History When Time Stops: Blake's 'America,' 'Europe,' and 'The Song of Los.' (William Blake)

By Behrendt, Stephen C. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

History When Time Stops: Blake's 'America,' 'Europe,' and 'The Song of Los.' (William Blake)


Behrendt, Stephen C., Papers on Language & Literature


The renewed interest in the contemporary historical contexts of English Romantic literary and visual works of art that has followed the growth of New Historicism is perhaps nowhere more important than it is in relation to William Blake. That this is so may be attributed to many factors: Blake's work includes both verbal and visual forms, his long life encompassed the last half of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth, and his is an art particularly reflective among his contemporaries of the urban environment in which he spent all but three years of his life. Moreover, Blake's adult life witnessed the two great revolutions, in America and France, that ushered in the modern age, as well as the mixed triumph of British nationalism at Waterloo and the shame of post-Waterloo repression epitomized in outrages like the "Peterloo" fiasco in August 1819. That Blake's visionary universe is in fact more insistently historical in its theoretical underpinnings and narrative representations than has been fully appreciated even after sixty or so years of concentrated scholarly attention is a reminder of how much remains to be done in evaluating Blake as a man of his world and of his times.' For Blake's works reflect at every turn the political, religious, and proto-historical framework which they both assume and partially construct.

We can get a sense of the nature of Blake's historical vision from considering his early universal-history cycle - America, Europe, and The Song of Los (all completed within the period of 1791-94) - within the context of later eighteenth-century millenarian thought. Taken together, these three works constitute both a development from, and a temporal, topical application of, many of the millenarian views of contemporary events which were current in Blake's London in the early 1790s. They illustrate the manner in which the two watershed political events of the later eighteenth century - the American and French Revolutions - were invested by Blake (and other radical and liberal European artists) with the function of symbol and with the nature of myth. At the same time, they document the expansion of Blake's mythological system beyond the sort of historical and religious topicality we see in his earlier poem, The French Revolution (1791), and toward the expansive mythic universality of his mature epics. The poems are in this sense at once specifically grounded in historical time and space and suspended somewhere above it in the visionary construct of universal myth. Blake accomplished this historical and intellectual mediation by deliberately manipulating the conventions of millenarian art and rhetoric whose sources lay both in the Bible and in the popular political rhetoric (both verbal and visual) of the years immediately following the fall of the Bastille.

The center of English "high culture" during Blake's lifetime, London was also the locus of the greatest and most expansive social, political, economic, intellectual, spiritual ferment (Porter, George, Gaull). Blake's attachments and activities within this sphere of experience are well documented, from his presence in the Gordon Riots of 1780 through his association during the eighties and early nineties with the diverse circles represented on one hand by the Royal Academy of Arts and on the other by the radical circle assembled around his employer Joseph Johnson, through his affiliation at the century's end with the dilettante poet and aesthetician William Hayley, through the years of virtual invisibility until he acquired a circle of younger artists and proteges in the final decade of his life. Blake's urban experience is, then, particularly relevant to his art, where he routinely transformed its diverse materials from the stuff of political propaganda, street-corner rhetoric, and images for mass consumption, to that of seemingly rarified myth that, viewed in its proper historical context, discloses its firm rooting in actual, temporal reality.

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