The Fall of Eternity into Materialism
America: An Essay in Art History, by Jacob Rabinowitz: please click on the video above
The following is a written transcript of the visual commentary above on Blake’s great poem America a Prophecy. The text is offered merely for the convenience of those who are interested in the video, or who would like to cite quotations directly from Rabinowitz’s illuminating take on this remarkable work, which as the video notes is one of “the most visually appealing of all his illuminated books”.
This poem uses the American revolution as a symbol for the conflict between Urizen, the intellect, and Orc, the suppressed passions and irrational energies. It is a battle between the Superego and the Id.
In the text, Urizen appears as “The Guardian Prince of Albion,” that is, King George, and Orc is represented by Washington and his friends. But in the illustrations, even more than in the poem, Blake shows his awareness that revolution is a desperate expedient, not a splendid adventure, and brings consequences as terrible as what it opposes. Visually, Blake has given us a drama of the glamor and the danger of the irrational, to rank with Euripides’ Bacchae. It is also the most visually appealing of all his illuminated books.
The frontispiece shows an immense defeated spirit crouching in a broken battlement. This is Orc, the spirit of revolution. His battle seems to be won: he has breached the castle wall of monarchy, and the cannon barrel of imperial power lies neutralized—but he himself is manacled. The stone on which he is placed is the sacrificial Druid “Stone of Night”: a Blakean symbol of the pagan, natural sense of simple justice: retribution unimproved by any notion of forgiveness or rehabilitation. The message is that revolutionary reprisal may dethrone a tyrant but does not by itself establish liberty. The anguished woman with children to the right are naked to symbolize society liberated of all constraints, but the result is new vulnerability, fear and misery.
It would not strain the visual metaphor to say that Orc’s placement in the broken battlement, filling the breach, shows that revolutionary forces can finally become part of a new oppressive establishment distinguished from the old in name alone.
The title page shows a grieving woman embracing the corpse of her lover, who lies on a heap of slain. Sleet falls from dark clouds in the background. This is the back-story to the bereaved woman with her orphan children on the frontispiece. Though Blake provides in this book beautiful and stirring emblems of revolt, he is keenly alive to the horrors of war and the destructiveness of revolution.
Above, in the cloudy, airy, mental realm, conveniently distanced from the realities of rebellion, a man and a woman are absorbing revolutionary doctrine. The woman seems to have a dawning awareness that the promised utopia is not so simple as described. One of the spirits instructing her is clothed, that is to say, not quite so innocent. The other one languidly points down to the carnage to come. The man is instructed by spirits who point to the skies: perhaps suggesting that the male understanding of revolution is more abstract and less concerned with the human cost.
The first page of text shows Orc as a force of nature. At bottom we see him represented as a coiling worm, buried, sightless but alive. Worms aid plant growth by making the soil more permeable to air and water, and breaking down organic matter into forms that vegetation can more easily use. The idea here is that the irrational forces of the mind, hidden from conscious thought, perform an essential vivifying role.
The explicit portrayal of Orc, beneath the roots of the tree, shows him with an expression and posture of terrific alertness, tension and energy. His power is transmitted upwards through the nearly human-looking roots of the tree.
But the tree is the Tree of Mystery, symbol of repressive moral law and, in the world of conscious awareness, Orc is manacled to the ground beneath it, in an image suggesting at once the crucifixion and Prometheus bound. Orc both empowers the tree and is tortured by it: repression incorporates the energies it suppresses. To the right are a man and a woman, offering a Blakean psychological insight. The female responds with pity for the suffer, the male with terror at the thought of punishment.
The appearance of revolution, of Orc, is equated with springtime and new life rising from the ground. Note particularly the rising vine tendril. Coils are used throughout the book to suggest energy.
The introduction is concluded and the poem proper begins. At top we have a liberated spirit, trailing the vestiges of his chains, ascending the heaven of intellectual freedom. At center a trumpeter, heralding rebellion, from whose instrument proceed the flames of war. At bottom, a terrified family flees the conflagration.
