AG: So, but why is Blake worried? Page two nine five, we’ll find out, (out) of Blake – Prophet Against Empire Okay, this is worth reading, because if you do.. It’s about a page but it’ll give you the whole historical background, (similar to ours):
“For months they could not silence the growing demand for peace and bread, just as the allied monarchs were unable to stifle the Republic of France. But Pitt‘s king and priest would continue for some time in the ancient way, and the pride of many an Englishman would fail as he learned to obey. The laborious poor were placated by minimum wages of a sort in the form of a supplementary dole, the “Speenhamland system” as it was called. “Parliament talked for a while about peace – and then passed a series of ‘gagging acts’ (to prevent people from talking about peace) “to prevent the people from doing so.” – “One of these acts gave the legal definition of ‘treason’ an elasticity such as “un-American” attained in the 1950’s. Another defined almost any kind of meeting as seditious, forbade discussion of government policy, and further curtailed press freedom. Pitt’s popularity diminished -but his power increased. Subsequent popular demonstrations for peace and old prices” – (because there was now inflation on account of the war with France) – “were relatively ineffectual. The ‘British Inquisition’ with its ‘Black List of English Jacobins,’ – (the Jacobins were the pro-Revolutionary sympathizers) – “was now empowered.”
“It is true that Pitt had grossly underestimated the military potential of the French Republic” – (or it’s true that (American President Richard) Nixon had grossly underestimated the military potential of the Republic of Vietnam ) – “and would continue to do so. It is true that the sharp decline in textile production would continue through the bank crisis of 1797; that popular meetings against war taxes would swell by that year’s end to the magnitude of a brief third wave of English Jacobinism in January 1798, with the Foxites and Coleridge” – (the poet) – “(in the Morning Post) crying out for ‘Reform and Peace.’ But Patriots had overestimated the fluidity of the situation. The desire of Burke for ‘a long war’ was not eccentric. Ironmongers and most of the mercantile and financial interests behind Pitt” – (The ironmongers) – “enjoyed the growing war budget. Landlords and large farmers, weathering the drought and the bread riots, plowed even the downs and sands and ‘prayed incessantly to Heaven to preserve Pitt and to keep up religion and prices.’ Pitt or any successor representing these interests would continue to fight France, while on the other side the militarist Napoleon would emerge as a man of destiny for the most aggressive section of the French bourgeoisie.”
So now what is Blake going to do? – “As the prospect darkened and the Societies grew weak it is not surprising that England’s prophetic bards succumbed to moments of intense pessimism. Wordsworth, in 1795″ – (two years after this, “America”..) – “‘yielded up moral questions in despair’ – abandoned, that is, the effort to discern where political justice and his moral duty lay in the dubious struggle between France and England; and so he abandoned London for ‘the open fields’. – (So Wordsworth, Coleridge, and all the other Romantic poets, towards the end of that century, disillusioned by the wars and revolution that they had been partisans in, and advocates of, and written great poems about, moved out to the country (to the Lake District, actually) to get out of… they decided that it was an apocalypse, civilization was falling , everything was degenerating, London was uninhabitable, crime waves,high prices, grow-your own food..) – “Blake, however, was rooted in London, but he did ‘shrink from his prophetic task’ – and from his republican confidence, as we learn from the following quatrain which he etched into the clean margin of one of the copper plates of “America”, below the hopeful picture – (Figure 12) – of Orc rising from the earth like a wheat sprout.”
AG: … revolution like a wheat sprout. But given that circumstance, in only one copy of the book, (which they’re using here), there’s a quatrain – “The stern Bard ceas’d, asham’d of his own song; enrag’d he swung/His harp aloft sounding, then dash’d its shining frame against/A ruin’d pillar and glittring fragments..” – (The ruined pillar of nature – Urthona‘s pillar. But we’ll get that later – I think he speaks of himself as a serpent winding around the pillar of imagination, of Urthona) – “… silent he turn’d away,/And wander’d down the vales of Kent” – (England) – “… in sick & drear lamentings….” “This tells us….”
Peter Orlovsky: What is “vales”?
AG: Valleys of Kent. Kent in England.
“This tells us, not only that the prophet of Hercules Buildings..” – (“the prophet of the Hercules Buildings” in Lambeth, that’s where Blake was living) – “..put aside his work and took a walk down the Old Kent Road” (nearby), “feeling that “America” – (this book) — “was a ruined pillar, (and) also that his dismay lasted long enough to be recorded with aqua fortis” – (with acid on the plate) – (But at least one copy of the book (has the quatrain).
After “1795 Blake published no new work for a decade. Nor did he ever again write such precisely dated prophecies as “America” and “Europe” (He got burned!)
“When Blake had ‘called all his sons to the strife of blood’ he (had) had simply no idea how that strife would sear the inlets of the soul both in France and in England.”
So things got tough in there.
Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-three-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately fifty minutes in
to be continued