William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker whose series of lyrical and epic poems form one of the most strikingly original bodies of work in the Western world. Blake was also a mystic philosopher whose output has fascinated and baffled people since his day. Although many of his contemporaries thought that he was a crank because of his idiosyncratic views on religion and society, later critics regard Blake highly for his expressiveness and creativity, as well as the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. Much of this was influenced by the Bible, even although he always remained hostile to the Church of England. He believed in social and spiritual, social and physical freedoms and sought recognition of these ideals through his writings.
William Blake was born in 1757 and grew up in London where his father was a hosier. The Blakes were Dissenters or members of a religious society that disagreed with the methods and practices of the established Church of England. Like many others today, they had their own way of interpreting the Bible which had an early and profound influence on Blake, and one which would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life. As he grew up, he had a number of visionary experiences including seeing the prophet Ezekiel in a field, angels in a tree at Peckham Rye, and the face of God looking in his bedroom window. Blake claimed to experience visions like these throughout his life.
In 1767, his father enrolled him in the drawing school of Henry Pars. There, he learned to engrave sketched copies of Greek antiquities and also studied other engavings taken from the Old Masters. Blake also read avidly on subjects of his own choosing and began making explorations into the poetry of such writers as Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser. In 1772, Blake was apprenticed to an engraver, James Basire, who taught him the traditional methods that would fit him for a future career in etching, including how to set up and engrave books and prints. When Basire sent him to study and make drawings from the Gothic designs and sculptures in Westminster Abbey, he also awakened in Blake a lifelong interest in Gothic art.
When he finished his apprenticeship in 1779, Blake entered the Royal Academy in London to round off his artistic education. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-years that he was required to spend there. At the Academy, he came to despise the views of its first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds who, historically, is one of the most important artists in British painting. He was determined to use the Academy as an instrument to forge a British School of classical history painters which would stand comparison with what was then the best schools in Italy. This was why he wrote and delivered a series of 15 ‘Discourses’ on how best to learn the rules of Academic art. He believed that his ideas could only uplift art to a higher state but Blake saw this doctrine as a formula with no room for imagination – something which was of the utmost importance to him.
Blake never agreed with what the President called his pursuit of “general truth and beauty” and when Reynolds claimed that the “disposition to generalizing is the great glory of the human mind”; Blake responded by saying that “To Generalize is to be an Idiot’’. He further stated that Reynolds hadn’t come to the Academy to uplift art but had been hired to depress it. Apart from his dislike of Reynolds, Blake never got on with the Academy’s work ethos which was geared towards mass production through endlessly churning out copies of other people’s original work. Blake decided to produce his own poetry independently in hand made books which he wrote, designed, printed and published himself.
In 1782, Blake met the sculptor, illustrator, and designer John Flaxman who was the leading artist of the Neoclassical style in England. This wealthy artist not only became Blake’s patron, but supported him throughout his life. Blake also got married at this time to Catherine Boucher, who was illiterate. He taught his wife to read and write, how to paint, and also trained her in the art of engraving. All his life she would prove an invaluable aid to him, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes. A year after this marriage, Flaxman and a friend of his, paid for the printing of a collection of verses by Blake called Poetical Sketches. He wrote them between the ages of 12 and 20 and some of them have a lyric intensity unequalled in English poetry since the 17th century.
After his father’s death in 1784, Blake started a print shop in London and took his younger brother Robert to live with him as his assistant and pupil. When his brother fell ill and died 3 years later, Blake said that he saw his brother’s soul rising joyfully through the ceiling. He also claimed that later on, his brother’s ghost had appeared to him in a vision and revealed a method of engraving the text and illustrations of books without using a printing machine. Blake called this invention “illuminated printing,” where through a special technique of relief etching, each page of the book was printed in monochrome from a metal plate before it was then coloured in by hand.
Blake’s method of publishing differed from the normal in that it was basically all done manually, and not by a machine. When each of the separate pages had been sewn together they were then glued at the edges, affixed to paper covers, and sold for prices ranging from a few shillings to 10 guineas, depending on whether you wanted an ordinary or a deluxe version. After his Poetical Sketches, most of his works were produced in this way and, as this was a slow and laborious process, he only managed to reach a limited public during his lifetime. This is one reason why his work remained more or less unrecognised.
The first books which Blake produced, were two little tracts called, There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One. These came out in 1788, and contain the seeds of practically all the subsequent development of his thought. In them he challenges accepted theories of the human mind derived from the philosopher Joseph Locke, and the rational and materialistic philosophy of the Enlightenment. Blake’s works proclaim the superiority of man’s imagination over rational, scientific thought since, as he says, it is only through letting loose our dream-like creativity that we can perceive “the Infinite,” or gain any idea of God.
In the 1790’s, Blake began working with the left-wing radical publisher Joseph Johnson. His house was a meeting place for some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time including the scientist Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, the Paisley born American revolutionary Thomas Paine, and the early feminist writer Mary Wolstonecroft. Blake illustrated her Original Stories from Real Life and they both shared the same views on sexual equality and the wrongs inherent in the institution of marriage. Later, in his Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake went on to condemn the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity placed on women and the common happening of marriage without love. He said that, just like men, women too had a right to complete self-fulfillment in whatever capacity they chose to express it.
