In a remarkable article in the Guardian last year, associate editor Martin Kettle argued that “English radicalism needs to recapture the spirit of Blake” – that in a political world dominated by bureaucracy, think-tanking, consumerism, and a small-minded, reductive sense of cultural identity we need a re-infusion of imagination, passion, vision, and integrity. Indeed, he ended his piece with the provocative question, “Without the dream of Albion, how can England arise and Britain come together again in the common cause?” (Guardian)
For Blake, the awakening of Albion has significant repercussions for our sense of identity, both individually and collectively or nationally. Indeed, just as belief in materialism and an objective Nature (“Babylon”) have for Blake distracted and pacified us, perverting our understanding of the Divine Vision, and where it is located, so too an abstracted and anxious nationalism had become the source not of Brotherhood and “Universal Humanity” but of xenophobia and parochialism, the very opposite of Albion’s true nature. Blake urges us to reawaken from the deadly sleep of materialism and monetarism, from the patronising condescension and left-brain contempt of academia (“the Loom of Locke”) and neoliberal bourgeois culture towards ordinary people; and to re-imagine an inclusive and dynamic vision of a regenerated culture, built on something grander and deeper than algorithms, percentage rates, and FTSE indexes.
The Sleep of Albion
Blake’s extensive exploration of the narratives of Albion points to one core question: What does it mean to be British? This question is perhaps even more perplexing, even more pressing, today than it was in Blake’s own time. In the homogenised, globalised, digitalised and divided world of the twenty-first century, what does our national identity really signify, and what sort of narratives or myths do we identity with – or indeed are encouraged to identify with?
Appeals to nationalism, patriotism and a sense of common identity are constantly made in the press and media, yet many of these seem either increasingly tired and irrelevant (afternoon tea, beefeaters, the white cliffs of dover), xenophobic (‘England for the English!’), or corporate – a constructed and constrictive sense of Britain PLC. Where in these markets, myths, and monopolies is a sense of who we deeply are, a sense of identity that can inspire and move us – make us feel that we genuinely belong to something meaningful and profound, to “a story whose imaginative meaning goes beyond history”, as Kathleen Raine puts it.
Have we lost touch with something ancient, collective, and galvanising, or are all national identities constructed, arbitrary – even ideologically dangerous? It is interesting in this context how resonant Blake’s short lyric, ‘And did those feet in ancient times’ is: how so many people find in its lyrics of “burning gold”, its “Chariots of fire”, and its moving evocation of our “green & pleasant Land”, something that appeals – and appeals deeply. Indeed, many people consider Blake’s poem, widely known through Sir Hubert Parry’s stunning 1916 setting of it, to be Britain’s unofficial ‘national’ anthem – with a current campaign to make it our actual national anthem.
Significantly, the poem starts by asking questions, to which I would like to add a few more: Are “these Dark Satanic Mills” true expressions of national character, or burdensome factories of materialism and consumerism that have been foisted on us? Can a secular story of nationhood ever really inspire its people? or is it by reaching beyond, to a perhaps transcendent and implicit sense of self, that our imaginative identities are stirred and awakened?
As Geoffrey Ashe has pertinently observed, “Blake’s work lies in the context of the Industrial Revolution, a scene of expanding capitalism, and distress that is familiar enough” (Camelot and the Vision of Albion) – in the context of a political culture obsessed, that is, with the surveillance, control, and “chartering” of its own people. The “Satanic Mills” that Blake refers to are, as we have seen, primarily mental: they denote rationalising, functionalist ways of thinking about the world (“Satan’s Starry Wheels”) and as such for Blake refer to both the orthodox Churches (in which the hymn is often, ironically, sung) and to the materialistic creed of contemporary science and commerce, the patriotic pall that in Blake’s work covers the somnambulistic spirit of Albion.
Blake’s task as poet is therefore to try and hack into this current narrative of national identity so as to rewrite the myth as a humanistic, collective, spiritualised sense of belonging and re-creation: Albion. To wrest it away from the bureaucratic demagogues, the Urizenic industrialists and the corporate philistines, who are currently in control of the HTML of Albion.
We are warned today to be alert to “identity theft” but the theft of our national identity at the hands of these successive marketeers, imperialists, philistines, and bureaucrats is a crime of even greater significance.
