begin page 136 | back to top

MINUTE PARTICULARS

MARS AND THE PLANETS THREE IN AMERICA

We are still very far from understanding the passage about Mars in plate 5 of America, despite the recent proposal, put forth by Rodney M. and Mary R. Baine in English Language Notes, 13 (1975), 14-18, that Swedenborg is behind it. I have been puzzling for several years over the Swedenborg quotations they offer, but I cannot see their bearing, however interesting they may be in themselves, on the meaning of the America passage. The idea that the spirits of Mars are the best spirits, the notion that Mars represents a balance of intellect and emotions, and the other odd Swedenborgian speculations seem at best only vaguely relevant and at worst quite contrary to the tenor of the rest of the poem. They come up first against our inevitable association of Mars with warfare, an association Blake gives no suggestion we should break. As the Baines admit, moreover, Swedenborg cannot account for “the planets three.” Even, finally, if we somehow knew that Swedenborg’s Earths in our Solar System were the “source,” we would still be faced with the problem, worse than the one we had before, of how its meanings fit together with the rest of the poem.

In any case, I have a few tentative suggestions about the passage. I cannot make it all cohere, but the connections I offer are the sort of thing we ought to do to it; someone with a fresher eye will doubtless recast these suggestions to make better sense of the passage.

When the wrathful Prince of Albion arises dragon-like at midnight, he “flam’d red meteors” (3:14-16); this alone would make him resemble the red planet with its terrible wandering comets (5:2-3). When Albion’s Angel sees the terrible Orc rising over the Atlantic, Orc first seems a comet and then seems the red planet Mars which once enclosed such terrible comets in its sphere. At that time “the planets three” flew round the crimson disk. I take it that Blake is not distinguishing comets from planets, except for the planet red itself; the terrible comets are “wandering,” after all, and “wanderer” is what begin page 137 | back to top “planet” means. To be enclosed in Mars’s sphere, as the comets are, and to fly round the disk, as the three planets do, are the same thing, for “sphere” probably has something of its older cosmological meaning as one of the concentric transparent globes around the earth; it can mean “orb” or “orbit” but probably not “disk.” So we have the suggestion that Orc was once one of these three planets revolving about Mars.

But then the Sun becomes a problem. It too seems to have been orbiting Mars, either as one of the three or, as I think, a fourth planet-comet, before it was “rent” from the red sphere. Two lines later a voice comes forth and gives the great speech on plate 6 beginning “The morning comes.” Isn’t this speech about the arrival of the sun from its orbit about Mars? True, the song the redeemed captives sing begins “The Sun has left his blackness,” not “redness,” but from an earthly vantage the former age seemed black, a dark age of Empire dominated by warfare, or Mars, which of course is only visible at night. Since Orc presides over this dawn, we may associate him with the Sun, once of Mars’s sphere. Now he seems, to Albion’s Angel or Prince, to be Mars, because he rises warlike against him, but it is the wrathful Prince himself who is the original Mars. It is he who “burns in his nightly tent” before he rises at midnight flaming the red meteors like comets (3:1, 3:14-16).

When Orc the Sun (and son) leaves Mars the wrathful Prince, Orc presumably takes the three planets with him, or threatens to. Who are they? Since Orc-America is wandering out of the British Empire, we should look to see who else may be drawn into orbit around him. I think Blake tells us: it is “Ireland and Scotland and Wales” (15:13), who made up the original Empire. (A less likely threesome is “France Spain & Italy” (16:16), but they seem to be little empires themselves.) The “burning winds” of revolutionary fervor driven by Orc and the fierce Americans cause the Guardians of the three original colonies to forsake their frontiers (abandon the original Empire) and “deform their ancient heavens” (15:11-15). “Ancient heavens,” which brings back the astronomical theme, is a phrase we have met before, when the frightened Angel of Albion addresses Orc: “Ah rebel form that rent the ancient / Heavens” (9:14-15). And “rent” we have met once before this, when “the Sun was rent from thy red sphere.” The connections seem clear enough. America is the new center, the new sun, for the satellite nations that once revolved around warlike, imperial England, but in erupting out of England’s sphere of influence America has taken on the features of its father, at least from the father’s point of view.

