William Blake Biography
William Blake was rejected as a madman by eighteenth-century society, but he 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 conventions of his time.
Facts and Trivia
- Blake claimed to have mystical visions throughout his life. When he was four years old, he said he saw God put his head up to the window, and at age nine he witnessed a tree full of angels.
- After marrying an illiterate woman named Catherine Boucher, Blake taught her to read, write, and produce drafts so that together they could work to publish and illustrate Blake’s literature.
- Blake credits many of his ideas for art and literature to conversations he had with his dead brother, Robert.
- Desiring to read classical literature in the original languages, Blake taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Italian.
- 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 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 developed an interest in Swedenborgianism. The doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg seemed both to attract and to repel Blake. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell launched an attack on this movement.
In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher, whose life apparently became one with his. He tried his hand at running a print shop, but in 1785 it failed. He continued to make a meager living on commissions for designs and engravings, but these were the works of others. In 1800, he moved to Felpham near Chichester at the invitation of William Hayley, a minor poet, who attempted for the next three years to guide Blake’s life into a financially lucrative mold. Blake returned as impoverished as ever to London in 1803, never to leave it again. In 1804, he was tried for sedition and was acquitted. It is ironic that Blake was not being tried for his pervasive iconoclasm, thoughts expressed in his unpublished work that would have set the eighteenth century on its head, but because a drunk had falsely accused him. In 1809, he had his one and only exhibition of sixteen paintings, an exhibition ignored by everyone except one reviewer, who attacked it viciously.
If the political and religious spirit of this period inspired Blake, it also worked against his prosperity as an engraver. Few in England during the Napoleonic wars could afford the luxury of commissioning the work of an engraver. In the last ten years of his life, Blake attracted the attention of a group of young painters whose admiration doubtless enriched this period of increasing poverty. On August 12, 1827, Blake died singing of the glories he saw in heaven.