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Malcolm Guite: Poets Corner

24 August 2018

Malcolm Guite attends the unveiling of Blake’s gravestone

ON SUNDAY 12 August, the 191st anniversary of William Blake’s death, I made my way to Bunhill Fields, in the City of London, for a remarkable ceremony: the unveiling of Blake’s new gravestone (News, 17 August).

Meticulous research by Carol and Luis Garrido had, at last, identified the exact spot where Blake had been buried, together with seven others, in the Dissenters’ graveyard there, and the old stone that had simply said “somewhere near here lies the body” could be replaced at last with an exact marker and a fitting memorial.

The Blake Society, who had organised the event, and raised funds for the stone, expected about 50 people to turn up, but, when I arrived, there were already four or five hundred. Those of us who were speaking addressed the crowd, without amplification, by standing on a park bench and declaiming at the best volume we could muster. It had the feel of just those gatherings and hustings of popular dissent that Blake would have known in the London of his day.

And it was Blake the prophet, Blake who calls Albion to awake from his evil dreams of empire, from the “Newton’s sleep” of materialism, from the somnambulist oppression of the poor, who was to the fore in all those speeches.

Many of us drew on the Prophetic poem Jerusalem (not to be confused with the short lyric “And did those feet” — important as that is). And the more often that long Jerusalem was quoted, the more it seemed like a prophetic poem for our time:

I see the Four-fold Man. The Humanity in deadly sleep
And its fallen Emanation. The Spectre and its cruel Shadow.
I see the Past, Present and Future, existing all at once
Before me; O Divine Spirit sustain me on thy wings!
That I may awake Albion from his long and cold repose.

Blake draws and inspires people from all walks of life. There were punk poets, street artists, members of radical collectives, literary figures, painters, musicians, and priests, though none of the latter were wearing black gowns, walking their rounds, or binding with briars any one’s joys and desires.

I found myself sharing a platform with the Revd Lucy Winkett, on the one hand, in whose church Blake was baptised, and with Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden, on the other, whose passion for Blake and eloquence about him were astonishing — and he certainly had no problems with volume.

A lofty plane tree above Blake’s grave cast a dappled green light down on us, and on Lida Cardozo Kindersley’s beautiful lettering cut into the Portland stone:

Here Lies
William Blake
Poet Artist Prophet
I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
Built in Jerusalem’s Wall

We may have lost our way of late as a nation, and there may be more than one cold sleep from which we need to awake; but, as long as we have poets and prophets like Blake and still read and heed them, we have not yet lost the end of a golden string, that we might follow, that might draw us back to our true vocation, and lead us again to Heaven’s gate.

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