BORN: 1757, London, England
DIED: 1827, London, England
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793)
Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794)
The First Book of Urizen (1794) The Book of Los (1795)
Jerusalem: The Emancipation of the Giant Albion (1804)
William Blake was an English poet, engraver, and painter. An imaginative rebel in both his thought and his art, he combined poetic and pictorial genius to explore important issues in politics, religion, and psychology. Considered insane and mostly discounted by his contemporaries, Blake's reputation as a visionary artist grew after his death.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Early Interest in Art William Blake was born in London on November 28, 1757, the second of five children born to James Blake and his wife, Catherine. His father was a hosier, selling stockings, gloves, and haberdashery (men's clothing). At age ten, Blake started to attend drawing school; at fourteen he began a seven-year apprenticeship with an engraver, and it was as an engraver that Blake was to earn his living for the rest of his life. After he was twenty-one, he studied for a time at the Royal Academy of Arts, where he formed a violent distaste for the academic rules of excellence in art. In August 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, who had fallen in love with him at first sight. He taught her to read and write, and she later became a valued assistant.
Fusion of Art and Poetry with New Printing Process From his early teens on, Blake wrote poems,
often setting them to melodies of his own composition. When he was twenty-six, a collection entitled Poetical Sketches was printed with the help of the Reverend and Mrs. Mathew, who held a cultural salon and were patrons of Blake. This volume was the only one of Blake's poetic works to appear in conventional printed form. He later invented and practiced a new method.
After his father died in 1784, Blake set up a print shop with a partner next door to the family hosiery shop. In 1787, his beloved younger brother and pupil, Robert, died. Thereafter William claimed that Robert communicated with him in visions and guided him. It was Robert, William said, who inspired him with the new method of illuminated etching that was to be the vehicle for his poems. The words, design, or some combination of the two was drawn in reverse on a plate covered with an acid-resisting substance; a corrosive was then applied. From these etched plates, pages were printed and later hand-colored. Blake used his unique methods to print almost all his long poems.
In 1787, Blake moved to Poland Street, where he produced Songs of Innocence (1789) as the first major work in his new process. This book was later complemented by Songs of Experience (1794). The magnificent lyrics in these two collections systematically contrast the unguarded openness of innocence with the cynicism of experience. They are a milestone in the history of the arts, not only because they exhibit originality and high quality but because they are a rare instance of the successful fusion of two art forms by one man.
Age of Revolution Sparks Blake's Imagination After a brief period of admiration for the religious thinker Emanuel Swedenborg, Blake produced a disillusioned reaction titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–1793). In this satire, the “devils” are identified with energy and creative genius, and the “angels” with repression of desire and the oppressive aspects of order and rationality.
Blake had become a political radical and sympathized with the American Revolution and with the French Revolution during its early years. At Poland Street and shortly after his move to Lambeth in 1793, Blake composed and etched short “prophetic” books concerning these events, religious and political repression in general, and the more basic repression of the individual psyche, which he came to see as the root of institutional tyranny. Among these works, all composed between 1793 and 1795, are America, Europe, The Book of Urizen, The Book of Los, The Song of Los, and The Book of Ahania. In these poems, Blake began to work out the powerful mythology he refined in his later and longer “prophecies.” He presented this mythology in his first epic-length poem, The Four Zoas (c. 1795–1803), which was never published.
Felpham Period Blake spent the years 1800–1803 working in Felpham, Sussex, with William Hayley, a minor poet and man of letters. Hayley tried to push Blake toward more profitable undertakings, such as painting ladies's fans, but Blake rebelled and returned to London. One result of this conflict was Blake's long poem Milton (c. 1800–1810). In this work, the spiritual issues involved in his quarrel with Hayley are allegorized. Blake's larger themes are dramatized through an account of the decision of the poet Milton to renounce the safety of heaven and return to earth to rectify the errors of the Puritan heritage he had fostered.
Later Years Blake continued to produce some significant work, including his designs for Milton's poems Allegro and Il Penseroso, (1816), and the writing of his own poem The Everlasting Gospel, (c. 1818), but his work found no audience. After 1818, however, conditions improved. He became acquainted with a group of young artists who respected him and appreciated his work. His last six years were spent at Fountain Court, where Blake did some of his best pictorial work: the illustrations to the Book of Job and his unfinished Dante. In 1824, his health began to weaken and he died on August 12, 1827.
Works in Literary Context
William Blake was an English writer, poet, and illustrator of the Romantic period. Romantic authors and artists tended to emphasize the content of their works over the form, stressing imagination and emotion and celebrating nature and freedom.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Blake's famous contemporaries include:
Edward Jenner (1749–1823): British physician who developed a smallpox vaccine.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791): Austrian composer and musician.
Horatio Nelson (1758–1805): Preeminent British naval commander during the Napoleonic wars.
Robert Burns (1759–1796): Scottish poet.
William Wordsworth (1770–1850): British poet famous for his Romantic style.
Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832): Popular British writer known for such classics as Ivanhoe.
