Blake (1807)William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827)
was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Though largely unrecognised
during his lifetime, today Blake's work, produced in partnership with
his wife Catherine, is widely known. According to Northrop Frye, who
undertook a study of Blake's entire poetic opus, his prophetic poems
form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of
poetry in the [English] language". Others have praised Blake's
visual artistry, in particular his engravings: "[Blake] is far
and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced" . In
1957 a small memorial was erected in memory of him and his wife .
accomplishments in either poetry or in the visual arts separately is
to do him a disservice; Blake himself saw these two disciplines as being
companions in a unified spiritual endeavour, and they are inseparable
in a proper appreciation of his work. His life is, perhaps, summed up
by his statement that "The imagination is not a State: it is the
Human existence itself"; though this alone may not do justice to
Childhood and family
Blake was born at 28a Broad Street, Golden Square, London into a middle-class
family. He was one of four children (an older brother died in infancy).
His father was a hosier and his mother was chiefly in charge of her
son's education. The Blakes were Dissenters and are believed to have
belonged to the Moravian sect. The Bible was an early and profound influence
on Blake, and would remain a crucial source of inspiration throughout
From a young age
Blake claimed to have seen visions. The earliest certain instance was
when he was at the age of about eight or ten in Peckham Rye, London,
when he reported seeing a tree filled with angels "bespangling
every bough like stars." According to Blake's Victorian biographer
Gilchrist, he returned home and reported this vision, and only escaped
a thrashing from his father by the intervention of his mother. Though
all the evidence suggests that Blake's parents were supportive and of
a broadly liberal bent, his mother seems to have been especially supportive;
several of Blake's early drawings and poems decorated the walls of her
On another occasion,
Blake watched the haymakers at work, and thought that he saw angelic
figures walking among them. It is possible that other visions occurred
before these incidents: in later life, Blake's wife Catherine would
recall to him the time he saw God's head "put to the window".
The vision, Catherine reminded her husband, "set you ascreaming"
(543, Blake Record, ed. Bentley Jr., Oxford, 1969).
Blake began engraving
copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father
(a further indication of the support Blake's parents lent their son),
a practice that was then preferred to real-life drawing. Within these
drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms, through
the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Dürer
(Blake Record, 422). His parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament
that he was not sent to school but was instead enrolled in drawing classes.
He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period,
Blake was also making explorations into poetry; his early work displays
knowledge of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.
On the 4 August 1772, Blake became apprenticed to an engraver, James
Basire of Great Queen Street, for the term of seven years. At the end
of this period, at the age of twenty-one, he was to become a professional
Basire seems to
have been a kind master to Blake: there is no record of any serious
disagreement between the two during the period of Blake's apprenticeship.
However, Ackroyd's biography notes that Blake was later to add Basire's
name to a list of artistic adversaries—and then cross it out (43,
Blake, Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995). This aside, Basire's
style of engraving copy iimages from the Gothic churches in London (it
is possible that this task was set in order to break up a quarrel between
Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice). It was Blake's experiences
in Westminster Abbey in particular that first informed his artistic
ideas and style. It must be remembered that the Abbey was a different
environment entirely from its more sombre modern aspect: it was decorated
with suits of armour, painted funeral effigies and varicoloured waxworks.
Ackroyd notes that 'the most immediate [impression] would have been
of faded brightness and colour' (44, Blake, Ackroyd). During the many
long afternoons Blake spent sketching in the cathedral, he was occasionally
interrupted by the boys of Westminster School, one of whom "tormented"
Blake so much one afternoon that he knocked the boy off a scaffold to
the ground, "upon which he fell with terrific Violence". Another,
less violent tale may be related; Blake beheld more visions in the Abbey,
of a great procession of monks and priests, while he heard "the
chant of plain-song and chorale".
The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in the illuminated
books of William Blake. Here, Blake depicts his demiurgic creator-figure
Urizen stooped in prayer contemplating the world he has forged. The
Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books, hand painted
by Blake and his wife, known as the 'Continental Prophecies', considered
by critics to contain some of Blake's most powerful imagery.
