Although Blake combined the “sister arts” of poetry, painting, and music in much of his early illuminated work, scholars have (with a few exceptions) rarely considered the musical aspect of his multi-media practice in detail. This tendency to “forget” about Blake’s musical artistry is entirely understandable, because the melodies that Blake wrote for many of his early poems did not survive his death in 1827. Building upon B. H. Fairchild’s groundbreaking work in Such Holy Song (1980), this multi-media essay examines Blake’s musical practice in relation to the poetry and designs of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Beginning with a biographical discussion of Blake’s musicianship, the essay considers the role music played as an integral and holistic aspect of Blake’s “composite art.” Subsequently, the essay addresses some of the interpretive challenges facing modern composers who attempt to set Blake’s poetry to music; and it explores some of the ways in which music can inform modern pedagogy of the Songs. In an appendix, the essay places Blake’s verbal and visual media into a musical context by providing access to relevant MP3 music files taken from Kevin Hutchings’ CD Songs of William Blake (2007).
Blake lost himself a little in the enchanted region of song…—Allan Cunningham
This essay and the four digitized musical performances that accompany it are parts of a larger multi-media project entitled Songs of William Blake, a CD featuring musical interpretations of fourteen poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience (ca. 1789-94), full-colour reproductions of some of Blake’s visual art, and a substantial liner-note commentary (from which the current essay is partly derived). While the CD is very much a creative work, it also has an underlying academic motivation: Following in the footsteps of scholars like Martha Winburn England and B. H. Fairchild, I would like to draw critical attention to Blake’s musicianship and the music of the Songs, suggesting something of the role that music played in Blake’s artistic practice.
One of the characteristics of Blake’s work that makes it so interesting—and so challenging to study—is its use of diverse media. Since Blake believed that “Painting, as well as poetry and music, exists and exults in immortal thoughts,” it is appropriate that he used each of these “sister arts” to express his artistic vision, pursuing, as he put it in a letter to George Cumberland, the vocations of “Poet Painter & Musician as the Inspiration comes” (qtd. in Bentley, Blake Records 95). And yet, literary scholarship has not always attended to Blake’s multi-media mode of practice. During the first half of the twentieth century, indeed, readers commonly considered only Blake’s written words when interpreting his poetry, and whole books of academic criticism were written containing hardly a reference to the visual and verbal designs that are such crucial parts of the illuminated writing. But in the past thirty years or so, following the guidance of critics like David V. Erdman, W. J. T. Mitchell, and the editors of the William Blake Archive, Blake scholars have come to insist that the poetry must be read in its original engraved and painted form rather than in the barren typescript versions still presented in many literary anthologies. In emphasizing text and image as mutually constitutive aspects of “Blake’s composite art” (Mitchell), modern scholarship has at last returned to an earlier paradigm, recognizing, as Allan Cunningham did in 1830, that painting and poetry are “intertwined … so closely in [Blake’s] compositions, that they cannot well be separated” (“William Blake” 2.147). Undoubtedly, by embracing the wisdom of such a proposition, modern readers have come to gain a more complete and adequate understanding of the nature and meaning of Blake’s artistic vision. But although we have increasingly reunited the verbal and visual elements comprising Blake’s illuminated poetry, we are unfortunately missing the aural medium of music, since the melodies that Blake composed for his songs did not survive the poet’s death in 1827.
In order to explore some of the consequences of this circumstance, this essay will take Blake’s self-proclaimed status as a musician seriously, considering the role that music played in his life and art, and weighing some of the problems, challenges, and rewards associated with the effort to interpret—and to teach—his poetry musically. The goal is not so much to offer a definitive statement on the music of Blake’s Songs (something that, for reasons I will outline below, is not ultimately possible), but rather to consider a significant gap in our modern understanding of this most canonical of Blake’s works, and to offer some critical speculations about its implications. In an appendix to the essay, readers will have the opportunity to listen to some samples of my own musical renditions, view digital reproductions of the accompanying plates, and read some thoughts concerning the music’s creative interaction with Blake’s words and images.
Blake the Musician
Like most writers of his day, Blake was no doubt aware of poetry’s time-honoured association with music and song, and although he did not place much stock in the classical roots of Western literary culture, he likely pondered some of the ways in which etymology reflects this traditional association. He would certainly have known, for example, that lyric poetry—the poetry of powerful emotion and personal introspection so privileged by the Romantics—derives its name from “lyre,” the stringed instrument used by ancient poets in the performance of their odes. And he often called the poet a “bard,” a title otherwise commemorating the minstrels who sang or recited ballads in the days of antiquity. As a wordsmith, Blake may even have meditated upon the dual literary and musical meanings of such terms as “cadence,” “chorus,” “composition” “octave,” and “tone,” words whose etymologies further suggest the close historical relationship that poetry and music once enjoyed. In the Preface to his Select Collection of English Songs (1783)—a popular anthology for which Blake engraved a number of elegant illustrations—Joseph Ritson emphasized poetry’s close historical relationship to song, asserting that the two forms of artistic expression shared a common genesis: “All writers agree that Song is the most ancient species of poetry. Its origin is even thought to be coeval with mankind” (Ritson 1.i).
During the Romantic period, this age-old association between music and poetry came to the forefront with renewed emphasis as writers sought to reconnect poetry to its “primitive” modes of utterance. Some of the most famous poems of the period thus had musical titles, titles representing the poet or poetic narrator as a veritable singer: Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel, Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, Whitman’s Song of Myself, and Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience are among the most famous Romantic texts figuring poetry as song. In all of these works, music functions as a metaphor for the poetry’s connection to a primal origin yoking graphic text to the living human voice in what is arguably its most passionate mode of articulation: that of song. As Fairchild has demonstrated, however, the relationship between poetry and music in Blake’s work is more than merely figurative or conventional (1-11). Not only is music an important theme in much of his illuminated poetry (which often depicts or mentions singers, players, and their musical instruments), but songwriting and singing were crucial aspects of Blake’s creative enterprise.
