Putting away the camping gear after this year’s Glastonbury Festival, I found myself reflecting on the idea of alternative cultures. Since its origins, Glastonbury has always been political, and hosts a huge number of side discussions, concerts and seminars. It still gives money to Greenpeace, WaterAid and Oxfam, in addition to a host of local charities. As a festival of music and arts, it plays an important part in public discourse in these deeply polarised times – when, for instance, a journalist from The Times recently argued that the humanities are a waste of effort.


I was involved with festival founder Michael Eavis’s Woods Stage this year, collaborating with West Country singer-songwriter Steve Knightley on a show exploring the Diggers, Peterloo, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists. During it, Steve sang part of William Blake’s poetry collection ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. (Blake, we are told, often sang his own poems to friends.)

I like to see Blake (1757–1827) as a spiritual godfather of the Glastonbury Festival. Artist, illustrator, engraver, poet and activist, he conversed with spirits and saw angels in trees. Jacob Bronowski’s 1965 book William Blake and the Age of Revolution sets Blake’s voice in the context of the age of revolution. Often ridiculed, Blake sank into oblivion after his death, until the biography by Alexander Gilchrist, completed by his widow, Anne, and published in 1863. Since then, his status has only grown, confirmed by a stunning exhibition at Tate Britain not long ago. Blake emerged from the mainstream of British historical experience going back to the Civil War. The English revolution of the 1640s failed: radicals lost their hopes of a new age of republican justice and equality when, as the Digger Gerrard Winstanley put it, all mankind might live “in the light and strength of pure Reason”. The climax of elation in 1649 was followed by the slow betrayal of the 1650s. The monarchy was restored, leaving writers and artists with the bitter taste of defeat. Among them was John Milton, who wrote that “it is intolerable and incredible that evil should be stronger than good”.

But out of the cataclysm came an explosion of religious groups. In the 18th century, nonconformist churches multiplied, though persecuted and denied higher education. Blake’s mother’s ancestors belonged to the Muggletonian church and, as a young man, Blake was steeped in that sect’s ideas of justice, individualism and human liberation.

Blake saw mass society bound “in sorrowful drudgery, to obtain a scanty pittance of bread”. After his time, the lot of the working poor in Britain improved and, eventually, they got the vote. Today, though, the top 10 per cent of UK society still holds nearly half of all the wealth. After 1945, there was a levelling up but, since 1980, the gap between rich and poor has grown wider. And that’s just Britain. Blake’s voice was prophetic for all of the people of the Earth, their lives transformed by the relentless cogs and wheels of the industrial revolution. “[I] saw a flame of fire, even as a Wheel of fire surrounding all the heavens: it went from west to east, against the current of Creation, and devour’d all things in its loud Fury,” he proclaimed.

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Yet his optimism for the future is clear from his famous biblical prophecy Jerusalem, in which he shares his vision of the power of the individual creative imagination, equality, joy and love. What he wrote then was not impractical idealism but the very lifeblood of culture.

Today we live in times when the threats to real democracy are growing, and when many believe something has gone badly wrong with the governance of Britain. I remember these themes converging back in 1986, when the historian (and writer on Blake) EP Thompson took to the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury – one of the great moments in the history of the festival, according to Michael Eavis. Thompson refused to be filmed by the BBC, which he felt was essentially an arm of the Conservative state. Talking backstage, though, I persuaded him, and he later asked for that footage to be played at his funeral.

England, Thompson said, has been not just a country of capitalists, moneymakers and militarists, but also a “nation of poets, musicians, artists – the nation of Shelley and William Blake… an alternative nation. And I see that nation before me now.” So don’t think of Blake as some kind of fringe eccentric. In an inclusive public culture, his is a great, passionate human voice. And don’t think that the humanities are redundant. They do exactly what it says on the tin: they tell us what it means to be human.


This article was first published in the September 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine


Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester