After the basic idea for the Glastonbury William Blake Festival had been anchored, and events over a three-day-period organised, a further inspiration came to me. I conceived of a preliminary episode.
I was aware that we were working with an intriguing tension when bringing Blake and Glastonbury together. The famous hymn Jerusalem is often taken to refer to a story that the young Jesus had physically visited Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea. It is actually not at all certain that this is what Blake meant to convey or that he was familiar with any such notion. Despite having drawn the Arimathean at the very start of his artistic career, Blake never mentions Glastonbury. He does make copious references to many place names throughout his great prophetic works Milton and Jerusalem but Glastonbury is not amongst them. The linking of our second national anthem with Glastonbury seems to be in a kind of liminal zone.
We have a similar situation pertaining to the alleged grave of King Arthur. Arguments continue to rage concerning the nature of the events back in 1191 when bones attributed to him and his queen were supposedly recovered. They were later displayed in a lavish tomb the site of which is signposted in the Abbey grounds and serves a daily focus for many visitors, some of whom leave simple floral offerings behind.
Blake had some characteristically odd things to say about Arthur. I thought it would be intriguing to read some of them aloud at the tomb site. I wondered if anyone had ever done such a thing before? I approached the undertaking in terms of atmosphere, of nuance, as an expression of what Dion Fortune referred to as ‘the poetry of the soul’ writing itself at Glastonbury.
I read a passage from the 1809 Descriptive Catalogue where ‘Mr B’ explained a huge painting of his called The Ancient Britons which is now tragically lost. We do at least have these words to ponder on.
‘Arthur was a name for the constellation Arcturus, or Bootes, the Keeper of the North Pole. And all the fables of Arthur and his round table; of the warlike naked Britons; of Merlin; of Arthur’s conquest of the whole world; of his death, or sleep, and promise to return again; of the Druid monuments, or temples; of the pavement of Watling Street; of London stone; of the caverns in Cornwall, Wales, Derbyshire, and Scotland; of the Giants of Ireland and Britain; of the elemental beings, called by us by the general name of Fairies; and of these three who escaped, namely, Beauty, Strength, and Ugliness, Mr. B. has in his hands poems of the highest antiquity. Adam was a Druid, and Noah; also Abraham was called to succeed the Druidical age, which began to turn allegoric and mental signification into corporeal command, whereby human sacrifice would have depopulated the earth. All these things are written in Eden. The artist is an inhabitant of that happy country, and if every thing goes on as it has begun, the world of vegetation and generation may expect to be opened again to Heaven, through Eden, as it was in the beginning.
In the mean time he has painted this Picture, which supposes that in the reign of that British Prince, who lived in the fifth century, there were remains of those naked Heroes, in the Welch Mountains; they are there now, Gray saw them in the person of his Bard on Snowdon; there they dwell in naked simplicity; happy is he who can see and converse with them above the shadows of generation and death. The giant Albion, was Patriarch of the Atlantic, he is the Atlas of the Greeks, one of those the Greeks called Titans. The stories of Arthur are the acts of Albion, applied to a Prince of the fifth century, who conquered Europe, and held the Empire of the world in the dark age, which the Romans never again recovered.
In this Picture, believing with Milton, the ancient British History, Mr. B. has done, as all the ancients did, and as all the moderns, who are worthy of fame, given the historical fact in its poetical vigour; so as it always happens, and not in that dull way that some Historians pretend, who being weakly organized themselves, cannot see either miracle or prodigy; all is to them a dull round of probabilities and possibilities; but the history of all times and places, is nothing else but improbabilities and impossibilities; what we should say, was impossible if we did not see it always before our eyes.
I paid tribute to Geoffrey Ashe, whose 1971 masterpiece Camelot and the Vision of Albion has been inspired by the same passage and was a fundamental source for my own endeavors.
I also made brief reference to Allen Ginsberg, who visited the Abbey in 1965 and proved to be a powerful influence on the Glastonbury event. I have dealt with all of this in my book William Blake and the Glastonbury Gnosis.