As noted above, Allan Cunningham was among those of Blake’s contemporaries who acknowledged the inseparability of text and design in the illuminated poetry. But as the following depiction of the artist’s practice demonstrates, Cunningham was not content to offer merely a bipartite view of Blake’s composite art: “In sketching designs, engraving plates, writing songs, and composing music, he employed his time, with his wife sitting at his side, encouraging him in all his undertakings. As he drew the figure he meditated the song which was to accompany it, and the music to which the verse was to be sung, was the offspring too of the same moment. … The first fruits [of this process] were the ‘Songs of Innocence and [of] Experience’” (“William Blake” 2.149). Modern scholarship rarely dwells on the musical aspect of Blake’s visionary art, and yet in this contemporary portrait music is an integral and holistic part of his overall creative process and practice. If the designs to the Songs are “in general highly poetical” (2.149), the poetry is—to expand Cunningham’s synaesthetic figure—highly musical as well. When we consider that “Blake’s earliest poetry was evidently circulated, not as printed books or as manuscripts, but as songs” (Bentley, William Blake 48), we need hardly be surprised by Cunningham’s portrait of Blake’s creative method.
How, exactly, did Blake’s early poems circulate as songs? Writing of events that occurred between 1782 and 1784, John Thomas Smith—an acquaintance of Blake’s for over forty years and a childhood playfellow to his younger brother Robert—provided an answer to this question, noting that Blake “wrote many … songs to which he also composed tunes,” and that “he would occasionally sing [them] to his friends” (2.458). One of Blake’s primary venues for these occasional performances was a literary salon hosted in the mid-1780s by Mrs. Harriet Mathew, a London “Bluestocking” who offered minor patronage to various talented artists and musical composers. During the course of an evening Mrs. Mathews and her guests sometimes joined together to sing popular songs, and on these occasions it was not unusual for Blake to entertain the room with his own musical compositions. An eyewitness to these performances, Smith wrote: “I have often heard him read and sing several of his poems. He was listened to by the company with profound silence, and allowed by most of the visitors to possess original and extraordinary merit” (2.458).
Smith is likely speaking here of songs from Poetical Sketches (1783) and An Island in the Moon (c. 1784), the latter of which contains a few poems that Blake subsequently revised for inclusion in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. An Island in the Moon is of particular interest to scholarship on Blake’s music, for in this unpublished work Blake is not content to offer his poems directly to the reader; rather, he presents them in the context of a narrative dramatizing them as sung musical performances. Wanting his readers to consider these poems as more than mere words on a page, Blake constructed a narrative frame that forces us to imagine their musicality, to receive them, in short, as songs. Some of the performative contexts Blake creates for the narrative presentation of his poems are particularly revealing. Consider, for example, the case of “Holy Thursday,” which is sung by “Mr. Obtuse Angle.” In the narrative frame, this young man’s performance is so powerful that his audience sits “silent for a quarter of an hour…” after the song’s completion (Blake, IM E463). Clearly, Blake understood song as a social medium having the power to move listeners to thoughtful critical reflection. One wonders if Blake himself ever moved an audience in this way while singing his musical poems.
That the artist’s own musical performances were powerfully affecting seems highly likely. His voice is said to have been “low and musical” (Cunningham, “William Blake” 2.176, and his ear was apparently “so good, that his tunes were sometimes most singularly beautiful, and were noted down by musical professors” (Smith 2.458). Since Blake lacked the musical education necessary to score his songs (Smith 2.458), and since no written record of his musical notation is known to have survived, Smith’s reference to “musical professors” is tantalizing indeed. Who were these people, and what has become of the notation that they ostensibly produced? The renowned musicologist Dr. Charles Burney seems a possible candidate; certainly he has the right credentials, and many of his friends were guests at Harriet Mathew’s conversaziones during the years that Blake was in attendance. If we consider “musical professors” as a broad category including professional (or otherwise accomplished) musicians of Blake’s acquaintance, we might add to this speculative list Mrs. Mathew’s neighbour, the self-published composer Thomas Billington (see Fairchild 7). Another prospective candidate, from a later period in Blake’s life, is Edward Marsh,  son of “the distinguished musical enthusiast and composer John Marsh of Chichester” (Bentley, Blake Records 102), who seems to have met Blake through his father’s acquaintance with William Hayley. In an 1802 letter to Hayley, the younger Marsh declared that he “long[ed] to hear Mr. Blake’s devotional air,” despite “fear[ing]” that he would be “very aukward [sic] in the attempt to give notes to his music” (qtd. in Bentley, Blake Records 120). Although the hymn to which Marsh refers has never been identified, his words suggest an established familiarity with Blake’s songwriting (for why would he “long to hear” Blake’s hymn if he were not already aware of the poet’s lyrical and musical talents?). Moreover, Marsh’s stated “fear” that he might have difficulty scoring the hymn suggests that some arrangement may have been made with Blake in advance for him to notate the song (while also implying Marsh’s knowledge that Blake’s musical settings could be unconventional and therefore difficult to score). If Burney, Billington, or Marsh—or some other accomplished musician—had indeed notated Blake’s songs, perhaps we will one day recover what Cunningham called “melodies of real value” (“William Blake” 2.149)—melodies whose beauties might very well have rivaled the verbal and visual splendours of Blake’s poems and paintings. It is exciting to imagine that the artist’s musical notation awaits discovery in a neglected corner of some dusty attic or archive. But until that day arrives, our understanding and appreciation of Blake’s musical side—and of its relationship to his poetry, painting, and designs—will necessarily remain incomplete and speculative.