Picture Books Blake did not write or draw specifically for children, but he believed that children could read and understand his works. He was opposed to the kind of moralistic writing for children that was done by the
clergyman Isaac Watts, whose Divine and Moral Songs for Children, published in 1715, taught readers to be hardworking and avoid idleness and mischief. Blake believed that children—and adults, for that matter—should be allowed the freedom to dream and imagine. His first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, said in his Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus that Blake “neither wrote nor drew for the many, hardly for the workday men at all, rather for children and angels.” He called Blake “‘a divine child,’ whose playthings were sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth.” Children are also the subjects of many of his works. Since Blake also did the illustrations for his writings, some authorities consider his works to be forerunners of the picture-book form.
Revolutionary Politics The storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 and the agonies of the French Revolution sent shock waves through England. Some hoped for a corresponding outbreak of liberty in England while others feared a breakdown of the social order. In much of his writing Blake argues against the monarchy. In his early Tiriel (c. 1789), Blake traces the fall of a tyrannical king. Blake also consistently portrays civilization as chaotic, a direct reflection of the tumultuous times in which he lived.
Politics was surely often the topic of conversation at the publisher Joseph Johnson's house, where Blake was often invited. There Blake met important literary and political figures such as William Godwin, Joseph Priestly, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine. According to one legend, Blake is even said to have saved Paine's life by warning him of his impending arrest. Whether or not that is true, it is clear that Blake was familiar with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day.
Another product of the radical 1790s is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Written and etched between 1790 and 1793, Blake's poem brutally satirizes oppressive authority in church and state. The poem also satirizes the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish philosopher whose ideas once attracted Blake's interests.
Blake's work influenced a diverse assortment of later writers and artists, including Irish poet William Butler Yeats, American poet Allen Ginsberg, children's book author and artist Maurice Sendak, and songwriter Bob Dylan.
Works in Critical Context
Blake once defended his art by remarking, “What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care.” Blake's passion for originality and imagination informs his creation of a private cosmology that embraces both his lyric and prophetic poetry. In his lifetime, the public knew Blake primarily as an artist and engraver. Perhaps as a result of his unusual method of “publication,” Blake's poetry did not receive wide public recognition during his lifetime, but it was read by such famous contemporaries as William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge and other prominent literary figures of the time. For a long time, however, Blake's reputation floundered.
Blake's Critical Recovery The publication in 1863 of Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus helped save Blake's works from obscurity and established Blake as a major literary figure. Gilchrist's biography motivated other studies of Blake, including Swinburne's 1868 study of Blake's prophecies.
In the early twentieth century, John Sampson's 1905 edition of The Poetical Works, provided a solid text for serious study of Blake as did A.G.B. Russell's 1912 catalogue The Engravings of William Blake, which reproduced many engravings. Joseph Wicksteed's 1910 study, Blake's Vision of the Book of Job, provided a close analysis of Blake's designs and helped to demonstrate that Blake's art should be interpreted in careful detail.
Modern Blake Scholarship Modern scholarship is in large part based on the herculean efforts of Geoffrey Keynes, whose 1921 A Bibliography of William Blake (along with his 1953 Census of William Blake Illuminated Books) set a firm foundation for a critical examination of Blake's works. Keynes's 1925 edition of the Writings of William Blake (and subsequent revisions) became the standard text for decades.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Blake was best known for exploring the role and value of imagination in humanity's search for truth. Here are some other works that have similar themes:
Lyrical Ballads (1798), by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads sought to emphasize personal experience and imagination over abstract language and themes.
A Vision (1937), by William Butler Yeats. Yeats was greatly influenced by Blake and worked to create his own symbolic mythology in this dense and complex treatise.
Howl (1956), by Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg's seminal work of the Beat Generation lauded the misfits and rebels whose minds, he claimed, were “destroyed by madness” brought on by the constraints of 1950s American social life. Ginsberg was influenced deeply by Blake, even claiming to have had a vision in which Blake's voice helped him understand the interconnectedness of the universe.
In 1947, Northrop Frye's seminal work Fearful Symmetry, opened the field of Blake scholarship by showing the mythic structure of the major works and making the claim for Blake as a major poet of English literature. David Erdman's Blake: Prophet Against Empire (first
published in 1954, revised 1969), is important in showing Blake as a commentator and critic of the age in which he lived. Among the numerous explications of Blake's poetry that followed, Harold Bloom's The Visionary Company (first published in 1961, revised 1971), and Blake's Apocalypse (published in 1963), influenced many critics in the reading of individual poems.
Today, Blake scholarship continues at a rapid pace with many critics concentrating on the relationship between text and design in Blake's major poetry. From the relative obscurity of his reputation in his own time, Blake is now recognized as one of the major poets of the Romantic period and one of the most original and challenging figures in the history of English literature.
Responses to Literature
- Choose any of the aphorisms presented in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and examine how it may be relevant to today's world.
- Blake meant for the poems of The Songs of Innocence and of Experience be read together. Choose any of the companion poems (such as “The Chimney Sweeper” or “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”) and discuss how each poem presents a different aspect of the same concept.
- Explore the relationship between any of the illustrations accompanying the “illuminated” poems and the text itself. Be sure to use specific references to imagery used in both the illustrations and the text.
- Explore how Blake influenced writers like William Butler Yeats and Allen Ginsberg. Provide specific examples.
- Blake's books America: A Prophecy and Europe: A Prophecy deal with the idea of revolution in highly allegorical ways. Is this an effective way of addressing political situations? Support your response with specific references to the poems.
Adams, Hazard. Blake and Yeats: The Contrary Vision. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1955.
Bloom, Harold. Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963.
Damon, Samuel Foster. William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.
Frye, Northrup. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus, 2 volumes. London: Macmillan, 1863; enlarged 1880.
Keynes, Geoffrey. A Bibliography of William Blake. New York: Grolier Club, 1921.
Plowman, Max. An Introduction to the Study of Blake. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1927.
Schorer, Mark. William Blake: The Politics of Vision. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.
Adams, Hazard. “Blake and the Philosophy of Literary Symbolism.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation (Autumn 1973).
Beer, John. “Lamb, Coleridge, and Blake.” Charles Lamb Bulletin (October 2006).
Mitchell, W.J.T. “Dangerous Blake.” Studies in Romanticism (Fall 1982).
Viscomi, Joseph. “Blake's ‘Annus Mirabilis': The Productions of 1795.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly (Fall 2007).
White, Harry. “Cruel Holiness and Honest Virtue in the Works of William Blake.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly (Fall 2006).
Eaves, Morris, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi, eds. The William Blake Archive. Accessed February 10, 2008 from http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/main.html
Hilton, Nelson, ed. Blake Digital Text Project. Accessed February 10, 2008 from http://virtual.park.uga.edu/~wblake/home1.html. Last updated in 2003.
Blake, William (1757-1827)
Blake, William (1757-1827)
Poet, mystic, painter, and engraver, Blake is one of the most enigmatic yet most significant figures in the history of English literature, and a man who has likewise exerted strong influence on the graphic arts. He was born in London, England, November 28, 1757. Little is known definitely about his family's ancestry, but it seems probable that his parents and other relatives were humble folk.
William Blake manifested his artistic predilections at a very early age, and his father and mother did not discourage him. They offered to place him in the studio of a painter. The young man refused, however, pointing out that the apprenticeship was a costly one and saying that his numerous brothers and sisters should be considered; he held that it was not fair to impoverish his family on his behalf. Then engraving was suggested to him as a profession, because it required less expensive training than painting and was likely to yield a speedier financial return. Accepting this offer, Blake went at the age of 14 to study under James Basire, an engraver not very well known today, but who then enjoyed considerable reputation and was employed officially by the Society of Antiquaries.
Blake worked under Basire for seven years and was engaged mainly in making drawings of Westminster Abbey to illustrate a huge book then in progress, the Sepulchral Monuments of Richard Gough. It is said that Blake was chosen by his master to do these drawings not so much because he showed particular aptitude for drafting, but because he was eternally quarreling with his fellow apprentices; the young artist apparently believed he was superior to his confréres and made enemies by failing to conceal his belief. While at the Westminster Abbey, Blake asserted that he saw many visions.
In 1778 he entered the then recently founded Royal Academy School, where he studied under George Moser, a chaser and enameller who engraved the first great seal of George III. Yet it was not to Moser that the budding visionary looked for instruction; he was far more occupied with studying prints of the old masters, especially Michelangelo and Raphael. A short time later Blake left the Royal Academy and began to work on his own.
He had to work hard, however, for meanwhile his affections had been engaged by a young woman, Catherine Boucher, and he needed funds for the pair to marry. Blake engraved illustrations for magazines and the like, and his marriage was solemnized in 1782. His wife's name indicates that she was of French origin, but it is not known if she was related to François Boucher or to the fine engraver of the French Empire, Boucher-Desnoyers. The marriage proved a singularly happy one.
Regarding Catherine's appearance there still exists a small pencil-drawing by Blake, commonly supposed to be a portrait of his wife. It shows a slim, graceful woman, just the type of woman predominating in Blake's other pictures, so it may be presumed that she frequently acted as his model.
After his marriage Blake took lodgings on Green Street in Leicester Fields, and he opened a print shop on Broad Street. He made many friends at this period; the most favored among them was Flaxman, the sculptor. Flaxman introduced him to Mr. Matthew, a clergyman of artistic tastes who manifested keen interest in the few poems Blake had already written and generously offered to defray the cost of printing them. The writer accepted the offer and brought out a tiny volume, Poetical Sketches.
Thus encouraged, Blake gave up his print-selling business, moved to Poland Street, and soon after published his Songs of Innocence, the letterpress enriched by his own designs. In addition, the whole volume was printed by the author himself by a new method of his own invention.
