In 1968, Allen Ginsberg read William Blake’s ‘I saw a Monk of Charlemaine’ as he stood with the crowds outside the Chicago Democratic Convention to protest against America’s increasingly sinister war in Vietnam. In the same year, Theodore Roszak coined the term ‘counterculture’, bringing his own brand of Blakeanism to the fore. This was a generation in which left-wing American radicals could identify America itself as Satanic – in its imperialism, its capitalism, its racism and its war in Vietnam – but they could also feel America to be vibrantly alive with the radicalism of the arts: the fires of Orc raging against the systems of Urizen. The mantra of cleansed perception resonated with a youth culture desperate to believe in a psychedelic revolution. The literary Blakeanism that exploded in mid twentieth-century America spoke to this mood. But it also articulated sentiments that were more troubling, nuanced and qualified than those allowed by countercultural populism.
This keynote looks specifically at Robert Duncan’s darker and more secular vision of Blake’s ethical value. Duncan recognised the violence in Blake’s late eighteenth-century visions of America in which terror was as visceral as hope. Duncan saw Blake’s representation of the birth of America as a confused reality of frustrated desire and corrupted ambition, far from an ideal projection of freedom and possibility. In his poem ‘Up-Rising’, Duncan offered Blake’s America: A Prophecy as a way of reflecting on the monstrous violence in Vietnam. He compared ‘the mania, the ravening eagle of America’ to Blake’s image of America ‘in figures of fire and blood raging’. But he followed this with a question: ‘… in what image?’ as if Blake’s vision of fiery outrage could not fully embody the horror of an America grown so fat on its own despotic idea of democracy that its ‘ravening eagle’ knew no bounds and could not satiate its insane hunger for human flesh. For Duncan, Blake’s ‘figures’ prophesied the terrible history of American violence. But they also represented the high political stakes – the scope and limitations - of the mythopoeic imagination to which he also laid claim.
While Duncan learned much from Blake, he created works that look very different. He saw this as a great point of divergence, claiming: ‘I’m very different from Blake in my poetry, absolutely the antithesis of Blake who wants it light … I love Rembrandt with his dark, deep, study of the dark.’ Duncan’s response to Blake set complicity with violence and the ethics of intimacy and difference above the promise of divine revelation. In these respects, this paper argues, Duncan achieved something critical in the modernisation and Americanisation of Blake’s works.
Linda Freedman is Associate Professor of English and American literature at UCL. She teaches literature from both sides of the Atlantic, from the Romantic period to the mid twentieth century and publishes widely on the relationship between literature, theology and the visual arts. She is the author of Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination (CUP 2011), William Blake and the Myth of America: from the Abolitionists to the Counterculture (OUP 2018) and is currently working on a new book, entitled The Myth of the Fall and the Shaping of Modern Western Culture.