Nineteenth-century accounts suggest that Blake’s enthusiasm for music and song remained undiminished throughout his long career. Although it is tempting to locate his musical productivity primarily during the era in which he produced Poetical Sketches, An Island in the Moon, and the Songs, evidence indicates that Blake continued to enjoy and pursue musical artistry in later years as well. In the late summer of 1801, during his three-year sojourn near the sea at Felpham, Blake was still referring to himself as “Poet Painter & Musician…” (qtd. in Bentley, Blake Records 95). And even in his waning years, music remained an important part of his life and art. Alexander Gilchrist has noted that in his late sixties the elderly poet “still sang, in a voice tremulous with age, sometimes old ballads, sometimes his own songs, to melodies of his own” (313). Among the “old ballads” mentioned here, one in particular is said to have been Blake’s favourite. In the mid-1820s, when he visited John Linnell’s Hampstead Cottage, Blake was apparently “very fond of hearing Mrs. [Mary Ann] Linnell sing Scottish songs, and would sit by the pianoforte, tears falling from his eyes, while he listened to the Border Melody, to which the song is set, commencing—
‘O Nancy’s hair is yellow as gowd,
And her een as the lift are blue.’”
The tears Blake shed during Mrs. Linnell’s performances may have signified any number of possible memories or associations conjured up by a cherished song. Aside from providing potential fodder for psycho-biographical speculation, this anecdote no doubt serves to remind us of the intense power that music exercised over the poet’s emotional life.
According to contemporary accounts, Blake spontaneously indulged his passion for song even on his deathbed. Writing three years after Blake passed away, Cunningham remarked that “The very joyfulness with which this singular man welcomed the coming of death, made his dying moments intensely mournful. He lay chaunting songs, and the verses and the music were both the offspring of the moment. He lamented that he could no longer commit those inspirations, as he called them, to paper” (“William Blake” 2.176). Appropriately, Blake addressed these last spontaneous musical and poetical effusions to his heavenly Maker, and so sweetly did they sound that when his wife Catherine stood by his deathbed to hear them, the dying poet, “looking upon her most affectionately,” said of his songs, “‘My beloved, they are not mine—no—they are not mine’” (Smith 2.486). A favourite anecdote of Blake’s biographers, this charming story may simply be apocryphal, the stuff of legend. But the otherworldly assertion that Smith attributes to the dying Blake—his remarkable claim that his death-songs were not his own—nevertheless seems fitting for a self-described visionary artist who often claimed to have written his prophetic and epic poetry from the dictation of angels.
Reconstructing the Music of the Songs?
If Blake composed words, designs, and melodies for Songs of Innocence and of Experience in “the same moment,” as Cunningham asserted (“William Blake” 2.149), musical composition would have been an inextricable part of his creative process and would have exercised a significant influence upon the poems’ verbal and visual media. Given the music’s holistic relationship to word and design in Blake’s multi-media mode of artistic practice, the loss of his melodies might indeed be said to impede a full and proper understanding of the words and designs themselves. To be sure, we do not know whether the poet composed melodies for all of his early poems, and it is possible that at least some of the lyrics he did sing were set to music spontaneously and sung to different melodies (and without instrumental accompaniment) during each performance. We also remain ignorant of Blake’s musical approach to the poems: Did his melodies straightforwardly reflect the poems’ political, theological, and philosophical concerns (as they would have, for instance, if Blake had set a seemingly happy poetic narrative to a lighthearted melody), or did they offer an ironic musical commentary on the poetry?
It is important to ask such questions, for Blake’s poems—even when considered apart from their visual designs and lost music—already lend themselves to widely divergent and sometimes incompatible readings. Are the pious platitudes of “The Lamb” sincerely articulated, or are they offered in a spirit of subtle irony? Is “The Tyger” a tribute to a Creator who accommodates both the unblemished innocence of the lamb and the violent depredations of the tiger—the beautiful and the sublime—or is the poem an angry indictment of an uncaring sky-god who callously allows violence to prey upon the innocent? When the piper “stain[s] the water clear” in the “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence , is his “rural pen” (lines 17-18; E7) somehow contaminating an ideal world of pastoral purity even as it attempts to represent that world—or is the passage in question merely offering us an objective image of what happens when one dips an ink-laden pen into water during the creative act of writing? By clarifying the tone or mood of his poetry, Blake’s musical performances would likely have helped his contemporary listeners to negotiate such verbal ambiguities and uncertainties.
Whatever the case may be, the loss of Blake’s musical settings poses a dilemma for musicians wishing to present his lyrics musically, for to set a poem to music is to engage in an interpretive act. Even subtle distinctions in a poem’s musical setting and arrangement can potentially alter an audience’s reception of the work’s meaning. Consider how different a poem would sound and feel if it were sung in a major rather than in a minor key—or if it were performed with percussive vigour rather than in a spirit of languid melancholy. The choices that a composer makes when setting lyrics to music can make a seemingly happy poem sound sad or an angry poem seem docile, altering the apparent character of the verbal artifact. There can be no doubt that access to Blake’s original melodies would provide us with important interpretive cues, cues that would help to guide and shape our understanding of what his poems mean—or at least what they meant to the poet himself.
Without recourse to their original musical notation, can we ever truly know and understand Blake’s musical poetry? Maybe not (presuming such a thing were possible in the first place), but we can nevertheless try to appreciate the songs as songs. And what better way to do so than to set them to music and sing them? By engaging with the Songs musically, we introduce an element of artistic creativity to the “reading” experience, becoming in the process active co-creators of the poems rather than mere passive recipients. The very real danger that musical “readers” might misinterpret the poems by providing them with inappropriate musical settings seems offset by the creativity of the musical act (for Blake valued creativity itself as an earthly manifestation of the divine). More obviously, a musical engagement with the poems might help to restore something of their original multi-media character, for Blake arguably bequeathed them to us not only so that we could contemplate their poetry and designs, but so that we could sing them as well.
