Article abstract: A gifted and highly original poet, painter, engraver, and draftsman, Blake is regarded as one of the great English Romantic poets.
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.
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. Blake remained there for three years. Though he found time for his own work, he became more and more unhappy with Hayley’s lack of sensitivity to Blake’s work and his increasingly patronizing attitude. A Series of Ballads did not sell well. In 1803, after the war with France was resumed, Blake evicted a drunken soldier, Scofield, from his garden. Scofield accused him of seditious remarks, and Blake was brought to trial. Blake’s relations with Hayley were already stressful, and this was a final blow. After Blake was acquitted in January of 1804, the Blakes returned to London, where they were to remain.
The years 1805-1810 brought a series of frustrations. In 1805, Blake’s designs for Robert Blair’s The Grave (1743), a popular poem, were purchased for a small sum by the publisher Robert Cromek, who then gave the much more lucrative commission for the engraving to a fashionable engraver. In 1806, Blake outlined a plan for a large engraving of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, a most original idea at the time. Cromek gave the idea to Thomas Stothard, a prominent artist, who, though presumably a friend of Blake, used it himself. In 1808 the edition of The Grave illustrated by Blake was published, to receive only one review, and that a devastating one. Blake continued to exhibit works at the Royal Academy, but his only one-man show, in 1809-1810, was a failure, reviewed scathingly by the same critic. The exhibit’s A Descriptive Catalogue, one of the few works by Blake printed in his lifetime, contains his theories on art. Henry Crabb Robinson, an influential writer and critic, saw and liked the exhibition, but his review appeared only in a German publication.
By 1821, Blake was forced to sell his print collection and move into smaller quarters, where he was to remain until his death. There, with only one dimly lighted room for sleeping, eating, engraving, and writing, he continued, undaunted, to work. He was discovered by and influenced a group of young painters, among them Samuel Palmer and John Linnell, who respected and visited the artist.
Despite illness, Blake during his final years engraved his masterpiece, The Book of Job, and began his illustrations for Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1320), which he left unfinished at his death on August 12, 1827. Catherine Blake died four years later. Some of Blake’s manuscripts were destroyed by Frederick Tatham, his executor, and of his plates for engraving only a fragment of one for America has survived.
It is not surprising that William Blake was so little appreciated in his own time. In his lifetime, he was known almost solely for his painting and engraving. Only one of his three obituaries even mentions his writing. His poetry, prose, and illuminated books were available only in manuscript and in very limited editions, and his complex system of thought was difficult to apprehend, particularly without the entire body of his work upon which to draw. In interpreting Blake’s work, one must keep in mind that he was fully convinced of the reality of his visions. Blake perceived the images he received, whether verbal or visual, as coming from a source beyond himself. In religion, Blake was certainly no more eccentric than many of his contemporaries, such as Joanna Southcott, John Wesley, and George Whitefield, who had brought evangelical fervor to the mainstream of English religious life. In his writings, however, Blake’s dominant concern was for the spiritual state created by adverse political conditions, which he saw as but one level of reality, though a significant one, relating spiritual and temporal realities by vivid images.
Interpretations of Blake’s ideas should be prefaced by the observation that as his poetry is rich in symbolism and layers of meaning, it has given rise to a great variety of interpretations and descriptive terminology. Some of Blake’s essential concepts are what he referred to as fourfold vision, contraries, and Emanations and Spectres. Single vision is the mere rational perception of objective reality; double vision is the perception of spiritual and objective reality at once—in one of Blake’s images, the thistle and the old man in gray; threefold vision combines and integrates single and double vision, pointing to a state beyond, or fourfold vision, in which contraries are united in an awareness of God and a redeemed future. Man or woman as poet, not simply one who writes verses but in the sense of all creative work, is identified with God. The evil inherent in systems both political and intellectual is the confinement or destruction of this creative activity. Emanation and Spectre are aspects of a person, in Blake’s poems, with the Spectre generally, though not always, masculine, and with the Emanation or complementary contrary, feminine. The Spectre is the selfish, rationalistic, conformist aspect of the person, blocking the full expression of creativity. Thus, in one’s perceptions of the world, and in the institutions created from these perceptions, the necessary complementary contraries are separated, and evil, chaos, the unreasonableness of reason, prevail. Within this framework, Blake created an elaborate mythical structure, the major figures being Albion, a figure of idealized England, Urizen, the negative aspects of God, and John Milton returned to Earth as poet and prophet. One of Blake’s finest prints, “Ancient of Days” (in Europe, plate 1), is of Urizen, or Nobodaddy, combining the negative aspects of Jehovah and Newton, leaning down from heaven, creating and seeming to impale the world on the points of a drawing compass.
