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William Blake's Influence on the Popular
Culture of the Late 1960s and Early 1970s
by Joseph Smigelski

For many, the late 1960s and early 1970s were times when spirits soared, creative ideas abounded, and possibilities seemed limitless. Places like Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury were havens for all sorts of poets, artists, minstrels, and "visionaries." Their visions, no doubt, were more often than not induced by what is now termed recreational substance abuse, yet the quest was on for new ways of perceiving themselves and the world. People sought spiritual and sexual freedom, and embraced anti-materialistic and anti-establishment attitudes. But all of this had its dark side too.

In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," William Blake wrote, "Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence."

This may be quite a frightening and upsetting concept, but the late '60s and early '70s were frightening and upsetting times as well as the wonderful times I've briefly described above. Consider some of the contradictory images that exist in our memories: Woodstock, the Manson slayings, the men walking on the moon, the Vietnam War, the Beatles, the long hot summers of racial tension, Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr, George Wallace.

Blake would have relished the '60s and the status of prophet he had attained in the minds of many musicians, writers, and artists. The spirit of his life's work influenced much of what was going on.

Consider the "psychedelic" artwork of that period, particularly some of the posters advertising rock concerts. To evoke and promote an almost hedonistic delight in the senses, the artists produced provocative images by using bright colors and flowing forms. The written messages that were the raison d'etre of the posters were organic outgrowths of the pictorial designs. This type of work, in both its technical style and its spirit, is very reminiscent of Blake's illustrations for his illuminated manuscripts.

But what captured the spirit of the times more than anything else was the pop music that served as a sound track to the strange and contradictory experiences of the era.

When listeners placed on their turntables a record album with the rather gruesome title of "Brain Salad Surgery" by the British rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, the first words that came through the speakers were written by Blake:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen![1]

These lines also illustrate the wide use of religious symbolism in rock and roll, which I will discuss a bit later. In 1967 another rock group, The Doors, recorded on their first album a song titled "End of the Night." On that track, Jim Morrison sang:

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to the endless night.

If we delete the perhaps superfluous "the" from the third line, we have an exact reading of lines 122-124 of Blake's "Auguries of Innocence."

Morrison always considered himself primarily a poet. Being a rock singer was his dance with materialism. His familiarity (and, in a sense, identification) with Blake provides insight into Morrison's artistic viewpoint and his conception of the poet's function as a social activist who is culturally and politically relevant. Blake too was a believer in the power of art as a political force. In "Now Art Has Lost Its Mental Charms," he wrote, "Renew the Arts on Britain's Shore / And France shall fall down & adore."

Jim Morrison was in many ways a very Blakean figure and certainly a Romantic one. His poetry, his music, and even his short, often hedonistic life personified these lines from Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell":

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.

Morrison, at least in his public persona, embodied a marriage of the angelic and the demonic. Simply examining photographs of the man will bear this out. With his cherubic face and long wavy hair, his body clothed in tight black leather, Morrison could almost have been a creation of Blake's painterly eye. (Look at the frontpiece to Blake's "Songs of Experience," which features a well-proportioned young man in a very tight outfit.)

And, like Blake, Morrison often employed religious imagery in his lyrics to build his own philosophical constructs, and he exalted sensuality as an energetic and positive force. He probably would have agreed with Blake that "Energy is the only life and is from the Body, and Reason is the bound or outer circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight."[2] And Blake's proverb, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,"[3] could have handsomely served as Jim Morrison's motto.

Use of religious (particularly Christian) imagery was very widespread in the popular songs of the late '60s and early '70s. One band with the unfortunate name The Electric Prunes actually recorded a rock and roll Catholic Mass. But mostly, religious images were used symbolically and as a reflection of a prevalent spiritual turn of mind, and did not suggest allegiance to any organized religion.

One performer who drew heavily on the Bible for his songs was Bob Dylan, and his voice was pivotal in articulating the thoughts of many who were spiritually and politically dissatisfied. Songs like "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and "Like a Rolling Stone" became anthems of the counterculture. Another undeniable influence on Dylan was the visionary poet Allen Ginsberg, a well-known aficionado of William Blake. Milton Viorst, in his book "Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s," wrote the following about Ginsberg's publicized visions of Blake:

It is no coincidence . . . that Ginsberg's apparition was of William Blake, . . . antirationalist and social rebel. Blake was a figure who had deeply influenced Ginsberg, and the 1960s resurrected much that was suggestive of him. The counterculture challenged not only the political authority but those values in modern industrial society that Blake himself would have considered inhumane: intellectuality, technology, discipline. Private as were Ginsberg's visions of Blake, they seemed to foreshadow the popular swing in America to a counterculture that valued Blake's kind of mysticism. The fascination with drugs, as a vehicle to a higher vision, was intrinsic to this counterculture. So was its exaltation not only of the sexual and emotional but the intuitive, the spiritual, even the supernatural in human affairs. If Blake was Ginsberg's inspiration, Ginsberg was the herald of the change.[4]

Ginsberg's (and thus Blake's) influence on Dylan is seen not only in Dylan's social consciousness and anti-establishment attitude, but also in his preoccupation with visionary themes. In complicated songs like "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Desolation Row," "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," and "Visions of Johanna" (in which he makes reference to Blake's "Little Boy Lost" and perhaps even echoes Blake's "Visions of Jehovah"[5], he becomes a voice of innocence crying in the wilderness of baffling experience.[6] Like Blake, Dylan embodies the concept of "the Poetic Genius," which includes the belief that "No man can think, write, or speak from his heart, but he must intend truth."[7]

Blake was also fascinated by the idea that the Devil was a necessary and perhaps even positive force in the world. For example, in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" he wrote, "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it."

