BURNING BRIGHT by Tracy Chevalier (Book Review)

If, like me, you have always been fascinated and thrilled by the poems and pictures of William Blake, you will be delighted with this book, for it is set in his London and he plays quite a major role in it. His London, yes.

(This and several other poems crop up quite naturally in the course of the story.)

I wander through each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow

And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man
In every infant’s cry of fear
In every voice, in every ban
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

And what is more, he is credibly depicted – an outspoken radical (he was a friend of Tom Paine’s) at a time when a breath of socialism or support for the revolution in France could cost one one’s life; eccentric to the point of “madness” – in constant communication with his dead brother, and living in fact on two levels, in two worlds, simultaneously; and very, very kind in a society where kindness seems to have been in extremely short supply.

A poor family emigrate from a Devonshire village to London, and the story is of the two village children, Jem and his beautiful but totally naive and innocent sister, Maisie (a source of inspiration to Blake!) and her adorable streetwise counterpart, Maggie, the local London girl who befriends Jem and tries to protect Maisie.

It is perfectly written, as one would expect of the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, and succeeds on every level. I will never be able to read William Blake again without thinking of him facing a mob who are demanding that he sign an oath of allegiance to the king, and refusing outright; and Jem and Maisie’s father, the local from the Devonshire village, following suit, not because he knows or cares anything about politics but because he objects to being forced to do something by a violent mob.

And the depiction of the two girls, Maisie and Maggie, as they grow up, become women, is completely unforgettable.

A must for all Blake-lovers as well, of course, as all lovers of top quality Historical Fiction.

BLAKE’S SUNFLOWER (by Elizabeth Smart)

“Sorry, Blake!”

I

Why did Blake say
‘Sunflower weary of time’?
Every time I see them
they seem to say
Now! with a crash
of cymbals!
Very pleased
and positive
and absolutely delighting
in their own round brightness.

II

Sorry, Blake!
Now I see what you mean.
Storms and frost have battered
their bright delight
and though they are still upright
nothing could say dejection
more than their weary
disillusioned
hanging heads.

And here is William Blake’s original poem:

AH! SUN-FLOWER

Ah, sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done:

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.