This plate is a tableau of the English reaction to American rebellion. At top we have, in dragon shape, the king of England, whom Blake describes thus:
. . . on his cliffs stood Albion’s wrathful Prince.
A dragon form clashing his scales at midnight, he arose,
And flam’d red meteors round the land of Albion beneath
His voice, his locks, his awful shoulders, and his glowing eyes . . .
Blake uses the dragon, breathing fire and armored in scales, as a symbol of war.
To the left, we see the English establishment as it sees itself, an avenging guardian angel of the nation, holding in his right hand a book which represents laws, and in his left carrying a spear which, like the lightning bolts around him, stands for heaven’s just anger.
At bottom, on the shore, we see the Tree of Mystery, which represents repressive laws, toppled by the winds of revolution. A youth on the sand gazes in horror at a beached sea monster, while a bearded adult stares up at the frightening signs in the heavens and tries to comfort his child. It is a time of comets and monsters, omens in the sky and on the earth.
As a pendant to the preceding plate, here we have a grand panorama of the revolution as it would have appeared to the most enthusiastic of the Americans, a leftist last judgment.
At top we have a revolutionary tribunal rendering sentence from on high. One spirit holds the scales, the other the sword of justice. They are hurling monarchs down into the pit of hell, whose flames are equated with the coiling energies of serpentine orc.
The text on this plate exactly matches the illustration. Orc sings a hymn to insurrection and resurrection:
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 slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field,
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise and look out! His chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors 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.
At the bottom of the page we see symbols of war and revolution restored to their harmless eternal forms. The dragon is become a lizard catching flies, the thistle grows without spikes, and the serpent of rebellion dances to entertain his majesty the frog, regally seated in amphibious dignity.
Continuing the theme of the last plate, we are now shown the promised post-revolutionary utopia: birds of paradise perch on a young, graceful leafing birch which has replaced the Tree of Mystery. Humans and animals rest together in inter-species peace. The only trace of the preceding revolution is the spiraling vine at lower left.
Here we have Urizen, Blake’s symbol of the harsh patriarchal god of Christianity. Knowing his empire is threatened, he clutches his clouds to keep from falling into the turbulence on earth.
. . . and Urizen who sat
Above all heavens in thunders wrap’d, emerg’d his . . . head
From out his holy shrine, his tears in deluge piteous
Falling into the deep sublime! Flag’d with grey-brow’d snows
And thunderous visages, his jealous wings wav’d over the deep.
Weeping in dismal howling woe he dark descended howling
Around the smitten bands, clothed in tears & trembling shudd’ring cold.
His stored snows he poured forth, and his icy magazines
He open’d on the deep, and on the Atlantic sea white shiv’ring.
. . . Weeping in dismal howlings before the stern Americans.
What is perceived by the powers that be as a tempest is actually growth and life, shown here in waves of grain, whose profusion nurtures a newborn child. The serpentine plants at lower right indicate that this is revolutionary prosperity.
In counterpoise to the image of fearful Urizen slipping down towards the water, here red Orc rises in the flames of rebellion, which are also the eternal flames of creativity.
The terror answerd, “I am Orc, wreath’d round the accursed tree.
The times are ended, shadows pass, the morning gins to break.
The fiery joy, that Urizen perverted to ten commands
What night he led the starry hosts thro’ the wide wilderness,
That stony law I stamp to dust, and scatter religion abroad
To the four winds as a torn book, & none shall gather the leaves,
But they shall rot on desart sands & consume in bottomless deeps
To make the desarts blossom, & the deeps shrink to their fountains,
And to renew the fiery joy and burst the stony roof.
That pale religious letchery, seeking Virginity,
May find it! in a harlot, and in coarse-clad honesty
The undefil’d tho’ ravish’d in her cradle night and morn.
For every thing 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 consumd;
Amidst the lustful fires he walks, his feet become like brass,
His knees and thighs like silver & his breast and head like gold.”
