Catherine Blake brought out of shadows in exhibition also featuring artist’s self-portrait
William Blake’s wife, Catherine, is to be brought out of the shadows and celebrated as a lifelong creative influence, in the largest exhibition in a generation devoted to an artist believed by many to be one of Britain’s greatest.
Tate Britain has announced details of its big autumn Blake show, bringing together more than 300 works. It will include the first UK display of a piece thought to be Blake’s only self-portrait, and the recreation of a solo exhibition he staged in 1809 that he hoped would bring him fame and fortune. Sadly, only a handful of people turned up.
There will also be watercolours from a hoard of 19 works lost for 165 years and found in 2001 in a Glasgow secondhand bookshop. Two book dealers bought them for £50 each; the set was later controversially broken up and sold for $7m.
Curators said Catherine, Blake’s lifelong companion, would feature heavily in the exhibition. “It is only in the last 15 years that Catherine as a huge stabilising, supporting and level-headed influence on Blake’s art and his domestic life has really come to the fore,” said Amy Concannon, a co-curator of the show.
On a practical level she made sure the family did not descend into poverty, always keeping a certain amount of money hidden in the house and occasionally serving her husband an empty dinner plate to buck his ideas up.
But she also coloured his prints and was a hugely important creative force in his life, said Martin Myrone, another co-curator.
Despite the notorious difficulty of the Scots dialect, the poetry of Robert Burns enjoys a global legacy.
Tonight Scots around the world will celebrate the poet Robert Burns (1759–1796). They’ll eat haggis and drink whiskey; recite poems and make speeches. Just over three weeks ago, renditions of “Auld Lang Syne” were sung to bring in the New Year. “For auld lang syne . . . We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.” Arm-in-arm, cheery celebrants probably asked one another, “What does it mean?”
Despite the notorious difficulty of the Scots dialect, the poetry of Robert Burns enjoys a global legacy. In the U.S., there are more statues of Burns than there are of any American poet. Abraham Lincoln could recite most of Burns’s work from memory. The naturalist John Muir, who later founded the Sierra Club, carried a book of Burns poems and counted it among his most treasured possessions. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: “He [Burns] has made that Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man.”
Americans will no doubt be familiar with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. To understand the genius of Burns’ appeal, one need look no further than the poem that inspired this great title: “To a Mouse,” or, “To a Mouse: on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785.” If you want to read the full poem — it’s here.
According to tradition, it based on a real-life encounter when, out in the fields, Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest. Consider the opening line, “Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie.” From the outset, we have everything we need to understand the mouse. However, it is more than just five-word portrait. This perfectly captures the plowman’s relation to her. We already know, from the title, that the mouse is of the gentler sex. “Wee” an “tim’rous” are distinctly Scottish and full of tenderness. “Beastie” identifies the mouse as an adversary, but it does so in good humor. “Sleeket” has a double meaning – silky or sneaky – and either way invokes admiration. Then there’s the plowman’s implicit pity in “cowran”.
In typical Burns fashion, there’s a swift zooming-out in perspective in stanza two, where we are moved from the local to the universal. The plowman addresses the mouse as an equal: “I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union.” These lines, which justify Burns’ enduring appeal to ecologists and conservationists, like the aforementioned John Muir, relate to Romanticism’s much broader theme, the relation between Man and Nature.
But if this is profound, it is also unexpected. This rural encounter ought to be commonplace. Endearing, perhaps – but it’s hardly the stuff of tragedies. Yet the drama Burns affords it is a testament to his multi-dimensional voice. Burns’ biographer, Robert Crawford, describes it as his “performative impulse” whereby the “innate drama of his life” informs the “reach of his poetry.”
And so there is an undeniable undercurrent of humanitarian warmth as we learn how the plowman is affected by — and complicit in — the mouse’s distress: “At me, thy poor, earth-born companion, / An’ fellow mortal!” Here Burns is also beginning to gather momentum for the poem’s famous denouement.
Then suddenly, Burns flips the guilt back on the mouse and plays to our original expectations. She’s a thief! But then again, who could blame her? “Poor beastie, thou maun live!” Hers is a crime of necessity, of survival. Meanwhile, the plow’s clumsy destruction has caused her “wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!” So the little mouse will have to face “bleak December’s winds ensuing” without any “cozie” shelter. What is surprising is that the cause of her unprecedented woe is not the plowman, but a cruel and inexorable fate, “Till crash! The cruel coluter past,/Out thro’ thy cell.”
