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William Blake

William Blake


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William Blake, the son of a draper from Westminster, was born on 28th November, 1757. At the age of eleven Blake entered Par's Drawing School in the strand. Three years later he was indentured as an apprentice to James Basire, engraver to the Royal Society of Antiquaries.

After marrying Catherine Boucher on 18th August 1782, Blake became a freelance engraver. His main employer was the radical bookseller, Joseph Johnson, and publisher of works by Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Johnson, who been involved in establishing London's first Unitarian Chapel in 1774, also influenced Blake's religious views.

In 1784 Blake opened a print shop with James Parker at 27 Broad Street. The business was unsuccessful and by 1786 he was back working for Joseph Johnson. The following year Johnson introduced Blake to the radical circle of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine.

Blake began to experiment with a new method of engraving. The first of his illuminated works, Natural Religion, appeared in 1788. The poetry and their illustrations were drawn in reverse on copper plates in an impervious liquid, then the plain parts eaten away with acid. After the prints were taken they were coloured by hand. Natural Religion was followed by Songs of Innocence (1789), Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) and Songs of Experience (1794), a book that deals with topics of corruption and social injustice.

In his books The French Revolution (1791), America: A Prophecy (1793) and Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), Blake developed his attitude of revolt against authority, combining political belief and visionary ecstasy. Blake feared government persecution and some of work such as The French Revolution was printed anonymously and was only distributed to political sympathisers.

In 1800 William Blake moved to Felpham in West Sussex, where he was commissioned by William Hayley to decorate his library with eighteen heads of poets. Hayley also employed Blake to make the engravings for a Life of Cowper. While at Felpham began work on his epic poems, Milton and Jerusalem. In these poems Blake provides a complex mixture of prophecy, social criticism and biblical legend.

In August 1803 Blake removed John Scofield, a drunk soldier, from his garden in Felpham. Scofield afterwards claimed that Blake "damned the King and said that soldiers were all slaves". On Scofield's testimony, Blake was charged with high treason and put on trial at Chichester. After Blake was acquitted of high treason he moved back to London.

An exhibition of Blake's work at the Royal Academy in 1809 failed to attract any significant interest and he sank into obscurity. Blake continued to produce poetry, paintings and engravings but he rarely found customers for his work.

William Blake died in 1827 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields.

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England's mountain green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant land.

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer of reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling. And being restrained, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.

I wander thro' each charter'd street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,

In every Infant's cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry

Every black'ning Church appals;

And the hapless Soldier's sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlot's curse

Blasts the new-born infant's tear,

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song?

Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price

Of all a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.

Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,

And in the wither'd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer's sun

And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.

It is an easy thing to talk of prudence to the afflicted,

To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,

To listen to the hungry raven's cry in wintry season

When the red blood is fill'd with wine and with the marrow of lambs.

It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements,

To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughterhouse moan;

To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast;

To hear sounds of love in the thunder-storm and destroys our enemies' house;

To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, and the sickness that cuts off his children,

While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door, and our children bring fruits and flowers.

Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten, and the slave grinding at the mill,

And the captive in chains, and the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field

When the shatter'd bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead.

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:

Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.

We safely arrived at our cottage, which is more beautiful than I thought and more convenient. Mr. Hayley received us with his usual brotherly affection. I have begun to work. Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours.

We are safe arrived at our cottage without accident or hindrance. We had seven different chaises and as many different drivers. We travelled through a most beautiful country on a most glorious day. Our cottage is beautiful. If I should ever build a palace it would be only my cottage enlarged. The villagers of Felpham are polite and modest. Meat is cheaper than in London. The sweet air and voices of winds, trees and birds, and the odurs of the happy ground, makes it a dwelling for immortals.

Blake said the French knew our strength very well, and if the French set foot on English ground that every Englishman would be put to his choice whether to have his throat cut or to join the French and that he was a strong man and would certainly begin to cut throats and the strongest man must conquer - that he damned the King of England - his country and his subjects - that his soldiers were all bound for slaves and all the poor people in general.


William Blake - History

William Blake of England was one of the most remarkable men in history, but during his time, he was relatively obscure and mostly unknown. And those who did know him considered him “peculiar” or perhaps even insane.