In this the most delightful of all these illustrations, we see the exuberant play of free spirits naked in a moony paradise of innocent yet faintly erotic sport. The friendly giant snake is of course a symbol of Orc, but so is the swan with its serpentine neck. The energy of life, not rendered explosive by repression, is easily directed, as the thread-thin reins, by which children steer these giant creatures, suggest.
Death’s door. The old regime takes its tremulous way into the tomb, set under a tree of mystery which is living and healthy, for the laws of life are now restored to their original meaning, as the proper boundaries of existence and activity. Note that the door itself is made of wood, since this transition is a transition in life and not its end. The wind is blowing through the stone enclosure: this is not a chamber but an antechamber, the entrance not of a cave but a tunnel, which will open onto to a transformed, immortal and redeemed existence.
For Blake, the Biblical flood symbolized the immersion of Eternity in the turbid murk of material existence. One of the consequences of this cataclysm was to separate America (which represents the body) from Europe (which stands for the imagination.) America is a symbol of liberty for Blake, but liberty understood in very physical terms. Blake intuited, it seems, that “the American Dream” was a very right-now and materialistic one.
In this image of the diluvian world, we see, at top, American liberty, preyed upon by the eagle of British imperialism.
Below, we see mankind drowned in the waters of materialism, and even the spirit of independence becomes a further fetter, represented by the serpent that coils around the drowned person’s legs. The sea snake and sea worm that hasten to join the fish feeding on the corpse indicate that revolution without idealism devours humanity.
Lessons in revolutionary theory, given under the Tree of Mystery by a Druid priestess. Druidism for Blake meant paganism, which he regarded as the cruel simplistic religion of savages, with no conception of forgiveness or transcendence, a kind of magical materialism. The baleful nature of this revolutionary teaching is indicated by the dead tree and the attitude of the student, who accepts with prayerful gesture the authority of the instructor, while real knowledge remains a closed book. The serpent of wisdom that speaks from this sibyl’s groin is the doctrine of sexual repression, revolutionary puritanism, which produces the dragons of violence in the unconscious. This is a vision of political correctness.
Completing the meaning of the preceding plate, this one shows a good revolution dissolving the bonds of puritanism:
The doors of marriage are open and the Priests in rustling scales
Rush into reptile coverts, hiding from the fires of Orc
That play around the golden roofs in wreaths of fierce desire
Leaving the females naked and glowing with the lusts of youth,
For the female spirits of the dead, pining in bonds of religion,
Run from their fetters reddening, & in long drawn arches sitting:
They feel the nerves of youth renew, and desires of ancient times
Over their pale limbs as a vine when the tender grape appears.
The women here emerge from their infantilized, fearful state of repression, and ascend into healthy erotic activity—the curling vine tendrils indicate that the intoxication and energy of Orc are here at work. In the margin the equation of sexual expression and natural growth is shown by the tree turning into a woman, in an inversion of the myth of Daphne. At top a woman is about to waken from dogmatic slumbers under a tree of mystery: her impending rise to conscious awareness is suggested by the serpentine Orc-vine, and the dawn bird soaring up over the tree.
This plate also completes the meaning of its predecessor. A figure frozen in piety beside the Tree of Mystery is thawing and melting into living water in the warmth of Orc. (The fine detail is somewhat clearer in an uncolored version). Lovers are embracing at the foot of the figure, a shepherd and his flock rest on the calf, a piper leaning against a tree makes music on the thigh, aspiration appears on the back and learning on the head.
At the bottom of the plate a spiky Orc-serpent and equally prickly plants indicate that insurrection, though the way of nature, is quite literally a thorny path to follow.
Jacob Rabinowitz is a Blake scholar and the author of a number of books including The Unholy Bible: Hebrew Literature of the Kingdom Period and The Rotting Goddess: The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity, published by Autonomedia. He has translated texts from French, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and most recently from Italian, which he learned in order to read Dante, and has written on Classical literature, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Canaanite paganism, modern art, and high fashion. His Online Renaissance project attempts to realize the Renaissance dream of universal understanding through videos opening on the global human languages of Mathematics and Art, which he sees as twin windows onto a higher reality.