It seems to me that there are, in general, two possible avenues of compositional approach (or a combination thereof) available to the musically minded reader of Blake’s Songs. On the one hand, one might strive to recreate or approximate Blake’s original melodies by studying the sorts of composition that likely influenced his own approach to musical creation, including the “drinking songs, ancient ballads and miscellaneous love songs” that Blake would have heard “on his rambles to the Jews-harp-house and the Green Man” (Ackroyd 86), and the dissenting hymns, popular children’s songs, and old Scottish border melodies that Blake would likely have known. This historical approach to Blake’s musicianship might take other cues from the artist’s biography as well, bearing in mind, for example, that “To simple national melodies Blake was very impressionable, though not so to music of more complicated structure” (Gilchrist 313).
A scholarly effort to reconstruct Blake’s Songs might also take into account Blake’s aesthetic and philosophical preference for melody over harmony, a preference the poet succinctly articulates in his annotations to The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1798). According to Reynolds, the “taste which relishes a demonstration in geometry” is also “pleased with the resemblance of a picture to an original, and touched with the harmony of music.” Blake’s disdainful response to this proposition is as follows: “Demonstration Similitude & Harmony are Objects of Reasoning[;] Invention Identity & Melody are Objects of Intuition.” Annotating a subsequent passage, moreover, Blake goes on authoritatively to state that “One Species of General Hue over all is the Cursed Thing calld Harmony it is like the Smile of a Fool” (Blake E659, 662). Although Blake uses references to harmony and melody in the latter passage to describe different approaches to form in painting rather than in music, his remark is relevant to song as well, for, to quote Gilchrist, “life and design and song were with him all pitched in one key, different expressions of one reality” (381). In the realm of song, Blake’s privileging of melody over harmony might very well have indicated a preference for non-monotonous and melodically distinctive musical settings (aural equivalents, perhaps, of the “bounding line” in Blake’s philosophy and practice of visual art [Blake E550]), a preference that modern musicians might bear in mind as they attempt to compose settings for Blake’s songs.
Blake’s poetry offers other more obvious compositional cues as well. Among other things, musicians will certainly appreciate the way that Blake’s metrical arrangements favour particular time signatures and verse structures for his poems’ musical composition. Thus, for example, the trimetre rhythm of “The Ecchoing Green” suggests the appropriateness of a 3/4 or 6/8 time signature for the song’s setting, while the tetrametre beat of “A Poison Tree” indicates that a 4/4 rhythm would be most fitting in this case. As for the question of appropriate orchestration, one may occasionally obtain musical hints from the poems and their accompanying designs (while bearing in mind that Blake himself likely performed his songs a cappella). For example, a wooden pipe might adorn the performance of the “Introduction” to Innocence, which opens with its narrator “Piping down the valleys wild” (line 1; E7); “Spring’s” opening lines “Sound the Flute! / Now it’s mute” (lines 1-2; E14) could be reflected in the song’s instrumental accompaniment; and “The Voice of the Ancient Bard” might be performed to the music of a harp (as suggested by the poem’s accompanying illustration of a white-bearded harpist playing his instrument).
Lacking Blake’s original notation, however, musicians will never accurately “reconstruct” Blake’s melodies and musical structures, no matter how conscientiously they might apply themselves to the task. This is why the effort to set Blake’s songs to music will always be audacious, if not mistaken. But for those of us who would take Blake’s musical side seriously, this unfortunate truth need not be debilitating; for a second avenue of approach to their musical composition is available, one that emphasizes not a scholarly effort to “reconstruct” the lost melodies but rather a creative musical effort to make of the Songs something new and perhaps unforeseen. Indeed, if we heed Blake’s own theory of artistic creation, any effort to reconstruct his melodies must itself be seen as misguided. For, to quote Blake’s Milton, the creative impulse derives from one of two distinct kinds of muse: the “daughters of memory” or the “daughters of inspiration” (14:29; E108). The former muses are backward-looking and (in Blake’s view) regressive, concerned with past circumstances and established conventions, the stuff of historical tradition. Blake had very little use for these particular muses and the time-worn modes of creative enterprise they tend to support; hence, in Milton he speaks of the necessity to “To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration” (41:4; E142). But as a visionary poet and self-proclaimed prophet, Blake had a very different attitude toward the daughters of inspiration, who look not to the past but to the present and the future, to the moment of creation and its potential artistic and social outcomes. To be sure, Blake’s dichotomous privileging of inspiration over memory is problematic, suggesting as it does that inspired artists can and should free themselves completely from inherited methods and conventions (something that is arguably impossible); but the distinction between muses does help us in a general way to appreciate the qualitative difference between art that is dynamic and experimental, on the one hand, and art that is a species of servile imitation, on the other. As a musician who has given many of Blake’s songs modern rather than traditional-sounding melodies and musical arrangements, I must confess to taking comfort in this aspect of Blake’s creative theory, for it provides me with the poetical license necessary to engage with his Songs in an actively creative manner. Bearing in mind Blake’s evaluative distinction between the muses of memory and those of inspiration, I must indeed consider the possibility that I have strayed farthest from the mark not when I have given the songs modern folk-music settings but when I have attempted to approximate the melodies of “authentic” eighteenth-century folk songs, ballads, or hymns.