His friend William Wordsworth, the famous poet, said that Blake was “certainly mad” — but Wordsworth also added, “his madness interests me.”

Artist, Poet, and Mystic

Blake is known today as much for his poetry as his painting. But he was also a mystic, a man of strange visions, and an artist who is almost impossible to classify. He was certainly an exceptional intellectual who was intelligent enough to understand the physics of Isaac Newton and its implications. At the same time, Blake was able to bring form to the mystical visions of an incredibly unfettered, wild-minded artist.

Early Years, Development, Education

William Blake was born in 1757 in the London district of Soho. He spent most of his life in and around London except for a three-year stint living in the village of Felpham in West Sussex. His father was a maker of legwear. William was the fourth of seven children. Blake attended school until the age of 10, but most of his education as provided by his mother, Catherine Wright Armitage Blake.

The fact that his family belonged to a religious sect known as the Dissenters certainly had a life-long influence on Blake. That’s because Dissenters were basically rabble-rousers who questioned everything, especially the dominant established religions of the day. In England that was the Church of England, the Catholic Church and a few others.

Blake’s life as an artist began when he began to make engravings of drawings based on Greek antiquities purchased by his father. This exposed Blake to the great artists of the past, such as of Raphael, Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer.

This work led in turn to an apprenticeship with professional engraver James Basire, for whom he worked for seven years until age 21.

Blake then went on to study at London’s Royal Academy, where he became well known as a maverick and for his rebellious attitude toward authority, including questioning the views of his artistic masters.

Other happenings during this time influenced the development of Blake’s one-of-a-kind personality as well, including a controversial role he played in an event known as the Gordon Riots. This was an event in which mobs accosted the Newgate Prison in London, set it on fire and released the prisoners. The motivation for the violence was religious and involving issues between the government of Engand and the Catholic Church.

Highly Innovative, Stormy Relationships

During his formative years, Blake’s odd and highly innovative way of thinking about each and every issue of the day sometimes landed him in hot water with others. It is known he was taunted and bullied at times. He also was unlucky in love early in his life. The love of his life refused his marriage proposal, leaving him shattered and heartbroken. However, this broken relationship led to his pairing with Catherine Boucher, an illiterate women who signed their wedding contract with an “X.” Blake would later teach her to read and write, but also bring her along in the engraving trade, in which she became an invaluable partner to her husband.

Blake published his first work of poetry, “Poetical Sketches,” when he was about 25 years old. During this time he also opened a print and engraving shop with some partners from his apprentice days. This was a time of incredible interaction for Blake with some of the brightest, bold and radical intellectuals of the day – people such as “Frankenstein” author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the American patriot Thomas Paine and poet William Wordsworth. All of these luminaries would often gather in the home of Blake’s printing partner Joseph Johnson, who historians call a “radical publisher.”

Understanding Blake

To understand William Blake, one must understand the nature of his work. It involved providing illustrations and engravings for the great literary works being produced during that time. These were often the works of poets and writers of cutting-edge and esoteric philosophies. He also produced illustrated engravings for classics, such as works of the Bible and epics, such as Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
While doing this kind of work to earn his living, Blake was in a constant state of composing his own literary works and poetry, creating paintings, engravings and prints. He was also well-known to be a public rabble rouser, not in a violent “fight in the streets” sense, but in offering his intellectual criticisms of the mainstream thoughts and politics of the day.

Here Blake was years ahead of his time. For example, he was a powerful critic of slavery. He also was a proponent of “free love,” which would have been extraordinarily radical in late 1700s England. Blake held a dim view of the British Monarchy, saying that a country with a king “makes all men slaves.”

But just like his art and poetry, Blake’s true political views are difficult to classify. Many historians consider Blake a flat-out anarchist. This is probably a bit oversimplified, although somewhat accurate. One must remember that Blake had a powerful tendency to be a questioner and a contrarian in all matters. Nothing irritated Blake more than rules and dogma. He was the kind of guy that felt that all rules were meant to be broken. He felt that the minds of men generally were not free – because they were controlled by the brain washing of their religions, and their blind loyalty to country, king and state.

