The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 453 words.)