In my own musical recordings of Blake’s poems (four of which may be accessed in the appendix to this essay), I have admittedly taken some great creative liberties. For example, I have occasionally turned particular stanzas into choruses, repeating them when the engraved lyrics offer no indication that such a thing should be done. In two or three tracks on the CD, I have turned a song’s title into a chorus in order to introduce some structural variety into what might otherwise seem an unduly repetitive or uninteresting musical presentation. In one instance (“Night,” from the Songs of Innocence), I have even deleted lines and manipulated verse structures to shorten a song that some of my friends and colleagues have told me is otherwise too long to listen to with patience. These compositional liberties are not intended to detract from the songs or misrepresent them; it is my hope, rather, that they have made the songs more attractive as musical performances. Who knows?—perhaps Blake himself sometimes took such liberties with his poems when he sang them for his friends and acquaintances.
Some Thoughts on Music and Pedagogy
Music, I must confess, helped to spark my original interest in Blake when I was an undergraduate student. Like many of my classmates, I was an avid consumer of modern music, and I particularly enjoyed listening to songs with meaningful lyrics; but I was unaware at the time that non-musical poetry could hold any attraction for me. I was fascinated, therefore, when my Romantic literature professor recounted stories linking Blake’s work to popular musical innovators like Patti Smith and Jim Morrison (the latter of whom named his band, The Doors, after a famous line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell); and I was delighted to learn that Alan Ginsberg had set some of Blake’s poems to music and performed them in public. Suddenly Blake’s poetry, rather than seeming like some curious textual relic from an antiquated past, began to seem potentially relevant to present-day life, perhaps even a worthwhile object of study. (Little did I know then that I would spend much of the subsequent decade studying only a few of Blake’s illuminated works!) So when I began to set some of Blake’s Songs to music in the summer of 2004, it dawned on me that I had come full circle: Music had encouraged me to study Blake’s poems in the first place, and, years later, my musical engagement with the early poems helped me to appreciate that they were not called “Songs” without good reason. At this point I began to formulate the main question I have entertained in this essay: Might not a creative and scholarly effort to engage with the music of the Songs expand one’s understanding of the holistic, multi-media phenomenon that is Blake’s “composite art” (a term which, as noted above, has generally referred to the marriage of poetry and visual design in Blake’s illuminated poems, without including the musical component of his art)?
With this question in mind, I have recently begun to discuss Blake’s tripartite approach to composition—his deployment of word, image, and music—when teaching the Songs to undergraduate classes. Introducing the three media one at a time, I begin by showing my students a slide depicting a plain typescript of the “Introduction” to Innocence, which I then read aloud to the class. Generally, the “nursery-rhyme” feel of the spoken poem, with its simple diction, tetrametre rhythms, and succession of perfect rhymes makes students feel as though they are being subjected to a simplistic specimen of children’s verse, something unworthy of adult attention (though a subsequent close reading of the poem’s discourse on language inevitably reveals the error of such a view). To complicate matters, therefore, I next present a slide of the poem’s original engraved and watercoloured plate (see figure 1, below), emphasizing that it was in this form, and not in the barren typescript, that Blake intended the poem to be read and received. The illuminated plate always inspires more commentary than the plain typescript, for students are generally impressed by its botanical imagery, and some are fascinated by Blake’s calligraphic style and method (including the fact that he wrote backwards to produce the copper plates used in the printing process). Finally, I introduce into the equation the question of Blake’s third medium, that of music, sharing with my students the musical anecdotes preserved by such contemporaries as Smith and Cunningham (discussed above), and saying a few words about Blake’s musicianship and philosophy of music. This discussion is followed by a brief concert, in which I perform a few of the individual Songs I have set to music.
Because most of my students are fond of music, the musical performance tends to be well-received. When sung, indeed, the lyrics to some of the poems—such as “The Voice of the Ancient Bard,” “The Garden of Love,” and “A Poison Tree”—strike them as particularly modern-sounding, being not so different from the sorts of lyrics that a thoughtful twenty-first-century songwriter might compose. Occasionally, particularly perceptive students will question my musical settings, suggesting that I have misinterpreted a particular poem by providing it with a melody or musical structure inappropriate to its verbal or visual subject matter. This is where class discussion can become particularly fruitful, for in questioning my musical settings students find it necessary to support their positions by referring to the poems’ words and visual designs, thereby engaging in acts of critical analysis and artistic reflection. In the process, they unwittingly find themselves engaged in a process of “Mental Fight” (M 1; E95) the Blakean ideal of critical exchange according to which “Opposition is true Friendship” (MHH 20; E42). When successful, the result of this dynamic pedagogical exchange is an enriched critical engagement with the poems themselves, and an improved understanding and enhanced appreciation of the textured richness of Blake’s composite art.
* * *
The year 2007 marks the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth, and I offer my musical performance of his poems as a humble birthday tribute to a man whose art has enriched my intellectual and creative life in many ways. Needless to say, I am hardly the first person to offer such musical homage to Blake. In recent years numerous composers have set Blake’s songs to music, choosing styles ranging from classical and symphonic to hymn, folk, jazz, and hard rock. I do not pretend that my own settings are any more or less valid than those formulated by the likes of Benjamin Britten, Alan Ginsberg, Greg Brown, Gregory Forbes, William Bolcom, Dead Can Dance, Ulver, Blakespeare, or others who have recorded and performed versions of Blake’s Songs before me. Nevertheless, I hope that fellow Romanticists and Blake aficionados will find some enjoyment in these songs, even where my musical interpretations go against the grain, inciting a spirit of mental fight. Better still, I hope my recordings might inspire a few newcomers to explore Blake’s visionary poetry and art for the first time.
Some Musical Samples, Plates, and Commentary
The following audio recordings, derived from the CD Songs of William Blake (pictured above), offer musical interpretations of the “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence, “The Sick Rose,” “The Fly,” and “The Garden of Love” (four of the CD’s fourteen songs). To access these recordings, click on the URLs located below (directly under each poem’s title). If your computer is not equipped with good-quality speakers, the use of headphones is highly recommended. Each musical recording is accompanied by a brief discussion of the poem in question. Digital reproductions of relevant plates are included with the audio tracks so that readers may consider the interaction of three media: poetry, design, and music.
