I hope to end up with a collection of essays on The Chemical Wedding (1998) as I have the impression that there is hardly any material out there to help you navigate your way through the album. As it is not an album of Iron Maiden, but a solo project of Bruce Dickinson, I will set up an own category for it.
The Chemical Wedding might be considered a concept album – depending on the definition you use. If you go by “an album on which all songs are connected by one overarching theme” you may agree with me. I’d love to say that this overarching theme was the poetry of William Blake, but things are not quite that easy.
The Elephant in the Room: the Poetry and Artwork of William Blake
First, William Blake produced much more like poetry, he also produced incredible drawings and illustrations and a very complex and complicated mythology featuring deities he has invented but whose stories often have a Biblical story faintly shining through. He was more of a man of many interests and many accomplishments than a mere writer. (Sounds familiar? Mark it, his most famous work is even a collection of songs (The Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789, 1794) – including the famous line “Tyger, tyger burning bright”)). Coming back to his paintings, if you have ever wondered what kind of Beast the muscle-packed creature on the cover of the album is, which is a Blake painting of course, the answer is fairly simple and obvious: a flea. No, not a flea of course, just kidding. This is the incarnation of a flea Blake saw during one of his séances (Ghost of a Flea (c. 1819-20) cf. display caption tate.org.uk). I wonder how many schools and universities actually tell you about Blake’s visions, meaning the genuine article resulting in spirits and ghosts banned on canvas. Might cast kind of a shadow on the author of what later became the hymn “Jerusalem”, something like a second national anthem to the UK (which is not “Jerusalem” at all and neither is it patriotic, even the literary scholars say that – yes, this is going to be complicated). In short, there is a lot going on in the work of Blake, which makes me consider Shakespeare’s work child’s play in comparison. So, we are already a bit messed up when it comes to tackling Blake. Terming the overarching theme “the work of Blake” looks like a trapdoor or death-trap to me. What exactly is “the work of Blake”?
The Second Elephant: The Chemical Wedding, Alchemy, and Arcane Arts
Second, there is of course more in this album than only Blake. The title refers to Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosencreutz. Anno 1459 (The Chymical Wedding, 1616). Christian Rosenkreutz (“Rosencreutz” in German and “Rosenkreutz” in English) is a fictional character who is the supposed founder of the Rosencrucian Order. What is important for us here is that the Chemical Wedding is one of the manifestos of the later Rosencrucian Order and strongly rooted in alchemy. Yes, I mean alchemy like “trying to generate gold out of other metals” or “find the Philosopher’s Stone”. Alchemy was not only about mixing (heavy) metal together in a laboratory, it was a complex and elaborate school of thought. I am only saying this to point out the complex nature of the involved material (Blake, Rosencrucianism, alchemy), all of which makes extensive use of symbolism. Talking about arcane symbolism, the “tower”, the “lovers”, the “priestess”, the “magician”, the “sun” and the “moon”, the “hanged man” (who is not a hanged man at the gallows, he is suspended by one food upside down to get a better perspective – so, he is not dead, just re-orientating), and the “fool” are all cards of the Major Arcana. The Major Arcana is the narrative part of a tarot deck. 21 cards which tell a story, at least in some decks. The remaining cards of the deck, the Minor Arcana, are more or less like a normal pack of cards you use to play poker or whatever pleases you, four colours (wands, pentacles, cups, swords), numbered through and featuring a king, queen etc. And, there is of course the line “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes” which is not Blake at all, but, surprisingly, child’s play. Shakespeare, Macbeth.
Going Down the Rabbit Hole
So, in sum, we have a complicated mythology cooked up by a man who had real visions, or at least claimed to have had them, plus pretty much everything occult out there (there are witches practicing black magic in Macbeth and in fact, one of them delivers the quoted line). This is why I called this introduction “going down the rabbit whole” – entering not exactly Alice’s Wonderland, but something which looks like the “dark side of Great Britain” to me. Many of the occult movements and / or religions originate in the UK, such as Wicca (in “Return of the King” are “Beltane fires” burning close to Stonehenge), and, let us not forget about Aleister Cowley here of course, who designed his own tarot deck before he ended up in Dickinson’s film The Chemical Wedding (2008). Crowley is still widely believed to have been a Satanic (famously implemented in the US series Supernatural (2005 – ) in which the name “Crowley” was borrowed for the king of hell – although they made him a Scotsman whereas Crowley was English). Yet, his religion, Thelema, is more complicated than that, and, believe it or not, strongly connected to ancient Egypt (because he had visions there, just like Blake had his). Now I am leaving the track, but this is why some of Crowley’s work ended up in “Powerslave” (Dickinson, autobiography, p. 215). Thelema is also connected to Rosencrucianism (→ Chymical Wedding), closing the circle. And, there are two objects to be named here which are probably the core of “mystical” Britain: Excalibur and the Holy Grail. (A sword and a cup already make up half of the colours of the Minor Arcana of the tarot deck, just saying.) Excalibur indirectly appears in “Return of the King”, although it is not Arthur who is mentioned, rightful carrier of Excalibur and the king of (mystical) Great Britain, but his father, Uther Pendragon. The grail finds his way to the song “Jerusalem” by his rightful carrier in turn: Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph of Arimathea is supposed to have met a young Jesus in England, hence the pondering in “Jerusalem” if Jesus ever visited England, but he is also the one who, according to legend, brought the grail to Glastonbury. That is why the grail appears in the lyrics of “Jerusalem”, though it does not appear in the original poem.
