Study Guide

William Blake

William Blake Biography

Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

William Blake was born in Carnaby Market, London, on November 28, 1757. By the age of four, he was having visions: God put his head through the window to look at him, angels walked among the haymakers, and a tree was starred with angels. The visionary child was spared the rigors of formal schooling and learned to read and write at home. He attended a drawing school for four years and in 1772 began a seven-year apprenticeship to James Basire, engraver. He had already begun three years before to write the lyrics that were later printed in Poetical Sketches. It was not as a poet, however, that he would make his living but as an engraver who also could do original designs. The Gothic style of engraving that he learned from Basire was unfortunately somewhat passé. In later years, Blake had to sit back and watch other engravers receive commissions to execute his own designs.

At the age of twenty-two, Blake became a student of the Royal Academy, which meant that he could draw from models, living and antique, and attend lectures and exhibitions for six years. The politics of the day, as well as a spreading evangelical fervor, infused his life as an artist-poet. Blake was part of the 1780 Gordon Riots and was present at the burning of Newgate Prison. He was a vehement supporter of the French Revolution and attended radical gatherings that included William Godwin, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Joseph Priestley. Through John Flaxman, Blake...

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William Blake Biography (17th- and 18th-Century Biographies)

0111201518-Blake.jpgWilliam Blake (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Early Life

London, at the time of William Blake’s birth on November 28, 1757, was a city of contraries. Blake’s birthplace, 28 Broad Street, was near fashionable Bond Street and Golden Square, an elegant oasis of a park, but also, as has been observed, within sight of almost every sort of evil in eighteenth century London. Within walking distance of the crowded city were miles of green fields and hedgerows, hills and heaths, and quiet villages. Innocence and experience were, so to speak, almost on Blake’s doorstep from his earliest years. Here, too, were the sites of his early visions. At four, he said he was frightened by God peering in the window at him. Later, he reported seeing a tree full of angels and angels with the haymakers in the fields.

Though his father, James Blake, a respectable hosier, came close to thrashing him for falsehood when he spoke of the tree full of angels, he was sensitive enough to listen to the boy’s request not to be sent to school. In 1768, at the age of ten, Blake was sent to Henry Pars, the best drawing teacher in London, and the senior Blake was not only able to afford the tuition but also to purchase casts for study at home and to give his son pocket money to purchase prints and drawings. Amused and impressed by his serious young customer, whose preference for Michelangelo, Raphael, Giulio Romano, Albrecht Dürer, and Martin Helmskerk, among others, ran counter to the taste of the time, the printseller often gave young Blake a special bargain.

In 1772, at age fourteen, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire, a somewhat old-fashioned but highly reputable engraver. Blake was thereby provided with a trade by which he could earn his living while pursuing his art. Engravers were much in demand for book illustrations; making plates from drawings, paintings, and sculpture was excellent training in draftsmanship. In 1774, Basire sent Blake to Westminster Abbey to make drawings for Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain (1786, 1796). There, Blake developed a love of the Gothic and of linear drawing. He also had several visions in the Abbey. After completing his apprenticeship, Blake began to study at the recently founded Royal Academy (1769), where he first exhibited some of his work in 1780. In 1782, he married Catherine Boucher, whom he taught not only to read and write but also to assist him in making prints and to help illuminate his books.

Blake’s education was not confined to the visual arts. He read George Champman’s translations of the works of Homer, Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and Northern Antiquities (1770), and the works of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Thomas Gray, Edward Young, Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, Voltaire, and Samuel Johnson, studying them with care and vigorous disagreement, as well as works by his contemporaries Thomas Paine, William Godwin, William Cowper, William Wordsworth, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and a number of mystical writers, especially Emanuel Swedenborg, Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, and Jakob Böhme. John Milton and, above all, the Bible were major influences, and Blake taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and Italian. Drawing he had done from earliest childhood; at twelve, he began to write verses. In 1783, poems he wrote between the ages of twelve and twenty were published in Poetical Sketches. In them, there are occasional glimpses of the mature Blake.

Life’s Work

In July, 1784, Blake’s father died, and in October of that year Blake opened a print shop in partnership with James Parker. In 1785, the business failed, and the Blakes moved to less expensive lodgings. Blake’s beloved younger brother Robert lived with them, dying in 1787, at age nineteen, of consumption. Blake nursed him, without sleep, for two weeks, and as his brother died, Blake saw his spirit ascend. From then on, Blake claimed to communicate regularly with Robert, on one occasion receiving from him a highly complex and original method of engraving the plates for his illuminated books. Continuing with engraving to support himself and Catherine (they never had children), he also began to experiment with illuminated printing. In 1789, Blake published Songs of Innocence.

This was not publication in the modern sense of the word. Blake and Catherine produced the books from start to finish. Following Robert’s advice, Blake wrote the text and outlines on the plate with acid-impervious material and then had acid eat away the plate so that the material to be printed was in high relief. A plate to be engraved had to be polished and cleaned with great care in order not to scratch the copper. For the printing, the Blakes ground the colors and mixed the ink. Then, the sheets were printed, one at a time, laid to dry, and carefully hand-colored, with almost no two alike. For most of his regular engraving commissions, Blake did fine etching on copper by hand. Sometimes he used acid, but the finest effect required all handwork. This exacting and arduous process was Blake’s major source of income, requiring an amount of persistence and hard labor rather contrary to the outlook of a visionary, which he would “curse and bless” at once for its difficulty and for the beauty and perfection of the results.

