On the face of it, Blake is a compelling and slightly off-centre choice. He is not Shakespeare or Dickens: he barely comes into the category of "much-loved". For all the stirring popularity of "Jerusalem", he is too awkward a figure, too lively a critic of our "mind-forg'd manacles", to feature much on the English heritage trail. But he was also something of a multimedia pioneer - his most celebrated poems were captions on vivid watercolours and engravings - so he ought to be able to survive the contribution of a light show and cavorting acrobats.
If anyone should be able to "interpret" Blake's apocalyptic vision of the fall of mankind - the expulsion from the Garden of Eden - then it ought to be someone with an archangelic name who for years played with a band called Genesis. And the Songs of Innocence and Experience are, after all, songs - they've been crying our for music for two centuries. But Gabriel will have his work cut out. The dramatic and colourful biblical iconography of Blake's work might have all the right echoes for a show intended to celebrate, somehow or other, the achievements and hopes of a mainly Christian civilisation. But of all the grandees of English literature, Blake is one the most ferocious and hardest to bring to heel.
He is the kind of poet who makes even his admirers feel edgy and shallow. His lyric works vibrate with haughty moral injunctions which sit uncomfortably both with modern lounge-class life and with churchy Christianity. "Is this a holy thing to see," he asked, "In a rich and fruitful land/ Babes reduced to misery?" The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the bracing set of ethical contrasts which the Dome intends to illuminate, is a description of a world cut loose from its spiritual anchors, one in which "the sneaking serpent walks in mild humility", while "the just man rages in the wilds where lions roam". Not many consciences can survive a prolonged encounter with Blake - even his innocent-seeming early lyrics give a sharp nudge to our self-regard, while his furious later works are epic howls of derision. Wedged between a river cruise, a Docklands spectacular and a Big Mac, he might well prove hard to swallow.
One person who did attempt to swallow Blake, literally, was the fearful killer at the centre of Thomas Harris's first Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon (1981). Hugely impressed by Blake's painting of an avenging monster, he broke into a New York art museum, coshed the curator, and gobbled up the precious artwork, hoping to steal its rampant energy. After the long Anglo-American bombing campaign in the Balkans, which of our leaders can feel entirely at ease with the following passage from Blake's America?
The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent
Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America's shore
Piercing the souls of warlike men who rise in silent night.
Blake was himself a raging free spirit - one of the loosest balls in the cannon. It will be interesting to see how he goes as a circus act, in a big top by the Thames.
One doesn't have to be a cynic to feel that the Dome is not being used in order to celebrate Blake (that would be asking too much) so much as the opposite. The poet is being used to add metaphysical lustre to a splashy fairground - what he might have called a bright satanic mill. This might well be the wrong way round, though there isn't much sense in wondering whether he would have approved of it himself. Like any writer, Blake was made miserable by neglect, and as someone with a firm poetic eye on eternity, he might have liked the idea of becoming a presiding spirit so many years after his death. But he was never willing to kowtow, and he was anything but a crowd-pleaser.
"That which can be made explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care," he wrote in 1799. "Fun I love, but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom." I doubt if we shall see Peter Gabriel setting that to music, fun though it would be to see him try.Reuse content