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Engraving Is Eternal Work: How to Dodge a Deadline Like William Blake

A subtle lesson in taking responsibility while protecting the integrity of the creative process and the freedom of the artistic imagination.

Engraving Is Eternal Work: How to Dodge a Deadline Like William Blake

Neil Gaiman has semi-facetiously located the two primary sources of good ideas in desperation and deadlines. Still, deadlines come and go and, devoid of ideas or dry of their actualization, we despair. We make excuses. Sometimes — like when the dog actually ate Steinbeck’s manuscript — they happen to be true. But the best excuse is always the truth itself — creative work is slower and more sacred in its unwillable transmissions from the muse than we ever like to admit.

That is what William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) addressed in a short, subtly transcendent letter found in Michael Bird’s Artists’ Letters (public library) — a collection of correspondence drawn from half a millennium of creative titans, spanning friendships and loves, family and patronage, skill-sharing and life-advice, including glimpses of such famous relationships as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, and Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Blake, celebrated today for his fathomless poetic and artistic imagination, was trained as an engraver. Bookending his career were his early engravings for the children’s moral tales by the political philosopher and trailblazing feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he revered, and his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which he worked until his dying day. Upon seeing his engravings for Book of Job, which Blake completed a month before his death, the great photographer Edward Weston exclaimed in his daybook:

An hour with his engraving means more to me than a month of reading, — more spirituality, — for my eyes to receive — and give — more directly, surely, than any other of my senses.

In 1800, shortly after the death of the popular poet William Cowper, his wealthy friend and fellow poet William Hayley set about commemorating him in what would become a handsome three-volume biography. He commissioned Blake to illustrate it and asked him to move from London to a cottage in Sussex near his own newly built “hermitage” to work on the project. Blake, who so admired Cowper’s writing that he thought his letters “ought to be printed in letters of Gold & ornamented with Jewels of Heaven,” agreed.

Over the three years Blake spent in Sussex, he considered these engravings the “principal labor” of his time. But Hayley’s controlling proximity began to wear on the free-spirited artist, who just a year earlier had composed one of the most beautiful letters of all time, defending the integrity of the creative spirit and the freedom of the artistic imagination. The work slowed and the relationship soured, but Blake maintained absolute fidelity to his art and his creative process.

On March 12, 1804, after his return to London and after the first two volumes of the biography were published, Blake wrote to Hayley to explain, in a stunning tapestry of the practical and the poetic, why he had missed the deadline for the remaining two engravings.

Dear Sir,

I begin with the latter end of your letter & grieve more for Miss Poole’s ill-health than for my failure in sending proofs, tho’ I am very sorry that I cannot send before Saturday’s Coach. Engraving is Eternal work; the two plates are almost finish’d. You will receive proofs of them for Lady Hesketh, whose copy of Cowper’s letters ought to be printed in letters of Gold & ornamented with Jewels of Heaven, Havilah, Eden & all the countries where Jewels abound. I curse & bless Engraving alternately, because it takes so much time & is so untractable, tho’ capable of such beauty & perfection.

My wife desires me to Express her Love to you, Praying for Miss Poole’s perfect recovery, & we both remain,

Your Affectionate,
Will Blake

Hayley’s Life of Cowper, featuring six engravings by Blake, earned the author £11,000 — more than $600,000 today. Blake died destitute, isolated, and half-mad, but the embers of his genius, celebrated on a par with Beethoven’s, went on to inspire generations of artists as diverse as Maurice Sendak, whose early illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence became his lifelong creative compass, and Patti Smith, who so lyrically reverences Blake’s legacy as a guiding sun in the cosmos of creativity.


Roar Like a Dandelion: Beloved Children’s Book Author and Poet Ruth Krauss’s Lost Alphabet of Joy, Illustrated

“Look under the bed for poetry.”

Roar Like a Dandelion: Beloved Children’s Book Author and Poet Ruth Krauss’s Lost Alphabet of Joy, Illustrated

“Her lovely and original poetry has a flexibility that allowed me the maximum of space to execute my fantasy variations on a Kraussian theme,” Maurice Sendak wrote of the great children’s book author and poet Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993), with whom he collaborated on two of the loveliest, tenderest picture-books of all time.

A quarter century after the end of Krauss’s long life, lost fragments of her daring poetic imagination coalesced into a manuscript that alighted to the desk of one of the great picture-book artists of our own time: Sergio Ruzzier. The resulting collaboration, across lines of space and time and life and death, is the wondrously imaginative Roar Like a Dandelion (public library), the dedication of which, penned by Ruzzier in a spirit of creative kinship and reverence, reads simply: “To Maurice.”

