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America: A Prophecy

The New World is one of those phrases which we take for granted -- we understand what its referent is, but its original connotations are lost on modern ears.

To Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, the New World was just that: a new world, a chance for a new beginning, a land where all the failures of government and church could be swept aside and men could start with a blank slate. Blake's America: A Prophecy embodies much of this feeling of hope for mankind in the New World, and at the same time voices some unpleasant premonitions about the future of the New World.

To Blake, the American Revolution represented the first positive step by humanity toward freedom and away from tyranny, for to Blake it was not simply a revolt by the American colonies against Britain, it was part of the cosmic struggle between oppression and revolt, represented by Blake as the Guardian Price of Albion and Orc. In concordance with Blake's world- and human-centered vision of reality, the geographical features of the earth take on significance in his cosmogony. America, being in the west, signifies the body, or Tharmas. The revolt of the thirteen colonies is consistent with his vision because the body is the first part of man to revolt in time of revolution.

America also represents the Golden Age as told of by Plato as the city of Atlantis. Atlantis is roughly equivalent to the Garden of Eden, and its destruction by the "sea of time and space" is analogous to the Fall. America's revolt is the dawn of the Golden Age returned, the rise of Orc, the spirit of Revolution, which will destroy tyranny and establish Brotherhood and Liberty.

America: A Prophecy is the third in a set of four prophetic books. Africa and Asia, combined in The Song of Los, represent human history from the rise of civilization to the brink of revolution in America. America: A Prophecy picks up there and takes us to the outbreak of the French Revolution. The basic events of the book, after several revisions and aborted engravings, are straightforward: the colonies become restless under the English yoke and voice their discontent. In response, England tries to instill fear into the Americans to make them think twice about dissention. This brings about the opposite effect, which is the birth of Orc, who calls upon America to shake off its chains. Britain declares war and the Americans decide to rise to the challenge. The British flee in terror of the awesome power of Orc in the colonies. After this point, historical events become more difficult to pinpoint as they become more and more symbolic, the Revolution occurring in the mind of Man as well as on the battlefield. Echoing the pestilences of Yahweh, Albion's Angel (British Oppression) sends plagues upon the colonies, but they recoil upon him.

The god of the Age of Reason himself, Urizen, gets into the action, trying unsuccessfully to stop Orc. Orc meanwhile spreads his flames of revolt to France, and the "doors of perception" are burned up in the Apocalypse of Man.

America: A Prophecy was conceived and executed as an illuminated poem, that is, on each page of poetry, the text is surrounded by an engraved design. These designs formed a parallel but separate narrative with the text. For the sake of clarity and contrast we will discuss the text and illustrations separately, though the reader should keep in mind the coherent whole they comprise.

The book begins with a "Preludium," in which Orc is liberated by the "Shadowy Daughter of Urthona," who is nature fallen into material form, also seen in other Blake writings as Tirzah. She represents the unformed wilderness of America which Orc must ravish and exploit, for "Where man is not, nature is barren.) (Blake 152)

The "Shadowy Daughter" pities Orc, who has been put in chains by her father, and so she brings him food in cups and baskets of iron -- the metal of Urthona, the metal in the legs of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the furthest from the Golden Age of Man. Revolution erupts when man reaches rock bottom, when he finds himself in an age which denies his divine nature. Orc is always portrayed as young, for revolution is the fever of youthful rebellion. Orc, an anagram of Cor, heart, is fourteen, which is half of twenty-eight. To Blake, this means that he is halfway through a sublunar cycle of revolution and response. He represents a cycle of rejuvenation, like nature's cycle, powered by sexual energy, which to Blake is the source of all revolt. Revolution, then, is a cycle which rises with idealism and falls again into rigidity and dogma, all powered by the loins.

This makes the Orc cycle, as Frye points out, very much akin to the ancient dragon-killing myth. The return of Orc means the defeat of the dragon, which is Chaos. The English tyranny is the dragon, for it represents the Abyss that results when man's soul is ruled by Urizenic law. The defeat of the dragon, however, leads to a state of repose during which the hero becomes the dragon, to be defeated in the next cycle of revolution.