Difficult to Classify

Over the years hundreds of scholars have struggled to define the art of William Blake. One of the reasons no good classification may ever fit is that most of Blake’s work as deeply personal and introspective – it as based on dreams and visions that only he had.

Blake was never a man of his times – he was an extreme individualist. Although he was nominally a Christian – he maintained that he accepted Jesus Christ was his savior – the way in which he approached his relationship with God fit no formal church, organized religion or any other commonly held beliefs.

Blake might be considered a “way out there” New Ager today. He was said to have experienced visions of angels and other mystical beings starting at age four. On one occasion Blake reported observing angelic beings hovering above the backs of a group of workers in a hayfield.

William Blake died in 1825 in his home in London with his beloved wife Catherine by his side. He was said to have talked about visions of heaven. He died while talking and singing about what he was seeing “on the other side.”


London (Songs of Innocence)

Songs of Innocence features the politically powerful poem “London”. Blake wandered through the streets of London and sees the streets and even the river suffering under political oppression. Everyone he passes, he sees signs of misery and moral weakness. He notices the expressions and emotions ordinary people are feeling. He doesn’t just see the misery of the sweep, the soldier, the prostitute or the baby he also hears it in their cries, sighs and tears. He puts himself in their shoes and sees the church’s spirit blackened as the institution has allowed the fall of beliefs. He is writing about the reality of London and what the war has done to London. He does not see any life in the faces he sees as he walks, he sees faces of weakness and woe as London seems to have been taken over. It seems even the streets and the river Thames have been taken over by the rich, the poor people seem to be there for the rich people’s amusement.

For instance, he describes the Thames and the city streets as “chartered” or controlled by commercial interests. He refers to “mind-forged” manacles” he talks of the men’s faces and their “…weakness, marks of woe”. William is becoming increasingly frightened of what the future holds as diseases are spreading and the public is becoming disillusioned about the reliability and honesty of politicians.

William Blake wants to know what happened to the society that London had, when pain and misery was not the only feeling felt. Blake feels owned, like he is a nobody, he feels he does not have the right to be him anymore. He sees the dying soldiers’ last breath as if it is blood running down the royal palace walls. Blake has never seen such an unhappy era. He talks of marriage and death, which us an oxymoron as they are both opposites to add effect. Everything natural Blake sees as owned. He has no voice to speak out, no freewill and no opinions. Even if he was to try no one would listen. Blake is furious as he sees nature as God’s creations, Blake is angry that people seem to be owning what is not theirs.

London seems to be more about society than William Blake’s life but it does have an element of his childhood and how society was portrayed to him. He sees it as a struggle for everyone and how everyone puts on a front as if their emotions are locked away. There is a division between the rich and the poor and he does not see why. He does not see why the rich get priority when there are others in need more. I think he uses his childhood to be able to express his feeling as a child and give a direct image of how the division of classes and status caused misery.

Compared to the Chimney Sweeper London is more about society and politics and how he believes people made the wrong decisions. He because of this he has suffered and the children who are growing up will suffer too. The Chimney Sweeper is more about William Blake’s childhood and how he was fooled by the world. It is connected to London as politics and society do come in to it. Exploitation is also a theme as in The Chimney Sweeper the little chimney sweepers are being exploited and being taken advantage of and William Blake seems to be standing up for this in London, he is standing up for the rights of everyone especially those living in poverty. He seems to want to help in both poems and make it better. He seems like a good person who wants to speak out of the terrible conditions because no-one else will. He speaks out by his writing he says it all in his poems so it is clearer and more effective.

The poems are in comparison as they both contain elements of society, politics and the rights of a citizen or the rights William Blake believes we should have. Both talk about people in different classes who have different statuses and their rights and responsibilities they should have. God is associated with both of these as William Blake put his faith in to God but no one seems to be getting the life they deserve. However, in these poems, I don’t think God is the only one to blame, politicians and the government seem to of had an effect on William Blake. Enough for him to speak out.