We need resort to no arcane source to map things thus far, but a few reminders of the common tradition may help fill in the map. The “Archetype of mighty Emperies” may be the ancient palace of Ariston (10:8), but the prototype of mighty Emperies is certainly Rome, which worshipped Mars and waged almost constant war. Rome even set its calendar by Mars, beginning each year on March first: “now the times are return’d upon thee” (9:19). Of course Rome learned from Greece, and especially Troy, to follow after “the detestable Gods of Priam” (Milton 14:15); Mars, as Ares, took Priam’s side in the Trojan War. In his first appearance in western literature, in fact, Ares arrives on the plain of Troy with three companions about him, Phobos, Deimos, and Eris, or Fear, Terror, and Strife (Iliad 4.439-41). Britain, founded by a son of a royal Trojan who founded Rome, became, in John of Gaunt’s words, “this seat of Mars” (Richard II, II, i, 41), and Gaunt should know, having fought beside the Black Prince, whom Blake portrays in his King Edward the Third as insatiably battle-hungry: “It is my sin to love the noise of war” (3:232).

Whether the passage in America 5 can be brought into line with other astronomical passages in Blake I am not sure. In cancelled plate b of America itself there are some difficult lines about a comparable eruption, but they bring in the stars and the moon as well. The cancelled lines seem less susceptible of a political reading than the Mars section, and may be about the altering of perceptions when reason subjugates the stars and creates a theory of a heliocentric system governed by laws of gravity. Whatever the lines mean, Blake did cancel them.

I think Blake did not care very much about astronomy or astrology or cosmological speculations of the Swedenborgian sort. All of his astronomical passages seem to be functions of his phenomenology of consciousness or his political and historical myth. The Mars passage has an ad hoc character that tempts one to seek a source, but that character is due to its nonce role as a political allegory. Whatever the details of this allegory, the language of stars and planets has been the common vehicle since ancient times of discourse about political events, as the phrase “sphere of influence” should doubly remind us. In Blake’s day “revolution” still had more to do with “revolving” than with “revolting,” and the vast wheels of blood over the Atlantic (4:6) may alert us to the cyclical paradigm that governed most of Blake’s thinking about political change. The American colonists themselves were happy to evoke ancient astronomical terms for their revolution. The “Novus Ordo Saeclorum” on the back of our dollar bill hearkens to the theory of the apocatastasis or cosmic renewal in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, and with each new state we add a new star to the blue firmament of our flag.

Print Edition

  • Publisher
  • Department of English, University of New Mexico
  • Albuquerque, NM, USA
    • Editors
    • Morris Eaves
    • Morton D. Paley
    • Editorial Assistant in Charge
    • Marcy Erickson
    • Editorial Assistants
    • Wayne Erickson
    • George Hartley
    • Wendy Jones
    • Typist
    • Denise Warren
    • Bibliographer
    • Thomas L. Minnick
    • Review Editor
    • Nelson Hilton
    • Associate Editor for Great Britain
    • Frances A. Carey
    • Contributors
    • G.E. Bentley, Jr.
    • Martin Butlin
    • Greg Crossan
    • Detlef Dörrbecker
    • Michael Ferber
    • Thomas V. Lange
    • Bo Ossian Lindberg
    • Donald H. Reiman
    • Joseph S. Salemi

    Digital Edition

    • Editors:
    • Morris Eaves, University of Rochester
    • Robert Essick, University of California, Riverside
    • Joseph Viscomi, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    • Managing Editor
    • Joe Fletcher
    • Assistant Editor Editor
    • Michael Fox
    • Previous Project Manager and Technical Editor
    • William Shaw
    • Adam McCune
    • Managing Editor Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly
    • Sarah Jones
    • Project Director and Assistant Project Manager
    • Grant Glass
    • Project Coordinator, University of Rochester:
    • Eric Loy
    • Scanning:
    • UNC Digital Production Center
    • XML Encoding:
    • Apex CoVantage
    • Additional Transcription:
    • Adam McCune
    • Jennifer Park
    • Emendations:
    • Rachael Isom
    • Mary Learner
    • Adam McCune
    • Ashley Reed
    • Jennifer Park
    • Scott Robinson
    • XSLT Development:
    • Adam McCune
    • Joseph Ryan
    • William Shaw
    • PHP and Solr Development:
    • Michael Fox
    • Adam McCune
    • Project Assistants:
    • Lauren Cameron,
    • Rachael Isom,
    • Mary Learner,
    • Jennifer Park,
    • Ashley Reed,
    • Adair Rispoli,
    • Scott Robinson
    • Sponsors
    • Funders
    • Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly
    • William Blake Archive
    • Carolina Digital Library and Archives
    • Use Restrictions
    • Copyright © 2019 Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, all rights reserved. Items in this digital edition may be shared in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Redistribution or republication on other terms, in any medium, requires express written consent from the editors and advance notification of the publisher. Permission to reproduce the graphic images in this digital edition rests with the owning institutions.