William Blake Essay - Critical Essays (Poetry Criticism)

Blake, William


William Blake 1757–1827

English poet and artist.

See also Songs of Innocence and of Experience Criticism.

A visionary poet and artist, Blake was often ridiculed during his lifetime but has since been recognized as one of the major poets of English literature. His work is distinguished by the creation and illustration of a complex mythological system, in which imagination is of paramount importance, serving as the vehicle of humanity's communion with the spiritual essence of reality. By bringing his unconventional perspective to bear on such subjects as religion, morality, art, and politics, Blake has become recognized as both a social rebel and as a "hero of the imagination" who played a key role in advancing the Romantic revolt against rationalism. These thematic concerns inform the lyrics in Blake's best-known publication, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.

Biographical Information

Blake was the second of five children born to London hosier James Blake and his wife Catherine. He exhibited visionary tendencies as a child, claiming to see God at his window and a tree adorned with angels, and was artistically precocious as well. Following several years' study at Henry Pars's Drawing School, he was apprenticed in 1772 to the master engraver James Basire. Blake took up studies at The Royal Academy of Arts in 1779, but he openly disagreed with his instructors' artistic theories and soon focused his energies on engraving. This work brought him into contact with the radical bookseller Joseph Johnson and with such fellow artists as Thomas Stothard, John Flaxman, and Henry Fuseli. It was through Flaxman's efforts in particular that Blake obtained many of the engraving and drawing commissions that were the principal source of his meager income. In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, who was devoted to him. Under Blake's instruction she learned to read, write, and help illuminate his books.

Blake first attracted literary notice in the salon of the Reverend and Mrs. A. S. Mathew, where he read his poems and occasionally sang them to his original musical compositions. In 1783 Flaxman and the Reverend Mathew funded the printing of Poetical Sketches, Blake's first collection of verse. Blake suffered the loss of his younger brother Robert in 1787, and later claimed to communicate with his spirit in the "regions of … Imagination." At about the same time, Blake developed his technique of illuminated printing. He first employed this method in about 1788 while producing two treatises entitled There Is No

Natural Religion and All Religions Are One, which urge the claims of imagination over rationalist philosophy. Two more illuminated works, Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel, were printed in 1789. Inasmuch as Blake painstakingly engraved the plates for his illuminated works, printed them personally, and colored each copy by hand, his books are as rare as they are beautiful. This restricted circulation limited Blake's income and prevented his reputation and works from spreading beyond a fairly closed society of friends and connoisseurs.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 found Blake in the company of Joseph Johnson's radical coterie, which included such prominent activists as Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft. In their society he evidently discussed the democratic revolutions in America and France and the political and social turmoil they engendered at home, topics that also became major focuses of his poetry: The French Revolution, for example, covers events in France during May to mid-July, 1789, emphasizing the oppressive authoritarianism of the old regime, while America: A Prophecy predicts the spread of the American experiment to Europe. Blake's sympathy with political and civil liberties put him at odds with the notoriously repressive government of William Pitt, and thus some critics have speculated that Blake obscured his ideas behind the veil of mysticism to circumvent government censure.

In 1790 Blake and his wife moved to Lambeth, where he produced The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a series of minor symbolic books including, Visions of the Daughters of Albion: The Eye Sees More than the Heart Knows; America; The First Book of Urizen; Europe: A Prophecy; The Song of Los; The Book of Ahania; and The Book of Los; In these works Blake developed the symbolic mythology that he had introduced in Tiriel and The Book of Thel, setting in motion what Mark Schorer has described as "a system of ever-widening metaphorical amplification" through which Blake attempted "to explain his story, the story of his England, the history of the world, prehistory, and the nature of all eternity." Scholars generally agree that Blake's mythology reaches its fullest expression in The Four Zoas: The Torments of Love & Jealousy in the Death and Judgement of Albion the Ancient Man, which he probably began to compose during the Lambeth years, and in Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, a prophetic work of later origin. Songs of Innocence and of Experience, regarded by many critics as the lyrical counterpart of the symbolic books, is also a product of the Lambeth period.