Once again, Burns uses the address to the mouse as an opportunity to make a grander claim; that all mortal creatures, mankind included, are victims to chance. He then pens the immortal words: “The best laid schemes o’Mice an’ Men/ Gang aft agley”. Which later inspired the title of a Steinbeck’s classic and the motif of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
In the final stanza, Burns’ teasing tone concludes in clarity. While the mouse and the plowman are united by “Nature’s social union”, they are also distinctive.
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
Ultimately, mankind has it worse.
His consciousness renders the precariousness of life, and the reign of chance, tyrannical.
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear.
James Naughtie’s picks include bashed pillows, sharp stars and sexy spacemen. What are your favourites?
In a week that feels ripe for celebrating the reach of poetry – and just in time for Burns Night – the Scottish Poetry Library has asked James Naughtie to choose his “best of the best” Scottish poems of the past 15 years.
Moving from, as Naughtie puts it, “Edwin Morgan in his last years talking about love” to “Kathleen Jamie catching a sense of national belonging in a few short lines”, it is a soul-quenching selection. There is humour and beauty in Claire Askew’s I Am the Moon, and You Are the Man on Me: “Tonight, I am white and full. / My surface is all curves / and craters,” she opens, later writing, deliciously: “Your compass does not work here, / but you are sexy / in your spaceman suit.” Liz Lochhead’s In the Mid-Midwinter, written after John Donne’s A Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day, feels ever so apt for these bleak days of January: “There’s nothing very much to speak of anything to speak of / in the sky except a gey dreich greyness / rain-laden over Glasgow,” she writes. But “the light comes back / the light always comes back.” Lochhead’s description of the winter moon, “fat in the frosty sky among the sharpest stars”, is irresistible.
According to Colin Waters from the Scottish Poetry Library, which has published all the poems on its site, the poems are “part of the long and colourful history of Scottish poetry that Burns embodied through his life and work”. But the collection also shows how poetry has moved on.
“Someone asked me last week whether Burns wasn’t a little ‘problematic’,” Waters says, “particularly his attitude to women and sex. We’re not blind to that, and with the collection including strong contributions by, among others, Liz Lochhead, JL Williams, Katie Ailes and Jen Hadfield, we can see that contemporary Scottish poetry is at least trying to expand the voices it showcases.”
As Naughtie puts it: “We’re stepping into rich pasture here.” But the broadcaster was only considering the last 15 years of Scottish poetry. As it is indeed Burns Night, let’s see what else we might include if we were allowed to consider the full wealth of Scotland’s rich poetic heritage, whether the poetry of Burns himself – Tam o’ Shanter was voted the nation’s favourite in 2012 – or the glory of Violet Jacob’s The Wild Geese, or my own personal favourite Morgan poem, Strawberries. I’ve no agenda other than reading wonderful poetry from the land of “westlin’ winds and fernie braes, / Northern lights and siller tides,”, as Kathleen Jamie writes in Here Lies Our Land, and I hope you’ll join me
early two centuries after his death, the final resting place of William Blake (1757 – 1827) is about to be marked with a gravestone. The remains of the poet-painter lie in a common grave under an anonymous patch of grass in Bunhill Fields cemetery, just outside the City of London.On 12 August, myself and fellow trustees of the Blake Society will unveil a new ledger stone on the site, exquisitely carved by leading stonecutter Lida Cardozo. The ceremony will be open to all.
I’m hoping Bunhill Fields will be filled with people on that day, because I believe that, though Blake is long dead, he is still the finest poet of liberty and the human potential, and we need his work to awaken the dissenting imagination more than ever.
This is not how Blake is usually seen today. Most people tend to think of him as bucolic, and otherworldly, painting mystic visions of angels in Heaven while opposing the Industrial Revolution on Earth. A sort of patron saint of hippies, peaceniks and eco-warriors.
For me, nothing could be further from the truth. I think today is an apposite time to honour Blake because our present illiberal, censorious and conformist era shares many parallels with the period in which he lived [ . . . ]