Excerpt from The Silent Scream
The Silent Scream: Political and Social Comment in Books by Artists edited by Monica Oppen and Peter Lyssiotis presents 77 works through which poets, writers, and artists expressed their opinions on relevant issues of their day. The books collected here reflect the social climate of their time and have survived revolutions, invasions, and World Wars. Take a look at this excerpt from the book that examines the work of the first book artist, William Blake.
America: A Prophecy
‘Washington spoke; Friends of America, look over the Atlantic sea;
A bended bow is lifted in heaven, & a heavy iron chain
Descends link by link from Albion’s cliffs across the sea to bind
Brothers & sons of America, till our faces pale and yellow;
Heads deprest, voices weak, eyes downcast, hands work-bruis’d,
Feet bleeding on the sultry sands, and the furrows of the whip
Descend to generations that in future times forget.’ p.5: 6-12
William Blake was the first book artist. As a poet, engraver and printmaker he had the skills to produce his own books. The books, in some cases mammoth Works rich with his ideology, political opinions and raw enthusiasm come at us like a tidal wave. They are full of poetry, vision, passion and a deeply human take on the world. His primary intention was to educate and enlighten his readers with an ideology that was both personal and radical, steeped in dissenter Christian philosophy that was current in Europe and Britain at the time. Blake wanted to connect with an audience, which, however, didn’t materialize until after his death. To understand his work by reading a single book is not possible. It is, however, important to place him at the beginning. The core of his work rests in his republicanism and his strong sense of social justice.
In 1788 Blake first experimented with relief etching, a printing method that would give him full artistic control over the production of his books. He wanted to cut his production costs; be free of publishers and printers. His wife Catherine became his partner in production. But the risk he took by becoming so independent was that he stepped too far beyond the publishing norm of his time and consequently had to struggle to sell his books and find a readership.
America: A Prophecy was published in 1793. The specific subject is the American War of Independence, also known the Revolutionary War. The war deeply affected Blake and many like-minded Britons, who were supporters of the American cause. George III was unpopular and his decision to go to war with the American colony only heightened the anger of the populace against him. By and large, the Britons considered the Americans to be their brothers so their outrage was more intense, and some even considered it to be a civil war.
However, Blake does not slick to historical facts, and historical figures such as Washington, Franklin, Paine, George III (whom he does not name) rub shoulders with characters from his own developing personal mythology, in particular Orc and Albion, who are his personifications of revolution and England. This cast of characters becomes more comprehensible when we understand the book’s theme is actually revolution and the struggle of an oppressed people against a tyrannical ruler. It was a subject Blake had dealt with before in earlier works; among them The French Revolution (a book that was never published) and Gwin, King of Norway which was published in his first edition of poetry, Poetical Sketches. America is now grouped in a trilogy know as the Continental Prophecies, with Europe: A Prophecy, which heralds revolution on the Continent and The Song of Los, which predicts revolution in Asia and Africa. Grouped together in this way there is a suggestion that Blake was ‘letting King George know’ that the global wave of revolution was sweeping ever closer and the king should sit up and take note.