In Camelot and the Vision of Albion, in an intriguing personal aside, Geoffrey Ashe touches on an intimate and concerned sense of what “nationalism” and identity actually means to us today. Growing up in England, he remarks, he was dimly aware of having a sense of “patriotism” – though one that “never had anything to do with the loyalist patriotism of my parents …. I was and am unexcited by the Union Jack and stately homes and the triumphs of British capitalism”; interestingly, for someone who has perhaps done more than anyone else to clarify and explore the historical and mythological reality of the legends of King Arthur, he adds that neither did the stories of “King Arthur’s supposed realm with its royalty, pageantry, wealth … inspire me”.
Rather, it was another quality about being British that intrigued him and pulled at him – “a mysterious offbeat quality, a transfiguring Otherness, far down in its almost hidden depths”. His lifelong fascination with the stories of this land, and in particular with Glastonbury as a locus for many of these potent narratives, was a way, he says, “to re-awaken something that was, to me, manifestly alive, though suspended: a dormant power”.
“a mysterious offbeat quality, a transfiguring Otherness, far down in its almost hidden depths”: the sources of Albion are not its cups of tea and its fossilised National Heritage but something much vaster, much darker, a fierce radical energy of imagination and punk-like resistance to conformity and authority
Conclusion: drawing the sword
Arthur: Have you found the secret that I have lost?
Percival: Yes. You and the land are one.
Percival’s reply recognises the fundamental pathology of modernity: a loss of connection with place, with the earth, with our bodies. This is the price we have paid for worshipping the autistic priests and left-brain philosophers who tried to convince us that divinity exists outside of ourselves – whether Up in the stars (the narrative code of “God Above”: the deliberate separation of humanity and divinity that Joseph Campbell terms “mythic dissociation”); or in the “external” recycling bin of a supposedly objective “Nature”; or indeed Nowhere (Hawking, Dawkins, Attenborough).
All of these approaches share a common root: the rationalising, abstracting, and functionalist programs of the Urizenic left brain. And they all share a common dissociation: alienation from the body, from the metaphorical and mythological structures of our thought, from the kingdom “within”, as Blake puts it. In the story of Arthur, a sword (Excalibur, signifying collective sovereignty of the land) was placed in a stone, with the belief that whoever could draw the sword from the stone would become ruler. Those that couldn’t draw the sword were the ones who worshipped the stone. What they sought was “power”, the fundamental drive of the egoic left brain, and like many before and after them, they mistook means for ends. The only way to access true power, according to Blake, is to give up something, to “let go”. These stories of Arthur and Albion still speak to us, because the central narrative code that underwrites them remains uncorrected.
The fundamental problem with the modern definition of nationality is its close affinity and identity with corporate and economic criteria and practices – the legacy of Thatcher-Blair-Clegg, and the wider ideological system of which they are simply the most recent mouths. This collapse of nationalism onto crude and ultimately banal economic practices and criteria, not only leads to the loss of meaning and context that so many people today experience, but also to the regressive forms of spurious “traditional” forms of nationalism that spring up in its wake, like fake daffodils and national “costumes”, in apparent, but false, opposition to it.
The impulse behind much of the modern rejection of modernity – an often legitimate sense that many people have of the meaningless, alienating, and divisive aspect of the cultures that Enlightenment economics has produced – is valid, since this system is built on alienation and dissociation; but a return to an arbitrarily constructed past is not the answer, only a further symptom of the disconnect – the concept of ‘shopping’ applied to time, to cultural identity, to history itself. Connecting with the land, with the local history, myths, and trajectory of where you are, does not mean a fabricated and imposed “return” to some pre-modern idea of nation and national identity. This results merely in regression on every level, as we can witness from UKIP to the Taliban to the re-emergence of homophobic folk-dancing cults in Russia.
In Britain, many people are spontaneously and powerfully drawn towards the stories of Arthur, of Camelot, of Merlin; to Beowulf and Finn MacCool and Avalon: something there speaks to us, about the land of the Mabinogion, of King Lear, the Holy Grail, the Giant’s Causeway, Stonehenge, the Ninth Wave, the Fisher King. This land we inhabit, and which lives through us and we through it, is forever changing, forever recreating. The problem in modernity is that this sense of connection and these myths get re-packaged and resold to us, in the only form that the dominant narrative code of our time allows: corporate, financial, individualistic: instead of collective vision we get Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. We have sold our birthright for a cup of Starbucks.
