been back a number of times since finishing my degree, but this will be special in that it’s not merely a visit but, in a sense, the final rite of passage associated with my degree (as well as being probably the biggest reunion for members of my year at College). Among other rites and rules associated with the MA, the ceremony requires a different gown to the BA graduation, and, where once I felt like one of the History Boys, the prospect of robing up for my MA makes me feel like a figure from Blake-land.

 

As I’ve written before, Blake was quite disparaging about Cambridge; when he called Oxford and Cambridge “places of thought” in his poem Milton (13[14]:42; see another previous post), he was ironically referring to these universities as institutionalising “thought.” Milton is Blake’s imagined account of the poet John Milton’s undergoing a spiritual journey to correct his former errors. As part of this process, Milton “took off the robe of the promise, & ungirded himself from the oath of God” (14[15]:13).

 

The “oath of God” is the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, to which one then had to swear in order to be admitted to the University. Milton’s taking off “the robe of promise” is depicted in one of the illuminated book’s full-page plates. I didn’t and don’t have to sign up to the Thirty-Nine Articles and these days you can also opt of the Trinitarian formula by which degrees are traditionally conferred (see the University website’s outline of the ceremony). Nevertheless, when I come to robe up next week, I know I will feel like an anti-icon of the plate from Milton.

Little Vagabonds

Print made by William Blake (1757-1827, British), Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 43, “The Little Vagabond”, 1789-1794, Relief etching printed in dark-brown with pen and black ink and watercolor on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

One of Blake’s Songs of Experience (1794), entitled “The Little Vagabond” compares a cold, miserable church to a warm, happy alehouse. It’s a typical Blakean indictment against institutional religion.

 

As a researcher of Blake (I’m still resisting calling myself a Blakean) at large in a religious studies department, I identify with the spirit of the poem in that my work is about Blake’s off-beat version of Christianity. Indeed, my friend Scott (who is working on cyborg theology) and I call ourselves the” rogue theologians” of the department because we’re both working on unconventional topics.

 

Thus, it seems in keeping with being a Blakean (albeit one in denial and “tortures of doubt and despair”) that I have started a new seminar series which takes place in a pub (which, ironically enough, used to be the HQ of the local temperance society) opposite the university campus. It’s aimed at getting PhD students from departments across the university to learn about one another’s research; each month one sciences and one humanities speaker will give a short talk about their work.

 

The first two sessions have been really stimulating and in today’s meeting we even had some cross-references to the one of last month’s papers. I’m looking forward to continuing the Blakean spirit and learning about more research taking place across the university over the coming months.

News of Reviews

I’ve just written a review for the Blake Society of a CD of new settings of Blake’s Songs, ‘The William Blake Experience’ by Dutch vocal quartet Quatre Bouches. You can read it here.

This has also prompted me to tidy up the Reviews section of this site which contains links to various reviews of exhibitions and films written over the past few years. Likewise, do take a look if you would like to read more musings from me.

More Musical Blake

One of the treats of Christmas in Canterbury is the service of lessons and carols in the Cathedral on Christmas Eve.

Marking the death of John Taverner this November, one of the choral pieces was the late composer’s setting of Blake’s ‘The Lamb,‘ a piece also featured in the most famous Christmas Eve service, King’s College Cambridge’s Nine Lessons and Carols this year. In fact, Blake was doubly honoured at King’s, with their new  commission for this year’s service being a setting of ‘Hear the voice of the Bard‘ by Thea Musgrave. (Incidentally, King’s is home to Copy W of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, from which both poems come; this copy is generally considered to be one of the finest printed by Blake and is among the most widely reproduced and therefore familiar.)

‘The Lamb’ is a somewhat fitting, if unusual, piece for Christmas, in that it can be read as a reflection on Christ as the Lamb who, as stated in the poem “became a little child.’