In 1779, Blake became
a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand.
The terms of his study required him to make no payment; he was, however,
required to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period.
There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style
of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school's first
president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds'
attitude to art, especially his pursuit of 'general truth' and 'general
beauty'. During an address given by Reynolds in which he maintained
that the tendency to abstraction is "the great glory of the human
mind", Blake reportedly responded "to generalise is to be
an idiot; to particularise is alone the distinction of merit".
Blake also disliked Reynolds' apparent humility, which he held to be
a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds' fashionable oil painting, Blake
preferred the Classical exactness of his early influences, Michelangelo
In July 1780, Blake
was walking towards Basire's shop in Great Queen Street when he was
swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison in London. The
mob were wearing blue cockades (ribbons) on their caps, to symbolise
solidarity with the insurrection in the American colonies. They attacked
the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, before setting the building
ablaze. The rioters then clambered onto the roof of the prison and tore
away at it, releasing the prisoners inside. Blake was reportedly in
the very front rank of the mob during this attack, though it is unlikely
that he was forced into attendance. More likely, according to Ackroyd,
he accompanied the crowd impulsively.
These riots were
in response to a parliamentary bill designed to advance Roman Catholicism.
This disturbance, later known as the Gordon Riots after Lord George
Gordon (whose Protestant Association incited the riots) provoked a flurry
of legislation from the government of George III, as well as the creation
of the first police force.
In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron. In the
same year he met Catherine Boucher. At the time, Blake was recovering
from an unhappy relationship which had ended with a refusal of his marriage
proposal. Telling Catherine and her parents the story, she expressed
her sympathy, whereupon Blake asked her 'Do you pity me?'. To Catherine's
affirmative response he himself responded 'Then I love you.' Blake married
Catherine – who was five years his junior – on 18 August
1782 in St. Mary's Church, Battersea. An illiterate, Catherine signed
her wedding contract with an 'X'. Later, as well as teaching Catherine
to read and write, Blake trained her as an engraver; throughout his
life she would prove an invaluable aide to him, helping to print his
illuminated works and maintaining his spirits following his numerous
At this time, George
Cumberland—one of the founders of the National Gallery—became
an admirer of Blake's work. Blake's first collection of poems, Poetical
Sketches, was also published, circa 1783. After his father's death,
William and brother Robert opened a print shop in 1784 and began working
with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. At Johnson's house he met some
of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time in England, including
Joseph Priestley, scientist; Richard Price, philosopher; John Henry
Fuseli, painter with whom he became friends; Mary Wollstonecraft, an
early feminist; and Thomas Paine, American revolutionary. Along with
William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the
American and French revolution and wore a red liberty cap in solidarity
with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre
and the Reign of Terror in the French revolution.
became a close friend, and Blake illustrated her Original Stories from
Real Life (1788). They shared views on sexual equality and the institution
of marriage. In 1793's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake condemned
the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love and
defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment. In 1788, at
the age of thirty-one, Blake began to experiment with relief etching,
which was the method used to produce most of his books of poems. The
process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and final products
as illuminated books or prints. Illuminated printing involved writing
the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using
an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words
in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the
plates in acid in order to dissolve away the untreated copper and leave
the design standing. The pages printed from these plates then had to
be hand-colored in water colors and stitched together to make up a volume.
Blake used illuminated printing for four of his works: the Songs of
Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and
Hell, and Jerusalem.
As Kathleen Raine
mentioned in her biography of Blake - he claimed to have learned certain
artistic techniques from his brother Robert - his previously deceased
brother Robert. To this day people have not been able to reproduce certain
of Blake's actual processes.
is a demonstration of his opposition to the "single-vision"
of scientific materialism: the great philosopher-scientist is shown
utterly isolated in the depths of the ocean, his eyes (only one of which
is visible) fixed on the compasses with which he draws on a scroll.
