William Blake in popular culture

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William Blake's body of work has influenced countless writers, poets and painters, and his legacy is often apparent in modern popular culture.[1] His artistic endeavours, which included songwriting in addition to writing, etching and painting, often espoused a sexual and imaginative freedom that has made him a uniquely influential figure, especially since the 1960s. After Shakespeare, far more than any other canonical writer, his songs have been set and adapted by popular musicians including U2, Jah Wobble, Tangerine Dream, Bruce Dickinson and Ulver. Folk musicians, such as M. Ward, have adapted or incorporated portions of his work in their music, and figures such as Bob Dylan,[2] Alasdair Gray and Allen Ginsberg have been influenced by him. The genre of the graphic novel traces its origins to Blake's etched songs and Prophetic Books, as does the genre of fantasy art.[3]


Blake's painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun (1806-1809) and the poem "Auguries of Innocence" both play a prominent role in Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon (1981), in which the killer Francis Dolarhyde has an obsession with the painting. Dolarhyde imagines himself 'becoming' a being like the Red Dragon featured in the paintings. In Hannibal, a copy of Blake's painting The Ancient of Days is owned by Mason Verger, a reference to Verger's Urizenic qualities.[4]

The cover of Thomas Harris's 1981 novel Red Dragon.

Blake's epic Milton a Poem was adapted by J. G. Ballard in his 1979 novel, The Unlimited Dream Company.[5]

Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses (1988) contains a brief episode in which the characters discuss Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell.[6]

Blake is described by Philip Pullman as one of three major literary influences on His Dark Materials, along with Heinrich von Kleist and John Milton.[7] Pullman's stated intention was to invert Milton's story of a war between heaven and hell in the light of Blake's famous comment that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it".[8] Pullman stated that he "is of the Devil's party and does know it."

Blake is a character in Tracy Chevalier's novel Burning Bright (2007), which centres on a family who live next door to him in Lambeth while he is writing Songs of Experience.[9]

In Orson Scott Card's series The Tales of Alvin Maker, William Blake was depicted under the name "Taleswapper." [10]

In Crawford Kilian's novel The Fall of the Republic, when a gateway is found to a parallel world equivalent to 18th-century Earth, it is named Beulah, and other worlds at different points in the timestream are named for other Blake entities, such as Orc, Ahania, Los, Urthona, Thel, and Tharmas. In particular, a future world whose atmosphere has been devastated by unknown forces is called Ulro.[11]

Visual arts[edit]

Blake was particularly influential on the young generation of early twentieth-century English landscape painters, such as Paul Nash and Dora Carrington. Abstract painter Ronnie Landfield dedicated a painting to Blake in the late 1960s.[12]

Comics and graphic novels[edit]

Blake is often cited as an inspiration in comic literature. Alan Moore cites Blake's work in V for Vendetta (1982-5) and Watchmen (1986-7).[13] As an apparent homage to Blake's importance in Moore's work, a framed copy of Blake's watercolor "Elohim Creating Adam" can be seen when Evey first explores V's hideout in the film version of V for Vendetta. William Blake also becomes an important figure in Moore's later work, and is a featured character in From Hell (1991–98) and Angel Passage (2001). In From Hell, Blake appears as a mystical and occultic foil to William Gull's aristocratic plot to murder the prostitutes of Whitechapel in London. Gull appears to Blake in two visions over the course of Moore's comic, and becomes the inspiration for "The Ghost of a Flea." Angel Passage was performed at the 2001 Tate Gallery exhibition of Blake accompanied with art by John Coulthart.