Blake lived on Poland Street for five years, during which time he achieved and issued The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the first book of The French Revolution. In 1792 he moved to the Hercules Buildings in Lambeth, where dire poverty forced him to do much of his commercial work, notably a series of illustrations to Young's Night Thoughts, yet he also found time for original drawing and writing, including the Gates of Paradise and Songs of Experience.
Eventually he tired of London, however, and moved to Felpham, near Bognor in Sussex, taking a cottage close to where Aubrey Beardsley would live at a later date. Here Blake composed Milton, Jerusalem, and a large part of the Prophetic Books, and made a new friend, William Hayley, who repeatedly aided him monetarily. The Sussex scenery—afterward to inspire Whistler and Conder—appealed keenly to Blake, and in one of his lyrics he exclaimed, "Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there," while to Flaxman he wrote: "Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours, voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen and my cottage is also a shadow of their houses."
Eventually Blake returned to London, taking a house in South Molton Street in 1803. Here again he endured much poverty and was forced into doing illustrations for Virgil and also a series of designs for Blair's Grave; but later his financial horizon was brightened by help from John Linnell, the landscape painter. Shortly afterward Blake did some of his finest work, including his Spiritual Portraits and his drawings for The Book of Job, after which he began illustrating the Divine Comedy of Dante.
In 1821 he again changed his home to Fountain Court in Strand and continued to work at the Dante drawings, but only seven of them were ever published, for Blake's health was beginning to fail, his energies were waning, and he died August 12, 1827.
Sixteen years before his death, Blake held a public exhibition of his drawings, engravings, illustrations, and the like, and only one paper saw fit to print a criticism of it— The Examiner, edited by Leigh Hunt. It is customary for Blake's idolators today to scorn those who then disdained his work, but Blake's work emerged as somewhat of a novelty, especially the mysticism permeating his pictures, which had virtually no parallel in English painting prior to his advent. Also, Blake was still maturing as a technician and still had many grave limitations which are quite evident when placed beside that of his contemporaries.
If Blake the draftsman and illustrator was a fierce iconoclast who turned his back resolutely on the styles current in his time, most assuredly Blake the poet was sublimely contemptuous of the conventions of Augustanism, and thus he prepared the way for Burns, Wordsworth, and Shelley.
Had Blake written only his Poetical Sketches, his Songs of Innocence and the subsequent Songs of Experience, his contemporaries could never have leveled the charge of madness against him. It was his later writings like The Book of Thel and the Prophetic Books that branded him, for in these later poems the writer threw simplicity to the winds. Giving literary form to visions, Blake is so purely spiritual and ethereal, so far beyond the realm of normal human speech, that mysticism frequently devolves into crypticism. His rhythm, too, is often so subtle that it hardly seems rhythm at all.
Yet even in his weirdest flights Blake is still the master. And if, as already observed, the coloring in many of his watercolor drawings is thin, the very reverse is true of the poems written toward the close of his life. Their glowing and gorgeous tones have the barbaric pomp of Gautier's finest prose and the glitter and opulence of Berlioz's or Wagner's orchestration.
Erdman, David, ed. The Illuminated Blake. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.
Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. Blake: Complete Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.
King, James. William Blake: His Life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991.
Nesfeld-Cookson, Bernard. William Blake: Prophet of Universal Brotherhood. U.K.: Crucible, 1987.
Raine, Kathleen. From Blake to "A Vision." Dublin: Dolman Press, 1979.
——. William Blake. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1971.
Wilke, Joanne. William Blake's Epic: Imagination Unbound. London: Croom Helm, 1986.
Wilson, Mona. The Life of William Blake. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Wolf-Gumpold, Kaethe. William Blake: Painter, Poet, Visionary: An Attempt at and Introduction to his Life and Work. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1969.
William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, engraver, and painter. A boldly imaginative rebel in both his thought and his art, he combined poetic and pictorial genius to explore important issues in politics, religion, and psychology.
William Blake was born in London on Nov. 28, 1757, the second son of a hosier and haberdasher. Except for a few years in Sussex, his entire life was spent in London. Its streets and their names took on spiritual symbolism in his writings, much as the place names of the Holy Land did in the writings of the biblical prophets whom Blake always regarded as his spiritual progenitors. From his earliest years he saw visions— trees full of angels, for example. If these were not true mystical visions, it is probably best to regard them not as hallucinations but as the artist's intense spiritual and sensory realization of the world.
At 10 Blake started to attend drawing school; at 14 he began a 7-year apprenticeship to an engraver, and it was as an engraver that Blake was to earn his living for the rest of his life. After he was 21, he studied for a time at the Royal Academy of Arts, where he formed a violent distaste for the academic canons of excellence in art.
In August 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, who had fallen in love with him at first sight. He taught her to read and write, and she later became a valued assistant. Although their marriage was to suffer from some of the normal frictions, his "sweet shadow of delight," as Blake called Catherine, was a devoted and loving wife. On her authority there is a description of his appearance: short with a large head and shoulders; not handsome but with a noble and expressive face; his hair yellow-brown, luxuriant, and curling like flames.
