William Blake was an English poet, engraver, and painter. A
boldly imaginative rebel in both his thought and his art, he
combined poetic and pictorial genius to explore important issues
in politics, religion, and psychology.
William Blake was born in London on Nov. 28, 1757, the second
son of a hosier and haberdasher. Except for a few years in
Sussex, his entire life was spent in London. Its streets and
their names took on spiritual symbolism in his writings, much as
the place names of the Holy Land did in the writings of the
biblical prophets whom Blake always regarded as his spiritual
progenitors. From his earliest years he saw visions - trees full
of angels, for example. If these were not true mystical visions,
it is probably best to regard them not as hallucinations but as
the artist's intense spiritual and sensory realization of the
At 10 Blake started to attend drawing school; at 14 he began a
7-year apprenticeship to an engraver, and it was as an engraver
that Blake was to earn his living for the rest of his life.
After he was 21, he studied for a time at the Royal Academy of
Arts, where he formed a violent distaste for the academic canons
of excellence in art.
In August 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, who had fallen
in love with him at first sight. He taught her to read and
write, and she later became a valued assistant. Although their
marriage was to suffer from some of the normal frictions, his
"sweet shadow of delight," as Blake called Catherine, was a
devoted and loving wife. On her authority there is a description
of his appearance: short with a large head and shoulders; not
handsome but with a noble and expressive face; his hair
yellow-brown, luxuriant, and curling like flames.
From his early teens Blake wrote poems, often setting them to
melodies of his own composition. When he was 26, a collection
entitled Poetical Sketches was printed with the help of the
Reverend and Mrs. Mathew, who conducted a cultural salon and
were patrons of Blake. This volume was the only one of Blake's
poetic works to appear in conventional printed form; he later
invented and practiced a new method.
After his father died in 1784, Blake set up a print shop with a
partner next door to the family hosiery shop. In 1787 his
beloved younger brother and pupil Robert died; thereafter
William claimed that Robert communicated with him in visions and
guided him. It was Robert, William said, who inspired him with
the new method of illuminated etching that was to be the vehicle
for his poems. The words, design, or some combination of the two
was drawn in reverse on a plate covered with an acid-resisting
substance; a corrosive was then applied. From these etched
plates pages were printed and later hand-colored. Blake used his
unique methods to print almost all his long poems with the
exception of An Island in the Moon (ca. 1784), Tiriel (ca.
1789), The Four Zoas (ca. 1795-1803), The Everlasting Gospel
(ca. 1818), and a number of short works. The French Revolution
exists as printer's proofs.
As an engraver, Blake favored the line rather than chiaroscuro,
or masses of light and dark. Blake's predilection for the line
rather than "blurs" (as he called them) of color and mass had a
philosophical as well as an artistic dimension. To him the line
represented the honest clarity of human day as distinguished
from the mystery of night.
In 1787 Blake moved to Poland Street, where he produced Songs of
Innocence (1789) as the first major work in his new process.
This book was later complemented by Songs of Experience (1794).
The magnificent lyrics in these two collections systematically
contrast the unguarded openness of innocence with the
embitteredness of experience. They are a milestone in the
history of the arts, not only because they exhibit originality
and high quality but because they are a rare instance of the
successful fusion of two art media by one man.
After a brief period of admiration for the religious thinker
Emanuel Swedenborg, Blake produced in disillusioned reaction The
Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793). In this satire the
"devils" are identified with energy and creative genius, and the
"angels" with repression of desire and the oppressive aspects of
order and rationality. Some of the same issues arise in The Book
of Thel (1789-1791) and Vision of the Daughters of Albion
(1793). The former portrays a timid shepherdess who is reluctant
to commit herself to the risks of existence, while the latter
shows a heroine who casts off such timidity and chooses psychic
and sexual liberation.
Blake had become a political radical and was in sympathy with
the American Revolution and with the French Revolution during
its early years. At Poland Street and shortly after his move to
Lambeth in 1793, Blake composed and etched short "prophetic"
books concerning these events, religious and political
repression in general, and the more basic repression of the
individual psyche, which he came to see as the root of
institutional tyranny. Among these works (all composed between
1793 and 1795) are America, Europe, The Book of Urizen, The Book
of Los, The Song of Los, and The Book of Ahania. In these poems
Blake began to work out the powerful mythology he refined in his
later and longer prophecies. He presented this mythology
completely in his first epic-length poem, The Four Zoas (ca.
1795-1803). This difficult but mighty myth shows how religious
and social evils are rooted in the internal warfare of man's
basic faculties - reason (Urizen), passion (Luvah), instinct (Tharmas),
and inspiration or prophetic imagination (Los or Urthona, who
becomes more markedly the hero of Blake's long epics). But Blake
was apparently unsatisfied with The Four Zoas. Although he drew
freely on it for his later epics, he left the poem unengraved.