Youthful idealism gives way to an aged empire which engages in senseless wars and demands obedience and respect from its subjects.

The rise of America represents for Blake a possible beginning of the end of the Orc cycle, for this time the fires of revolution will rise higher and higher, leading to the cleansing of the senses of man, which is the Last Judgement.

In the Preludium, Orc breaks free of his chains and has his way with the Shadowy Daughter, who "smiled her first-born smile, As When a black cloud shews its lightenings to the silent deep." (Blake 196)

She recognizes Orc as her salvation:

"I know thee, I have found thee, & I will not let thee go:

"Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa,

"And thou art fall'n to give me life in regions of dark death.

"On my American plains I feel the struggling afflictions,

"Endur'd by roots that writhe their arms into the nether deep.

"I see a Serpent in Canada who courts me to his love,

"In Mexico an Eagle, and a Lion in Peru;

"I see a Whale in the South-sea, drinking my soul away.

"O what limb rending pains, in furrows by the lightenings rent.

"This is the eternal death, and this the torment long foretold."

(Blake 196)

The "eternal death" she speaks of is the loss of selfhood, the recognition that identity is illusion, which leads to a Buddhist notion of salvation -- the death of the self. The vast virgin wilderness has lost her virginity and her selfhood, and has welcomed the masculine power as her completion and her destiny -- and her death.

Ending the Preludium is a strange little section which is omitted from most copies of the book that were originally printed. It is interesting because most critics give very little explanatory help in understanding its purpose and meaning. It appears to be a self-referential comment on the poet's attitude toward his description of the rise of Orc and his ravishment of Nature:

The stern Bard ceas'd, asham'd of his own song; enrag'd he swung

His harp aloft sounding, then dash'd its shining frame against

A ruin'd pillar in glitt'ring fragments; silent he turn'd away,

(Blake 196)

"Bard" refers to the Celtic poet-prophet of antiquity, but distinct from the Druid Bard; but here the Bard is Blake himself, inspired by the Eternal Prophet. In the introduction to the Songs of Experience, Blake proclaims himself Bard more completely:

"Hear the voice of the Bard!

Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;

Whose ears have heard

The Holy Word

That walk'd among the ancient trees,"

(Blake 210)

Blake the Bard is evidently ashamed of his song, but it surely isn't because of the sexual imagery, for he never blushes elsewhere at such scenes, and so it must be something else, perhaps something inherent in the scene of Orc's rise. It could be that the spectacle of nature's union with the sexual energy of Orc sickens the Bard because it reminds the Eternal Prophet (Los) of his own separation from his inspirational Emanation, Enitharmon. Also, we must remember that Orc is the first offspring of sexuality, from Los and Enitharmon. The perpetuation of sexual power in the material world perhaps sickens the Bard, for Orc was his own contribution to the generative world. The cycle of Orc is Los's own pathetic contribution to the world of generation; conceived by generation, trapped in physicality, Orc represents to the Eternal Prophet his own sinking into this illusory world.

A more meaningful explanation exists, however, in the very nature of prophecy and poetry as Blake sees them. In this poem, Blake, Bard, and Los are synonymous. Since Emanations are that which is created and loved, yet separate from the male entity, Blake's work is his Emanation, for it is through his poetry that he reaches the minds of other people. "For Man cannot unite with Man but by their Emanations." (Blake 733) The artist's creation is not subservient to the artist, however, for the creation defines the creator and stands as his or her vision made visible to others. Like an Emanation, the poet's text exists as the "other half" of the poet.

The extensions of these ideas as they relate to the Preludium and Blake's shame and silence at the end of it, are apparent in the second night of The Four Zoas, a section of which, I would argue, represents the same cosmic event that takes place in the Preludium: the separation of Los and Enitharmon and the consequent "death" or silence of Los.