William Blake - Biography and Legacy

William Blake was born in Soho, London, into a respectable working-class family. His father James sold stockings and gloves for a living, while his mother, Catherine Hermitage, looked after the couple's seven children, two of whom died in infancy. William, a strong-willed boy and an evident prodigy from a young age, often absconded from school to wander through the streets of London, or spent his time copying drawings of Greek antiquities moreover, inspired by the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, he also developed an early fascination with poetry. Though his childhood was peaceful and pleasant, William began experiencing visions at the age of eight, claiming to see angels on trees, or wings that looked like stars. Though troubled by his stories, Blake's parents supported his artistic ambitions, enrolling him when he was ten at the Henry Par drawing academy, then a well-regarded preparatory school for young artists.

Early Training

The drawing academy turned out to be too expensive, and Blake was forced to quit after four years. It was intended that he would become apprentice to a master engraver but - so the story goes - when his father took him to meet his prospective employer William Ryland, the young Blake refused, declaring that "it looks as if he will live to be hanged!", a prophecy which, strangely enough, came true years later. In the end, William was apprenticed for five years to James Basire, an engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. Blake came to value his training with Basire, which had a great impact on his work: especially his various on-site drawings of Gothic monuments. In his spare time, the young engraver studied medieval and Renaissance art, especially Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer, who in Blake's view - as paraphrased by art historian Elizabeth E. Barker - had produced a "timeless, 'Gothic' art, infused with Christian spirituality and created with poetic genius".

When he was 21, Blake left his apprenticeship and enrolled at the Royal Academy. His time there was brief, however, reputedly because he questioned the aesthetic doctrines of the president Sir Joshua Reynolds, describing the Academy as a 'cramped imaginative environment'. Blake began earning a living as an commercial engraver for various publications, including popular books such as Don Quixote. At this time, in 1799, according to the poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine, Blake wrote to his friend George Cumberland - one of the founders of the National Gallery - "that his 'Genius or Angel' was guiding his inspiration to the fulfillment of the 'purpose for which alone I live, which is [. ] to renew the lost Art of the Greeks'". Such a statement already makes clear not only Blake's admiration for Ancient Greek art, but also his sense of the interconnectedness of art and spirituality. Importantly, however, the spiritual guides who he claimed governed his artistic vision never steered him into the confines of organized religion: he never attended church.

In August 1782, at the age of 25, Blake met, courted and married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a local grocer. Partly because the couple had no children, Blake devoted much time to teaching Catherine how to read, write, and draw, while Catherine helped her husband with his designs. In 1783, Blake published his first volume of poetry, Poetical Sketches though sales were poor, the Blakes' finances were stable due to William's increasing popularity as an engraver. With his father's inheritance, Blake opened a shop with his friend James Parker.

In 1788, he used his method of "illuminated printing" for the first time in There is No Natural Religion, a small pamphlet containing his illustrated poetic and religious credo. Around this time, Blake's brother Robert died, probably of tuberculosis, after a long and grueling illness. His death had a profound impact on Blake, who began believing that Robert's spirit lived within him, inspiring him through visions and apparitions.

Mature Period

In 1795, Blake began a series known as the Large Colour Prints, depicting subjects from the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare. Though Blake was never an isolated figure - he socialized widely, and attached himself to various cultural circles in London, through friends such as Henry Fuseli and James Barry - Raine notes that he was not an "easy man socially", being "proud, argumentative and violently opposed to current fashion, in his art and his philosophic and religious ideas alike". Certainly, Blake was radical in his political and religious views, and had no interest in conforming to social type. A kind of Platonist, he believed that the scientific view of the universe propagated by the Enlightenment was the "enemy of life", though, as the journalist Peter Blake adds, he was also an "artist with public ambitions", not yet the solitary hermit of his later years.

The same year he began work on the Large Colour Prints, Blake was introduced to Thomas Butts, who would become his main patron for several years, commissioning a large number of works. Loyal and supportive, Butts left Blake to pursue his private visions and impulses, "promising", as Raine puts it, "only to buy from him whatever he should paint." During this time Blake wrote: "I think I foresee better things than I have ever seen. My work pleases my employer, and I have an order for fifty small pictures at one guinea each, which is something better than mere copying after another artist."

