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Two John Higgs Books on William Blake’s Extraordinary Relevance

William Blake had quite the year in his home city of London in 2019.  The Tate Britain Museum had a major exhibition of his extraordinary multifaceted art, something it does every twenty years or so.

The museum also arranged that one of his most famous images, often known as “Ancient of Days”, be projected on the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral for several nights to celebrate his November birthday.

Also in 2019, one of Britain’s most incisive cultural commentators, John Higgs, offered a short, highly provocative book,  William Blake Now:  Why He Matters More Than Ever (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

This book raises a remarkable number of insights and issues of great relevance today.

All this must seem highly unlikely for a very unusual artist/poet/prophet/visionary who died in obscurity and poverty almost two hundred years ago.  During his lifetime he was probably best known for his skills as an engraver-for-hire, barely known as a poet/writer and as visual artist.  His only public exhibition was a failure resulting in no sales.  Its only journalistic review called his work “the ebullitions of a distempered brain,” calling Blake an “unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.”

Blake was in many ways way ahead of his time—condemning colonialism and war, the exploitation of children and animals and the injustices of a class-based society blessed by an out-of-touch established church.

Higgs presents insights into how Blake “haunts” the twenty-first century in many unlikely ways, from horror films to video games, while suggesting that Blake provides ways to confront issues of nationalism/world citizenship, environmental protection and relations of genders in ways that might inform very disparate groups.

Beyond these issues, Higgs stresses the heart of Blake’s message that the divine is revealed and expressed best in the human imagination, which ultimately helps us to confront injustice and degradation.

He also suggested the value in updating Blake in view of language changes, such as changing the poem, “London” with “corporate “ rather than “chartered” Thames.  Personally, this got me to think about how a misunderstood and misused Blake poem had become the U.K.’s  “unofficial national anthem.”  I reworked images from what is sometimes known as “Jerusalem” or “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time?”  See:

The book’s pithiness (only 86 pages) called for further exploration.  Fortunately, that will appear with the May 2021 publication of Higgs’ William Blake vs. the World.

William Blake vs. the World’s May 27th book launch, online in the days of C.O.V.I.D., will, in Higgs’ own words, be “pretty damn special.”

It will be held at the British Library, the U.K.’s most important literary institution and demonstrates how that country and people around the world are increasingly fascinated by Blake.

While the Tate show, of course, was about Blake as a visual artist, this remarkable book launch will illustrate his enormous influence as a poet, thinker, prophet and revolutionary in Britain and throughout the world.

Perhaps the most startling presence at the event is the new president of the Blake Society, young Kae Tempest, who has made an enormous impact in Britain as a poet, performance artist and rapper. Check out this recently announced non-binary person, formerly Kate, on YouTube. Posting are for both Kae and Kate Tempest.

Also on the program will be poets, readers and presentations about the library’s Blake treasures.:

Interested in knowing, seeing and hearing more about Blake?  Check out the documentaries, readings, lectures, etc. on YouTube.


Online Event: Book Now

William Blake vs the World: Why he matters more than ever

Thu 27 May 2021, 19:30 – 20:







  • Tel: +44 (0)1937 546546
  • Email:
  • Full Price: £5.00
    Member: £5.00
    Other concessions available

A celebration with Neil Gaiman, Salena Godden, John Higgs, Robin Ince and Kae Tempest.

This is an online event hosted on the British Library platform. Bookers will be sent a link in advance giving access and will be able to watch at any time for 48 hours after the start time.

William Blake (1757 – 1827) was a poet, artist, visionary and author of the unofficial English national anthem ‘Jerusalem’.

An archetypal misunderstood genius, his life passed without recognition and he worked without reward, mocked, dismissed and misinterpreted. Yet from his ignoble end in a pauper’s grave, Blake now occupies a unique position as an artist who unites and attracts people from all corners of society, and a rare inclusive symbol of English identity.

Many of his astonishing publications and manuscripts are housed at the British Library. This special event features glimpses of these great treasures and the words of our curator Alexandra Ault.

Blake’s words are read for us exclusively by two of our finest contemporary poets, authors and performers, Salena Godden and Kae Tempest, while Neil Gaiman shares a special appreciation.

In a rich and revealing conversation, John Higgs, the author of the new book William Blake vs the World, talks to comedian, writer and polymath Robin Ince about the bewildering eccentricities and mind of this most singular artist. They discuss why so many people are drawn to an artist they don’t claim to understand, what modern neuroscience can tell us about Blake’s visions and the strength of his imagination, and the important role he plays in modern British society.

Buy your copy of William Blake vs the World for £20 at checkout (with free UK postage) and attend the event at no extra cost *

Neil Gaiman is an author of books for children and adults whose titles include Norse Mythology, American Gods, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), Coraline, and the Sandman graphic novels. Neil Gaiman is also a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR and Professor in the Arts at Bard College.

Salena Godden is one of Britain’s best loved poets and performers. She is also an activist, broadcaster, memoirist and essayist and is widely anthologised. She has published several volumes of poetry, the latest of which was Pessimism is for Lightweights, and a literary childhood memoir, Springfield Road. Her debut novel Mrs Death Misses Death was published this year to great acclaim. A BBC Radio 4 documentary following Godden’s progress on the novel over 12 months was broadcast in 2018. In November 2020 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

John Higgs is a writer who specialises in finding previously unsuspected narratives, hidden in obscure corners of our history and culture, which can change the way we see the world. His books include I Have America Surrounded (2006), The KLF (2012), Stranger Than We Can Imagine (2015), Watling Street (2017), The Future Starts Here (2019), William Blake Now (2019) and William Blake Vs The World (2020). He has also written two short novels under the name JMR Higgs, The Brandy of the Damned (2012) and The First Church on the Moon (2013).

Robin Ince is co-presenter of the award-winning BBC Radio 4 show, The Infinite Monkey Cage. He has won the Time Out Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, was nominated for a British Comedy Award for Best Live show, and has won three Chortle Awards. He has toured his stand up across the world, both solo and with his radio double act partner, Professor Brian Cox. He is the author of I’m a Joke and So Are You and the forthcoming The Importance of Being Interested: Adventures in Scientific Curiosity.

Kae Tempest is an award-winning author, poet and recording artist artist and President of the Blake Society. Tempest won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award, was nominated for a Costa Book Award and a BRIT Award, has been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize twice and was nominated for two Ivor Novello Awards. They were also named a Next Generation Poet by the Poetry Book Society, a decennial accolade. They released their fourth studio album, The Book of Traps and Lessons produced by Rick Rubin in 2019, and a non-fiction book, On Connection in 2020.

*Please note. An additional postage charge of £5 applies for orders from outside the UK. Books purchased will normally be dispatched within 7 days after the event. Please ensure your address is up to date on your British Library account.

The British Library is a charity. Your support helps us open up a world of knowledge and inspiration for everyone. Donate today.


Name: William Blake vs the World: Why he matters more than ever
Where: British Library St Pancras
When: Thu 27 May 2021, 19:30 – 20:45
Price: Full Price: £5.00

Member: £5.00

Full Price plus book (UK orders only): £20.00

Full Price plus book (Non UK postage): £25.00

Enquiries: +44 (0)1937 546546



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