In the second night of The Four Zoas, the fall of Luvah, and hence the creation of Orc, is chronicled, much of it as it affects Los and Enitharmon. After Luvah (Passion) falls into the material world Urizen creates his empire of reason, and in the process becomes separated from his Emanation Ahania (Pleasure). Enitharmon appears before Los in the form of Ahania to test him, and he fails the test, whereupon she flies away causing him to die (insofar as an immortal can die). Enitharmon leaves, "vanishing upon the wind" (Blake 289), but returns to revive Los with a song on his own harp.

"I seize the sphery harp. I strike the strings.

"At the first sound the Golden sun arises from the deep "And shakes his awful hair,

"The Eccho wakes the moon to unbind her silver locks, "The golden sun bears on my song

"The nine bright spheres of harmony rise around the fiery king."

(Blake 289)

The "Golden sun" is the light of prophecy, the light of Eternity, the light of the Golden Age of inspiration and harmony. The nine spheres are the nine muses of poetic inspiration. Under her control, the nine spheres sing, and creation joys in the sound.

"Arise, you little glancing wings & sing your infant joy!

"Arise and drink your bliss!

"For every thing that lives is holy; for the source of life

"Descends to be a weeping babe"

(Blake 289)

Orc speaks the same words in America: A Prophecy to Britain, proclaiming the sanctity of life: "For everything that lives is holy..." (Blake 199) Like Enitharmon, Orc proclaims the holiness of life in order to revive the "dead," those who sleep in Fallen ignorance or disharmony.

Enitharmon ends her song with a statement of need: she needs her other half to live. She finds that the light of eternal knowledge is too much for her. She had begun by reviving Los, but found that his harp is too powerful for her to control, and as she sinks to nothingness in the radiance of prophecy, she calls out to Los:

"O, I am weary! lay thine hand upon me or I faint,

"I faint beneath these beams of thine,

"For thou hast touch'd my five senses & they answered thee.

"Now I am nothing, & I sink

"And on the bed of silence sleep till thou awakest me."

(Blake 290)

Los awakens and tries to seize her but cannot, for they are in the Fallen world and cannot unite into one except in Eternity. The fall of Luvah and birth of Orc leads to a division between Bard and Inspiration, or between Bard and his song, but it also means a further fall into experience, because the Bard realizes the full extent of his separation from Enitharmon, the extent of his fall into the material, illusory world.

The events of the Preludium relate the beginning of another Orc cycle. In universal terms, they represent a manifestation in the created world of the birth of Orc, which is the Fall of Luvah, which in The Four Zoas brought about the separation of Los and Enitharmon, and the "death" of Los. If we see the Preludium as an image of Ahania (Pleasure), (this involves no outrageous stretch of the imagination, for copulation, the union of destined mates, is a pleasure of the highest order in Blake's universe) then perhaps it is an illusion of Enitharmon to trick the Bard into embarrassment. The Bard (Los) embraces the illusion and it becomes Enitharmon and flies away, leaving the Bard silent, ashamed, and enraged at her cruel trick.

The spectacle of Orc breaking free of his shackles and raping the American wilderness is disturbing to the Bard because the spectacle is his own construction, his visionary poem, his Emanation. After completing his song her realized that it has been Enitharmon's voice singing through his harp, so he throws away the traitorous instrument in a rage, and becomes silent.

This becomes somewhat confusing because Blake is inspired by Los, but Los exists in a fallen state and is hence susceptible to error and illusion, though he does try to keep sight of Eternity and give his visions to man. Los the Eternal Prophet in his fallen state is continually tantalized and teased and tricked by his Emanation, and cannot ever quite become whole and complete without her. Blake's shame is a remorseful shame, the shame of failing at a high calling. His rage is the rage of the prophet against the conditions of the Fallen World. His silence is the silence of a prophet whose inspiration has left him.

Presumably his muse and composure have returned for the main event, the prophecy itself. It might be possible to argue that the main prophecy is analogous to Enitharmon's inspired song to awaken Los, but these events have actual historical counterparts, unlike those of the Preludium. Besides, Enitharmon's song ended in her own nothingness, in her own call for help from Los as she faded under the light of prophecy; in America: A Prophecy the speaker is an objective narrator, Los, the Bard emanating inspired poetry.