A similar fascination with satanic forces is often found in rock and roll songs. (After all, rock and roll was once dubbed "Devil's music" by many.)

A group known as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown recorded a song called "Fire" that begins with the vocalist screaming, "I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you fire." The Rolling Stones (some opine that guitarist Keith Richards is an incarnation of the Prince of Darkness) sang a jaunty little number called "Sympathy for the Devil," and titled one of their albums "Their Satanic Majesties Request." Then came a string of heavy metal bands that relied excessively on the effects of demonic images. One of the first of this ilk was Ozzy Osbourne's band, Black Sabbath, its name making the point brutally obvious.

It's doubtful that these devilish rockers consciously drew on Blake the way Morrison and Dylan did, but the spirit of the times was very Blakean. The presence of evil was not treated solely as a negative force, but rather as a potential source of creative energy, which is how Blake often looked upon evil. In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," he wrote, "Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy."

One of Blake's most famous statements is "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite."[8] There is an obvious link here not only to Jim Morrison and the Doors, but also to Aldous Huxley[9] and the drug-induced "psychedelic" experiences that were so popular in the late '60s. Blake might have been very sympathetic to people like Timothy Leary and their quest for expansion of consciousness.

Certainly, Blake's poem "When Klopstock England Defied" can be viewed as presaging the "let it all hang out" attitude of the late '60s. Blake takes great delight in spiritual and sexual freedom. The poem also reveals a childlike glee in shaking up the establishment. Imagine Blake sharing in the antics of John & Yoko, Abbie Hoffman, and the Merry Pranksters:

When Klopstock England defied,
Uprose William Blake in his pride;
For old Nobodaddy aloft . . .
and belch'd and cough'd;
Then swore a great oath that made Heaven quake,
And call'd aloud to English Blake.
Blake was giving his body ease,
At Lambeth beneath the poplar trees.
From his seat then started he
And turn'd him round three times three.
The moon at that sight blush'd scarlet red,
The stars threw down their cups and fled,
And all the devils that were in hell,
Answerèd with a ninefold yell.
Klopstock felt the intripled turn,
And all his bowels began to churn,
And his bowels turn'd round three times three,
And lock'd in his soul with a ninefold key; . . .
Then again old Nobodaddy swore
He ne'er had seen such a thing before,
Since Noah was shut in the ark,
Since Eve first chose her hellfire spark,
Since 'twas the fashion to go naked,
Since the old Anything was created . . .

Blake's work often reveals a social conscience, and sometimes even the presence of political radicalism.

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we.[10]

And in the Preface to "Milton," he wrote,

Rouse up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, forever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works.

These very words could have been spoken at any anti-war rally on campuses across the country during the height of the Vietnam War.

The last line of "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" reads, "For every thing that lives is Holy." The sentiment is one that had many adherents in the late '60s and early '70s. One rock song actually used the line as a refrain. One of Blake's "Proverbs of Hell" states, "All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap." This served well as a motto for many vegetarians.

One of the many enduring images from the '60s is a photograph of a girl putting a flower into the barrel of a soldier's rifle in front of the Pentagon. One can imagine the spirit of Blake looking upon that scene with a keen, ironic eye.

Blake really was a visionary. Although he was considered a lunatic by some of his contemporaries, his ideas and his concerns have proved over time to be not only legitimate, but inspirational. His words and paintings had special poignancy for the "hippie" generation. He was truly a spiritual father of the '60s revolution.

Joseph Smigelski teaches English in the California community college system. You may email him at jsmigelski@yahoo.com.

Notes:

  1. William Blake. Preface to "Milton."
  2. "The Voice of the Devil" ("The Marriage of Heaven and Hell").
  3. "Proverbs of Hell" ("The Marriage of Heaven and Hell").
  4. Milton Viorst. "Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s" (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), pp. 64-65.
  5. William Blake. "The Ghost of Abel, A Revelation in the Visions of Jehovah."
  6. One of Blake's most well-know works is "Songs of Innocence and of Experience."
  7. William Blake. "All Religions Are One."
  8. William Blake. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell."
  9. Aldous Huxley wrote a famous book called "The Doors of Perception" in which he explored experiences with psychedelic drugs.
  10. William Blake. "The Human Abstract." .
 

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