Blake holds open the prospect of a different world – of “something better, something bolder, and something more progressive”, to quote Nicola Sturgeon in an interview she gave just before her Scottish National Party wiped out almost the entire Tory and Labour political base in Scotland. The success of the SNP, and indeed of Plaid Cymru in Wales, perhaps suggests that there is an appetite for something different – something better and more imaginative, and more grounded in who were really are, and that transformative and substantive change is possible in the land of Albion, if we can but imagine it and realise it.
As Kathleen Raine noted, “We ourselves are the sleeping Albion, and it is for us to bring back the nation to that lost kingdom. For Blake that kingdom is the New Jerusalem itself, the kingdom of the human imagination”. We cannot leave this business to others: as Blake exhorts us, in his final Preface to Jerusalem, freedom and imagination are only achieved through direct engagement and activism – that is, for each of us “to engage openly & publicly before all the World in some Mental pursuit for the Building up of Jerusalem”. As mentioned earlier, the awakening of Albion therefore corresponds to the powerful re-awakening of this faculty of imagination itself, within us, through the right hemisphere of the human brain: “From out the portals of my Brain, where by your ministry/The Eternal Great Humanity Divine. planted His Paradise.”
These embodied and embedded myths of our people (Arthur returns, Albion awakens) all point to recovering something meaningful that’s been lost; and all of them relate this, in terms of our own psychogeography, to a poetic island mythology whose recovery and regeneration has something deep and fundamental to do with bards, with prophecy, with the human imagination, and how we envision these things. All of these aspects make this “sceptr’d isle” a pivotal place to consider not only who we are, but also what sort of world we want to wake up into.
I behold London; Human awful wonder of God!
He says: ‘Return, Allbion, return! I give myself for thee:
My Streets are my Ideas of Imagination.
Awake, Albion, awake! and let us awake up together.
My Houses are Thoughts: my Inhabitants, Affections,
The children of my thoughts, walking within my blood-vessels.
This is our real ancestor, our real identity, suggests Blake: not a corporate logo, not a xenophobic and imperialistic war-machine, not a geographical entity to which we might abstractly rationalise ourselves connected to. But a motive and motivational power within all of us, a collective and transformative, liberational spirit, not an atomising and divisive, money-making mechanism. Neither is it for Blake a return to “Nature”, a going back: it is a Human City, dynamic, self- transforming, energetic, inclusive – Blake is well aware that we are a nation of immigrants, of mutual influences – “The Briton Saxon Roman Norman amalgamating/In my Furnaces into One Nation the English”.
Being rooted in Imagination, Albion – Albion’s “Furnaces” – are by necessity expansive, integrative, civic: it is only when severed from imaginative power, and dominated by Urizenic patterns of thought – the obsession with control, the need to bureaucratise, to measure, to turn every joy and practice into something quantifiable, financial, economic – that the rot sets it, the vitality drains away, the citizens become abstracted ghosts, in a desiccated kingdom of the Left Brain.
The stories of Albion, the legends of Arthur and ancient Britain, both preserve and encode this deep, buried imaginative power: a sense of “something far more deeply interfused”, of something deeper and more transcendent – somehow locked, or sleeping, or living, in the stairways and the hedgerows, in the “down in Albion-ays”, in the old river poets and the rolling Thames, in the tender ways of doing things. “In Albion when the sun rose, in Albion when the grass blows, in Albion when you hear sparrows in the hawthorns, who is your God then?” (Brand, Revolution).
What God did we used to worship, before Apple, and wifi, and fast bucks and Starbucks hacked into and raided our deep collective identity in an exchange for profit and trinkets – before something transcendent, implicit, collective, shared, and poetic was plundered and rebranded by multinational leviathans, transnational behemoths – dark Satanic Shards reaching across the globe, and served by a political class more focused on representing their ideologies and interests than those of their own people? Power has lost its connection with us, the people. The desiccation of the land is also this: the alienation, devitalisation, and dissociation that we feel in our hearts. It’s time to take back the kingdom.
Rod Tweedy is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and has also written a number of articles and reviews on Romanticism and popular culture, including Iain McGilchrist, Ang Lee and the Revolution of Perception, Frozen Children: The pathology of contemporary Disney, How We See War, and David Bowie: Alienation and Stardom. He is a former Secretary of the William Blake Society and an enthusiastic supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and the user-led mental health organization, Mental Fight Club. The above piece is an updated version of his article ALBION ROSE: Blake and the Awakening of Britain (© Rod Tweedy 2015). To read the full article please click here.
Robert Plant cited Spence’s Magic Arts in Celtic Britain as one of the sources for the lyrics to the song