All of the events in the Preludium and Prophecy are cosmic events in Blake's system, that is, they are events which occur in history and in the lives of individuals, they are truths which manifest themselves in time and space, through they originate in Eternity. Lest these interpretations of this poem lose all semblance of plausibility, let us sit back for a moment and look at the poem from a distance, as it occurs within Blake's cosmogony. First of all, this is not reality, this is poetry -- words on a page. These words link up to some reality somewhere, and presume to link up with the ultimate reality of Eternity. The place where the "Bard ceas'd" is a short run of words, perhaps corresponding to a momentary sigh or moment of rage in the poet's life. Orc's rape of the American wilderness is Blake's view of recent political events in history, fitted into his cosmogony as mythological creatures. In either case, the words connect with the poet's experience of the world. When his poetic gifts leave him, doubt and shame ensue, and to Blake, since all events have their mirrored counterparts in Eternity, so the poet's moment of doubt and shame and silence is Los' darkness and despair of death.

A poem is its own universe, which may or may not symbolize eternal states or events. Like the words of the Old Testament prophets, or the words of any philosophical theory, there is no proof of truth, only belief or disbelief. If we cannot know, then a question arises: Can a well told lie approach the beauty of truth? This is of course the fundamental issue which underlies all literature, because the limitations of language make literature beautiful lies masquerading as the ugly truth. Does the well told lie approach truth through its beauty? According to Blake, only the world of the imagination is real, and therefore all of its constructions, motions, and illuminations, even contradictory ones, constitute truth. The fictions of the imagination, even before being cast into the molds of language, are the truth to Blake, for they are the tales of Los, the Eternal Prophet.

When Blake uses historical names and places he is really referring to universal states or forces at work in the universe. When Washington calls the colonies to rebellion, it is Orc at work through Man's passions. As Orc rises in America, everything is surrounded with flames of "heat but not light", a common literary conception of the fires of hell. Orc is seen by England as a demon, and he is one insofar as he is free-thinking, impulsive, and energetic, in contrast to the dogmatic, repressive conformity of England. The return of Orc is seen in Christ-like imagery, and indeed to Blake, Christ was a manifestation of Luvah (unfallen Orc).

"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 slaves grinding at the mill run out into the field,

"Let him look out; his chains are loose, the dungeon doors are open,

"And let his wife and children return from the oppressor's 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.'"

(Blake 198)

The lion, the protector of the sheep, and the wolf, their enemy, are reconciled and the strife of this world comes to an end as their warfare ceases. Albion's Angel meanwhile stands beside the "Stone of Night", or the Ten Commandments, questioning Orc in wrath:

"Art thou not Orc, who serpent-form'd

"Stands at the gate of Enitharmon to devour her children?

"Blasphemous Demon, Antichrist, hater of Dignities,

"Lover of wild rebellion, and transgressor of God's Law.

"Why dost thou come to Angel's eyes in this terrific form?"

(Blake 198)

To the Angel of Albion, Orc appears as a devil, for "God's Law" to Blake is Urizen's arbitrary law, hence England sees everything reversed. The image of the dragon-serpent as devourer of children comes from Revelation 12, but Blake reverses the image so that the serpent becomes a positive force, whose "devouring" of children refers to rescuing them from this material world and delivering them to Eternity. Orc answers with more biblical allusions:

"...everything that lives is holy, life delights in life;

"Because the soul of sweet delight can never be defil'd.

"Fires inwrap the earthly globe, yet man is not consum'd;

"Amidst the lustful fires he walks; his feet become like brass,

"His knees and thighs like silver, & his breast and head like gold.

(Blake 199)

Orc is laying the hypocrisy of England and Urizen's law open, and affirming the sanctity of humanity and life above the Law. The flames of revolt do not consume man but rather purify him, for he is of Eternal stuff and cannot be destroyed. Using the imagery of Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the Book of Daniel, Orc tells of the restoration of the complete unfallen man in Eternity. Following this exchange Albion's Angel sounds the war trumpet to gather his forces and intimidate the colonies into submission. Boston arises against Britain speaking words which paint the oppressor in shades of the Reformation:

"What God is he writes laws of peace & clothes him in a tempest?