Though structured as an ABC book, in a succession of short sentences each beginning with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, the book is rather an alphabetic catalogue of Krauss’s quirky, free-spirited, infinitely playfully, subtly profound prescriptions for joy and existential contentment.

“Vote for yourself,” Krauss urges under V, as a Ruzzier piglet is seen pledging allegiance to herself — that ultimate act of self-respect, the pillar of character.

“Roar like a dandelion,” she exhorts in the line that lent the book its title, which sits like a Zen koan, to be contemplated from a thousand directions before it can be cracked, suggesting maybe that the mightiest roar is the silent roar; maybe that anger is corrosive to its host, for if a dandelion were indeed to roar, it would blow up its own delicate seedhead and lose all of its fluffy white parachutes of hope; maybe that the dandelion’s yellow burst of blossom, so plentiful if we only pay attention, is nature’s primal scream of joy.

“Make music,” Krauss beckons in consonance with Sendak, who ardently believed that the making of music is the profoundest and most primitive expression of our intrinsic nature.

Page after page, letter by letter, Ruzzier’s sweet, and stubborn creatures leap and tumble along the lines of Krauss’s imagination with their joyous, mischievous magic.

Complement with Ruzzier’s charming meta-ode to the joy of reading, This Is Not a Picture Book, and Krauss’s final collaboration with Sendak, then delight in two other unusual and imaginative alphabet books: Daytime Visions, celebrating the whimsy of words, and Take Away the A, exploring the magic of how we make meaning.

Illustrations courtesy of Sergio Ruzzier; photographs by Maria Popova


In Transit: Neil Gaiman Reads His Touching Tribute to the Lonely Genius Arthur Eddington, Who Confirmed Einstein’s Relativity

“To see the world beyond the skies, to know the mind behind the eyes…”

“You have got a boy mixed of most kindly elements, as perhaps Shakespeare might say. His rapidly and clearly working mind has not in the least spoiled his character,” a school principal wrote at the end of the nineteenth century to the mother of a lanky quiet teenager who would grow up to be the great English astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (December 28, 1882–November 22, 1944) and who would catapult Albert Einstein into celebrity by confirming his relativity theory in his historic eclipse expedition of May 29, 1919.

The centennial of that landmark event, which revolutionized science and united a war-torn humanity under one sky of cosmic truth, was the subject of the third Universe in Verse — the charitable celebration of science through poetry I host each spring at Pioneer Works — and as has been our annual tradition, we had the great honor of an original poem for the occasion by one of the great storytellers of our time: Neil Gaiman.

Arthur Eddington

Born into a family descended from the first Quakers and stretching back four generations of farmers, Stanley — as his mother and sister always called him — learned the multiplication table before he could read and tasked himself with counting the letters of the Bible. By the age of ten, this unusual child who was and would remain very much his own person had observed most of the sky with a 3-inch telescope his headmaster had loaned him.

At twenty, after winning a series of mathematics competitions and scholarships, Eddington entered Trinity College, where he was immediately immersed in the cult of Newton. His peers would later remember him as extremely quiet and reserved, exuding formidable powers of concentration. (Later in life, his awkwardness and aloofness would make some of his students perceive him as arrogant.) In 1904, while Einstein was finalizing his special relativity, the 22-year-old Eddington became the first second-year Trinity student to rise to the top of the undergraduate student body in mathematics — a position known as Senior Wrangler and regarded at the time as “the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.”

Two of Eddington’s photographs from his historic eclipse observation, proving Einstein right and Newton wrong.

At Trinity, Eddington met Charles Trimble. A classmate who also came from a working-class background, this pensive-looking youth with gentle features and neatly combed black hair soon became his most intimate friend. Eddington was an avid cyclist and usually rode alone, but he began going on long rides with Charles, talking about mathematics and literature. Only in Charles’s company, he deviated from his Quaker discipline and took the occasional cheerful drink, smoked the occasional cigarette, went to the theater and the newborn cinema.

Charles eventually took a mathematics post and spiraled into mental illness. Eddington never married, never had another intimate bond. He lived out his days with his sister, Winifred, who also never married. I picture him Turing-like — in his genius, in his misapprehended awkwardness, in his loneliness and heartbreak.

That invisible private side to the public genius is what Gaiman takes up with empathic perceptiveness and great tenderness in his poem, celebrating what he calls these “twin suns” of Eddington’s life and, through the diffraction that is all great art, celebrating the twin suns of the public self and the private self, of genius and loneliness, of intellectual heroism and emotional heartbreak, that shine in varying degrees on every human life.