“Introduction” to Songs of Innocence (3:42)
I set this poem to music quite by chance one summer afternoon in 2004, as I walked back to my South Kensington hotel room from a visit to Blake’s last surviving London home on South Molton Street. During my visit, Tim Heath, Chairman of the William Blake Society, had asked me to contribute something creative to the Chichester Festival’s upcoming celebration of the 200th anniversary of Blake’s trial for sedition (at which I had agreed to participate in a panel discussion focusing on the politics and poetics of sedition in Blake’s biography and art). As I contemplated this unusual request, my thoughts quickly turned to music; and the words to Blake’s “Introduction” to Innocence (which I had previously memorized) coming suddenly to mind, I spontaneously composed a melody for it to the bouncing rhythm of my stride. As an unpremeditated production, the song’s musical composition was by no means the result of a scholarly consideration of the relationship between Blake’s poetry and musicianship. In retrospect, however, I realized that my musical setting presupposed a number of unconscious interpretive choices.
At the most basic level, for example, I had chosen to compose the song’s music in a major key (G major), thereby avoiding the somber darkness often associated with musical settings in minor keys. The choice of a major key seemed appropriate, for, overtly at least, the “Introduction” to Innocence is a happy song: “Every child” would not “joy to hear” (line 20) it if the case were otherwise. However, when the speaker’s cherubic child-muse disappears from the scene during the course of the poem’s narrative, and when the speaker’s “rural pen” “stain[s] the water clear” (lines 17-18) as his previously unscripted song adopts the medium of written language, it is certainly possible to see the song’s apparent “merry chear” (line 6) as somehow ironic, a cover for more sinister subtextual tensions. When fine-tuning the musical setting during subsequent days and weeks, therefore, I spent much time considering whether or not I should change my musical approach during the song’s seemingly foreboding narrative moments by modulating to a minor key, and perhaps by slowing or otherwise modifying the song’s rhythmic structure at these points as well. Having experimented with two or three such melodic and structural variations, however, I ultimately decided against any modification of the musical setting for the reason that such a change would render a simple song musically complex (a choice that seemed justified in light of Blake’s personal preference for simple musical arrangements over “music of more complicated structure” [Gilchrist 313]). Given Blake’s famous penchant for the deployment of verbal irony, I also wondered if my happy melody might in fact be thematically appropriate during the song’s potentially ominous moments, offering an ironically happy musical gloss on some less than happy textual subject matter.
As listeners will no doubt notice, the strangest moment in the recorded performance of this song occurs in its final fading bars, where I insert a brief, upbeat rendition of the opening lines to “The Tyger.” This brief musical setting for “The Tyger” is in sharp contrast to the one I subsequently composed for the full poem as it appears on the CD (where the song features a minor-keyed setting that is dark, slower, and less melodic). Like much of the CD’s music, I chose to end the “Introduction” to Innocence with a musical glance toward “The Tyger” simply because I liked the way it sounded. But the arrangement’s strange musical coda might also function to foreground a question of poetical interpretation: Would a Blakean Innocent experience or understand a tiger in the same way that a person who had entered the state of Experience would do? Not likely, given that in the state of Innocence predatory beasts sometimes lie down with lambs (as occurs in the poem “Night,” which closes some copies of the Songs of Innocence). By including on the CD two different musical versions of “The Tyger”—one the bright and happy rendition hinted at here in the closing bars of the “Introduction” to Innocence, and the other a darker rendition of the full song, I have hoped to highlight the ways in which different musical interpretations (reflecting different states of mind) can entirely transform a poem’s apparent verbal character, thereby helping to “She[w] the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” (SIE; E7).
* * *
“The Sick Rose” (1:12)
Attempting to mirror the life-destroying sickness signified by “The Sick Rose’s” title and verbal content, my setting for this poem emphasizes dark minor chords and monotones; its slow tempo and languid style of performance attempt musically to reflect the sick flower’s slowly impending death as it is represented in the song’s poetic narrative. As poetic symbols, of course, roses have long been associated with beauty, love, and the evanescence of life. One of the contributions to Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs (1783) neatly encapsulates this threefold theme. Authored anonymously, and simply entitled “The Rose,” the song begins as follows:
Child of summer, lovely Rose,
In thee what blushing beauty glows;
But ere to-morrow’s setting sun,
Thy beauty fades, thy form is gone; […]
Cleora’s smile, like thine, sweet flower,
Shall bloom and wither in an hour….
Like Blake’s stricken flower, Ritson’s “lovely Rose” blooms in a moment of “crimson joy” only to pass away with great rapidity; it is an emblem for the evanescence of earthly beauty in general, and, more ominously, for that of feminine beauty as it interacts with masculinist desire. Since Blake engraved a number of illustrations for Ritson’s collection, one wonders whether he had “The Rose” somewhere in mind (or in the back of his mind) when he composed “The Sick Rose.”