‘Hear the voice of the Bard’ is a less well known poem and was apparently one of a long list of suggestions made by the director of music at King’s, Stephen Cleobury. On her website, Musgrave writes that ‘Hear the Voice of the Bard’ “jumped right off the page” when she read the list; she states that she was “drawn to this poem because it reaches out for the larger beauty and mystery of our existence on earth independent of specific religious affiliation…Blake finds our ‘lapsed’ human souls in need of the refreshment and constancy of nature’s magical cycles — and also of the artist’s role in the musical ‘voice of the Bard.'”

It is not the most obvious Blakean poem for Christmas, but it can be read in Incarnational terms, speaking of ‘The Holy Word’ and of the Earth’s renewal. Its place in the service, between the first (God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head – Genesis 3) and second (God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed – Genesis 22) lessons reflected the prophetic nature of Blake’s bardic voice (although Blake of course thought that the advent of Christ was not received as it should have been and that the world had slumbered for eighteen-hundred years until he came along).

As for the settings themselves, Taverner’s was familiar, Musgrave’s of course was new. I found both perfectly nice pieces of music but there is an inherent strangeness in Blake’s words being sung in such an establishment styles and settings as by the choirs of Canterbury and King’s (notwithstanding Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’), so that they end up not feeling very Blakean.

There was, however, a truly (proto-)Blakean treat at Canterbury – a marvellous setting of Robert Southwell’s ‘The Burning Babe‘  by Jonathan Wikeley. I’m not the first to notice that Southwell’s poem could almost be a description of Blake’s painting The Nativity, although it seems unlikely that Blake might have known it, but they could be drawing on shared older sources. Anyway, the poem was a new discovery for me and the setting was full of the drama and energy in Southwell’s words. This doesn’t seem to have yet made it to the realm of the internet, but I will be keeping my eyes and ears out for a recording.

Happy Christmastide!

Britten’s ‘Songs and Proverbs of William Blake’

Last month, the University of Manchester’s Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama celebrated its tenth birthday. One of the celebratory events was a lunchtime concert by baritone Marcus Farnsworth (an alumnus of the University) and pianist James Baillieu. Benjamin Britten, whose centenary is being celebrated this year, featured prominently in the programme, and the draw for me was ‘Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.’

It’s said that Blake sang his own songs, but we have no way of recovering his tunes. There are thousands of settings of Blake’s poetry, and this was not one I was familiar with.

The cycle was written in 1965 for the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a friend of Britten’s. It includes six songs from Songs of Experience, proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and end with verses from Auguries of Innocence, arranged in a single movement lasting about twenty minutes. The texts were selected by Britten’s collaborator Peter Pears.

The performance was perfectly executed, but I was disappointed by the piece. Although I generally like Britten, I didn’t take to his setting of Blake.

I’ve struggled to articulate what it is that didn’t work for me, and since attending the concert, I have listened to a recording to try to put my finger on what it was; it wasn’t that I was unimpressed by the music itself  (if I ignore the words I actually quite like it), but to put it very simply, I didn’t feel that the mood of the piece matched the verse it was setting. One’s feeling of a poem (and a piece of music) is of course somewhat subjective, and perhaps there are people for whom Britten captures the sense of Blake’s verse.

Hyperion Records’ introduction to its recording states that  the piece is marked by moments of “dark intensity.” The same can be said of the Songs of Experience which it uses, but for me, it wasn’t the same kind of dark intensity as the Songs. I felt that Britten’s piece was almost eerie and ominous, whereas the Songs are marked by anger and polemic (the first song in Britten’s piece, “London” is a good example — and I am aware of the irony of my criticising Britten on this point when my own take on “London” hardly does justice to Blake). Where there is a sense of anger in Britten’s setting, I didn’t feel it was in the right places.

Other things that didn’t work for me were The Tyger, which is almost playful, and wound be one of the few places I think some of the eerie stuff might work well.

Finally, the final section, using verses from Auguries of Innocence seemed to me to be sorrowful and dark, whereas the words are some of Blake’s most resoundingly positive verses (and some of my favourites, making this section the crowning sin on Britten’s part as far as I am concerned):

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

If Britten helps you to do this, then great, but Songs and Proverbs of William Blake is not for me.