Blake spent the years 1800 to 1803 working in Felpham, Sussex,
with William Hayley, a minor poet and man of letters. With
genuine good intentions Hayley tried to cure Blake of his
unprofitable and unseemly enthusiasms and secured him
commissions for safely genteel projects - painting ladies' fans,
for example. Blake finally rebelled against this condescension
and rejected Hayley's help. One result of this conflict was
Blake's long poem Milton (ca. 1800-1810). In this work the
spiritual issues involved in the quarrel with Hayley are
allegorized, and Blake's larger themes are dramatized through an
account of the decision of the poet Milton to renounce the
safety of heaven and return to earth to rectify the errors of
the Puritan heritage he had fostered.
In 1803 Blake had a still more disturbing experience when a
soldier whom he had evicted from his garden accused him of
uttering seditious sentiments - a charge that in the
witch-hunting atmosphere of the time was serious indeed. Blake
was tried and acquitted, but he saw in the incident further
confirmation of his views on the conflict between a sadistic
society and the man of humane genius. The trial experience
colors much of Blake's titanic final epic, Jerusalem (ca.
Back in London, living in South Molton Street, Blake worked hard
at his poems, engraving, and painting, but he suffered several
reverses. He was the victim of fraud in connection with his
designs for Blair's The Grave and received insulting reviews of
that project and of an exhibition he gave in 1809 to introduce
his idea of decorating public buildings with portable frescoes.
Blake wrote three prose pieces based on the events of this time:
Descriptive Catalogue (1809), Public Address (1810), and Vision
of the Last Judgment (1810).
The next decade is a somber and obscure period in Blake's life.
He did some significant work, including his designs for Milton's
poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso (1816) and the writing of his
own poem The Everlasting Gospel (ca. 1818), but he was sometimes
reduced to hackwork and the public did not purchase or read his
prophecies. After 1818, however, conditions improved. He became
acquainted with a group of young artists who respected him and
appreciated his work. His last 6 years were spent at Fountain
Court, where Blake did some of his best pictorial work: the
illustrations to the Book of Job and his unfinished Dante. In
1824 his health began to weaken, and he died singing on Aug. 12,
Blake's history does not end with his death. In his own lifetime
he was almost unknown except to a few friends and faithful
patrons, like Thomas Butts and the young disciples he attracted
in his last years. He was even suspected of being mad. But
interest in his work grew during the mid-19th century, and since
then painstaking commentators have gradually elucidated Blake's
beautiful, intricate, and difficult mythology. The 20th century
has made him its own; he has been acclaimed as a kindred spirit
by psychologists, writers (most notably William Butler Yeats),
radical theologians, rock-and-roll musicians, and devotees of
Oriental religion. He has furnished texts to a wide variety of
rebels against war, orthodoxy, and almost every kind of psychic
and personal repression.
"To see a World in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour."
from Auguries of Innocence
William Blake was born on November 28, 1757 in London, the third
of five children. His father James was a hosier, and could only
afford to give William enough schooling to learn the basics of
reading and writing, though for a short time he was able to
attend a drawing school run by Henry Par.
William worked in his father's shop until his talent for drawing
became so obvious that he was apprenticed to engraver James
Basire at age 14. He finished his apprenticeship at age 21, and
set out to make his living as an engraver.
Blake married Catherine Boucher at age 25, and she worked with
him on most of his artistic creations. Together they published a
book of Blake's poems and drawings called Songs of Innocence.
Blake engraved the words and pictures on copper plates (a method
he claimed he received in a dream), and Catherine coloured the
plates and bound the books. Songs of Innocence sold slowly
during Blake's lifetime, indeed Blake struggled close to poverty
for much of his life.
More successful was a series of copperplate engravings Blake did
to illustrate the Book of Job for a new edition of the Old
Blake did not have a head for business, and he turned down
publisher's requests to focus on his own subjects. In his choice
of subject Blake was often guided by his gentle, mystical views
of Christianity. Songs of Experience (1794) was followed by
Milton (1804-1808), and Jerusalem (1804-1820).
In 1800 Blake gained a patron in William Hayley, who
commissioned him to illustrate his Life of Cowper, and to create
busts of famous poets for his house in Felpham, Suurey.
While at Felpham, Blake was involved in a bizarre episode which
could have proven disastrous; he was accused by a drunken
soldier of cursing the king, and on this testimony he was
brought to trial for treason. The cae against Blake proved
flimsy, and he was cleared of the charges.
Blake poured his whole being into his work. The lack of public
recognition sent him into a severe depression which lasted from
1810-1817, and even his close friends thought him insane.
Unlike painters like Gainsborough, Blake worked on a small
scale; most of his engravings are little more than inches in
height, yet the detailed rendering is superb and exact. Blake's
work received far more public acclaim after his death, and an
excerpt from his poem Milton was set to music, becoming a sort
of unofficial Christian anthem of English nationalism in the
William Blake died on August 12, 1827, and is buried in an
unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields, London.
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This web page was last updated on:
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