in the city

I was in London for a 2-day training course (Citrix Provisioning Server). As usual on my rare visits to central London, I tried to get about on foot - in this case between the training center (near Finsbury Sq in the City) and my overnight gaff, which was in King's Cross. It fascinates me to begin to make a sense (placed, though commonplace enough) of the capital. To stand on Farringdon Rd and see the course of the old Fleet river, which is still running under your feet.

Yesterday morning, on my way back to the training centre, I realized it was right by Bunhill Fields, which I remembered exploring a few years ago during some other course with some other training company - MS Exchange, I think it was. Since I was still making a terrible mess of Pret's famous All-Day Breakfast sandwich, I wandered back in to take another look.

     Now he hath left his quarters,
        In Bunhill Fields to lie...

I forgot to look for Bunyan's tomb, but I did see the monument to Daniel De-Foe, Author of 'Robinson Crusoe', which was erected in 1870 and paid for by 1,700 of the boys and girls of England, following an appeal in the Christian World. And right beside it is the standing slab that passes for the grave of William Blake and his wife Catherine Boucher. It was decorated with a few votive offerings, not very exciting ones this time. No Rimbaud-magenta ostrich plumes or stained manuscripts, just some November-proof objects lined up along the top - one of them a silver bullet, the rest mainly pennies and pebbles.

Woolett's and Strange's works are like those of Titian and Correggio, the life's labour of ignorant journeymen, suited to the purposes of commerce, no doubt, for commerce cannot endure individual merit; its insatiable maw must be fed by what all can do equally well; at least it is so in England, as I have found to my cost these forty years. Commerce is so far from being beneficial to arts or to empires that it is destructive of both, as all their history shows, for the above reason of individual merit being its great hatred. Empires flourish till they become commercial, and then they are scattered abroad to the four winds.

So which empires would those be, then? - the ones that were destroyed, not by invasion or disease or climate change or opium, but commerce? And why would Blake care a rap about empires anyway? Did he not write

Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field
and let his wife and children return from the oppressor's scourge
look behind at every step and believe it is a dream
singing The sun has left his blackness and has found a fresher morning
and the fair moon rejoiced in the clear and cloudless night
for Empire is no more and now the lion and wolf shall cease

(America, a prophecy)

Why would Blake care about empires? In his ideal politics, not at all: his moroseness merely enjoying the thought of empires being destroyed while blaming commerce for their destruction. But as an anxious artisan, the attachment is there all right. He relied on patronage and he sometimes got it (not always accompanied by recognition of individual merit, however - sometimes it was charitable); he was more connected to the spirit of empire than he knew. But (what he complains of here) in intaglio engraving he also found a "missing link with commerce".

As for his strictures on commercial art, the neighbouring monument to the surveyor De-Foe seemed to make a sufficiently pointed response.

And yet few people afford to be as uncompromised as Blake.

Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.

I was reading Allen Fisher's Brixton Fractals (1985), twelve of whose poems are distantly conducted by the opening pages in Blake's notebook: "Boogaloo" quotes from this same address on engraving. Often, it is Blake as an economic entity who is uppermost, or rather, inseparable from the poem's realization of geography. Blake's poet-painter shuffle, then odd enough to be mad, has become paradigmatic.

     William Blake makes a tracery of a figure
     binds it to his headache.
     Leaves follow footsteps.   through snow
     perhaps a traveller
     runs away from noise something tearing
     his ankle.   A trembling
     image rises out of darkness:   Blake holds
     his head between fingers
     dry from acid
     Bright work diffuses
     through forms of thrilled consciousness
     becomes apprehensive only to another.
     Gradually the workforce of
     a marginal elite
     burn down hill
     to read latticed recurrences
     in the ice.
     "Oh, constructores, Oh, formadores!"

Blake holding his head in fingers dry from acid is as thorough-going an economic entity as this later visionary: "Then I took my head tenderly between both hands, to make certain it was not coming off or turning round" - or should I say, dealer in visions at five pounds a time? ("The Finest Story In The World")

It was 08:54, so I left that field of stone and went back to join the noise of the workforce, forming its Moebius strip.

My walk had also taken me past the Betsey Trotwood on Farringdon Rd, hallowed ground in the eyes of one too rural or too lazy to have ever yet made it to Writers Forum.


All Blake quotes from a free pamphlet in "The Romantic Poets" series, The Guardian, spring 2010.


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