For starters I will do two things. I will post links to three different Blake poems, one of them being the text of the aforementioned hymn “Jerusalem” and partly the song of the same name. The others are simply two of my personal favourites, just to give you a taste. They are short ones and easy reads. They also feature fantastic artwork. Secondly I will reference the spoken parts of the songs, just for the sake of completion (and it took me a while to find them, so, take a sec to appreciate my efforts and don’t tell me they are recorded someplace) before setting sails to something that extremely feels like “the edge of the world” where “eternity should fail”. (That song is so Blakean, once you have seen it you can never un-see it. ( cf. Iron Maiden, Book of Souls, 2015.))
Sources of Spoken Parts:
- “The Book of Thel”:
Hath form’d this abominable void
This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? — Some said
“It is Urizen”, But unknown, abstracted
Brooding secret, the dark power hid.”
The Book of Urizen. Chap. I, 1.
“here is her secret place,
From hence she comes forth in the Churches in delight,
25Here is her cup fill’d with its poisons, in these horrid vales,
And here her scarlet Veil woven in pestilence & war;
Here is Jerusalem bound in chains in the Dens of Babylon.”
Milton: Book the Second. p. 39, 23-27.
“As a bright sandal form’d immortal of precious stones & gold:
I stooped down & bound it on to walk forward thro’ Eternity.”
Milton: Book the First, p. 19, 13-14.
Samples of Blake Poetry, reproduced on Wikipedia (illuminated original + printed version of the text):
- Blake, William. “The poem known as “Jerusalem”. Milton, a Poem in Two Books, Preface. (1808) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_did_those_feet_in_ancient_time (08/30/18) [09/02/18]
- Blake, William. “The Clod and the Pebble”. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience. (1794) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Clod_and_the_Pebble (12/05/17) [09/02/18]
- Blake, William. “A Poison Tree”. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience. (1794) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Poison_Tree (07/14/18) [09/02/18]
Bibliography (Sources & Further Reading):
- Dickinson, Bruce. The Chemical Wedding. Sanctuary, 1998.
- Blake, William. The Book of Urizen. Wikisource. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Urizen (09/27/16) [09/01/18]
- Blake, William. Milton: A Poem in Two Books. Wikisource. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_prophetic_books_of_William_Blake,_Milton/Milton,_preface (12/12/10) [09/01/18] [lacking the illustrations, for an illustrated version see The William Blake Archive: http://www.blakearchive.org]
- Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Several prints of the work. The William Blake Archive. http://www.blakearchive.org/work/songsie (2017) [09/01/18]
- Blake, William. “The Ghost of a Flea”, Display Caption of Tate Gallery: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-the-ghost-of-a-flea-n05889 [09/91/18]
- A modernised version of Chymical Wedding on the homepage of Adam McLean on alchemy: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/chymwed1.html [09/01/18]
- Christian Rosenkreutz in “Rosencrucian” of the Encyclopedia Britannica, written by J. Gordon Melton: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rosicrucians#ref928441 (07/30/18) [09/01/18]
- Homepage of Adam McLean on alchemy: http://www.alchemywebsite.com/index.html [09/01/18]
- Study Course on the Artwork of Modern Tarot by Adam McLean http://www.alchemywebsite.com/tarot/tarot_course.html [09/01/18]
- Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (Ed W. J. Craig). London: Henry Pordes, 1984.
- “Wicca” in Encyclopedia Britannica. Written by J. Gordon Melton. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Wicca [09/01/18]
- “Aleister Crowley” in the Encyclopedia Britannica, written by the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aleister-Crowley#ref1250513 [09/01/18]
- Dickinson, Bruce. What Does This Button Do: an Autobiography. London: Harper Collins, 2018.
- The Chemical Wedding. Dickinson Bruce and Julian Doyle (screenwriters). Bill&Ben Productions, Focus Films, 2008.
- Supernatural. Kripke, Eric (creator). Kripke Enterprises, Wonderland Sound and Vision et al. 2005 – .
- Young Jesus visited England: Icons. A Portrait of England. https://web.archive.org/web/20091212021243/http://www.icons.org.uk/theicons/collection/jerusalem/features/and-did-those-feet [09/01/18]
- “Joseph of Arimathea” in Encyclopedia Britannica. Written by editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Joseph-of-Arimathea [09/01/18]
- Dickinson, Bruce. “If Eternity Should Fail”. Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls, Parlophone, 2015.