Another of the contraries in Blake’s life was his involvement in the world about him. Although he was a solitary man, given to visions, he became acquainted, largely through his work for the publisher Joseph Johnson, with many of his more famous contemporaries, including Paine, Joel Barlow, Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft. He illustrated the latter’s Original Stories from Real Life (1788). Blake also became acquainted with many current works of literature, philosophy, and science, illustrating, among others, Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (1791).

In 1791, Johnson set Blake’s prose work The French Revolution in type, but the work was never printed and survives only in a set of proof sheets. In many quarters, the French Revolution and its sympathizers were looked upon with suspicion and, after the Reign of Terror in 1793, with horror. Living, as he did, in the heart of London, Blake was very aware of the reality of political and economic injustice. There were many trials for sedition, and the atmosphere of political unrest and suspicion was to continue at least until the English defeat of France, her traditional enemy, at Waterloo in 1815. Even in 1791, it was not surprising that Johnson should have had second thoughts about publishing Blake’s work.

Blake’s output as a writer and artist was extensive. He left more than thirty major works, many of them lengthy, among the most outstanding of which are The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), America: A Prophecy (1793), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (1794), The First Book of Urizen (1794), Europe: A Prophecy (1794), The Song of Los (1795), Milton: A Poem (1804-1808), Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-1820), and the unfinished The Four Zoas (1797-1807). He made well over eight hundred engravings, including those for his masterpiece, The Book of Job (1826); paintings illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678); and individual paintings and drawings, some of which he exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1780 and 1808. Much of his artwork survives, thanks to the efforts of Thomas Butts, who early saw the value of Blake’s art, becoming his patron and purchasing a number of works. The first major modern exhibitions of his work began in the late nineteenth century.

By 1795, Blake was having difficulty finding engraving commissions; his style was out of fashion. William Hayley, a minor poet, seemed to offer a solution, inviting the Blakes to come to Felpham, on the English Channel, commissioning him to illustrate his own work, A Series of Ballads (1802), and undertaking to find other commissions for him....

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William Blake Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201518-Blake.jpgWilliam Blake Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Blake was born on November 28, 1757, in London, the second of five children of James Blake, a hosier, and his wife, Catherine Blake. Blake was schooled at home until he was about eleven, after which he was sent to a drawing school, where he studied until 1772. He was then apprenticed for seven years to James Basire, a well-known engraver. In 1779, Blake began to study at the Royal Academy and also did commercial engravings for the bookseller Joseph Johnson. In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher, the illiterate daughter of a market gardener. Blake taught her to read and write, and eventually she helped him color his designs.

Blake had been writing poetry since the age of twelve, and by the early 1780’s he...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

William Blake Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ignored in his own time, William Blake came into his own in the twentieth century, and his status as one of the six greatest English Romantic poets is unlikely to be challenged. His intense spiritual vision, embodied alike in simple lyrics and complex prophetic books, amounts to a manifesto of the art, psychology, philosophy, and religion of human enlightenment. Creating his own mythology of the Creation, Fall, and Redemption of humankind, Blake offers a vision of the “Human Form Divine” that transcends the conventional wisdom regarding the nature of the human condition.

(The entire section is 92 words.)

William Blake Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201518-Blake.jpgWilliam Blake Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Blake, the greatest visionary poet in English, was born on November 28, 1757, the second son of James Blake, a London native of obscure origin who was a hosier by occupation. A few remarkable incidents of Blake’s childhood have been recorded, among them the manifestation of his first known vision, when, at the age of four, he beheld God’s head at a window and was seized with a fit of screaming. On other occasions he informed his parents that during his walks about the fields he had seen angels; once he returned to say that the prophet Ezekiel had appeared to him under a tree. Blake, in fact, often claimed to hear voices and later to have visions of prophets, fairies, and his dead brother Robert. He was so fiery-tempered...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

William Blake Biography

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William Blake
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Reproduction of a page from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Introduction

Rejected as a madman by eighteenth-century society, William Blake is now heralded for his imaginative and innovative contributions to English literature. Blake’s work doesn’t fall neatly into one category, but much of it centers on thematic dichotomies such as heaven and hell, innocence and experience, spirit and reason, and the classic struggle of good and evil. Those are familiar enough topics, certainly addressed by writers before him, but Blake tackled them with his own blend of imagination, mysticism, and passion. “I must create my own system,” he insisted, “or be enslav’d by another man’s. I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.” And create he did. Blake wrote poetry, mythology, satires, political pieces, and prophetic works that openly defied the Victorian conventions of his time.

Essential Facts

  1. Blake claimed to have mystical visions throughout his life. When he was 4 years old, he said he saw God put his head up to the window, and at age 9 he witnessed a tree full of angels.
  2. After marrying an illiterate woman named Catherine Boucher, Blake began the undertaking of teaching her to read, write, and produce drafts so that together they could work to publish and illustrate Blake’s literature.
  3. Blake credits many of his ideas for art and literature to conversations he had with his dead brother, Robert.
  4. Desiring to read classical literature in the original languages, Blake taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Italian.
  5. When Blake died on August 12, 1827, famed poet William Wordsworth said, “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.” As strange as it might seem, that same opinion was shared by many of Blake’s readers, acquaintances, and even close friends.

William Blake Biography (Poetry for Students)

William Blake Published by Gale Cengage

Poet, painter, engraver, mystic, and visionary, William Blake was born in London on November 28, 1757. His parents, James and Catherine, ran...

(The entire section is 430 words.)