Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422
The visionary painter and poet William Blake saw himself as the aesthetic inheritor of the monastery-bound artisans responsible for illustrated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells (eighth century), also an artifact of the British Isles. In the literary traditions of Great Britain, there’s a tendency to see the boundaries between the factual and abstract modes of expression as permeable.
When it comes to “America: A Prophecy,” Blake is framing a political commentary within an apocalyptic allegory. If I were to interpret the text of the poem in order to parse out its meaning, my attempt at a literal, straightforward summary would be along the lines of, “This poem is about the protectorate spirit of England and how the Empire is unhappily split asunder by the independence of the American Colonies.” The upheaval of that separation resonates far and wide.
Blake and his peers were painters and writers of the Romantic movement, which comprised visual and literary symbolism in an attempt to communicate the primacy of Nature, which the Romantic soul “worshipped as unbounded, wild and ever-changing” (History of Art, Janson). This was as contrasted against, for example, Man’s comparative artifice. However, the definition of Romanticism is unclear; it’s really less of an artistic movement with specific characteristics than it is a state of mind.
The poem’s two-pronged presentation of colored engraving and language is meant to be transportive, in the Romantic sense: a portal to another dimension, with some direct allusions or ties to (then roughly contemporary) historic reality. For instance, “America: A Prophesy” is noted as one of Blake’s more political poems. With that in mind, notice that any reference to a ruler or sentinel of “Albion” has a mythological identification, such as The Guardian Prince, the Thirteen Angels, and the Eternal Viper, whereas the Colonies are represented by real people—Washington, Franklin, Paine, Hancock and Warren, who themselves make up a symbolic body.
As for quotes and their meanings, according to Britannica.com, “Albion’s Angel, representing the reactionary government of England, perceives Orc, the spirit of energy, as a ‘Blasphemous Demon, Antichrist, hater of Dignities.’”
The poem begins:
The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent:
Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America’s shore,
Piercing the souls of warlike men who rise in the silent night.
And soon the mood darkens: “I see thee in thick clouds and darkness on America’s shore,” and “eyes of death, the harlot womb, oft opened in vain.”
The Empire is no more.