The poet William Haley also became Blake's patron for a while, hiring him to undertake a commission in 1800, but Blake quickly became disillusioned with his assigned task, and, based at Haley's country estate at Felpham, sank into a depression, finding it impossible to "sacrifice his integrity as an artist for profit". The relationship between the two poets ended in acrimony, Haley describing Blake as his "spiritual enemy", and from around this time on, Blake found it increasingly hard to make a living, with engraving work drying up despite his connections with the London art world, and his ongoing commissions from Butts. Unlike his friends Fuseli and Barry, who held positions at the Royal Academy, Blake was not a member of the art 'establishment', and was never given the opportunity to undertake large-scale public works. In 1809, he lamented his lack of public commissions in England, writing in "The Invention of a Portable Fresco", a catalogue for his only public exhibition, that creating portable frescoes might be a good way to convince "visionless" patrons of the quality of his work.

Compounding his troubles, Blake's hallucinations and reveries increasingly led to him being perceived as insane: perhaps with some justification, as he is known to have publicly claimed that he revised Michelangelo's and Dürer's work on the artists' advice after communicating with them in visions. Coupled with his proud conduct and strongly-held beliefs - never humble about his craft, he once wrote to Butts that "The works I have done for you are equal to Carrache or Rafael" - Blake's mysticism drew him into ever more solitary patterns of existence. Nonetheless, he continued to generate a prodigious body of work, inspired by a deep faith in the power of imagination, and by his attentiveness to what he called "miracles". Blake once stated: "I know that this world is a world of imagination & vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike". Throughout his mature period, he often claimed to be encouraged in his work by Archangels, or to be in communication with historical and mythical figures such as the Virgin Mary.

For Kathleen Raine, "the bitterest irony in the story of Blake's failures and humiliations is that he was never unknown on the contrary, he was in the heart of London's art world, and knew all the most famous artists and engravers of his day. And yet he failed where they succeeded, ousted by men of inferior talents and passed over by lifelong friends."

Later Work

Blake lived in Soho, the neighborhood of his birth, for almost his entire life, very rarely travelling. But despite this lack of worldliness, he made himself a highly cultured man, acquiring a large collection of classical art prints, for example. After years of poverty, he was forced to sell his print collection, but in 1818 Blake's financial fortunes turned once again when he met John Linnell, the man who would become his second great patron. Linnell provided Blake with financial stability in the later years of his life through his commissions and purchases, and also introduced Blake to a group of artists known as The Ancients, or The Shoreham Ancients, who had been brought together by their collective admiration for Blake's work. Like Blake, this group spurned 'modern' approaches to art and aesthetics, and held a broadly Platonic view of the universe. Towards the end of his life, then, Blake suddenly found himself a revered 'teacher' and leader. Indeed, the most talented of the Ancients, Samuel Palmer, is generally considered an inheritor of Blake's vision and technique.

Around 1820, Blake moved into a house near the Strand, spending his days engraving in a small bedroom. In 1821, at the age of 65, he embarked on a commission from Linnell to illustrate The Book of Job. Writing of Blake around this time, Samuel Palmer described Blake as "moving apart, in a sphere above the attraction of worldly honors". "He did not accept genius", Palmer added, "but confer it. He ennobled poverty, and by his conversation and the influence of his genius, made two small rooms in Fountain Court more attractive than the threshold of princes." The diarist Henry Crabb Robinson, another friend from this period, wrote in a letter of 1826 that anyone who met Blake saw in him as "at once the Maker, the Inventor one of the few in any age: a fitting companion of Dante". Robinson described Blake as embodying "energy" itself, shedding an atmosphere "full of the ideal" all around him, despite his age and relative penury.

William Blake died in August 1827, at the age of 70. At the time of his death he was working on a set of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy which are now considered amongst his best work. It is said that on the day of his death, as he worked frantically on these images, he proclaimed to his wife: "Stay! Keep as you are! You have ever been an angel to me: I will draw you!". A few hours later he passed away: the drawings are now lost.