From his early teens Blake wrote poems, often setting them to melodies of his own composition. When he was 26, a collection entitled Poetical Sketches was printed with the help of the Reverend and Mrs. Mathew, who conducted a cultural salon and were patrons of Blake. This volume was the only one of Blake's poetic works to appear in conventional printed form; he later invented and practiced a new method.
After his father died in 1784, Blake set up a print shop with a partner next door to the family hosiery shop. In 1787 his beloved younger brother and pupil Robert died; thereafter William claimed that Robert communicated with him in visions and guided him. It was Robert, William said, who inspired him with the new method of illuminated etching that was to be the vehicle for his poems. The words, design, or some combination of the two was drawn in reverse on a plate covered with an acid-resisting substance; a corrosive was then applied. From these etched plates pages were printed and later hand-colored. Blake used his unique methods to print almost all his long poems with the exception of An Island in the Moon (ca. 1784), Tiriel (ca. 1789), The Four Zoas (ca. 1795-1803), The Everlasting Gospel (ca. 1818), and a number of short works. The French Revolution exists as printer's proofs.
As an engraver, Blake favored the line rather than chiaroscuro, or masses of light and dark. Blake's predilection for the line rather than "blurs" (as he called them) of color and mass had a philosophical as well as an artistic dimension. To him the line represented the honest clarity of human day as distinguished from the mystery of night.
In 1787 Blake moved to Poland Street, where he produced Songs of Innocence (1789) as the first major work in his new process. This book was later complemented by Songs of Experience (1794). The magnificent lyrics in these two collections systematically contrast the unguarded openness of innocence with the embitteredness of experience. They are a milestone in the history of the arts, not only because they exhibit originality and high quality but because they are a rare instance of the successful fusion of two art media by one man.
After a brief period of admiration for the religious thinker Emanuel Swedenborg, Blake produced in disillusioned reaction The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793). In this satire the "devils" are identified with energy and creative genius, and the "angels" with repression of desire and the oppressive aspects of order and rationality. Some of the same issues arise in The Book of Thel (1789-1791) and Vision of the Daughters of Albion (1793). The former portrays a timid shepherdess who is reluctant to commit herself to the risks of existence, while the latter shows a heroine who casts off such timidity and chooses psychic and sexual liberation.
Blake had become a political radical and was in sympathy with the American Revolution and with the French Revolution during its early years. At Poland Street and shortly after his move to Lambeth in 1793, Blake composed and etched short "prophetic" books concerning these events, religious and political repression in general, and the more basic repression of the individual psyche, which he came to see as the root of institutional tyranny. Among these works (all composed between 1793 and 1795) are America, Europe, The Book of Urizen, The Book of Los, The Song of Los, and The Book of Ahania. In these poems Blake began to work out the powerful mythology he refined in his later and longer prophecies. He presented this mythology completely in his first epic-length poem, The Four Zoas (ca. 1795-1803). This difficult but mighty myth shows how religious and social evils are rooted in the internal warfare of man's basic faculties—reason (Urizen), passion (Luvah), instinct (Tharmas), and inspiration or prophetic imagination (Los or Urthona, who becomes more markedly the hero of Blake's long epics). But Blake was apparently unsatisfied with The Four Zoas. Although he drew freely on it for his later epics, he left the poem unengraved.
Blake spent the years 1800 to 1803 working in Felpham, Sussex, with William Hayley, a minor poet and man of letters. With genuine good intentions Hayley tried to cure Blake of his unprofitable and unseemly enthusiasms and secured him commissions for safely genteel projects— painting ladies' fans, for example. Blake finally rebelled against this condescension and rejected Hayley's help. One result of this conflict was Blake's long poem Milton (ca. 1800-1810). In this work the spiritual issues involved in the quarrel with Hayley are allegorized, and Blake's larger themes are dramatized through an account of the decision of the poet Milton to renounce the safety of heaven and return to earth to rectify the errors of the Puritan heritage he had fostered.
In 1803 Blake had a still more disturbing experience when a soldier whom he had evicted from his garden accused him of uttering seditious sentiments—a charge that in the witch-hunting atmosphere of the time was serious indeed. Blake was tried and acquitted, but he saw in the incident further confirmation of his views on the conflict between a sadistic society and the man of humane genius. The trial experience colors much of Blake's titanic final epic, Jerusalem (ca. 1804-1820).
Back in London, living in South Molton Street, Blake worked hard at his poems, engraving, and painting, but he suffered several reverses. He was the victim of fraud in connection with his designs for Blair's The Grave and received insulting reviews of that project and of an exhibition he gave in 1809 to introduce his idea of decorating public buildings with portable frescoes. Blake wrote three prose pieces based on the events of this time: Descriptive Catalogue (1809), Public Address (1810), and Vision of the Last Judgment (1810).
