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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 (17901793). 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.
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.
Blake continued to produce some significant work, including his designs for Milton’s poems Allegro and 1l 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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,!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.
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