"The Tygers of Wrath", so Blake informs us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "are wiser than the Horses of Instruction." Like many of Blake's most pregnant phrases, the sentiment is open to various interpretations. In the Sixties and early Seventies, you'd often see it sprayed on walls near university buildings, as a vaguely thrilling, thrillingly vague call to revolution.
Within the walls of those same buildings, lecturers might patiently be explaining the lines of contact between that maxim and Blake's more famous Tyger, the one that burns in the forests of the night; if sufficiently scholarly, these teachers might have pointed out that in the 1790s, the conservative press in Britain commonly called the French revolutionaries "Tigers", and then have suggested that the apparently innocent lyric chanted in countless schoolrooms is actually, or also, a response to the terrible September Massacres, in which hundreds of aristocrats were torn to gory shreds.
Many other readings of the Blakean proverb are no less open to argument and refutation; here's mine. About eight or nine months ago, I was invited to a meeting at Tate Britain by Dick Humphreys of the education department to talk about possible ways of promoting, celebrating and expanding on the major Blake exhibition planned for the autumn. A full-blown academic conference was already arranged; what else could we come up with?
One answer was obvious: not everyone who reads Blake, puts Blake's images on their wall, quotes Blake or otherwise loves or admires Blake is an academic. Since at least the late Fifties, one big tranche of Blake's readership has been a rainbow alliance of beats, hippies, freaks, rockers, New Agers, spiritual aspirants, pilgrims and undefinables. Tate Britain was doing its bit for the scholars, the Horses of Instruction; why not an event for these motley Tygers of Wrath?
Slightly to my surprise, it bought it, though the "Tygers" project underwent so many mutations en route that the end product, which will be on show at the Purcell Room tomorrow, bears scant resemblance to the original.
My first idea was to have a weekend-long alternative conference, mainly dedicated to recalling all the ways in which Blake has served as an inspiration to what used to be called the counterculture. First of all, we would have performances from the likes of Billy Bragg, a long-time Blake fan whose piano-accompanied rendition of "Jerusalem" is far and away the most moving version I know. Then, we thought, we would try to track down the sounds and images of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg performing Blake's songs to the guitar and harmonium, or talking about the vision of Blake he had when still a student at Columbia University, which confirmed him in his life's mission.
We would also spend a good session or two talking about Blake and jazz (notable example: the settings by Mike Westbrook) and Blake and rock - a long story, which continues to the present day and in the most unexpected places.
In front of me as I write is a CD by the Czech band DG 307 entitled Siluety - or perhaps that's a CD by the Czech band Siluety entitled DG 307 - which boasts a thunderous version of "Tyger". We would have slide shows of album covers inspired by Blake, from Atomic Rooster's Death Walks Behind You (adorned with Blake's scary image of Nebuchadnezzar crawling on all fours) to the sunburst of Glad Day on the front of the album by... no, I'm too embarrassed to admit I know all this rubbish.
According to the initial plan, it would all be rounded out by a satisfyingly mongrel set of supporting events, including a screening of Jim Jarmusch's strange Western Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp as an accountant called William Blake; a lecture by Professor Donald Ault of the University of Florida, explaining how his reading of Blake's prophetic works has been influenced by his other main area of scholarly interest, Donald Duck; a reminiscence of the ways in which Blake's images were plundered, plagiarised and adapted by the underground press in both the UK and the USA; some musings on Huxley's Blakean study of mescaline experiences, The Doors of Perception; an investigation of the presence of Blake in Thomas Harris's first Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon. …