From 1800 to 1803 Blake and his wife lived at the seaside village of Felpham under the patronage of the minor poet William Hayley, whose mundaneness soon became a source of vexation to the visionary Blake. Scholars speculate that during his unhappy stay at Felpham Blake revised The Four Zoas and began to draft Milton, a reworking of Paradise Lost. Both poems have been interpreted in light of his statement that he had "fought thro' a Hell of terrors & horror … in a Divided Existence" during these years. The Blakes returned to London in 1803, but their homecoming was marred by accusations that William had uttered seditious sentiments while expelling a soldier named Scofield from his garden at Felpham. He was tried for sedition and acquitted in 1804. Blake's next significant publication, his series of illustrations for an 1808 edition of Robert Blair's The Grave, attracted more notice than all of his poetical works combined. However, reviewers castigated his corporeal representation of spiritual phenomena as a piece of imaginative and theological impertinence. Blake's frustrations came to the fore in 1809, when he mounted a private exhibition of his paintings which he hoped would publicize his work and help to vindicate his visionary aesthetic, but which was poorly attended. Moreover, the descriptive catalogue he wrote to accompany the exhibition largely inspired ridicule among its few readers. Blake's later years were distinguished by his completion of Jerusalem, his last and longest prophetic book, and by his creation of a series of engraved illustrations for the Book of Job that is now widely regarded as his greatest artistic achievement. The latter work was commissioned in the early 1820s by John Linnell, one of a group of young artists known as the "Ancients" who gathered around Blake and helped support him in his old age.

Major Works

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." He thus characterized his work as a combination of grandness and obscurity that he was not particularly eager to elucidate. Fortunately, his aesthetic philosophy emerges in his writings, forming a firm basis for critical insight into his perplexing oeuvre. Blake held the radical view that "Nature is Imagination itself; by extension, he also maintained that exercise of the imagination leads to wisdom and insight (synonymous with vision) and, according to Jerome J. McGann, that poetry, painting, and other imaginative pursuits serve as "vehicles for vision." Given this perception, the world of imagination took precedence for Blake over the world of matter, and rational philosophical systems, based as they are in the material world, gave way to the "Divine Arts of Imagination." Moreover, Blake considered it his personal mission both to express and embody this philosophy in his art, thus giving a prophetic quality to his work.

Blake's passion for originality and imagination informs his creation of a private cosmology that embraces both his lyric and prophetic poetry. Stated in the most general terms, his system posits a universe whose most sweeping movements and minutest particulars reflect ever-fluctuating relationships between reason, love, poetry, energy, and other vital forces. While these forces appear most prominently in the symbolic mythology of the prophetic books, taking the guise of such titanic characters as Urizen, Luvah, Los, and Orc, critics generally maintain that they are integral to the symbolism of the lyric poems as well. Hazard Adams, for example, states that "the whole of Blake's great symbolic system" is assimilated in the symbolic structure of the lyric "The Tyger," while Joseph Wicksteed sees Blake's ideas concerning matter and the flesh reflected in such symbols as dew and grass in the "Introduction" to Songs of Experience. Great as this symbolic system might be, however, it has also been described as "notoriously private" and "hieroglyphic," pointing to a difficulty in interpreting Blake's symbols that led early critics to question the lucidity and even the sanity of his prophetic books.

By virtue of its versification, Jerusalem is considered by many as the culmination of a lifetime of experimentation befitting a poet who despised restriction in all its forms: "Poetry Fetter'd, Fetters the Human Race!" Blake declared in the preface to Jerusalem, proclaiming his liberation from the "monotony" and "bondage" of metered verse. As early as Poetical Sketches, he explored the elimination of end rhyme, substituting rhythmical devices such as word repetition that he subsequently used to great advantage in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The poems in the latter work are also celebrated for their compression and economy; yet Blake appears to have deemphasized these qualities in selecting the lengthy septenary line (containing seven metrical feet) for The Four Zoas, Milton and Jerusalem. Even here, however, he deviated from his standard line at will, leading to Alicia Ostriker's observation that "Blake, even in his metrics, deliberately breaks every rule he makes, refuses to impose order in art where there is no order in his visions, … [insisting on] keeping beauty afar until he is ready for her." Ostriker and other commentators generally agree that Blake's greatest stylistic triumph occurs in "Night IX" of The Four Zoas, in which the poet triumphantly orchestrates his varied measures in announcing the restoration of universal harmony at the Last Judgment.

Critical Reception

Ironically, Blake was better known among his contemporaries for his engravings and designs than for his poetry. The scarcity of his books and his reputation for madness contributed to the lack of attention from his peers, although Samuel Taylor Coleridge privately recognized Blake as a "man of Genius" and Charles Lamb conceded that he was "one of the most extraordinary persons of the age." Blake's critical fortunes did not improve until 1863 with the publication of Alexander Gilchrist's sympathetic biography, which sparked a revival of interest in the poet that was sustained by the editorial and critical commentary of such nineteenth-century luminaries as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Charles Algernon Swinburne. This impetus has continued unabated into the twentieth century as well, with Northrop Frye and other critics providing explications of Blake's symbolic system that have abetted an ever-widening array of studies.