The next decade is a somber and obscure period in Blake's life. He did some significant work, including his designs for Milton's poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso (1816) and the writing of his own poem The Everlasting Gospel (ca. 1818), but he was sometimes reduced to hackwork and the public did not purchase or read his prophecies. After 1818, however, conditions improved. He became acquainted with a group of young artists who respected him and appreciated his work. His last 6 years were spent at Fountain Court, where Blake did some of his best pictorial work: the illustrations to the Book of Job and his unfinished Dante. In 1824 his health began to weaken, and he died singing on Aug. 12, 1827.
Blake's history does not end with his death. In his own lifetime he was almost unknown except to a few friends and faithful patrons, like Thomas Butts and the young disciples he attracted in his last years. He was even suspected of being mad. But interest in his work grew during the mid-19th century, and since then painstaking commentators have gradually elucidated Blake's beautiful, intricate, and difficult mythology. The 20th century has made him its own; he has been acclaimed as a kindred spirit by psychologists, writers (most notably William Butler Yeats), radical theologians, rock-and-roll musicians, and devotees of Oriental religion. He has furnished texts to a wide variety of rebels against war, orthodoxy, and almost every kind of psychic and personal repression.
The standard editions of Blake's writings are Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Complete Writings of William Blake (1957; rev. ed. 1966), and David V. Erdman, ed., The Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1965), with commentary by Harold Bloom. Alexander Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake (1863), is still a standard biography; another biography is Mona Wilson, The Life of William Blake (1927; rev. ed. 1948). For Blake the artist see Anthony Blunt, The Art of William Blake (1959). For the reader making his first acquaintance with Blake, Max Plowman, An Introduction to the Study of Blake (1927; 2d ed. 1967), and Herschel M. Margoliouth, William Blake (1951), are recommended. The most searching critical study is Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947). Excellent commentary on the longer poems is provided by S. Foster Damon, William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols (1924), and Harold Bloom, Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (1963). □
Born: November 28, 1757
Died: August 12, 1827
English poet, engraver, and painter
William Blake was an English poet, engraver, and painter. A boldly imaginative rebel in both his thought and his art, he combined poetic and pictorial genius to explore life.
William Blake was born in London, England, on November 28, 1757, the second son of a mens' clothing merchant. Except for a few years in Sussex, England, his entire life was spent in London. From his earliest years he saw visions. He would see trees full of angels or similar sights. If these were not true mystical visions, they were the result of the artist's intense spiritual understanding of the world. From his early teens Blake wrote poems, often setting them to melodies of his own composition.
At age ten Blake started at the well-known Park's drawing school, and at age fourteen he began a seven-year apprenticeship (studying and practicing under someone skilled) to an engraver. It was as an engraver that Blake earned his living for the rest of his life. After he was twenty-one, Blake studied for a time at the Royal Academy of Arts, but he was unhappy with the instruction and soon left.
In August 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, who had fallen in love with him at first sight. He taught her to read and write, and she later became a valued assistant. His "sweet shadow of delight," as Blake called Catherine, was a devoted and loving wife.
When he was twenty-six, he wrote a collection entitled Poetical Sketches. This volume was the only one of Blake's poetic works to appear in conventional printed form—he later invented and practiced a new method.
After his father died in 1784, Blake set up a print shop next door to the family shop. In 1787 his beloved brother Robert died; thereafter William claimed that Robert communicated with him in visions. It was Robert, William said, who inspired him with a new method of illuminated etching. The words and or design were drawn in reverse on a plate covered with an acid-resisting substance; acid was then applied. From these etched plates pages were printed and later hand-colored. Blake used his unique methods to print almost all of his long poems.
In 1787 Blake produced Songs of Innocence (1789) as the first major work in his new process, followed by Songs of Experience (1794). The magnificent lyrics in these two collections carefully compare the openness of innocence with the bitterness of experience. They are a milestone because they are a rare instance of the successful union of two art forms by one man.
Days of betrayal
Blake spent the years 1800 to 1803 in Sussex working with William Hayley, a minor poet and man of letters. With good intentions Hayley tried to cure Blake of his unprofitable enthusiasms. Blake finally rebelled against this criticism and rejected Hayley's help. In Milton (c. 1800–1810), Blake wrote an allegory (story with symbols) of the spiritual issues involved in this relationship. He identified with the poet John Milton (1608–1674) in leaving the safety of heaven and returning to earth. Also at this time in life Blake was accused of uttering seditious (treasonous) sentiments. He was later found not guilty but the incident affected much of Blake's final epic (long lyric poem highlighting a single subject), Jerusalem (c. 1804–1820).
Back in London, Blake worked hard at his poems, engraving, and painting, but he suffered several reverses. He was the victim of fraud in connection with his designs for Blair's (1699–1746) poem The Grave. He also received insulting reviews of that project and of an exhibition he gave in 1809 to introduce his idea of decorating public buildings with portable frescoes (paintings done on moist plaster using water-based paints).
Blake had become a political sympathizer with the American and French Revolutions. He composed The Four Zoas as a mystical story predicting the future showing how evil is rooted in man's basic faculties—reason, passion, instinct, and imagination. Imagination was the hero.
