Study Guide

William Blake

by James Daugherty

William Blake Characters

Themes and Characters

Daugherty's biography of William Blake is divided into five major parts, each headed by an epigraph, or brief quotation, selected from Blake's writing to set the tone for what follows. Each of the book's twenty-six chapters opens with an excerpt from Blake's poetry or prose, and Daugherty quotes lengthy segments of the writer's work throughout the text. As a result, Blake's work is introduced to young readers and placed in a meaningful context.

Part One of the biography begins with Blake's birth in London on November 28, 1757, and describes his religious upbringing. His stern father's misjudgment of the sensitive and highly imaginative little boy is tempered by his mother's understanding. When the child tells his parents he has seen a tree full of angels, "the most beautiful sight I ever saw," his father accuses him of lying. His judgment is softened, however, when Mrs. Blake argues that children often have extraordinary experiences, and that their son's tale recalls visionary stories from the Bible.

Young Blake's wanderings around the teeming streets of London lead him into galleries and shops. Seeing the work of famous painters fuels his imagination and provides a storehouse of inspiration for him to draw upon throughout his career. His formal training in art begins with a four-year stint in drawing school, where he learns to sketch the human figure. He later is apprenticed to a famous engraver in London, in whose shop he masters the difficult technique of printing illustrations by means of copper plates, cutting tools, ink, and presses. Blake excels in his work, and at age sixteen begins his first major work, a series of engravings of the antiquities in Westminster Abbey. This task consumes five years of his life, during which time he absorbs the mysteries, spirit, arid glory of gothic art.

The course of world history marks the maturing Blake; he is stirred by the events of the American and the French revolutions. Ideas about liberty and brotherhood greatly influence the young artist, and become a compelling theme that shapes his life and his work. Another central theme of Blake's work is that of childhood. The death of his beloved younger brother Robert—who lived with Blake and his wife, Catherine Boucher, for three years—inspires Blake to write poems about their happy times together, poems Daugherty describes as "simple and joyous verses about children, for children, written out of a child heart." Blake...

(The entire section is 999 words.)