Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

William Blake's America: a Prophecy is a mythologized version of the founding of America as a country. Blake creatively—and vividly, as the original work featured eighteen illustrations of its mythological subjects—portrays a battle between the rebellious America and the domineering Britain. The story is an allegory for the triumph of...

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William Blake's America: a Prophecy is a mythologized version of the founding of America as a country. Blake creatively—and vividly, as the original work featured eighteen illustrations of its mythological subjects—portrays a battle between the rebellious America and the domineering Britain. The story is an allegory for the triumph of creativity and novelty over reason and tradition.

Blake's America should be viewed in its context as first of a series of three poems. The next was the similarly structured "Europe: a Prophecy" (which describes the foundation of Europe followed by its infestation by war, rebellion, and sin) and and the last was "The Book of Los" (which recounts the fall of Blake's mythical zoa—an incarnation of primordial man—Urthona into the degenerate human form, Los). Los is depicted as a smithy god who works with a hammer, and he is the father of Orc (who appears in "America, a Prophecy"). Los thus represents creativity, and Orc represents restlessness in the form of fiery rebellion (Blake's mythology is very similar to other religious pantheons in the sense that deities are personifications of abstract forces and emotions).

"America: a Prophecy," like the other works in Blake's continental prophecies, are is heavily politicized. It tells the story of the American Revolution by adducing historical figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but also mythological beings such as Orc (a fiery spirit of rebellion) and his counterpart Urizen (a deity who appears as a leprous old man representing reason and law).

The Angel of Albion (a personification of England) tries to summon his Thirteen Angels with his trumpet, but these angels abandon Albion in favor of America. The Angel of Boston in particular rouses his cohort against obeying their former master, Albion. Left without his Thirteen Angels (who represent the colonies), Albion sends a plague to America, which Orc repels with fire and sends back to England. As a result, all of England (Bristol, York, and London) is overtaken by sickness. Urizen (the spirit of reason) emerges from his shrine as an old man, crying in pity for his beloved Europe (and Urizen can be interpreted more broadly as the spirit of the Enlightenment).

By showing Orc victorious and Urizen, the Thirteen Angels, and Albion thus defeated, Blake suggests the triumph of rebellion and creativity over law and reason.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667

America: A Prophecy is a narrative poem consisting of two parts, a 37-line section titled “Preludium” and a longer, 226-line section entitled “A Prophecy.” It is written in long, unrhymed lines that seem to have been inspired in their shape both by the epic meter of Homer and by the iambic pentameter of John Milton, but that conform to neither.

The poem takes the American Revolution as its inspiration, but, even though George Washington and other founding fathers appear in it, the poem is by no means an attempt to write a history of the event. Rather, this poem is an attempt to create an extended metaphor glorifying the spirit of the revolution.

In America, William Blake is developing a cosmology of deities, some of whom had appeared in his earlier poems and many of whom were to appear in later ones, such as the poem “The Four Zoas.” When the poem begins, Orc, a deity associated with fire and rebellion, based very much on the myth of Prometheus, has been chained by Urthona, who is a blacksmith and associated with the earth. He is being fed by the virgin daughter of Urthona, a sympathetic spirit also associated with the earth. Inspired by her presence, Orc breaks free of his chains to embrace her; she, in turn, is inspired to speak for the first time, and, at the end of this prelude, tells him of the struggle under way on “my American plains.”

The main section of the poem, “A Prophecy,” concerns the struggle between the Angel of Albion (England) and a number of characters and deities associated with the American colonies. George Washington early makes an impassioned speech to warn Americans that the Angel of Albion is on his way to imprison them, but after that, he and the other founding fathers named in the poem (including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine) have little to do. Most of the battle is between Orc and the Angel of Albion.

Orc arrives in a fiery burst to intervene between the Angel of Albion and the American colonists. The Angel of Albion recognizes him and demands to know what he is doing. Orc declares that he is defending the principle that “everything that lives is holy” against the idea that lives can be ranked according to their importance, which he sees the Angel of Albion as trying to enforce.

Beginning in line 76, the Angel of Albion tries to rally his “Thirteen Angels,” representing the spirits of the original thirteen colonies. Led by Boston’s Angel, who refuses to pay any more obedience to Albion, the Thirteen Angels throw down their scepters and stand united with Washington and other founding fathers. In line 142, the human governors of the thirteen colonies meet and, unable to break the mental chains binding them to England, surrender to Washington rather than join him.

The Angel of Albion sends plagues to defeat the colonies of America, but Orc intervenes and sends the plagues back onto the English. The plagues defeat the Angel of Albion, and Blake shows what he thinks of the official English poetry of his day by having a “cowl” of flesh and scales grow over the Bard of Albion (a stand-in for any of several British poet laureates of Blake’s lifetime), who has hidden in a cave.

Then Urizen, at this point the most powerful of Blake’s deities, appears. Urizen is described as old, pale, and bearded, and in this poem is associated with clouds and ice. He puts a stop to the revolt against Albion by trapping Orc in a white cloud for twelve years—possibly referring to the period between the end of the American Revolution and the execution of the king of France in 1793. The poem ends with a prophecy of the time when the five gates, meaning the five senses, will be burned away and humankind will be able to perceive infinity directly, the ultimate outcome Blake sees to the French and American revolutions.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

Although Blake displays a rich feel for the rhythms and sounds of language in America, as he does in all of his work, in this poem he does not try to conform his poetic lines to any rigid structure. Typically, though, each line will have seven or eight hard stresses. Many lines have an iambic rhythm (every second syllable stressed), but usually it is interrupted by at least one other type of poetic foot (for example, two—or three—hard stresses in a row) at some point in the line. The effect is that every line seems to reflect the conflict of forces at work in the poem in general.

The larger accomplishment of this poem is that it weaves elements from mythology, from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), and from the history of the American Revolution into an original cosmology of Blake’s own making. If the chained figure of Orc introduced at the beginning of the poem is derivative of Prometheus, the god in Greek mythology who defied the other gods by bringing fire to man and was therefore chained to a mountain by Zeus, he also owes much to Milton’s Satan, condemned to the fires of hell for leading angels in revolt. Thus, when Orc tells the Angel of Albion, “I am Orc, wreathed round the accursed tree” (line 59), he is identifying himself with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and more generally identifying himself with Lucifer when he refers to the “fiery Joy, that Urizen perverted to ten commands,” meaning the Ten Commandments (line 61). Further, Orc identifies the rebellious spirit of the American colonies with his own rebellious spirit.

The poem, however, does not at any point become a meticulous allegory of the American Revolution. Although Orc’s imprisonment may be read as a poetic rendering of the end of the war of independence, the events of the poem, such as the turning back of the plague meant for America onto the cities of Bristol and London, do not generally correspond to specific historical events. This is not a poem about the people and events of the revolution (and in fact, the Americans who are named and alluded to throughout the poem have little to do besides watch the main conflict) but about the spirit of the revolution. As such, its aim is to put this revolution into a context of revolt not only against political tyranny—the type of revolt Washington calls for in his brief but powerful speech—but generally against any tyranny that represses the potential for life.

This is why the poem is a “prophecy.” It sees the American Revolution as part of a larger spiritual cleansing that will ultimately create a new world.

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