Poetry, and history, and prophecy! Oh, my!

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Page from William Blake's America, A Prophecy (Lambeth, Printed by William Blake, 1793 [i.e. 1794?]),

Page from William Blake’s America: A Prophecy (Lambeth, Printed by William Blake, 1793).

Recently, I read a novel in which the poetry of William Blake was important to solving a mystery. A reference to two prophetic poems by BlakeAmerica: A Prophecy (1783) and Europe: A Prophecy (1794)caused me to think about how history and art, in this case poetry specifically, are intertwined. I appreciate opportunities to illustrate to students that subject areas are connected.

The activity below asks students to interact closely with either or both of the poems; therefore, I would recommend it for students who excel at close reading and analyzing difficult texts. Students who are interested in history may also be well equipped to work with the poems.

Begin by reading either or both of the poems. You may want the students to read in small groups in order to discuss as they read, but with text as dense as these two poems it may also be effective to ask students to read on their own, annotating the poem with thoughts and questions, before grouping them to discuss. After giving them time to grapple with the content, pose these questions:

Page from William Blake's Europe: A Prophecy (Lambeth: Printed by Will. Blake, 1794).

Page from William Blake’s Europe: A Prophecy (Lambeth: Printed by Will. Blake, 1794).

1. Identify the historical allusions in the poem.
2. Identify the poetic devices. What is their purpose?
3. Note any particular striking word choices or phrasings. How do these help contribute to the tone and/or meaning of the poem?
4. What knowledge would Blake have needed to have had in order to write prophetically?
5. Why might Blake have recorded his predictions?
6. What is prophetic about Blake’s work? In what way have the predictions come to be?

Extend the experience by asking students to discover more about the life and work of Blake. One possible resource is the William Blake Archive, which includes biographical information as well as his writings and art.

These challenging poems offer students the opportunity to grapple with a difficult text. How do you challenge students with poetry?

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