William Blake lived in London for most of his life, and consequently this city serves as the principal setting for Daugherty's biography. The book covers the time period between Blake's birth in 1757 and his death in 1827. The late eighteenth century was a time of great social change brought about by the Industrial Revolution; Daugherty depicts London as a rapidly expanding city, stocked with people who have migrated from the countryside to take advantage of newly created jobs. The city is a bustling and exciting place to live, and for Blake almost anywhere else seems too dull.
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Most critical writing about Blake is extremely sophisticated, a reflection of the complexity of the ideas expressed in Blake's own work. In contrast, Daugherty's relatively straightforward narrative serves as a useful introduction to the life and philosophy of a great artist whose work many young readers might otherwise have been too intimidated to approach. Daugherty utilizes short paragraphs, a suitable level of diction, and a carefully selected vocabulary. To keep his narrative moving smoothly, he does not rely excessively on dates or on other data more appropriate for historical texts. Daugherty does, however, include a wealth of information about the American and French revolutions and the major figures involved in these momentous events. Through his examination of Blake's life, Daugherty shows that both world events and individual personalities are affected by changing ideas about human values, society, and methods of government.
Daugherty also makes reference to many of Blake's contemporaries, ranging from scientists and inventors to other artists, both poets and painters. This material expands the "cast of characters" in the biography, and informs the reader of important movements in the sciences and humanities.
Daugherty goes so far as to contrive conversations between the people in Blake's life. His use of direct—although largely fictional—quotations gives the narrative a flow and informality that might appeal to young readers....
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Blake is considered by scholars to be one of the most original and radical thinkers in English history. His ideas about society and God remain controversial; people who cannot accept his vision of life often dismiss him as insane. The central element in Blake's philosophy is "four-fold vision"—four hierarchical stages of awareness, the highest of which permits direct communication with God and the afterlife. Blake vehemently believed that he had reached this fourth level himself; when he stated that he had seen angels in a tree or talked to his dead brother, he by no means meant that he had done so only in a symbolic sense.
Blake was also controversial in his unorthodox beliefs about the nature of God. He often said that every person had the potential to elevate himself or herself to the same level of divinity as Jesus. This idea ran counter to what most people held to be true, as did Blake's opinion of Satan. The accepted theology of Blake's time paralleled the sentiments of John Milton's famous poem Paradise Lost. In this poem, God is depicted as a wise, gentle deity, whereas his fallen angel, Satan, is rebellious and full of spirit. According to Blake, although Satan might be wrong about a lot of things, he is nonetheless striving to fulfill himself. For Blake, Milton's Satan is a seeker of truth, whereas his God is complacent. Blake said that Milton reversed the roles—that his character, Satan, really exemplified the traits of God, and that...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Even though many of his ideas appear to be impractical and eccentric, what does Blake have to say to present day society?
2. Many people judged Blake's life a failure. In what ways is his life a success, despite the lack of tangible rewards?
3. Why is Blake driven to invent an entire mythological system? How do his reasons for inventing characters relate to his desire to invent new artistic techniques?
4. Why is urban life essential for Blake's artistic inspiration?
5. Because Blake lived in a time of revolutions, can his work be termed "revolutionary"? How?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Although Blake was a highly original and inventive artist, he was influenced by the attitudes and styles of his time, if only by rejecting them. Research and report on "The Age of Reason" (also known as The Enlightenment") in intellectual history. What were the characteristics of the pictures being painted by others during Blake's lifetime?
2. The image of Blake as a "lonely genius" is misleading. In what ways was he not a solitary, rejected figure?
3. To "synthesize" means to bring separate parts together into a whole. What is meant by the claim that Blake's ambition was to create a vast synthesis, poetic as well as pictorial?
4. What characteristics of Christianity are evident in Blake's work?
5. The twentieth-century father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, believed the mind was divided into three parts which fought against one another for domination. If any one of the parts became dominant, the mind became imbalanced, and this could lead to insanity. In what ways did Blake anticipate the teachings of Freud?
6. "Humanism" is a philosophy centered on humankind and human values, emphasizing human free will and superiority to the rest of nature. How can Blake be seen as a startling and powerful humanist?
7. Research other poets of Blake's time who were influenced by his work.
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For Further Reference
Blunt, Anthony. The Art of William Blake. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. The reader who would like to dig more deeply into Blake's work will find a fuller coverage of his unique art here.
Brownowski, Jacob. William Blake and the Age of Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1965. Well-known writer, artist, and television personality Jacob Brownowski emphasizes the momentous period of history in which Blake lived.
Gleckner, Robert F. The Piper and the Bard: A Study of William Blake. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1959. Emphasizing the contrary roles Blake assumed to introduce Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, this study provides additional material about Blake's poetic accomplishments.
Malcolmson, Anne. William Blake: An Introduction. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967. This general, illustrated introduction puts Blake as man and poet within his times and provides a guide toward understanding his poetry.
Todd, Ruthven. "Introduction." In Blake. Laurel Poetry Series. New York: Dell, 1960. The introduction to this selection of Blake's poetry points out why he "stands out like a giant" of his time.
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