14th March 2016
(America a Prophecy 1793 Copy E Library of Congress electronic edition)
The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry’d.
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst;
Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.
Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.
Chris McCabe’s blog “Poetry Comics” prompted me to write something about William Blake’s prophetic book “America”, in particular, the verses on the illuminated page above.
I can’t remember when I first came upon the poetry of William Blake. It may have been as early as primary school with some of the lyrics from “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. I seem to have a very early memory of ‘The Tyger and’ of ‘The Chimney Sweep’. Whenever it was, it was the beginning of a bit of an obsession with the man and his works. I’m not alone, of course. It seems that when people want to reference ideas of the “other”, the mystical, wild and strange they reach for Blake. The extraordinary deconstructed Western “Dead Man” being a relatively recent example.
I have chosen the text above because it is illustrative of a sort of shock and surprise concerning Blake that I myself experienced way back in the early years of the 1970s. I was studying at the University of Manchester and one of our lecturers advertised a talk on Blake incorporating colour slides from his prophetic books. This was a time before the ready availability of colour reproductions of Blake’s books. At that time I was familiar with just a few pieces of Blake’s art – the illuminated “Songs.” and student posters of “Glad Day”, “Urizen creating the World” but with few other examples. What I saw shocked me. The pictures were not at all like the pretty Georgian gothic pages of Songs of Innocence. True, there were again those neoclassical nude figures flying through the pages, but also there were monsters, aggression, violence and raw, often crude depictions – in fact, it was all somewhat like the pulp comic books of 1950s America. Flying, angry superheroes confronted deconstructed Biblical-looking patriarchs amid flames. There were dancing and swooning maidens, gesturing heroes but also darkness, pulsating brains and planetary globes of blood.
In the picture above we have a relatively tame example of one of Blake’s illuminated pages. Uncoloured versions make his etching techniques even more startlingly evident. Blake took great joy in his artistic methods and he directly linked his physical etching, engraving and printing techniques to intellectual perceptions about the nature of reality and God. I am quite sure that he was just as proud and aware of his stippling and hatching lines and marks in the clouds as Lichtenstein was of his enlarged “Ben-Day” dots in the 1960s. The actual artifice of etching is foregrounded and made evident. The blank paper itself is made into clouds and brightness. In the best of Blake’s work he handles the treatment of the words, images and coiling vegetation within the frame of the page as a unity. Here the page is dominated by a resurrected figure. His physique is brightly lit and stylised with “superman” muscles and a dramatically foreshortened pose. He sits on the road-kill flesh of his own dead body and looks up.
What’s it all about? These verses themselves are from the eighth plate of “America a Prophecy” printed in 1793. Although the poem centres on the colonists’ struggle against the tyranny of Britain, this poem contains very little at all about the real, historical events of the American War of Independence. Instead, some of the characters of the war, Washington, Franklin, Tom Paine, Gates, Hancock and Green and “Albion’s wrathful Prince” are involved in a narrative with Blake’s own mythological figures – Orc, Urizen, Oothoon and Rahab. Like an opera, or like a baroque ceiling painting, figures enact their passions against a background of wonders. Orc – a supernatural figure of violent and terrifying wrathful revolutionary fervour speaks the words on the page above.
What educational use does this excerpt have? It is one of the more quoted sections from Blake’s prophecies. I think that if students were presented only with the text and image above, without any context, the strength and meaning of the words and images would still be enough. Most would recognise the allusions to the Christian Resurrection. The rest of the words are a plain and simple evocation of freedom and the release from suffering – a universal human joy expressed here with simple economy:-
“Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air:”
“And let his wife and children return from the opressor’s scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.”
Delving a little deeper, we might ask students to consider the versification, the symbolism and simple personification – “the linen”… “the clay” … “the slave” … “The Sun has left his blackness”.. “the fair Moon rejoices”…. “Empire”….“the Lion”…. “the Wolf”… (notice that these don’t get crushed, defeated or slain, they simply “cease”.) We might ask what is a prophecy? Something about the future? Unargued assertion? (“…For everything that lives is holy” …..”All religions are One”) What is the syntax of prophecy? Whose “voice” speaks prophecy – is it the poet or some other? What form do prophetic statements take? Can anyone prophesy?
If the constraints of the syllabus and teaching objectives permit wouldn’t it be great to ask the students to pick a contemporary problem or issue and write their own short prophecy? Illustrate their own street comic verses or graphic novelette? Learn some of Blake’s lines and practise declaiming them? Experience the exaltation of expressing a prophetic vision! Does it have any meaning or value still in our troubled and postmodern age?
About the Author: Phil Tomlinson lives in Hastings on the South Coast. He is a retired, former teacher of English and Media Studies and Deputy Head of a secondary school. He now coaches French undergraduates in English language in preparation for examinations to enter the grandes écoles.