Plate 9, Copy D
"The midnight clock has toll'd, and hark! the Bell
Of Death beats Slow!__ heard ye the note profound?
It pauses now, and now with rising knell,
Flings to the hollow gale its sullen sound.
According to the Blake Archive, the lines are quoted from William Mason, "On the Death of a Lady," lines 1-4, first published in his Elegies (1763).
In the image are victims of the plague and the bell-ringer dressed in heavy protective clothing announcing that the dead should be brought out for collection by the carts for burial during the night. The cross on the door and the words, "Lord Have Mercy on Us," marked the home as a plague household whose members were under quarantine. The plague had not occurred in London in Blake's time, but the last major outbreak had been experienced in Milton's time. In the collective memory the plague would have held a prominent place even a hundred plus years later.
Blake saw the afflictions of society not as isolated but as interrelated. When any portion of society exploits its fellow men, general suffering will result. Famine and plague were symptoms of the breakdown of patterns of organization in which human beings had value. David Erdman in The Illuminated Blake (Page 165), states, "In historical perspective the great plague was emblematic of a collapsing order." Blake saw the dramatic changes of his day as similar to the 17th century period of revolution which preceded the plague of 1665.
Blake had written America as a prototype of revolution whose product was meant to be a cleansing of the doors of perception so that everything may appear infinite as it really is. The American Revolution had not succeeded in accomplishing that task. The writing of Europe was another attempt to change the minds of men by revealing that the shattering consequences of misapprehending God's love for man and the appropriate way man should respond. The disasters which beset the world were to be understood as resulting from failures of benevolence toward one another. Blake consciously wrote America and Europe as prophecies, with the intention of exposing error and motivating alteration of the behavior which supported the disintegration of society.
America, Plate 16, (E 57) "Till Angels & weak men twelve years should govern o'er the strong: And then their end should come, when France reciev'd the Demons light. Stiff shudderings shook the heav'nly thrones! France Spain & Italy, In terror view'd the bands of Albion, and the ancient Guardians Fainting upon the elements, smitten with their own plagues They slow advance to shut the five gates of their law-built heaven Filled with blasting fancies and with mildews of despair With fierce disease and lust, unable to stem the fires of Orc; But the five gates were consum'd, & their bolts and hinges melted And the fierce flames burnt round the heavens, & round the abodes of men FINIS"