When I Paint My Masterpiece part 3. Blake did come up with some bold lines

I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.


by Jochen Markhorst


III         Blake did come up with some bold lines

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

In Alfredson’s superb 2011 film adaptation of Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it also comes along again, hollowly and hauntingly. Smiley (Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning role) asks his assistant Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), “Peter, did you get the keys to Control’s flat?”, cut, and immediately afterwards we see both men walking down the street, towards the apartment building where the recently deceased Control, Smiley’s chief, lived. In the next shot, the camera is in the stairwell behind the front door, low behind the stairs that take both men from the ground floor to the flat. It is dark, the men do not speak, and mixed way back on the soundtrack we hear then, unearthly and somehow ominously:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?

… the opening lines of Willam Blake’s 1804 poem, which became popular as “Jerusalem” after Hubert Parry’s 1916 setting to music. Very, very popular in fact; we hear it featured in dozens of films and TV series (in productions as diverse as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Chariots of Fire of course, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to name but a few), it is sung by the audience every year as the finale of Last Night of the Proms, as well as at sporting events and whatnot. By now, it can be considered as a sort of alternative English national anthem (as an alternative to the British “God Save The Queen”).

The appeal of the tune is not too surprising: a simple, accessible tune, unison at that, so that it can easily be sung by masses. Which, however, only partly explains its continued success – the je-ne-sais-quoi, the extra magic comes from the lyrics. Not so much from chauvinistic, but safe slam dunks like England’s pleasant pastures, England’s mountains green and England’s green and pleasant land, or melodramatic imperatives like Bring me my chariot of fire! or heroic vows like I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword, sleep in my hand, in short, not so much because of intrinsic qualities, but mainly thanks to the stylistic mastery of the mystic poet.

Opening with And is a perfect example of such a masterstroke. The “And-opening” already has its own poetic power that ensures you are immediately drawn into the poem, suggesting timelessness and creating a mysterious tension in all its insubstantial monosyllabicity. Nevertheless, the trick is not used too often, oddly. “And I Love You So” by Perry Como (written by Don McLean, by the way), David Bowie’s “The Bewlay Brothers”(And so the story goes), Led Zeppelin’s “What Is And What Should Never Be”, Pete Townshend’s forgotten gem “And I Moved” from 1980, Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing”, and above all The Left Banke’s immortal 1966 evergreen “Walk Away Renee”(And when I see the sign that points one way / The lot we used to pass by every day), and there are probably a few more – but really not that many. Fortunately, perhaps – that might be one reason why the magical power hasn’t worn off yet.

And the other pillar is Blake’s vocabulary, Blake’s choice of words, from which Dylan has drawn more than once in his career. Sometimes explicitly, like songs of experience in “I Contain Multitudes” or Tyger tyger burning bright in “Roll On, John”, and very often casually, like the clouds of blood in “Cold Irons Bound”, speaks like silence from “Love Minus Zero”, golden loom, or the little boy lost from “Visions Of Johanna”… traces of Blake can be found in every decade of Dylan’s 60 years. “My latest thing of just reading was back into reading the William Blake poems again,” he says 1992 in a telephone interview with Time Off, and a year later he even compares Blake’s work to his best songs:

Love Henry is a remarkable tale with an enigmatic final section in which a murderess tries to lure a parrot to her knee. It opens up a door for another song, Dylan says. That’s what my best songs do. In the last couple of lines, it might just open a door for another song. William Blake could have written that.”
(interview with Gary Hill, 13 October 1993)

Around the time of Masterpiece , besides being identifiable in the songs, the admiration is just as explicitly expressed: “Blake did come up with some bold lines,” as he says in the interview with John Cohen, 1968.

Here we sense Blake in the second line of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, in ancient footprints. Blake generally avoids more common but boring synonyms like age-old, relic, antique or archaic, but is instead fond of the ingrained euphoniousness of the single word ancient. In Complete Poems alone it can be found 42 times, in the “prophetic book” Jerusalem 21 times, and thus he most likely did ignite Dylan. Most clearly, of course, in “Every Grain Of Sand”(I hear the ancient footsteps), but “Mr. Tambourine Man’s” the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming and, for instance, the world’s ancient light from “When The Deal Goes Down” have an unmistakable Blake fragrance as well, just from that single word ancient.

However, at most it explains Dylan’s receptivity to this particular word. The immediate trigger for something like “the traces of a distant past” is, of course, “Rome”, in which the protagonist continues to wander for two whole stanzas after these opening lines. An unknown narrator on a cold, dark night, walking on empty streets in Rome, descending the Spanish Steps on his way to a waiting lady in a hotel room… it actually does sound like the opening of a John Le Carré novel too, come to think of it.


To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 4: I love the sound of words, yeah


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

One comment

  1. Tiger, tiger burning bright
    In the forests of the night

    This too:

    And stopped into a strange hotel
    With a neon burning bright
    He felt rhe heat of the night
    (Dylan: Shelter From the Storm)

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