His concentration is so fierce that he seems almost to become part of
the rocks upon which he sits. (1795)
Later life and career
Blake's "A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows"Blake's
marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one until his death.
There were early problems, however, such as Catherine's illiteracy and
the couple's failure to produce children. At one point, in accordance
with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society, Blake suggested bringing
in a concubine. Catherine was distressed at the idea, and Blake promptly
Around the year
1800 Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex (now West Sussex)
to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a poet. It
was in this cottage that Blake wrote Milton: a Poem (which was published
later between 1805 and 1808). Over time, Blake came to dislike the relationship
he had with his new patron, whom he saw as delivering commissions that
were beneath his ability.
Blake returned to
London in 1802 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804–1820).
He was introduced by George Cumberland to a young artist named John
Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group
of artists who called themselves the Shoreham Ancients. This group shared
Blake's rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and
artistic New Age. At the age of sixty-five Blake began work on illustrations
for the Book of Job. These works were later admired by John Ruskin,
who compared Blake favourably to Rembrandt.
Blake abhorred slavery
and believed in racial and sexual equality. Several of his poems and
paintings express a notion of universal humanity: "As all men are
alike (tho' infinitely various)". He retained an active interest
in social and political events for all his life, but was often forced
to resort to cloaking social idealism and political statements in protestant
mystical allegory. Blake rejected all forms of imposed authority; indeed,
he was charged with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions
against the King in 1803 but was cleared in the Chichester assizes of
the charges. (These charges were brought by a soldier (and his friends)
after Blake had bodily removed him from his garden. According to a report
in the Sussex county paper, "the invented character of (the evidence)
was ... so obvious that an acquittal resulted." [Cited in E.V.
Lucas's Highways and Byways in Sussex (1904)].) Blake's views on what
he saw as oppression and restriction of rightful freedom extended to
the Church. Blake was himself a follower of Unitarian philosophy. His
spiritual beliefs are evidenced in Songs of Experience (in 1794), in
which Blake showed his own distinction between the Old Testament God,
whose restrictions he rejected, and the New Testament God (Jesus Christ),
whom he saw as a positive influence.
Later in his life
Blake began to sell a great number of his works - particularly his Bible
illustrations, to Thomas Butts — a patron who saw Blake more as
a friend rather than a man whose work held any particular artistic merit;
this was almost typical of the opinions held of Blake throughout his
Blake had been taken severely ill in the spring and summer of 1825,
wracked with shivering fits. In March 1827, his brother James died.
In April the same year, Blake believed himself to "have been very
near the Gates of Death"; yet despite this recognition of the coming
end, he remained fiery in spirit, stating that "[I am] very weak...
but not in Spirit & in Life, not in The Real Man The Imagination
which Liveth for Ever" (Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake,
Oxford, 1980). In late June, after an apparent return of good health,
he made a journey to Hampstead; soon afterward he suffered a relapse,
and John Linnell, who visited him in August, noted in his diary that
William was "not expected to live".
Even close to death, Blake's greatest mental occupation was in his art.
He worked furiously on the illustrations to Dante's Inferno, and one
of the very last shillings in his possession was spent on a pencil to
allow him to continue sketching (Blake Records, 341).
The commission for
Dante's Inferno came to Blake in 1826 through John Linnell, with the
ultimate aim of producing a series of engravings. However, Blake's death
in 1827 would cut short the enterprise, and only a handful of the watercolours
are finished, with only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form.