* * *
“The Fly” (2:38)
In some versions of the Songs, “The Fly” immediately follows “The Sick Rose,” building on the same theme of life’s evanescence: the fly’s summer play is as fleeting as the sick rose’s lovely beauty, and both creatures lose their lives due to the intervention of an external agent (an “invisible worm” destroys the rose, and a “thoughtless hand” kills the fly). Although Blake’s “Little Fly” might signify a housefly—or any diminutive creature or Blakean “minute particular” deemed beneath the notice or care of “thoughtless” humans—the poem’s engraved illustration, depicting what appears to be a large winged insect beside the poem’s last two lines, suggests that on the literal level “fly” might be read as a shorthand for “butterfly” (or a similar flying insect like a moth). Such a reading raises the possibility that “The Sick Rose” and “The Fly” are more closely related than scholars have previously noted. Tim Heath suggests that “the outbreak of an infestation of the Brown-Tail Moth in London” during the summer of 1782—when London became “infested with worms on every plant, including roses”—may have provided an historical context for “The Sick Rose,” for it was during the same year that William and Catherine were married and first shared their marriage “bed of crimson joy” (Heath). If, on this allegorical level of reading, the rose-destroying worm is understood as a predatory caterpillar, then the insect that Blake addresses in “The Fly” might represent the caterpillar’s transformed self, the “fly” that emerges as if transcendentally from the worm’s cocoon or chrysalis. Transformed from a figure representing violence and death to one representing the preciousness of even the meanest form of life, the worm/fly is an ambivalent figure indeed, the former creature perhaps gesturing towards the state of Experience and the latter towards that of Innocence. (A similar ambivalence seems reflected in Blake’s illustration for “The Sick Rose” [figure 2], where the flowers’ beautiful blooms are offset by a remarkable preponderance of sharp thorns lining their long stems.) Although both “The Sick Rose” and “The Fly” were published as poems of Experience, their juxtaposition suggests that the category or state of Experience is never pure but can contain elements of its Contrary (just as in Taoist cosmology Yang always incorporates something of its opposite, Yin). I have deliberately placed “The Sick Rose” and “The Fly” back to back both here and on the CD in order to suggest something of their possible interrelationship, where the latter, life-affirming song paradoxically grows out of the former song of decay and death. “Without Contraries is no progression” (MHH 3; E34).
* * *
“The Garden of Love” (3:37)
When I introduce “The Garden of Love” in live performances, I like to remind my audience that Blake was writing and singing protest songs nearly two centuries before Bob Dylan and other modern folk singers so famously reinvigorated the genre in the 1960s. Speaking out against a repressive and authoritarian regime, the words of this particular protest song are no less relevant today than they were when the poet first published them in the 1790s. “The Garden of Love” tells the story of an unfortunate fall from Innocence into Experience, during the course of which the speaker/singer’s “natural” sensual impulses become subject to severe censorship and prohibition. The song’s accompanying illustration depicts the process of social conditioning whereby this state of affairs is brought about: doctrinal text in hand, a priestly representative of Experience leads two youthful maidens in an apparently pious act of prayer; but the tombstone and open grave toward which the three kneeling figures bend in a seeming attitude of obeisance suggests that this pious act, far from being life-affirming, is in fact a tribute to decay and death. Erecting “tomb-stones where flowers should be” (line 10), in short, religious orthodoxy (in Blake’s view) replaces the child’s world of carefree “play” (line 4) with a world of sorrow and subjugation, and a life-negating attitude of contemptus mundi is substituted for the “joys and desires” (line 12) of earthly existence. A tireless champion of sensual expression, Blake speaks out vehemently in this song against the repression of basic human desires.
Of all the tracks on the CD Songs of William Blake, my rendition of “The Garden of Love” is perhaps the most modern-sounding, one of the CD’s two songs that might be said to “rock” a bit (despite its non-electric instrumentation). Together with my deep and rather angry vocal intonation, the song’s musical setting in a minor key (F sharp minor) is intended to communicate a foreboding sense of gloom regarding the institutionalized ideology of repression and its adverse effects on human life and expression. Like many other songs on the album, my musical rendition of this poem does not represent an attempt to reconstruct some original Blakean melody; for better or worse, rather, it offers a deliberately updated version of one of the most politically engaged songs in Blake’s musical oeuvre.
I am grateful to the Canada Research Chair program for helping to finance a portion of the research informing this essay. I would also like to thank Keri Davies, for various insightful conversations regarding the musical aspect of Blake’s life and art, and David Drysdale and Alanda McLean for helpful research assistance. The frontispiece from Blake’s Europe is reproduced on the CD cover (and herein) courtesy of the Glasgow University Library, Department of Special Collections. All plates from Songs of Innocence and of Experience are reproduced from Copy Z, courtesy of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. © 2007 the William Blake Archive. Used with permission. Schiavonetti’s engraved portrait of Blake is reproduced from the Collection of Robert N. Essick. © 2007 the William Blake Archive. Used with permission. All lyrics from Songs of Innocence and of Experience are reproduced from Copy Z, © 2007 the William Blake Archive. Used with permission. For information on the CD, please visit www.kevinhutchings.ca
Blake, Descriptive Catalogue, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, Newly Revised Edition (New York and London: Doubleday, 1988), p. 541. All subsequent references to Blake’s work are to Erdman’s edition. In my parenthetical citations I refer first to plate and line numbers (where appropriate), and second to the page number where the citation occurs (for example, E134, where “E” refers to Erdman’s edition). In my citations I also make use of the following abbreviations, where necessary, to signify individual works: DC for A Descriptive Catalogue; IM for An Island in the Moon; M for Milton; MHH for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; and SIE for Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
Letter from Blake to George Cumberland, September 1, 1800.
The most significant example of such scholarship is probably Northrop Frye’s monumental treatise Fearful Symmetry (1947), a book that otherwise deserves praise not only for its learning and erudition but also for the role it played in helping to bring Blake’s work to the attention of a large twentieth-century reading audience.
This phrase provides the title of Mitchell’s ground-breaking Blake’s Composite Art.
See, for example, Blake’s critique of the classics in the Preface to Milton (1; E95).
Cunningham, one should note, published books entitled The Songs of Scotland (1825) and Poems and Songs (1847), as well as some specimens of his own musical compositions. Given his obvious love of music, it is admittedly possible that Cunningham gives song an undue emphasis in his brief biography of Blake. However, the fact that Blake and a number of his contemporaries also mention the musical aspect of the early poems suggests that Cunningham’s portrait was indeed accurate.