In the years following Blake’s religious pamphlets, he produced what are now considered as his first masterpieces. These include The Book of Thel, The French Revolution, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and Songs of Innocence. The production of these works coincided with the early years of the French Revolution, of which Blake was at first an enthusiastic supporter. He agreed with many of its ideals for instance, that all men and women should be put on an equal footing. However, unlike other English supporters, he didn’t agree with France’s new code of atheism because of his profound, though un-dogmatic, religious sense. Songs of Innocence is the first book that Blake produced in what he called “illuminated printing.” In it, he took as his models the popular street ballads and rhymes for children of his own time, and turned them into some of the purest lyric poetry in the English language.
In 1794, Blake finished a slightly rearranged version of Songs of Innocence with the addition of another chapter called Songs of Experience. This double collection was, in his own words, ‘’an illustration of the two contrary states of the human soul.” These opposite states are Innocence, when the child’s imagination has the function of completing its own growth, and Experience, when the child grows up and is faced with the world of law, morality, and repression. ‘Songs of Experience’ is a sort of ironic answer to Songs of Innocence for instance, the earlier collection’s celebration of a beneficent God is countered by the image of him in Experience, where he becomes the tyrannous God of repression. The key symbol of Innocence is the Lamb; the corresponding image in Experience is the Tiger, the subject of his famous poem.
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright, In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The Tiger is the incarnation of strength but also, lust and cruelty, while the dilemma of mankind is summarized in the final question of the verse, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee also?” In the same work, Blake’s poem “London” is an especially powerful indictment of the new “acquisitive society”, which he sees as dominated by greed, lust and money. He also wrote scathingly on institutional religion as practiced by the dominant Church of England. In his Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake reverses the beliefs of conventional Christianity, equating the reasoning of the Enlightenment, or what was considered as ‘good’, with repression, and regarding evil as the natural expression of a fundamental psychic energy. It was ideas like these that scandalised the reading public and made some people begin to doubt Blake’s sanity.
In Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion, he developed the theme of female sexual freedom further when the central figure in his Albion poem, Oothoon, finds that she has attained to a new purity through sexual delight and regeneration. In a patriarchal world were women weren’t supposed to have a sex life – never mind independent views of their own – Blake’s advocacy of sexual liberty for women was an idea that scandalised the male reading public who began to think that the poet really was some sort of a crank.
All Blake’s works of this period were produced at a house in Soho in London, before he and his wife left Soho and moved south across the Thames to Lambeth where the artist wrote his so-called “Prophetic books”: Some of them look to the future of the present world in secular matters like Europe, A Prophecy which contains a watercolour illustration of a naked, bearded man, bending forward to measure the world with a compass. The poet claimed that he saw this long-haired figure in a vision which hovered above his head (at the top of the stairs) in his house at Lambeth. Other prophetic volumes like The Book of Urizen, and The Book of Los, look to the future in spiritual things. These works elaborate a series of cosmic myths and epics where Blake sets forth a complex and intricate philosophical scheme. A principal symbolic figure in these books is Urizen, a spurned and outcast immortal who embodies both God and the forces of reason and law, which Blake saw as things that restricted and suppressed the natural energies of the human soul. These books describe a series of epic battles fought out in the cosmos, in history, and in the human soul, between entities symbolizing the conflicting forces of reason (which is Urizen), imagination (which is Los), and the spirit of rebellion who is called Orc. Blake invented this mythological system to explain his views on the world but it baffled the public and was presented to them in such an obscure way that many thought of him now as not just a crank, but a silly lunatic and they paid him little attention.
Blake’s Prophesies were often associated with religious themes and imagery from which he drew his inspiration. In addition, he believed that he was personally instructed and encouraged by the angels to create his works, which he claimed were actively read and enjoyed by those same heavenly messangers. Whether they instructed him or not, with the publication of The Song of Los, Blake seemed to lose inspiration and engraved no more books for nearly 10 years. It wasn’t until 1795 that he picked up the threads of his inspiration once more and produced a massive 537 watercolours for the writer Edward Young’s Night Thoughts.
In 1800, Blake and his wife were invited to live in a cottage provided by a rich squire at Felpham on the Sussex coast. At first the Blake’s were so delighted with life beside the sea that the poet wrote in a letter that the town of Felpham was more spiritual than London because in Felpham, Heaven opened her golden Gates so that the voices of its Celestial inhabitants could be better heard, and their forms more distinctly seen. He believed that his works were famous in Paradise and that they were the delight and study of God, Christ, and the Archangels themselves. Added to Blake’s claims of regular visions and speaking to the dead, these assertions were regarded by many as proof indeed that the poet was mad. In the meantime, the squire who had hired Blake originally to make some engravings, tried to turn him into the resident painter and tame poet of his estate. Blake would have none of this and in 1803 he and his wife returned to London. It was while he was staying on the coast that Blake wrote some of his finest poems including this one from ‘Jerusalem’.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Blake’s life during the period from 1803 to about 1820 was one of worldly failure. He found it difficult to get work, and the engravings that can be identified as his from this period are often hack jobs. In 1821 his luck changed for the better and he was commissioned to make a series of 22 watercolours inspired by the Book of Job. He was also commissioned to illustrate designs for Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he began in 1825 but left unfinished at his death. These consist of 102 watercolours notable for their beautiful designs, brilliant colour, and technically assured finish. Toward the end of his life Blake still coloured copies of his books by hand while resting in bed and that is how he died in a room off the Strand at the age of 70. As he was very poor, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Bunhill Fields in London in 1827.
Blake’s verse and artwork became part of the wider movement of Romanticism in late 18th and early 19th century European Culture. In the 20th century, he was recognised for what he was: a highly original writer and poet, an individualist who was a member of an enduring tradition of visionary artists and philosophers, a libertarian, and an uncompromising critic of orthodoxy and authoritarianism.