Even so, they are considered worthy of praise:
'[T]he Dante watercolors
are among Blake's richest achievements, engaging fully with the problem
of illustrating a poem of this complexity. The mastery of watercolour
has reached an even higher level than before, and is used to extraordinary
effect in differentiating the atmosphere of the three states of being
in the poem' (Bindman, David, "Blake as a Painter" in The
Cambridge Guide to William Blake, Morris Eaves (ed.), Cambridge, 2003,
As always, it would be incorrect to see Blake's illustration of the
poem as simply that: rather, the manner of illustration – as in
those to Milton's Paradise Lost – has been utilised in way of
critically revising or correcting the spiritual flaws of the text. In
the case of Milton, Blake worked to correct Milton's 'mistake' in making
Satan the central figure in the epic; for example, in Satan Watching
the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808) Satan occupies an isolated position
at the picture's top, with Adam and Eve held separate below. As if to
emphasise the effects of the juxtaposition, Blake has shown Adam and
Eve caught in an embrace, whereas Satan may only onanistically caress
the serpent, whose identity he is close to assuming.
In the case of Dante,
the incompleteness of the watercolour series forces the recognition
that we may not know exactly the revisions intended for this work by
Blake. However, some indicators remain. Pencilled in the margin of Homer
Bearing the Sword, and His Companions is: "Every thing in Dantes
Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the
Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost".
This marks Blake's dissent from Dante's admiration for the poetic works
of pagan Greeks, and for the apparent pleasurable zeal with which Dante
allots punishments in Hell (demonstrated somewhat in the cantos' frequent
grim humour). He also appears to be criticising Dante's apparent fealty
to the 'fallen' world of feminine Nature as being a hindrance to the
acquirement of a perfect imaginative state through creative union between
the subject and the world they inhabit, as Frye helps to clarify:
world is feminine to the perceiver; it is the body which receives the
seed of [the artist's] imagination, and the works of imagination which
are the artist's children are drawn from that body. ... But as the artist
develops he becomes more and more interested in the art and more and
more impatient of the help he receives from nature... Nature, in simpler
language, is Mother Nature, and in the perfect imaginative state there
is no mother. The fall of man began with the appearance of an independent
object-world, [bringing about an eventual] helpless dependence on Mother
Nature for our ideas." (Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study
of William Blake, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey,
1969, pp 74–75)
Yet at the same time, Blake shared Dante's distrust of materialism and
the ability of power to corrupt, and clearly relished the challenge
of representing the atmosphere and imagery of Dante's work pictorially.
Blake was a strong libertarian, with a deep hatred of the tyranny that
was rife during his lifetime. This is reflected strongly in his poems
Songs of Innocence and of Experience, where he portrays upper class
institutions and the Church of England as corrupt and exploiters of
the weak in society. He dreamed of an idyllic England, free from corruption,
which is mirrored in "The Echoing Green". However, the impending
tyranny in the poem shows that even he doubted that England would be
free. He was also a pioneering vegetarian.
Blake was an important proponent of imagination as the modern western
world currently defines the word. His belief that humanity could overcome
the limitations of its five senses is perhaps one of Blake's greatest
legacies. His words, "If the doors of perception were cleansed,
every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite", (The Marriage
of Heaven and Hell) were seen as bizarre at the time, but are now accepted
as part of our modern definition of imagination. This quote was the
source of the names for both The Doors musical group and Aldous Huxley's
book The Doors of Perception.
Blake's grave in LondonOn the day of his death Blake remained relentlessly
working on the Dante series. Eventually, it is reported, he ceased working
and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her,
Blake is said to have cried "Stay Kate! Keep just as you are –
I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to
me." Having completed this portrait (now lost), Blake laid down
his tools and began to sing hymns and verses; it is reported also that
he spoke to his wife, telling her that he would remain with her always
(Ackroyd, Blake, 389). At six that evening, he died. Gilchrist reports
that a female lodger in the same house, who had been present at his
expiration, said "I have been at the death, not of a man, but of
a blessed angel" (Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake, London,
gives the following account of Blake's death in a letter to Samuel Palmer:
"He died ...
in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had
all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for
Salvation through Jesus Christ - Just before he died His Countenance
became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things
he saw in Heaven" (Grigson, Samuel Palmer, p. 38).
was paid for by Catherine, using money lent to her by Linnell. The affair
was a modest one: he was taken five days after his death – on
the eve of his forty-fifth wedding anniversary – to Dissenter's
burial ground in Bunhill Fields, where his parents were also interred.
