William Blake (1757-1827) Talks With Lydia Millet (1968-    )


And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?

I did live in England one time, for a period of four months. It was 1989, I think. London. I never got to the mountains. Never even saw any. Not to the country at all. I was at school. Mostly it was bars for us, in our free time. One of the girls was dating a rower so a few times we went to watch him row. You had to drink then, it was so boring. Watery gin drinks. Scull, scull. Never knew who won or lost, couldn’t tell the difference, never cared. They were sorority girls I lived with, in a dingy apartment in Bayswater. Surprising me, they were nice girls. On the stovetop, sliver-thin cockroaches ran round and round when we cooked. In a cabinet in the living room we found a dead dove, its belly split open with rice spilling out. We never knew how the bird got there or if the rice had killed it.


And was the holy Lamb of God, on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

I saw some pastures through a window, taking the train up to Edinburgh. That was a different trip. By then I was a young woman, not a girl. I remember cows in a field, and behind them a massive nuclear power plant. How excellent it would have been to see a lamb instead. Now, writing this, I quietly remove the looming hyperboloid cooling towers from my memory, and there where the nuclear reactor stood I place the lamb.


And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?

Here yes, I think…I think I might have seen that once. Quite suddenly, I’m sure I have. There, step outside. Hold up your arms, let the wind blow. Then comes the rain. What if we didn’t go inside? Stand out here with me, let it rain. We’re wet, we’re soaking wet, now that the novelty has passed we could really get unpleasantly cold out here, and yet—there it is. Light covers everything. Our faces are illumined. The rain dries on our limbs. If we wait long enough we’ll dry off completely, even our clothes that stick now to our skin. Star with magnetic fields, with us for these billions of years.


And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills?

This is the sad part. This is the part that breaks my heart. No, gentle friend, we never built Jerusalem. It was the mills we built, mills and mills and mills. The mills stretch on forever now.


Bring me my Bow of burning gold; bring me my Arrows of desire.

I will, I will! Forthwith. But where will you shoot your arrows, dear? Where will you shoot those things? The enemy is everywhere. The enemy is the pillars that hold up your very own temple. Your arrows will bounce off, poor creature; arrows are no match for this. I almost weep to think of you, your musclebound physique, shooting those shining arrows as though they could make a dent in steel.


Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold! Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I’ll run and get it, give me a few minutes. I’ll see it’s sharpened to a point. It sits there, in your armory. The chariot’s ready. But one small thing—about the spear, dear heart. Please don’t be offended. It’s beautiful, it really is; that spear’s a work of art. But how far can you throw it? You’re looking tired today: the bills, I know, the rest of it. Human frailty. And even if that spear meets its mark…I know, I know. You need encouragement. We all do. It’s a lovely spear.


I will not cease from Mental Fight—

No. That’s the ticket. Never give up, my pet. The dream is what you have. I’ve had it too. Peace, generosity. Grace and humility. Say, a settlement of pale and modest buildings, not large, surrounded by the hills and valleys, the woods where beauty roams. Many of these small towns, sufficient unto themselves. Trade roads, a few but not many, across the tall-grass prairies in between, across the sparkling rivers the odd arched bridge. No children starving; none at all. Simply allowed to play by day, and when night falls, the moon rises; a noble owl is on the wing, his round eyes great in his head. Mice scurry then, no doubt. They’ll scurry, but to no avail. Yes, I like it. I like what you say very much. Let us fight with our minds; that’s how we’ll do it. That’ll show them.


—nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand—

Of course, of course, the sword is nice too. You have so many weapons! And all of them are gorgeous. Really top quality. Craftspeople’s work. Still that sword, like the spear—and the arrows—it can’t…


—Till we have built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant Land.

And beyond England, maybe. Past England utterly. Let’s aim higher, heart of my heart, let’s aim for Africa, you know, the Indian subcontinent. The U. S. of A. In some cases it may not even be a matter of building, more a matter of taking down. Reorganizing. Bringing the forests back, letting the jungles be. Education! For that you may not need the sword. Maybe not the arrows. You can probably leave the spear in the armory, even. Maybe let’s keep the weapons where they are. They look good there; they have a glow about them, safe in the glass case like that. Don’t you think? The chariot of fire, though, that’ll come in handy. I’ll trick it out for you. And don’t worry: we’ll take the weapons out on ceremonial occasions. Parades, darling! I know how you love parades. You’ll dress up in your full regalia, on holy days, when we finish Jerusalem.


Lydia Millet is the author of eight novels, including My Happy Life (PEN-USA Award winner), Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and a new one, Magnificence, just released by W.W Norton. Her short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She is a staff wrier and editor at an endangered-species protection group and was named a Guggenheim fellow in 2012.

Headshot by Ivory Orchid Photography

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One response to “Lydia Millet: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. Williams says:

    Brilliant. Heartbreaking and brilliant.

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