IN TRANSIT (for Arthur Eddington)
by Neil Gaiman


To find the many in the one
he sweated under foreign skies
to see the stars behind the sun.

So space and time were now undone
reality was undisguised.
We found the many in the one.

There is no photograph, not one,
that shows the mind behind the eyes.
He saw the stars behind the sun.

Not with a sword, or knife, or gun,
a simple picture severed ties.
He found the many in the one.

Light bends around us. So we run,
as gravity reclassifies
the stars we saw behind the sun.

To see the world beyond the skies,
to know the mind behind the eyes,
To find the many in the one
he showed us stars behind the sun.


Unfucked, or anyway retiring,
in the awkward sense. Retirement will never be an option.
The gruff gentleman with the cap who understands
what the numbers mean
remembers a bicycle ride when he was younger.

The smoke of the cigarettes he does not smoke kicks at his lungs
mixing with the buzz of the booze he doesn’t ever drink
a convivial pint after the ride into the country gave him such a thirst.
And afterwards they lay on their back in the stubble
staring up at the stars. Together. All the stars

Countable as the words in a Bible,
countable as the hairs on his friend’s head,
all accountable, and that is why they never truly touched.
The shadow of prison or disgrace perhaps moving between them
like the shadow of an eclipse.

And, in another life, at another time,
to see the stars behind the sun,
he takes his photographs
fighting the cloud cover. Becoming
the thing that happened in Principe.
when he proved that the German was right,
that light had weight,
half a year after the Armistice.
A populariser, but not courting popularity.

Somewhen a boy is counting stars.
Somewhen a man is photographing light.
Somewhen his finger strokes the stubble on another’s cheek,
and for a moment everything is relative.

Complement with Gaiman’s superb original poems from the first two years of The Universe in Verse“The Mushroom Hunters” (2017), a subversive celebration of the history of women in science, which won the Rhysling Award for Best Long Poem; and “After Silence” (2018), a tribute to the life and legacy of Rachel Carson — then revisit the touching, improbable story of how Eddington confirmed relativity.

For more wonder and beauty from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman, and “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, and astronomer Natalie Batalha reading “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.


Losing the Birds, Finding the Words: Eve Ensler’s Extraordinary Letter of Apology to Mother Earth

“I am the reason the birds are missing… I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen… I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order.”

Losing the Birds, Finding the Words: Eve Ensler’s Extraordinary Letter of Apology to Mother Earth

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” the visionary marine biologist and lyrical author Rachel Carson wrote as she was making ecology a household word and getting ready to awaken the modern environmental conscience with her epoch-making book Silent Spring.

Silent Spring was titled after the book’s most chilling chapter, detailing the gruesome mass deaths of songbirds in pesticide-assaulted habitats, inspired by a verse from a classic ballad of heartbreak by Carson’s favorite poet, John Keats — “The sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing!” — for she saw no greater heartbreak than the deadly silencing of Mother Nature. In her bittersweet farewell to the world — Carson never lived to see her work inspire the creation of Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency — she beckoned posterity, beckoned us, to face our “grave and sobering responsibility [which] is also a shining opportunity”; to “go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”

Image via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

We have failed to rise to her challenge. We have failed our origins and our very humanity. In the decades since Carson’s death, 3 billion birds have vanished. Just vanished. And as species seem to be falling off the face of the Earth, their names are falling out of the dictionary, out of our consciousness, out of children’s imaginations. If “finding the words is another step in learning to see,” then losing the words is ceasing to see — a willful blindness to our own responsibility, which thrusts us blindfolded on the steep and winding path to redemption.

Playwright, activist, and V-Day founder Eve Ensler — who is perhaps as close as an artist can get to being a cultural superhero: redeemer of the unspeakable, voice of the unspoken, instrument not only of social change but of that “revelation in the heart” (to borrow Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase) where all change begins — lifts the blindfold in an extraordinary letter of apology to Mother Earth. Ensler composed the letter as an addendum of sorts to her altogether magnificent book The Apology (public library), read it at Bioneers, then kindly granted me the honor of premiering it to the Brain Pickings ecosystem.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane

Ensler contextualizes her courageous self-inspection in the disquieting mirror of personal responsibility, where any atonement must begin:

After I finished writing The Apology, a book in which I wrote a letter from my father to myself apologizing and exploring, explaining in detail all the ways he had abused and harmed me, I realized there was an apology I needed to make — an apology that would force me to confront my deepest sorrow, guilt and shame, an apology that I had been avoiding since I moved out of the city to the woods where I now live with the oaks, locust and weeping willows, Lydia the snapping turtle, running spring water, foxes, deer, coyotes, bears and cardinals and my precious dog, Pablo. It is my offering to you. It is my apology to the Earth, herself.