Present at the ceremonies were Catherine, Edward Calvert, George Richmond,
Frederick Tatham and John Linnell.
death, Catherine moved in to Tatham's house as a housekeeper; however,
Blake would, she said, come and sit with her for two or three hours
every day. She continued selling his illuminated works and paintings,
but would entertain no business transaction without first "consulting
Mr Blake" (Ackroyd, Blake, 390). On the day of her own death, in
October 1831, she was as calm and cheerful as her husband, and called
out to him "as if he were only in the next room, to say she was
coming to him, and it would not be long now" (Blake Records, p.
death, Blake's manuscripts were inherited by Frederick Tatham, who is
said to have burned several of them in a fit of religious ardour. Tatham
had become an Irvingite, one of the many fundamentalist movements of
the 19th century, and was severely opposed to any work that smacked
of blasphemy (Ackroyd, Blake, p. 391). This is conjecture however.
Blake is now recognised
as a saint in Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. The Blake Prize for Religious
Art was established in his honour in Australia in 1949.
British poet, painter,
visionary mystic, and engraver, who illustrated and printed his own
books. Blake proclaimed the supremacy of the imagination over the rationalism
and materialism of the 18th-century. He joined for a time the Swedenborgian
Church of the New Jerusalem in London and considered Newtonian science
to be superstitious nonsense. Misunderstanding shadowed his career as
a writer and artist and it was left to later generations to recognize
To see a world in
a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
(from 'Auguries of Innocence') was born in London, where he spent most
of his life. His father was a successful London hosier and attracted
by the doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Blake was first educated at
home, chiefly by his mother. His parents encouraged him to collect prints
of the Italian masters, and in 1767 sent him to Henry Pars' drawing
school. From his early years, he experienced visions of angels and ghostly
monks, he saw and conversed with the angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary,
and various historical figures.
At the age of 14
Blake was apprenticed for seven years to the engraver James Basire.
Gothic art and architecture influenced him deeply. After studies at
the Royal Academy School, Blake started to produce watercolors and engrave
illustrations for magazines. In 1783 he married Catherine Boucher, the
daughter of a market gardener. Blake taught her to draw and paint and
she assisted him devoutly. In 1774 Blake opened with his wife and younger
brother Robert a print shop at 27 Broad Street, but the venture failed
after the death of Robert in 1787. Blake's important cultural and social
contacts included Henry Fuseli, Reverend A.S. Mathew and his wife, John
Flaxman (1755-1826), a sculptor and draftsman, Tom Paine, William Godwin,
and Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), married to the wealthy grandson
of the earl of Sandwich.
His early poems
Blake wrote at the age of 12. However, being early apprenticed to a
manual occupation, journalistic-social career was not open to him. His
first book of poems, POETICAL SKETCHES, appeared in 1783 and was followed
by SONGS OF INNOCENCE (1789), and SONGS OF EXPERIENCE (1794). His most
famous poem, 'The Tyger', was part of his Songs of Experience. Typical
for Blake's poems were long, flowing lines and violent energy, combined
with aphoristic clarity and moments of lyric tenderness. Blake was not
blinded by conventions, but approached his subjects sincerely with a
mind unclouded by current opinions. On the other hand this made him
also an outsider. He approved of free love, and sympathized with the
actions of the French revolutionaries but the Reign of Terror sickened
him. In 1790 Blake engraved THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL, a book
of paradoxical aphorisms and his principal prose work. "If the
doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as
it is, infinite." (from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) The work
expressed Blake's revolt against the established values of his time:
"Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of
Religion." Radically he sided with the Satan in Milton's Paradise
Lost and attacked the conventional religious views in a series of aphorisms.
But the poet's life in the realms of iimages did not please his wife
who once remarked: "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company.
He is always in Paradise." Some of Blake's contemporaries called
him a harmless lunatic.