Blake once wrote, "One Law for the Lion and the Ox is oppression." A kindred appreciation of the claims of individualism may well inform the willingness of modern scholars to elevate this most individual of writers to the front ranks of English poetry. At the same time, however, enthusiasts stress that he transcends the merely personal in his works. In the words of George Saintsbury, Blake set forth an aesthetic in which, in place of the "battered gods of the classical or neo-classical Philistia, are set up Imagination for Reason, Enthusiasm for Good Sense, the Result for the Rule; the execution for the mere conception or even the mere selection of subject; impression for calculation; the heart and the eyes and the pulses and the fancy for the stop-watch and the boxwood measure and the table of specifications." In establishing a system based on these objectives, Blake anticipated many of the dominant artistic impulses of the modern era.

*Principal Works


Poetical Sketches (poetry and drama) 1783

The Book of Thel 1789

Songs of Innocence 1789

Tiriel [MS] 1789?

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (poetry, prose, and proverbs) 1790-93?

The French Revolution 1791

America: A Prophecy 1793

Visions of the Daughters of Albion: The Eye Sees More than the Heart Knows 1793

Europe: A Prophecy 1794

The First Book of Urizen 1794

Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the...

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B. H. Malkin (essay date 1806)

SOURCE: An excerpt in William Blake: The Critical Heritage, edited by G. E. Bentley, Jr., Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 147-55.

[The following excerpt appeared as the introduction to Malkin's book, A Father's Memoirs of his Child (1806) and is the earliest published essay on Blake. Malkin's enthusiastic discussion helped Blake's poetry gain acceptance among a wider contemporary audience.]

Mr. Blake has long been known to the order of men among whom he ranks; and is highly esteemed by those, who can distinguish excellence under the disguise of singularity. Enthusiastic and high flown notions on the subject of religion have hitherto, as they usually do,...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (letter date 1818)

SOURCE: A letter to Charles Augustus Tulk in 1818, in Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. II, edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge, William Heinemann, 1895, pp. 685-88.

[An English poet and critic, Coleridge was central to the English Romantic movement and is considered one of the greatest literary critics in the English language. Besides his poetry, his most important contributions include his formulation of Romantic theory, his introduction of the ideas of the German Romantics to England, and his Shakespearean criticism, which overthrew the last remnants of the Neoclassical approach to William Shakespeare and focused on Shakespeare as a masterful portrayer of human character. In the...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Algernon Charles Swinburne (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: "Lyrical Poems," in William Blake: A Critical Essay, revised edition, Chatto & Windus, 1906, pp. 123-38.

[A nineteenth-century English poet, dramatist, and critic, Swinburne was renowned during his lifetime for his skill and technical mastery as a lyric poet and is currently regarded as a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the prevailing moral orientation of Victorian aesthetics. Blake scholars also recognize his contribution as the author of the first full-length critical study of the poet, William Blake: A Critical Essay, which was first published in 1868. In the following excerpt, taken from the 1906 edition of that book, Swinburne admires the poignancy of...

(The entire section is 2983 words.)

T. S. Eliot (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: "Blake," in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1920. Reprinted by Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1950, pp. 151-58.

[Perhaps the most influential poet and critic to write in the English language during the first half of the twentieth century, Eliot is closely identified with many of the qualities denoted by the term Modernism: experimentation, formal complexity, artistic and intellectual eclecticism, and a classicist's view of the artist working at an emotional distance from his or her creation. He introduced a number of terms and concepts that strongly affected critical thought in his lifetime, among them the idea that poets must be conscious of the living tradition of...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)

S. Foster Damon (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: "The Completed Symbol," in William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924, pp. 154-67.

[An American educator, poet, and critic, Damon wrote several books on Blake's poetry, including William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols, a scholarly study that is considered one of the major works in Blake criticism. In the following excerpt taken from that book, Damon explicates The Four Zoas, presenting the poem as "the first and greatest complete expression of [Blake 's] vision of the universe."]

He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of thefire, and they have no hurt: and the form...

(The entire section is 7837 words.)

S. F. Bolt (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: "William Blake: The Songs of Innocence," in Politics & Letters, Vol. 1, Nos. 2-3, Winter-Spring, 1947, pp. 9-14.

[In the following essay, Bolt argues that the apparent naiveté of the Songs of Innocence is actually Blake's careful restriction of language, images, and verse techniques to create a pure "expression of innocence."]

The substitution of exegesis for criticism which characterises the bulk of critical writing about the work of William Blake is only one manifestation of a misdirection of attention which has also resulted in concentration on a single fraction of his work—the Prophetic Books. In spite of their conventionally high rating the...

(The entire section is 2791 words.)

David V. Erdman (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Blake; the Historical Approach," in English Institute Essays, 1951, pp. 197-223.

[Erdman is an American educator and the prize-winning author of several volumes of criticism on Blake, including Blake: Prophet against Empire: A Poet's Interpretation of the History of His own Times (1977), which is valued by scholars as an insightful examination of contemporary historical references in Blake's poetry and art. Erdman is also editor of the acclaimed Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1980). In the following essay, he stresses the value of considering the historical context when deciphering Blake's more difficult poems, and illustrates that Blake was often...