The next decade is a sad and private period in Blake's life. He did some significant work, including his designs for Milton's poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso (1816) and the writing of his own poem The Everlasting Gospel (c. 1818). He was also sometimes reduced to writing for others, and the public did not purchase or read his divinely inspired predictions and visions. After 1818, however, conditions improved. His last six years of life were spent at Fountain Court surrounded by a group of admiring young artists. Blake did some of his best pictorial work: the illustrations to the Book of Job and his unfinished Dante. In 1824 his health began to weaken, and he died singing in London, England, on August 12, 1827.
Blake's history does not end with his death. In his own lifetime he was almost unknown except to a few friends and faithful sponsors. He was even suspected of being mad. But interest in his work grew during the middle of the nineteenth century, and since then very committed reviewers have gradually shed light on Blake's beautiful, detailed, and difficult mythology. He has been acclaimed as one who shares common ideals held by psychologists, writers (most notably William Butler Yeats [1865–1939]), extreme students of religion, rock-and-roll musicians, and people studying Oriental religion. The works of William Blake have been used by people rebelling against a wide variety of issues, such as war, conformity (behaving in a certain way because it is accepted or expected), and almost every kind of repression.
For More Information
Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. New York: Knopf, 1996.
King, James. William Blake, His Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
BLAKE, WILLIAM (1757–1827), English poet and visual artist.
William Blake, now regarded as a major poet and visual artist, was born and lived all of his life in London with the exception of three years that he spent in the hamlet of Felpham on the southern coast. He was self-educated, having been sent to drawing school at an early age and then apprenticed to an engraver. A painter and professional engraver himself, he published his own works by an original process called "relief etching." These hand-colored works included designs, were produced in small numbers, and are now highly prized. The best known are the collections of short poems Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, brought together in 1794. His early longer poems America (1793), Europe (1794), and Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1794) had been preceded by the conventionally printed The French Revolution (1791), one book being set in type but never distributed and the others lost or perhaps never written. Blake knew many of the political radicals of his day: Thomas Paine (1737–1809), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), William Godwin (1756–1836), Horne Tooke (1736–1812), Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809), and others; and to his death he called himself a "liberty boy." However,
his later long works are less overtly political than those mentioned above. Perhaps his most intellectually important work was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1792), which is partly a satirical treatment of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) and an expression of a theory of "contraries" derived from but also at odds with that writer's notions. For Blake, "without contraries is no progression"; the human world proceeds by the prolific clash of opposite but necessary forces.
Beginning around 1795, Blake worked on an enormous manuscript poem first called Vala and later The Four Zoas. He never completed it, and the poem was unknown to readers and scholars until Edwin John Ellis (1848–1916) and William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) published an inaccurate transcription in 1893. Though chaotic, it is the fullest presentation of the mythology Blake created. It tells of a fall into division of the archetypal giant Albion, representing England, the strife between his parts, and his eventual restoration to unity. Without knowing the story eccentrically told here, readers find Blake's two great later poems Milton and Jerusalem quite obscure. There is some political allegory in all of these poems, but Blake's eccentric, humanistic, radically Protestant religious views had become more important.
Blake's political interests were deeply affected by two events. The first was the anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780, in which he was physically caught up. His hatred of violence was fueled by this experience. The second was an accusation made against him in 1803. Blake and his wife were living in Felpham at the time, when a drunken soldier entered his garden and refused to leave. Blake forced him up the road toward his barracks. The soldier accused Blake of seditious remarks about the king, a serious charge given the war with France. Since Blake had written critically of George III in Europe, though not actually naming him, it is not implausible that in his anger he may have uttered something quite uncomplimentary. In 1804, Blake stood trial for high treason and was acquitted.
Blake was deeply influenced by the Bible and by the work of John Milton (1608–1674). His Milton (1804–c. 1811) tells of Milton's return from heaven into the spirit of Blake in order to correct the errors of his life and work, one of which in Paradise Lost was the giving of more life and energy to the devil than to God and Jesus. In Jerusalem (completed 1820), Blake tells in one hundred elaborately designed pages of the alienation of Albion from his creations, particularly his daughter Jerusalem, and their eventual reconciliation.
Blake's late years were spent in severe poverty, but in continued artistic activity. In these years he executed some of his greatest designs: the illustrations to the Book of Job, the illustrations to Dante's Commedia, and the splendid woodcuts for Robert John Thornton's 1821 edition of the pastorals of Virgil. In these years, a group of young artists, including George Richmond (1809–1896), Edward Calvert (1799–1883), John Linnell (1792–1882), and Samuel Palmer (1805–1881), gathered about him. Blake influenced these painters and those of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There was a biography in 1863, and Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) wrote a study of Blake's poetry in 1868, but his reputation was really rescued from relative obscurity by poets and critics in the early twentieth century.
Bentley, Gerald E., Jr. Stranger from Paradise. New Haven, Conn., 2001.
Bindman, David. Blake as an Artist. Oxford, U.K., 1977.
Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by David V. Erdman. Berkeley, Calif., 1982.
Erdman, David V. Blake: Prophet Against Empire. Princeton, N.J., 1954.
