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Impiously devout poet and artist William Blake never expected to live very long. Needling the high and mighty with satire could earn authors prison or a noose in his day. But his life stretched to 69 years (1757-1827) through mayhem, riots and a reordering of the British kingdom, especially in the Americas.
America fascinated Blake. Raptly observing our Revolution, he wondered at our resistance to King George and his armies and he mourned the injustice covering the world. People just weren’t telling their kings to bug off, no matter how bad their lot. And if they did, it usually climaxed with mounds of their rotting rebel bodies under someone’s boots.
Blake saw or imputed to America great and extraordinary things, often referring to us in his poetry as the “13 Angels” or forces against “Albion” (usually King George or oppression). True to his visionary thinking, which was so extreme that many thought him mad, he used America as an archetype of freedom of will. Heady, dangerous – he cast us as a stage where good and evil and all things of the spirit fought fiercely to determine the course of political civilizations in this world.
None more so than the series of etched poem/plates he began in 1793, “America: A Prophecy.” Somewhat foreboding, these verses have been confusing people for 200 years. Strewn with mythological figures battling it out to the death, such as “Urizen,” the god of enlightenment, and Orc, the spirit of revolt. (Warning for the theologically orthodox: Blake is anything but.)
His “prophecy” can be foreboding as when he pens, “Solemn heave the Atlantic waves between the gloomy nation.” Although Blake apparently cheers us on across the sea, still “Albion [England] is sick” and “America faints!” he notes. (“America” here betokens free thought, energy, youth and good will.)
George Washington makes a cameo speech early in the “prophecies” concerned that America would “in future times forget” the oppression founders sought to escape:
“… our faces pale and yellow;
Heads deprest, voices weak, eyes downcast, hands work-bruised,
Feet bleeding on the sultry sands and the furrow of the whip”
Is he referring here to slavery? It was about to be outlawed in Britain.
In another plate, Blake uses intensely romantic language borrowed from the Bible’s Song of Solomon. “Silent as despairing love, and strong as jealously. The hairy shoulders rend the links … “Hairy shoulders belong to one of god-like forces of rescue which come to aid of free people willing to fight.
The result of this epic early American struggle was “a terrible boy” of whom the nation cries:
“I know thee, I have found thee & I will not let thee go;
Thou art the image of God who dwells in the darkness of Africa;
And thou art fall’n to give me life in the regions of death.”
Slavery again? Perhaps he refers to Christ and his lineage here.
Does it even seem impossible that a British subject in 1793 could feel this way? Blake lived through two wars with the states, and both caused hardships for the people back home. He still believed in the greatness of England, though. He referred to its potential as an earthly type of “Jerusalem” (and so his great hymn).
War with the colonies wasn’t particularly popular then, just as wars divide us today. It could cost your life to make much of a fuss about it, particularly if you supported the “enemy,” as Blake’s poems did in a veiled way. But people across Europe were fascinated by the New World and envied the great expanse, the possibilities and ideals of social equality and self-governance. He wasn’t alone in that.
I hadn’t really paid much attention to Blake until recently. His art was interesting, eccentric, not too sophisticated. At his best, Blake’s figures just slightly resemble Michelangelo’s but missing the exact anatomy, proportion and elegance. His are vigorously muscular, stolid, displacing energy and always intended to be something more or less than human.
Probably the original “Romantic” artist, every type of emotion is central to his themes. Faces in Blake’s paintings are sorrowful, joyous, despairing, enraged or grief stricken – extremely so. His poetry seems more interesting and much better crafted (at least to me), although the paintings and poems are a unit. That’s obvious. The prints may be a little hard for moderns to read, with beautiful, spidery embellished calligraphy. No one can mistake his work for anyone else, though, and he liked that singularity. It was his signature.
Perhaps it the anxiety I’m sensing everywhere, but for the first time, Blake’s work truly interests me. It harmonizes with our current plight, although I wouldn’t call him an actual Bible-style “prophet.” He may be more in the company of Ben Franklin, who cautioned “It’s a republic, Madam – if you can keep it,” but with a lot more drama and soul searching. That’s the wonderful thing about all the arts: the ability to deeply touch and rouse emotion. If art works, you remember and ponder it, sometimes for a very long time.
It’s supremely ironic that Blake, who still stands a champion of rebels, would clash terribly with the contemporary left and those pretending to be “liberals.” The artist absolutely adored this nation’s founders, depicting them by name as wise and good, almost God-like.
“Washington, Franklin, Paine & Warren, Gates, Hancock, & Green;
Meet on the coast glowing with blood from Albion’s fiery Prince.”
Blake would never recognize the bureaucracy-loving ranks who now consider themselves true descendants of freedom fighters and champions of human rights. They’ve been too inbred by something he deals with in his poetry, the corruption of “Albion, the fiery prince.” Old kings, classism, racism, religious and military oppression, arrogance and protection of your turf – all this was “Albion,” the European way.
Even worse, Blake constantly engaged in absolutist thinking to the point where he said it was “evil” to be unsure of a thing. Although his religion seems to be eight parts protestant Christian with some Swedenborgian and mystical stuff tossed in, he still tormented himself over good and evil and right and wrong in every poem.
Leftists have been citing Europe as a gold-leafed Olympus to which America can never quite attain for at least half a century. Reversing Blake’s feelings entirely, they play their endlessly looping mantra; what is solely and uniquely American is worthless and may be dangerous, anything not American is far superior. That goes for laws, religions, literature, music, philosophies, lifestyles, even wars. Anything.
Were Blake suddenly reincarnated to some American university where they taught his poetry, it would be amusing. Praising Washington and Paine, speaking of treason and rebellion against tyrants? That’s tea-party stuff, didn’t you know? Almost word for word. The regime has decreed it so and the chorus of purported “intelligentsia” unanimously tweets.
In Blake’s time, his works were considered so radical that many were burned after his death. No doubt those defenders of the status quo who seek to silence conservatives (the true radicals) would do exactly the same if they can twist the laws to let them.
As we look for leaders who will stand up for our rights far into our run on this continent, I can only hope William Blake was no prophet, because this is what he feared may happen to us someday:
“Thus wept the angel voice & as he wept the terrible blasts
Of trumpets, blew a loud alarm across the Atlantic deep.
No trumpets answer; no reply of clarions or of fifes.
Silent the colonies remain and refuse the loud alarm.”
America’s history is far more interesting and our future perhaps more important than we may realize. At any rate William Blake, Englishman, poet and painter certainly thought so.