“Visionary” applies to Blake’s art as well, paintings and drawings reflecting and reinforcing his ideas and images; indeed, Blake saw them as a unit. The dominant sense a series of pages gives is one of motion observed and caught by the artist: figures in action, swirling and definite lines, often vivid colors. Though Blake’s illuminated books are strikingly original in their artistic fusion of word and image, Blake was influenced by the masses of illustrated books popular in the eighteenth century and earlier, including children’s books. Blake, in one sense, simply carried to its logical conclusion both the doctrine of ut pictura poesis (as painting, so is poetry), current since the Renaissance, and the eighteenth century use of personification. As a known painter and engraver, he shared ideas and friendship with his artist contemporaries, Henry Fuseli, James Barry, John Flaxman, George Romney, and Thomas Stothard.
Blake’s language was actually further from that of his poetic contemporaries than his art was from that of his fellow painters. Poetical Sketches gives evidence of both his knowledge of and his discomfort with traditional and current English prosody. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, many of the poems deceptively simple on first reading, depart from the conventions upon which they are based and are more complex than Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798-1800), with which they have been compared. They are a good introduction to Blake’s thought, with innocence and experience portrayed as contraries, which must be absorbed into a state of higher innocence that incorporates both visions and adds a new dimension. The prophetic books, a bold experiment in free verse well ahead of their time, require more effort; America is one of the more accessible works.
Blake’s reputation was obscured until 1863. In that year was published Alexander Gilchrist’s full biography, completed by his widow, Anne Gilchrist, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Michael Rossetti. Gilchrist had been able to draw upon the reminiscences of those who knew Blake, and to describe Blake’s London with some accuracy. Blake sources, however, are full of legend and misinformation, and it is advisable to check them against modern authorities. In 1893, Edwin J. Ellis and William Butler Yeats undertook an edition of the poetry, with a long introduction by Yeats, who, influenced by Blake, created a mythology of his own. It was not until 1927, with Mona Wilson’s biography and Geoffrey Keynes’s edition of the poetry, that accurate Blake texts and scholarly biography became available.
Blake has been called “the first modern poet.” He anticipated by almost a century the fin de siècle and modern movement in the depiction of inner rather than outer states and the use of symbols and abstraction in the arts. In the twentieth century, Blake has been increasingly valued as a gifted and highly original poet, whose influence has been more indirect than direct. Blake has been seen as ancestor or precursor of a number of modern and contemporary cultural phenomena and ideas: Hegelianism, Marxism, evolution, Freudian and Jungian psychology, psychedelic drugs and resulting experiences, and even theories of relativity. Blake’s enduring value, however, may well lie in his intense awareness of both the preeminence of spiritual values and the difficult and humble lives people lead in the actual world, and his ability to fuse these areas of awareness in images ranging from the most simple and earthly to the most abstract and apocalyptic.
Bentley, G. E., Jr. Blake Records. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969. An extensive collection of writings about Blake by his contemporaries with connecting biographical text. Illustrated.
Bentley, G. E., Jr. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975. A collection of criticism by Blake’s contemporaries, arranged topically.
Blake, William. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979. Good introductory selection of Blake’s poetry and prose, with commentary by nineteenth and twentieth century critics. Illustrations, several in color.
Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by David V. Erdman. Commentary by Harold Bloom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Thoroughly annotated. For variant readings, see Geoffrey Keynes’s (1927) and G. E. Bentley’s (1978) editions of Blake’s writings.
Bronowski, Jacob. William Blake and the Age of Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1965. Relates Blake’s writings to the Industrial Revolution. Brief and readable.
Erdman, David V. Blake, Prophet Against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954, rev. ed. 1969. Detailed analysis of Blake’s works in the context of the political and social history of his times.
Essick, Robert N. William Blake, Printmaker. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. Biographical study of Blake’s development as an artist. Detailed commentary on etching and printmaking techniques. Illustrated.
Frye, Northrop, et al. Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. Useful collection of critical views on various aspects of Blake’s work.
Hagstrum, Jean. William Blake, Poet and Painter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. Excellent study of the interrelationships between Blake’s poetry and designs, including historical and philosophical background.
Wilson, Mona. The Life of William Blake. New York: Oxford University Press, 1927, 2d ed. 1971. Wilson’s remains the most authoritative biography of Blake. The 1971 edition, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, incorporates Blake material available after 1927.