In her biography of Blake, Mona Wilson glosses Smith’s “musical professors” as “professional musicians” (18).
I am indebted to Keri Davies for suggesting this possibility to me during a conversation in July of 2004.
Letter from Blake to George Cumberland, September 1, 1800.
For a brief discussion of Blake’s philosophy of melody and harmony, see Hutchings, Imagining Nature (100-102).
For a finely nuanced discussion of Blake’s synaesthetic theory of melody and harmony in relation to the “sister arts” of poetry, painting, and music, see Fairchild (5-6, 11-29).
On significant distinctions between musical and poetical forms of rhythm, however, see Fairchild (30-31).
The recordings feature Sahra Featherstone on violin, Celtic harp, tin whistle, low whistle, and harmony vocals; Jason Fowler on finger-style rhythm and lead acoustic guitar; Jeff Heisholt on keyboards (for “Ah! Sunflower!”), Kevin Hutchings on lead and harmony vocals and acoustic guitar; Carl Jennings on keyboards (for “The Garden of Love” and “A Poison Tree”); Treasa Levasseur on accordion (for “Introduction” to Innocence and “Laughing Song”); Joe Phillips on double bass; and Robert Sibony on drums and percussions. The CD as a whole features 45 minutes of musical performances for the following songs (in order): “Introduction” (Experience); “The Ecchoing Green”; “The Garden of Love”; “The Sick Rose”; “The Fly”; “A Poison Tree”; “Laughing Song”; “Introduction” (Innocence); “The Tyger”; “The Voice of the Ancient Bard”; “Spring”; “Ah! Sunflower”; “The Chimney Sweeper” (Experience); and “Night.”
The CD was produced by Sahra Featherstone (www.sahrafeatherstone.com), with production assistance from Jason Fowler. Audio tracks were recorded at Misty Music and at Q Music Studios, Toronto, and at Westmoreland Recording Studio, Burlington Ontario. All tracks mixed by Carl Jennings and Sahra Featherstone, and mastered by Carl Jennings, at Westmoreland Recording Studio. Additional engineering was provided by Robert Sibony with assistance from Gary Honess (Q Music Studios) and Carl Jennings (Westmoreland Recording Studio); graphic artwork and photography by Andrés Aquino with Seth Rowanwood, The Creation Process, www.thecreationprocess.com. Further information on the CD can be obtained by visiting www.kevinhutchings.ca
All tracks are registered with SOCAN. All lyrics composed by William Blake; all musical settings composed by Kevin Hutchings © 2007. All Rights Reserved.
As Fairchild notes, “The Sick Rose” also evinces significant thematic affinities with David Mallet’s contemporary ballad “William and Margaret,” a song depicting “Love” as a “canker-worm” that destroys a young woman in the full “bloom” of her youthful beauty (4-5).
Here I follow Erdman, who suggests that the small, seemingly winged shape in question is perhaps meant to represent “a ‘happy fly.’” According to Erdman, the child on the left-hand side of the picture reaches upwards with a battledore to hit a falling shuttlecock (82), but the lack of detail in this particular image suggests that Erdman’s “battledore” might also be seen as a small butterfly net, and that the “shuttlecock” might represent a moth or butterfly whose life will be “brush’d away” by the child’s “thoughtless hand.”
- Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.
- Bentley, G. E. Jr. Blake Records. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2004.
- ———, ed., William Blake: The Critical Heritage. 1975. Rpt. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
- Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Newly revised ed. New York and London: Doubleday, 1988.
- ———. Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy Z, plates 4, 39, 40, 44. The William Blake Archive. Eds. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. 26 March 2007. http://www.blakearchive.org/.
- Cunningham, Allan. The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern; With an Introduction and Notes, Historical and Critical, and Characters of the Lyric Poets. 4 vols. London: John Taylor, 1825.
- ———. Poems and Songs. London: John Murray, 1847.
- ———. “William Blake.” The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. 6 vols. London: John Murray, 1830, vol. 2, 142-79.
- England, Martha Winburn and John Sparrow. Hymns Unbidden: Donne, Herbert, Blake, Emily Dickinson and the Hymnographers. New York: The New York Public Library/Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 1966, 44-62.
- Erdman, David V. The Illuminated Blake: William Blake’s Complete Illuminated Works with a Plate-by-Plate Commentary. New York: Dover, 1974.
- Fairchild, B. H. Such Holy Song: Music as Idea, Form, and Image in the Poetry of William Blake. Kent, OH: The Kent State UP, 1980.
- Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. 1947. Rpt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1970.
- Gilchrist, Alexander. The Life of William Blake. 1863. Rpt. Ed. W. Graham Robertson. London and New York: John Lane, 1907.
- Heath, Tim. “The Botanic Blake.” Blake Journal 6 (2001): http://www.ioi.org.uk/blakesociety/journal/The%20Botanic%20Blake.html; date of access March 26, 2007.
- Hutchings, Kevin. Imagining Nature: Blake’s Environmental Poetics. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002.
- ———. Songs of William Blake (CD). Brantford, ON: Ball Media/Kevin Hutchings, 2007.
- Mitchell, W. J. T. Blake’s Composite Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
- Ritson, Joseph. A Select Collection of English Songs. 3 vols. London: Joseph Johnson, 1783.
- Smith, John Thomas. Nollekens and His Times: Comprehending a Life of that Celebrated Sculptor; and Memoirs of Several Contemporary Artists, from the Time of Roubiliac, Hogarth, and Reynolds, to that of Fuseli, Flaxman, and Blake. 2 vols. London: Henry Colburn, 1828.
- Wilson, The Life of William Blake. 1927. Rpt. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1948.