Grant Morrison, R. Crumb, and J. M. DeMatteis have all cited Blake as one of their major inspirations. Comic designer William Blake Everett claims to be descended from Blake.[14][15]


Francis Dolarhyde as portrayed by Tom Noonan in the film Manhunter, wearing a tattoo based on one of Blake's Red Dragon paintings

In his movie Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese refers to Blake's poem "The Tyger" when a young pet tiger makes Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro take refuge atop a couch, paralleling the grit and innocence of life in the city.[16]

A variation on a verse from Blake's America a Prophecy appears in Ridley Scott's science fiction film Blade Runner (1982), spoken by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). This has been interpreted as a way of linking Batty to Blake's mythic regenerative hero Orc.[17]

In Jim Jarmusch's 1995 western Dead Man, the central character, played by Johnny Depp, is named William Blake and allusions to Blake's poetry appear thematically as well as explicitly. An American Indian called Nobody saves Blake's life, and actually thinks that the person is, in fact, Blake the poet.[18]

Blake or his work has also featured in other American independent films since 2000. Hal Hartley’s The New Math(s) (2000), in which two students fight with their teacher over the solution to a complex mathematical equation, takes as its inspiration Blake’s The Book of Thel. Similarly, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005), which is loosely based on the final hours of Kurt Cobain, has a central character called Blake. The Blakean allusions are subtle throughout the film and include Hildegard Westerkamp’s "Doors of Perception" soundscape, itself a response to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. At the end of the film, having committed suicide, Blake’s soul ascends from his body in a scene that directly references the illustrations to Robert Blair's The Grave, which was illustrated by Blake in 1808.[19]

The film versions of the novel Red Dragon, Manhunter (1986) and Red Dragon (2002), include images of Blake's "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun". In the first film the character played by Tom Noonan sports a tattoo on his chest based on Blake's image of the dragon hovering over the woman. The second film has the character (played by Ralph Fiennes) display a stylised version of the dragon tattooed on his back.[20]

The image of V escaping the fire at Larkhill in The Wachowskis' V for Vendetta (2006) is very similar to Blake's images of Orc from the Illuminated Works (cf. Urizen plate 16; America plate 12), and an almost exact reproduction of plate 5 (V, had Blake used Roman numerals to number his plates) of "The Gates of Paradise," titled "Fire."[21]



Blake's poems have been set to music by many composers, including Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. In the early twentieth century British Classical songwriters regularly set his work for voice or choir. The most famous musical setting is Hubert Parry's hymn Jerusalem, which was written as a patriotic song during World War I.

Contemporary classical composers have also continued to set Blake's work. Composer William Bolcom set the entire collection of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1984, a recording of which was released in 2006. John Mitchell has also set songs from the Poetical Sketches as "Seven Songs from William Blake".[22] Eve Beglarian has written a piece called "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" inspired by and using quotations from Blake's work of the same name.


With the emergence of modern popular music in the 1950s and 1960s, Blake became a hero of the counter culture. Dylan's songs were compared to Blake.[2] Dylan also collaborated with Allen Ginsberg to record two Blake songs.[23] Ginsberg himself performed and recorded many Blake songs, claiming that the spirit of Blake had communicated musical settings of several Blake poems to him.[24] He believed that in 1948 in an apartment in Harlem, he had had an auditory hallucination of Blake reading his poems "Ah, Sunflower," "The Sick Rose," and "Little Girl Lost" (later referred to as his "Blake vision"). Ginsberg created an album of Blake's works, released in 1970 as Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake, tuned by Allen Ginsberg.

The Fugs set several of Blake's songs and performed a "Homage to William and Catherine Blake," celebrating their sexual freedom.[25]

The cover of The Chemical Wedding by Bruce Dickinson, depicting Blake's painting The Ghost of a Flea.

Loreena McKennitt used lines from the Poetical Sketches in her song Lullaby.[26] Martha Redbone's 2012 album The Garden of Love - Songs of William Blake consists of twelve pieces of Blake's poetry.[27]

Enrique Bunbury from Spanish band Héroes del Silencio was influenced by Blake's work, with songs like "El Camino del Exceso (The Road of Excess)," "Los Placeres de la Pobreza (The Pleasures of Poverty)," "Deshacer el Mundo (Unmake the World)" and "La Chispa Adecuada (The Right Spark)".[28]

Coil performed a song called "Love's Secret Domain" that quotes Blake's "The Sick Rose",[29] they also allude to Blake in "The Dreamer is Still Asleep" on Musick to Play in the Dark Vol. 1. Thee Majesty, a later project of Genesis P-Orridge, performed a song called "Thee Little Black Boy" loosely based on Blake's poem "The Little Black Boy".[30]

