Introduction by the Chair of the Blake Society
The Bible of Hell !
Good evening and welcome to this celebration of the birthday of William Blake and of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The event is organized by the Blake Society and hosted by St James’s Church.
St James’s is remarkable ! A church built by Sir Christopher Wren with a font and a reredos carved by Grinling Gibbons; destroyed by incendiary bombs in the war, it has never ceased to rebuild itself; a place that welcomes people of any faith or none, it offers a platform to question the injustices of our society and a sanctuary to seek out the divine in life. St James’s expands the alternatives of spirituality yet is a pillar of orthodoxy in the Anglican communion. In the history of this church, there have been 25 Rectors of whom 4 – a remarkable statistic – have gone on to become head of the Church of England.
Records, birthdays, anniversaries – they can all be artificial. A few years ago in 2006 in the city of New York, a society was formed for people who like to wear corduroy, the Corduroy Appreciation Club. Earlier this month they announced World Corduroy Day – the date was significant, the eleventh of November – the eleventh of the eleventh of the eleventh, II II II.
Straight lines, ruled fabric, Rules – they were not for Blake. He was more curvaceous, voluptuous, colourful. Lines might have described the latitude and longitude of an 18th century mind, but the landscape Blake inhabited was altogether richer and more expansive.
This church, where Blake was christened in 1757, was built in the wake of the Reformation – simple whitewashed walls, ground glass windows & few ornaments. Yet Blake had no need for stained glass windows for he could turn to the Bible. He would open the book of Revelation and find The Great Red Dragon swooping down on the Woman Clothed With The Sun. He could turn to Ezekiel and find the wheels within wheels of a God in motion on a chariot of fire. And within Isaiah, a prophet like Blake who trod the winepress alone, and whose clothes were stained with both wine and blood, Blake would find the colours to form the palette for so many of his later paintings.
For those of you who were fortunate to have been here in 2007 when we celebrated the 250th anniversary of birth of William Blake, you will remember Rowan Williams talk about the Bible as ‘a landscape we inhabit’.
For Blake, as for the Archbishop, it is important to keep this landscape open – a topography of history, geography and visions. It could so easily contract and collapse into a poverty of imagination, into a Bible of Hell. For Blake the limit of opacity was named Satan and the limit of contraction begins and ends with Adam. Yet Blake believed there was no limit of translucence, there is no limit to expansion. He searched for the doors of perception, when everything would be infinite.
Today the Bible may have slipped to the periphery of popular culture, but audiences still seek the infinite and the unbounded. Each week millions of people follow the adventures of a Time Lord who is unbounded by the limitations of time or space. Yet even this Doctor is subject to the prejudices we inhabit, to the mind-forg’d manacles. Ten times over the past five decades, the character of Doctor Who has transformed into a new body but has yet to appear as a woman.
There are many more Blakes: the prophet, the artist, the poet, the printer, the antinomian … yet we are here tonight to celebrate just one, the Blake who loved the Bible. And as Blake once wrote in the margins of another book : If a thing loves, it is infinite.
Tonight we are celebrating ‘Blake and the Bible’ with a conversation. A conversation for Blake was an act of creativity, a procreative act akin to planting a seed. His conversations that survive, recorded by friends and diarists, point to the extraordinary voice of Blake. And as you would expect from a man who created the Songs of Innocence and Experience he also had an extraordinary ear. In the words of the Book of Psalms, in that famous pun buried at the heart of the King James Bible : He who planted the ear, shall he not hear?
To chair this evening’s conversation, may I introduce the Rector of St James’s Church, the Revd Lucy Winkett.
Chair of the Blake Society
30 November 2011