(The entire section is 6771 words.)

H. M. Margoliouth (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "The Lyric Poet," in William Blake, Oxford University Press, London, 1951, pp. 49-70.

[In the following excerpt Margoliouth presents a stylistic and thematic overview of Blake's lyric poetry.]

If William had died in 1787 as well as [his brother] Robert and if, some time in the nineteenth or twentieth century, a copy of Poetical Sketches had turned up and been published as an early document of the Romantic Revival, Blake might now be credited with a couple of not very well-known anthology lyrics and a varied selection of youthful imitations or experiments.

If we may presume that Blake chose the title of his own book, it was probably the...

(The entire section is 6335 words.)

Robert F. Gleckner (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Blake's Religion of Imagination," in The Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, Vol. XIV, No. 3, March, 1956, pp. 359-69.

[Gleckner is an American scholar who has produced many volumes of criticism on Blake's poetry. His book The Piper & the Bard (1959) is considered one of the major scholarly commentaries on Songs of Innocence and of Experience. In the following essay, Gleckner discusses the role of imagination and perception in Blake's mythological system and in his poetic technique.]

Blake's view of the imagination as both a religious and a poetical concept has been examined in several different ways, but there is another...

(The entire section is 5151 words.)

Northrop Frye (essay date 1957-58)

SOURCE: "Blake's Introduction to Experience," in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 1, 1957-58, pp. 57-67.

[A Canadian critic and editor, Frye is the author of the highly influential and controversial Anatomy of Criticism (1957), in which he argues that literary criticism can be scientific in its method and results and that judgments are not inherent in the critical process. Believing that literature is wholly structured by myth and symbol, Frye views the critic's task as the explication of work's archetypal characteristics. In the following essay, he uses Blake's "Introduction" from Songs of Experience to introduce the major tenets of Blake's philosophy.]...

(The entire section is 4317 words.)

Harold Bloom (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Dialectic in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" in PMLA, Vol LXXIII, No. 5, December, 1958, pp. 501-04.

[Bloom is one of the most prominent contemporary American critics and literary theorists. In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), he formulated a controversial theory of literary creation called revisionism. Influenced strongly by Freudian theory, Bloom believes that all poets are subject to the influence of earlier poets and that, to develop their own voices, they attempt to overcome this influence through a process of misreading. By misreading, Bloom means a deliberate, personal revision of what has been said by another so that it conforms to one's own vision. In this...

(The entire section is 3267 words.)

Karl Kiralis (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "A Guide to the Intellectual Symbolism of William Blake's Later Prophetic Writings," in Criticism, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1959, pp. 190-210.

[In the following essay, Kiralis offers an interpretation of the symbolism in Blake's Jerusalem in order to elucidate this poem as well as other later prophetic writings, such as Milton and The Four Zoas.]

For various reasons, some simple, some complex, the later writings of William Blake have remained generally unread since the time they were composed in the early part of the nineteenth century. Vala or The Four Zoas, Milton, and

Jerusalem have often been summarily...

(The entire section is 8380 words.)

Paul Miner (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Tyger': Genesis & Evolution in the Poetry of William Blake," in Criticism, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1962, pp. 59-73.

[In the following essay, Miner comments on the literary influences on "The Tyger" and the poem's relationship, thematically and symbolically, to Blake's later works.]

One of the great poetic structures of the eighteenth century is William Blake's "The Tyger," a profound experiment in form and idea. The sibilants and occlusive consonants which permeate the poem and the consistent repetition of diphthongs and vowels give "The Tyger" a singular force. The word "tyger" itself begins with an explosive consonant which is followed by an emphatic...

(The entire section is 4790 words.)

Lawrence Mathews (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Jesus as Saviour in Blake's Jerusalem," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. VI, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 154-75.

[In the following essay, Mathews considers whether Blake's portrayal of Jesus in Jerusalem coincides with or refutes the orthodox Christian view of Jesus as savior.]

Near the end of William Blake's last major poem [Jerusalem], there is a dialogue between Jesus and Albion in which Jesus explains his mission as saviour in terms which seem entirely compatible with Christian orthodoxy: "Fear not Albion unless I die thou canst not live / But if I die I shall arise again & thou with me." There is much in the poem to suggest that...

(The entire section is 8532 words.)

Paul Youngquist (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Criticism and the Experience of Blake's Milton" in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 30, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, pp. 555-71.

[Youngquist is an American educator and the author of Madness and Blake's Myth. In the following psychoanalytic interpretation of Milton, he asserts that the poem is about "the ordeal of experiencing and mastering a pathological distortion of consciousness."]

I cannot deny that there is truth in prophecies.


William Blake's Milton, for all its grandeur, presents interpreters with a formidable task. Although...

(The entire section is 5490 words.)