American swing band the Cherry Poppin' Daddies reference both "The Lamb" and "The Tyger" in a line from "Huffin' Muggles", a track from their 2013 album White Teeth, Black Thoughts.[31]


Assets for the game Dante's Inferno draw upon Blake's illustrations to Dante as well as those by Gustave Doré and Auguste Rodin.[32]


  1. ^ Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture, Steve Clark and Jason Whittaker,(eds), Palgrave, 2007, Introduction: Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture; S. Clark & J. Whittaker
  2. ^ a b William Blake, in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, by Michael Gray.
  3. ^ Jay Shukla, William Blake - The Divine Image
  4. ^ Gompf, M. "The Silence of the Lamb and the Tyger: Harris and Blake, Good and Evil", in Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture, Steve Clark and Jason Whittaker,(eds), Palgrave, 2007
  5. ^ J. Whittaker and Shirley Dent, Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827, Palgrave, 2002.
  6. ^ M. Green, "'This Angel, who is now a Devil, is my particular Friend': Diabolic Friendships and Oppositional Interrogation in Blake and Rushdie," Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture, Steve Clark and Jason Whittaker, editors, Palgrave, 2007.
  7. ^ Fried, Kerry. "Darkness Visible: An Interview with Philip Pullman". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2007-04-13. 
  8. ^ Mitchison, Amanda (2003-11-03). "The art of darkness". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2007-04-12. 
  9. ^ "In the forests of the night, Tracy Chevalier moves on from Vermeer to Blake in Burning Bright", by Clare Clark, The Guardian, 10 March 2007
  10. ^ Card, Orson Scott (1987). Seventh Son. Tor. ISBN 9780812533057.  "If one of your prophecies comes true, Bill Blake, then I'll believe it, but not until.", p. 93. "I was born in fifty-seven . . . .", p. 96. He opened his eyes and found his fingers resting among the Proverbs of Hell. . . . "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.", p. 92
  11. ^ "Crawford Kilian Biography". Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  12. ^ "Antiques and the Arts Online - Of Abstracts and William Blake". 9 July 2012. Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  13. ^ Whitson, Roger. "Panelling Parallax: The Fearful Symmetry of William Blake and Alan Moore". Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  14. ^ "William Blake and Visual Culture," Roger Whitson, in ImageText; Inderdisciplinary Comic Studies, 2006 Blake had no children, though Everett says he is a distant relative.
  15. ^ "Interview with Wendy Everett - Bill Everett's daughter - Comic Book Artist #2 - TwoMorrows Publishing". Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  16. ^ Script of Mean Streets
  17. ^ http://www.anzasa.arts.usyd.edu.au/a.j.a.s/Articles/1_02/Gerblinger.pdf
  18. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Dead Man Movie Review & Film Summary (1996) - Roger Ebert". Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  19. ^ "William Blake and film – Zoamorphosis - The Blake 2.0 Blog". Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  20. ^ http://moviesmedia.ign.com/movies/image/reddragon-fiennes2.jpg
  21. ^ "The William Blake Archive". Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  22. ^ The Lied and Art Song Texts Page
  23. ^ Dylan/Ginsberg sessions
  24. ^ "PennSound: Ginsberg/Blake". Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  25. ^ "Pop Culture Interpretations". 1 August 2002. Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  26. ^ "Loreena McKennitt / William Blake -- Lullaby". Retrieved 6 March 2017. 
  27. ^ The Garden of Love - Songs of William Blake album notes
  28. ^ "Influencias en las letras de Héroes del Silencio". 
  29. ^ "The Secret Domain - Coil and Blake", retrieved 27 April 2010
  30. ^ On the compilation Looking For Europe
  31. ^ Portwood, Jerry (August 27, 2013). "EXCLUSIVE: Watch Cherry Poppin' Daddies's Steve Perry do Drag". Out. 
  32. ^ "Dante's Inferno: The Book based on The Game based on The Poem based on The Theology". Retrieved 2010-03-28.