"What pitying Angel lusts for tears and fans himself with sighs?

"What crawling villain preaches abstinence & wraps himself

"In fat of lambs? no more I follow, no more obedience pay!"

(Blake 200)

The Puritan colonies of New England saw America as a place to complete the Reformation, free from the persecution of Europe, and so the Reformation-tinged rhetoric of Boston speaks from the experience of the colony, from its vision of the future, in exposing the hypocrisy and injustice of England's Urizenic oppression. Notice also the repeated use of "What" as an Old Testament prophet would use it in a set of rhetorical questions, leading to a decisive declaration.

The colonies stand behind Boston, and the British flee in fright. Albion's Angel meanwhile tries to keep the Americans from reaching Eternity, by sending diseases upon the colonies (Yahweh's weapons), but the Americans send the plagues back upon England, and Albion's Angel sickens. Urizen appears and tries to stop Orc, but he can only delay his fires for 12 years before they reach France. The end of the poem tells of the conflagration of Apocalypse. Orc's revolution having stripped men of their illusions, giving them the liberty of Eternity.

As mentioned, America: A Prophecy was illustrated with complementary "decorations" which tell a consecutive story through images, but which do not tell precisely the same story as the text. The illustrations form an accompaniment, like a counterpoint to a melody, and when the image and text seem to harmonize, this is the exception rather than the rule. The decorations form a parallel but completely separate narrative, and lead to a completely different perspective and conclusion. The text of America: A Prophecy ends with the attainment of Eternity through the fires of revolution, but the illustrations are far less optimistic, for they show the state of experience continuing unrelieved.

The title page is illustrated with an old man and woman sitting, reading the Book of Law, undistracted by the little joys all around them. Below is the darkness of materialism, where an Emanation strives to awaken a man with kisses. In his fallen state, the man is dead to his imaginative side (Emanation); this is an echo of Enitharmon awakening Los in The Four Zoas, where the female tries to awaken the male who has slept since their separation.

The last plates are quite pessimistic, showing Rehab, the dragon, seducing a youth with materialism, the result being the pain of Generative desire, without its ecstasy, souls being vegetated -- literally becoming trees like in Ovid's Metamorphosis, which Blake saw as the Greek equivalent of the Fall. The last image is that of a woman, Earth, praying to the empty sea of nature; behind her are people who have become trees. The end of the revolution, then, becomes a return to materialism and Natural Religion: Orc becomes Urizen.

The Bard who writes the text seems to imply that the American Revolution was the beginning to the end of tyranny, the end of the Orc cycle; but the images show that it's all just another Orc cycle, leading back to materialism and ignorance. Why the disparity between image and word? Europe, which ends the historical prophecies, continues the story of the revolution into Europe, ending in Orc's fires as well. Its illustrations also point to a more optimistic end: the Eternity promised at the end of the text of America. The end of America diverges to such a degree from actual historical events that it can only be taken as representing the revolution taking place in the soul of mankind as a whole, with the actual historical time and place not explicit. The Apocalyptic ending of America: A Prophecy, then, is Blake the Bard fulfilling his role as prophet against empire, telling of the end in sight, the Eternity awaiting beyond the fires of purification. The poem was written in 1793, well after both the American and French revolutions, so we cannot consider the fires of revolution and apocalyptic purification to be realities of history, but rather as the inevitable rise of revolution and liberty in the minds of men and women as Orc rises to free humankind in the Last Judgement.

There is no real dissonance in America: A Prophecy, even though the text and illustrations diverge. The cosmic events which underlie the American Revolution exist in Eternity, and so the struggles of the colonists represent the soul of Albion beginning to awaken from his sleep upon the Rock of Ages. The revolution of Man begins, however, within the soul of each person individually:

Whenever any Individual Rejects Error & Embraces Truth, a Last Judgement passes upon that Individual (Blake 613)

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