The letter, consonant with Whitman’s insistence that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” evocative of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names,” is a masterwork of empathy, that highest measure of consciousness. Its gift is the selfsame gift for which the Trappist monk and teacher Thomas Merton thanked Rachel Carson in his gorgeous letter of appreciation after reading Silent Spring — the gift of civilizational self-awareness.

Eve Ensler (Photograph: Paula Allen)

Ensler writes:

Dear Mother,

It began with the article about the birds, the 2.9 billion missing North America birds, the 2.9 billion birds that disappeared and no one noticed. The sparrows, black birds, and swallows who didn’t make it, who weren’t ever born, who stopped flying or singing or making their most ingenious nests, who didn’t perch or peck their gentle beaks into moist black earth. It began with the birds. Hadn’t we even commented in June, James and I that they were hardly here? A kind of eerie quiet had descended. But later they came back. The swarms of barn swallows and the huge ravens landing on the gravel one by one. I know it was after hearing about the birds, that afternoon I crashed my bike. Suddenly falling, falling, unable to prevent the catastrophe ahead, unable to find the brakes or make them work, unable to stop the falling. I fell and spun and realized I had already been falling, that we have been falling, all of us, and crows and conifers and ice caps and expectations — falling and falling and I wanted to keep falling. I didn’t want to be here to witness everything falling, missing, bleaching, burning, drying, disappearing, choking, never blooming. I didn’t want to live without the birds or bees and sparkling flies that light the summer nights. I didn’t want to live with hunger that turned us feral or desperation that gave us claws. I wanted to fall and fall into the deepest, darkest ground and be finally still and buried there.

But Mother, you had other plans. The bike landed in grass and dirt and bang, I was ten-years-old, fallen in the road, my knees scraped and bloody. And I realized that even then nature was something foreign and cruel, something that could and would hurt me because everything I had ever known or loved that was grand and powerful and beautiful became foreign and cruel and eventually hurt me. Even then I had already been exiled, or so I felt, forever cast out of the forest. I belonged with the broken, the contaminated, the dead. 
Maybe it was the sharp pain in my knee and elbow, or the dirt embedded in my new jacket, maybe it was the shock or the realization that death was preferable to the thick tar of grief coagulated in my chest, or maybe it was just the lonely rattling of the spokes of the bicycle wheel still spinning without me. Whatever it was. It broke. It broke. I heard the howling. 
Mother, I am the reason the birds are missing. I am the cause of salmon who cannot spawn and the butterflies unable to take their journey home. I am the coral reef bleached death white and the sea boiling with methane. I am the millions running from lands that have dried, forests that are burning or islands drowned in water. 
I didn’t see you, Mother. You were nothing to me. My trauma-made arrogance and ambition drove me to that cracking pulsing city. Chasing a dream, chasing the prize, the achievement that would finally prove I wasn’t bad or stupid or nothing or wrong. Oh my Mother, what contempt I had for you. What did you have to offer that would give me status in the market place of ideas and achieving? What could your bare trees offer but the staggering aloneness of winter or greenness I could not receive or bear. I reduced you to weather, an inconvenience, something that got in my way, dirty slush that ruined my overpriced city boots with salt. I refused your invitation, scorned your generosity, held suspicion for your love. I ignored all the ways we used and abused you. I pretended to believe the stories of the fathers who said you had to be tamed and controlled — that you were out to get us.
I press my bruised body down on your grassy belly, breathing me in and out. I have missed you, Mother. I have been away so long. I am sorry. I am so sorry. 
I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen. I am branch and hive and trunk and stone. I am what has been here and what is coming. I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order. I am perfumed peonies and the single parasol tree in the African savannah. I am lavender, dandelion, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, chrysanthemum, pansy, bleeding heart and rose. I am all that has been named and unnamed, all that has been gathered and all that has been left alone. I am all your missing creatures, all the sweet birds never born. I am daughter. I am caretaker. I am fierce defender. I am griever. I am bandit. I am baby. I am supplicant. I am here now, Mother. I am yours. I am yours. I am yours.
Eve Ensler

Complement with “After Silence” — Neil Gaiman’s stunning poem celebrating Rachel Carson’s legacy and culture-shifting courage — and Ensler on how a tree saved her life, then visit Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab to see what you, my fellow naked ape, can do to help save the birds, whose salvation is inseparable from our own. For, in the poetic words of the naturalist John Muir — one of Carson’s great heroes — “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”


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