Essick, Robert N. William Blake and the Language of Adam. Oxford, U.K., 1989.
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, N.J., 1947.
Mitchell, W. J. T. Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Princeton, N.J., 1978.
Viscomi, Joseph. Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton, N.J., 1993.
Engraver, painter, and mystical poet; b. London, Nov. 28, 1757; d. London, Aug. 12, 1827. Blake's parents, Catharine Harmitage and James Blake, a hosier, encouraged his talent for visualization; at the age of 10, he was sent to a drawing school in the Strand, and at 14 he began his apprenticeship (1772–79) to the line engraver James Basire, for whom he copied royal effigies from Gothic tombs. At 21 he began exhibiting historical and poetical watercolors at the Royal Academy.
In 1782, he married Catherine Boucher, daughter of a market gardener. The following year, some of his friends printed a volume of his works entitled Poetical Sketches, containing superb lyrics and ironic dramatic fragments revealing disapproval of the American war. In 1784, he wrote An Island in the Moon, a satiric medley showing the author as "Quid, the Cynic," among philosophizing, artistic, and egocentric friends who were interested in Voltaire, Locke, graveyard meditations, Chatterton, the perhaps uncontrollable chemical discoveries of Priestley, and the obtuseness of the Platonizing Thomas Taylor.
In 1788, he began to publish illustrated manifestoes and songs and prophetic poems utilizing an etching process he called "illuminated printing." His small tractates There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One were probably the earliest of these; The Book of Thel and Songs of Innocence were published in 1789; and The Ghost of Abel (1822) was the last.
Blake was now reading lavater and swedenborg; he attended a London conference of Swedenborgians in April 1789. Soon events in France inspired him to write an epic on The French Revolution; of the seven parts he announced, only the first, printed in 1791, survives. He produced two great series of illuminated works in 1795: three historical prophecies called America, Europe, and The Song of Los (comprising "Africa" and "Asia"), that announced a revolutionary apocalypse in Britain to complete those in America and France; and a philosophical series including The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that replaced Swedenborg's vision of a balanced universe with a manifesto of revolutionary Christian humanism, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, probing the psychological roots of slavery, and The Book of Urizen with its sequels Ahania and Los, depicting the imaginative inadequacy and collapse of the exterior and interior worlds of Newton and locke.
His other works of this period include the emblems called The Gates of Paradise (1793), Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1794), and an outpouring of colorprinted symbolic pictures. For an ambitious edition of Edward Young's Night Thoughts in 1797, Blake made 537 drawings, but only 43 of them were engraved. He next began a symbolic epic as a unique illuminated manuscript. It's first title was Vala, later changed to The Four Zoas, concerning the generation and regeneration by resurrection of Everyman or "Albion."
During this period, Blake was painting a series of illustrations of the Bible for Thomas Butts. In 1800, he moved to Felpham, Sussex, to work near a new patron, William Hayley, but after 3 years of "slumber" and vexation, he returned to London to live out a busy but unprosperous life. The date 1804 on the title pages of Milton (etched about 1808) and Jerusalem (1818–20) may mark the beginning of his new dedication to the kind of artist's life he considered Jesus to have lived. In 1809, he held an exhibition of 16 "Historical and Poetical" paintings, including "apotheoses" depicting Lord Nelson and William Pitt as angels of war, the former in contention with a militant Christ. Pictorial series of his late period, each constituting a prophetic work, include his illustrations of The Grave, The Canterbury Pilgrims, the Book of Job, Pilgrim's Progress, and The Divine Comedy. In 1818, his poem of fiercely didactic lyric fragments, The Everlasting Gospel, affirmed the essential unity of his life's preaching.
Blake died at age 69, followed by his devoted wife, at the same age, four years later. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields. A member of no church, Blake thought of himself as a Christian, but his savior was the creative genius in every man whose gospel was mutual forgiveness. At Blake's Judgment Day, fools perish, the "dark religions" depart, and "sweet Science reigns"—total imaginative consciousness attained through art. As all Blake's literary and philosophical "sources" were transformed to his own idiom, even the Bible, his greatest source, became in his painting and poetry a philosophical, psychological, historical prophecy—"the Great Code of Art."
See Also: mysticism in literature.
Bibliography: Complete Writings, ed. g. keynes (New York 1957–). The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. d. v. erdman, commentary by h. bloom (New York 1965). Illustrations to the Bible: A Catalogue, comp. g. keynes (Clairvaux 1957). a. gilchrist, Life of William Blake (New York 1942). j. lindsay, William Blake: His Life and Work (New York 1979). d. v. erdman, Blake: Prophet against Empire (3d. ed.; Garden City, N.Y. 1977). n. frye, Fearful Symmetry (2d ed. Princeton 1958). p. e. fisher, The Valley of Vision: Blake as Prophet and Revolutionary (Toronto 1961). h. bloom, Blake's Apocalypse (New York 1963). d. bindman, William Blake: His Art and Times (New York 1982).
[d. v. erdman]