The Blakes moved
south of the Thames to Lambeth in 1790. During this time Blake began
to work on his 'prophetic books', where he expressed his lifelong concern
with the struggle of the soul to free its natural energies from reason
and organized religion. Although Blake first accepted Swedenborg's ideas,
he eventually rejected him. He wrote THE VISIONS OF THE DAUGHTERS OF
ALBION (1793), AMERICA: A PROPHESY (1793), THE BOOK OF URIZEN (1794),
and THE SONG OF LOS (1795). Blake hated the effects of the Industrial
Revolution in England and looked forward to the establishment of a New
Jerusalem "in England's green and pleasant land." Between
1804 and 1818 he produced an edition of his own poem JERUSALEM with
"Bring me my
Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire."
(from 'Jerusalem' in Milton, 1804-1808)
In 1800 Blake was taken up by the wealthy William Hayley, poet and patron
of poets. The Blakes lived in Hayley's house at Felpham in Sussex, staying
there for three years. At Felpham Blake worked on MILTON: A POEM IN
TWO BOOKS, TO JUSTIFY THE WAYS OF GOD TO MEN. It was finished and engraved
between 1803 and 1808. In 1803 Blake was charged at Chichester with
high treason for having 'uttered seditious and treasonable expressions,
such as "D-n the King, d-n all his sibjects..."' but was acquitted.
In 1809 Blake had a commercially unsuccessful exhibition at the shop
once owned by his brother. However, economic problems did not depress
him, but he continued to produce energetically poems, aphorisms, and
engravings. "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,"
From 1818 Blake
started to enjoy the admiration of a group of young disciples. Blake's
last years were passed in obscurity, quarreling even with some of the
circle of friends who supported him. Among Blake's later artistic works
are drawings and engravings for Dante's Divine Comedy and the 21 illustrations
to the book of Job, which was completed when he was almost 70 years
old. Blake never shook off the poverty, in large part due to his inability
to compete in the highly competitive field of engraving and his expensive
invention that enabled him to design illustrations and print words at
the same time.
his life, Blake left no debts at his death on August 12, 1827. He was
buried in an unmarked grave at the public cemetery of Bunhill Fields.
Wordsworth's verdict after Blake's death reflected many opinions of
the time: "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there
is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than
the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." Blake's influence grew
through Pre-Raphealites and W.B. Yeats especially in Britain. His interest
in legend was revived with the Romantics' rediscovery of the past, especially
the Gothic and medieval. In the 1960s Blake's work was acclaimed by
the Underground movement. T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay on Blake that
"the concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and
theology and philosophy is one of the reasons why Dante is a classic
and Blake only a poet of genius." (from Selected Essays, 1960)
Special thanks to the Microsoft Corporation for permission to use following
biographical information from Microsoft® Encarta '97:
William Blake was
an English poet, painter, and engraver who created a unique form of
illustrated verse; his poetry, inspired by mystical vision, is among
the most original lyric and prophetic in the language.
Blake, the son of
a hosier, was born November 28, 1757, in London, where he lived most
of his life. Largely self-taught, he was, however, widely read, and
his poetry shows the influence of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, for
example, and of Swedenborgianism. As a child, Blake wanted to become
a painter. He was sent to drawing school and at the age of 14 was apprenticed
to James Basire, an engraver. After his 7-year term was over, he studied
briefly at the Royal Academy, but he rebelled against the aesthetic
doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Blake did, however,
later establish friendships with such academicians as John Flaxman and
Henry Fuseli, whose work may have influenced him. In 1784 he set up
a printshop; although it failed after a few years, for the rest of his
life Blake eked out a living as an engraver and illustrator. His wife
helped him print the illuminated poetry for which he is remembered today.
Blake began writing poetry at the age of 12, and his first printed work,
Poetical Sketches (1783), is a collection of youthful verse. Amid its
traditional, derivative elements are hints of his later innovative style
and themes. As with all his poetry, this volume reached few contemporary
readers. Blake's most popular poems have always been Songs of Innocence
(1789). These lyrics—fresh, direct observations—are notable
for their eloquence. In 1794, disillusioned with the possibility of
human perfection, Blake issued Songs of Experience, employing the same
lyric style and much of the same subject matter as in Songs of Innocence.
