Blake, William°

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BLAKE, WILLIAM° (1757–1827), English poet and engraver. One of the great figures of the English romantic movement, Blake described his poems as prophecies, declaring that his model was the Bible, which he termed "the great code of art." The works of Homer and Ovid were for him, by contrast, perversions of art and imagination. Blake was in touch with various occult circles and shared with them the belief that Britain was the cradle of the Israelite people. This explains his tendency to identify English names and places with those in the Bible. His work is saturated in biblical imagery and allusion. His main biblical poems are "The Four Zoas," "Milton," and "Jerusalem." The last quatrain of his preface to "Milton" well illustrates Blake's revolutionary mystique: "I will not cease from mental fight/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,/Till we have built Jerusalem/ In England's green and pleasant land." In freeing his verse from the shackles of classical prosody and adopting for his prophetic books something resembling the syntax of the Bible, Blake may have been influenced by the 18th-century Oxford scholar, Robert *Lowth. Although he knew little or no Hebrew, and was not Jewish, Blake was also influenced by ideas which can be traced to the *Kabbalah. His notion of the Giant Albion, whose limbs contain heaven and earth, is derived from the kabbalistic image of *Adam Kadmon (Primal Man). Equally kabbalistic are his notions of a divine world divided into male and female principles, and his conception of a primordial "Fall" from which all evil flows in both the divine and the human realms. In spite of many Judaistic ideas and currents of feeling, Blake's moral ideas are, paradoxically enough, anti-Judaic, even antisemitic. Like the Gnostics, he viewed the Law and the Commandments as an evil system, and he identified the God of Sinai with some evil demiurge.


D. Saurat, Blake and Modern Thought (1929); J. Bronowski, Man Without a Mask (1944); H. Fisch, Jerusalem and Albion (1964), 273–80; D. Hirst, Hidden Riches (1964); S. Damon, Blake Dictionary (1965); M. Roston, Poet and Prophet (1965). add. bibliography: M. Eaves (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to William Blake (2003); N. Frye, Fearful Symmetry (1969); odnb online.

[Harold Harel Fisch]