In class on Wednesday, I had difficultly reconciling the apocalyptic revolution depicted in “A Song of Liberty” with its abrupt, triumphant ending. The poem’s allusions to the Book of Revelation notwithstanding, “Empire is no more! and now the lion & the wolf shall cease” is a very simplistic resolution to the violence, conflict and chaos of the rest of the poem (verse 20). Thinking about the poem’s position in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I began to wonder if Blake were inherently more interested in the immediate chaos of revolutions than their outcomes. Might the poem be reveling in its own chaos and that of the continental revolutions? Blake certainly seems to be displaying an anarchist streak.

I’d like to quickly contrast the depiction of revolution as apocalyptic in “A Song of Liberty” with the playwright Samuel Beckett’s depiction of a post-apocalyptic situation in Endgame. Although obviously Blake never read Beckett, I’m putting the two together because perception is hugely important in both their works.  There is also to my knowledge no text that better depicts the sheer banality of a dull round of being than Beckett’s. The following clip from a production of Endgame wasn’t my ideal choice, but it does address perception and convey Hamm and Clov’s dull round.

One of the consequences of the apocalypse in Endgame is the narrowing of the characters’ perceptions. Hamm has lost his sight and can’t move, while Clov cannot see anything clearly out of the windows. In contrast, an apocalyptic revolution for Blake seems to entail the complete opposite. In “A Song of Liberty,” the son of fire falling from the sky – the appearance of revolution – increases the perceptions of the human race. The narrator extorts the citizen of London to “enlarge thy countenance,” the Jew to “leave counting gold” and the African to return to his oil and wine (verse 12). This urge to abandon ethnic stereotypes suggests that revolution will enhance human perception  to a level where we no longer be confined by restricted modes of thinking. This might explain how the prophesied peace would be achieved. The apocalyptic revolution in the poem entails the destruction of established religion, the law and empire. Blake is suggesting that human perception will be expanded once the institutions that he believes limit it are gone.

Furthermore, the narrator’s journey through Hell or chaos throughout The Marriage of Heaven and Hell strongly suggests that the narrator’s experience of chaos/Hell as well as order/Heaven increases his perception and understanding. However, as the narrator spends almost all of his time in Hell, isn’t Blake suggesting that chaos is infinitely preferable to order, despite the fact that they are supposed to be in a marriage?

There’s more to be said here, but I’ll end on the heart of the issue. Blake seems to focus on the immediate chaos of revolution because he believes that the tearing down of old and corrupt establishments gives humanity a chance to see reality more clearly. Uncharacteristically, he seems to take the outcome of revolution as given in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Perhaps modern readers and artists have become much more concerned about the outcomes of revolutions and apocalypses with experience. How would Blake respond to depictions of apocalypse like Beckett’s, which suggests that chaos and destruction only make it harder to tell illusion from reality and friend from foe?

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