Both series of poems take on deeper resonances when read in conjunction.
Innocence and Experience, “the two contrary states of the human
soul,” are contrasted in such companion pieces as “The Lamb”
and “The Tyger.” Blake's subsequent poetry develops the
implication that true innocence is impossible without experience, transformed
by the creative force of the human imagination.
Blake as Artist
As was to be Blake's custom, he illustrated the Songs with designs that
demand an imaginative reading of the complicated dialogue between word
and picture. His method of illuminated printing is not completely understood.
The most likely explanation is that he wrote the words and drew the
pictures for each poem on a copper plate, using some liquid impervious
to acid, which when applied left text and illustration in relief. Ink
or a color wash was then applied, and the printed picture was finished
by hand in watercolors.
Blake has been called
a preromantic because he rejected neoclassical literary style and modes
of thought. His graphic art too defied 18th-century conventions. Always
stressing imagination over reason, he felt that ideal forms should be
constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions.
His rhythmically patterned linear style is also a repudiation of the
painterly academic style. Blake's attenuated, fantastic figures go back,
instead, to the medieval tomb statuary he copied as an apprentice and
to Mannerist sources. The influence of Michelangelo is especially evident
in the radical foreshortening and exaggerated muscular form in one of
his best-known illustrations, popularly known as The Ancient of Days,
the frontispiece to his poem Europe, a Prophecy (1794).
Much of Blake's
painting was on religious subjects: illustrations for the work of John
Milton, his favorite poet (although he rejected Milton's Puritanism),
for John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and for the Bible, including 21
illustrations to the Book of Job. Among his secular illustrations were
those for an edition of Thomas Gray's poems and the 537 watercolors
for Edward Young's Night Thoughts—only 43 of which were published.
The Prophetic Books
In his so-called Prophetic Books, a series of longer poems written from
1789 on, Blake created a complex personal mythology and invented his
own symbolic characters to reflect his social concerns. A true original
in thought and expression, he declared in one of these poems, “I
must create a system or be enslaved by another man's.” Blake was
a nonconformist radical who numbered among his associates such English
freethinkers as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. Poems such as
The French Revolution (1791), America, a Prophecy (1793), Visions of
the Daughters of Albion (1793), and Europe, a Prophecy (1794) express
his condemnation of 18th-century political and social tyranny. Theological
tyranny is the subject of The Book of Urizen (1794), and the dreadful
cycle set up by the mutual exploitation of the sexes is vividly described
in “The Mental Traveller” (circa 1803). Among the Prophetic
Books is a prose work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), which
develops Blake's idea that “without Contraries is no progression.”
It includes the “Proverbs of Hell,” such as “The tygers
of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”
In 1800 Blake moved
to the seacoast town of Felpham, where he lived and worked until 1803
under the patronage of William Hayley. There he experienced profound
spiritual insights that prepared him for his mature work, the great
visionary epics written and etched between about 1804 and 1820. Milton
(1804-08), Vala, or The Four Zoas (that is, aspects of the human soul,
1797; rewritten after 1800), and Jerusalem (1804-20) have neither traditional
plot, characters, rhyme, nor meter; the rhetorical free-verse lines
demand new modes of reading. They envision a new and higher kind of
innocence, the human spirit triumphant over reason.
Blake's writings also include An Island in the Moon (1784), a rollicking
satire on events in his early life; a collection of letters; and a notebook
containing sketches and some shorter poems dating between 1793 and 1818.
It was called the Rossetti Manuscript, because it was acquired in 1847
by the English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the first to recognize
Blake's final years,
spent in great poverty, were cheered by the admiring friendship of a
group of younger artists. He died in London, August 12, 1827, leaving
uncompleted a cycle of drawings inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy.