A Small Puzzle in William Blake’s America, A Prophecy

I’m often fascinated by things that touch the material we use here. Where there’s William Blake, there’s often some mystery, and in reading Blake’s America, A Prophecy,  one small, seemingly mundane thing intrigued me. Several times, in parts of the poem I didn’t use in the selection the LYL Band performed for Independence Day, Blake names real, not spiritual, beings who he views as central figures in the American Revolution from his vantage point across the Atlantic.

Right near the start, in line 4 of his poem, he has it that “Washington, Franklin, Paine and Warren, Gates, Hancock, and Green meet on the coast glowing with blood…” and later “there stands Washington, and Paine, and Warren…” and finally “Washington, Franklin, Paine, and Warren, Allen, Gates and Lee…heard the voice of Albion’s Angel…” For some readers, this would just be a mundane list of names.

This article is for the other kind.

As a grade-school kid, even before I became enamored of poetry, I was a history buff. Washington and Franklin would easily have been known to those following the American Revolution, even across the sea. Paine, would be Tom Paine, who, while not a general or rebel government officer, was a chief propagandist/agitator who traveled to England and Europe to spread the new republican message. Political radicals like Blake would certainly have known of him, and the two writers shared London connections and may have even met. Lee, would be Henry “Light-Horse” Lee, who was both a cavalry officer in the Revolutionary army and an important politician in the American congress. Gates, was Horatio Gates, a General in the American forces. Green, is likely just a typo for Nathanael Greene, another important General on the American side. Allen, would be Ethan Allen, known as a resourceful commander for the colonists’ side in New England. Hancock, he of the big signature on the Declaration of Independence, was a leader in the colonial congress.

Nothing all that shocking in this list of American Revolutionary principals then, and it shows that Blake was at least following those American events, not just communing with his angel visions.

But, there’s one thing that bothered me, and I couldn’t let it go. Who was “Warren?”

If you search on Warren and American Revolution you’ll hit on a remarkable man who was not known to me before wondering about this: Joseph Warren. A Harvard educated physician, he was a leader in the leading rebel center of Boston Massachusetts. Poet Longfellow made Paul Revere and his ride before the dawn of the first battle of the Revolution famous, but it was Warren who sent him to warn Concord that the British were coming.

How did he know that the redcoats were going to make a secret move to round up the leaders of the opposition to British rule? He may have gleaned the info from the wife of the of British commander Thomas Gage. And if you want to follow another rumor, there may have been a little side-action going on between the handsome rebel leader and the British commander’s wife.

Warren fought in those first skirmishes, and when the first pitched battle in the Boston area was forming, Warren (who now had been newly commissioned as a General) deferred to other men in the rebel army who had military experience to lead in the upcoming battle of Bunker Hill. Instead, he asked to fight as a private in the forces. Serving as such, on the front line, he was killed at that battle at age 34. Some who knew him said, that had Joseph Warren lived,  he had the charisma and talents to have out-shown even George Washington.

What a story! And one unknown to me until I thought of looking into that bothersome name in William Blake’s poem.

But, he’s not the only candidate. Joseph Warren died early in the Revolution. He was well known to the British authorities in Boston, but I’m unsure how well known he was in England or to Blake’s radical circle in London. “Warren,” Joseph Warren, is listed as the author of the “Suffolk Resolves” a 1774 public repudiation and refusal to abide by the “Intolerable Acts” made by a Massachusetts organization resisting British rule, and this declaration did receive some notice in England.

There’s another candidate, with connection to Blake’s circle, even though Mercy Otis Warren is, if anything, more obscure than Joseph Warren. Apparently, these two Warren’s are not related, though both were living in colonial Massachusetts. Oh, and Mercy was a woman.

Two Warrens

Too-little-known patriots: Joseph Warren and Marcy Otis Warren

 

I’ve already mentioned that Massachusetts was a hot-bed of resistance to British rule. Mercy was also in the center of those efforts. If one thinks of current political efforts being organized via social media, the 18th Century colonists used good old postal letters to do the same thing, and Mercy Otis Warren was a leader in these Committees of Correspondence. As a woman in that time and place, there was no official position in the colonial government or military forces, but as a writer she was prolific in attacking the offenses of British rule, writing satiric plays, patriotic songs, and pamphlets extoling the cause. Mercy Otis Warren remained a staunch republican after the end of the Revolution, being one of the hard-liners who opposed adopting the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. In 1805, after Blake had published his America poem, Warren published one of the earliest substantial histories of the American Revolution where she warned against authoritarian elements in the Federalist party.

Noting that Blake always placed Warren next to Paine in his lists, I wondered if Mercy Otis Warren was his Warren, as the two were like as polemicists rather than government or military officers, and both wrote of a broad definition of the rights of man. Blake’s late 18th Century London radical circles included a writer and early British feminist Catharine Macaulay who was a friend of the American Mercy Otis Warren. That Blake seems to link women’s emancipation with an end to slavery and colonial oppression in America, A Prophecy  caused me to think that just maybe this woman was his Warren. I even found an article in the University of Bucharest Review from 2013 where its author Ruxandra Topor states that Blake’s Warren is Mercy. The author doesn’t say why they believe this, but so far that’s the single published identification of Blake’s Warren that I’ve found.

However, the vast majority of Mercy Otis Warren’s published revolutionary writing was done anonymously or under pseudonyms. Though she did publish one collection of writing under her own name in America two years before Blake engraved his book, it seems unlikely Blake would have known her name in 1793. Still, she may have been akin to Paine in her thoughts and actions, and like Paine, she had an ex-officio importance to the Revolution. Remarkably, she may have done all that, risking all for her country despite an 18th Century glass ceiling—and she’s someone else that I first heard about because of this list of names in Blake’s poem.

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America, A Prophecy

July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?

Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.

signing the declaration

Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton!  All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?

 

Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.

Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy,  which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.

America_a_Prophecy_copy_a_plate_08

A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song

 

In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.

It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?

The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions.  I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  can be played with the gadget below.