Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves
Giving himself for the Nations he danc'd the dance of Eternal Death
(William Blake, The Dance of Albion, 1794)
Tomorrow is the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Blake. To mark Blake Day let's have a think about Blake and dancing. Blake uses dance in a conventional way as an image of joyful pleasure, as in this song:
I love the jocund dance,
The softly-breathing song,
Where innocent eyes do glance,
And where lisps the maiden's tongue.
But for Blake, carefree joys of innocence are always overshadowed by experience. The simple pleasures of life can be equally simply brushed away, like a fly:
Am not I A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
Dancing for Blake is sometimes something terrible; in 'Milton', people seem to be dancing in a kind of hell:
Thousands & thousands labour, thousands play on instruments
Stringed or fluted to ameliorate the sorrows of slavery
Loud sport the dancers in the dance of death, rejoicing in carnage
The hard dentant Hammers are lull’d by the flutes lula lula
The bellowing Furnaces blare by the long sounding clarion
The double drum drowns howls & groans, the shrill fife shrieks & cries:
The crooked horn mellows the hoarse raving serpent
We need to bear in mind that Blake bore witness to the birth of the modern factory system and that the ‘Mills of Satan’ he describes were partly a visionary take on the realities of the giant mills of early industrialism. There is a sense in which music and dance are a relief for the labouring slaves of Albion but that even their pleasures are mis-shapen: ‘Los beheld The servants of the Mills drunken with wine and dancing wild With shouts and Palamabrons songs, rending the forests green With echoing confusion, tho' the Sun was risen on high’ .
Certainly, Blake warns, nobody should mistake the pleasures of the poor for consent for the status quo. As the Chimney Sweep says in his famous poem of the same name:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery
Thanks to Bob and V for reminding me of Blake's birthday. See also Blake in South London