Art critic Richard Holmes claims that when Blake died, "he was already a forgotten man", with sales for his engravings and painted poems scarcely reaching 20 copies over 30 years. Yet, for George Richmond, an artist associated with The Ancients, Blake "died like a saint. singing of the things he saw in heaven".

The Legacy of William Blake

William Blake is generally considered one of the great artistic polymaths, not just one of the finest poets in the English language, but also one of Britain's most revolutionary visual artists: the critic Jonathan Jones describes him as "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". Blake is also remembered for the intricate and unique philosophical and religious schemas which sustained his work: whereas Romantic contemporaries such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable drew inspiration from the landscape, Blake turned inwards, to an imaginative world based on the Bible and other religious and literary texts, taking his viewers on what Elizabeth E. Barker calls "journeys of the mind." Kathleen Raine explains that to the artist himself, Blake's works represented "'portions of eternity' seen in imaginative vision". She compares him to Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo, Dürer, Dante, and Fra Angelico (Blake's favorite artist) in his ability to create all-enveloping imaginative realms seemingly ex nihilo, offering us "fragments of worlds whose bounds extend beyond any of those portions their work embodied".

It is all the more ironic, then, that Blake was disregarded by artistic and literary society during his lifetime. Since it was common knowledge that he claimed to work from visions, he was generally categorized as eccentric or insane only when the art critic Alexander Gilchrist, born a year after Blake's death, took to the concerted study of his art and legacy - resulting in the publication of The Life of William Blake in 1863 - was the full scope and significance of Blake's visions realised. Gilchrist described Blake's hallucinations as encoding a "special faculty" of the imagination, his avowed connection to the spiritual world evidence not of madness but of a form of "mysticism". Gilchrist's writing created a new context for the study of Blake's practice, just as Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti were responding afresh to the clarion call of Blake's spiritual intensity.

More generally, Blake's visionary and mystical works exerted an enormous influence on the later development of Romanticism in art, and, subsequently, on Pre-Raphaelitism, Symbolism, and even modernism. Blake's influence on literature has also been profound: Walt Whitman , W. B. Yeats , and Allen Ginsberg are amongst the poets profoundly inspired by him, while Blakean visions also had an afterlife in the abstract and psychedelic pop lyrics of the sixties, especially in Bob Dylan's post-beat dream sequences. In the present day, Blake's legacy extends all over high and popular culture, including art, literature, music, and film. It is believed, for example, that the illustrations for Lord of Rings and other movies on mythological themes were inspired by his imagery.

Art critic Alexander Gilchrist claims that Blake made his work for "children and angels himself 'a divine child,' whose playthings were sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth". In proclaiming the values of creative freedom, imaginative play, religious tolerance, and all forms of love, Blake created work of an enduring and profoundly positive value.


William Blake Artworks

Songs of Innocence and Experience, a collection of poems written and illustrated by Blake, demonstrates his equal mastery of poetry and art. Blake printed the collection himself, using an innovative technique which he called 'illuminated printing: first, printing plates were produced by adding text and image - back-to-front, and simultaneously - to copper sheets, using an ink impervious to the nitric acid which was then used to erode the spaces between the lines. After an initial printing, detail was added to individual editions of the book using watercolors. Prone as he was to visions, Blake claimed that this method had been suggested to him by the spirit of his dead brother, Robert. Songs of Innocence was initially published on its own in 1789. Its partner-work, Songs of Experience, followed in 1794 in the wake of the French Revolution, the more worldly and troubling themes of this second volume reflecting Blake's increasing engagement with the politically turbulent era.

The cover of Songs of Innocence and Experience includes the subtitle "The Two Contrary States of the Human Soul," a reference to the opposing essences which Blake took to animate the universe, depicted throughout the collection through a range of contrasting images and tropes. Beneath this caption are a man and woman, presumably Adam and Eve, whose bodies mirror each other, but are connected by Adam's leg, another indication of the dualities at work in the book. The use of vibrant color, and the intensity and fluidity of Blake's lines, creates a sense of drama complemented by the figures' anguished appearance. At the same time, the dance-like orientation of their bodies creates an almost childlike sense of play, which jars with the lofty nature of the project.

Unappreciated during his lifetime, Blake's illuminated books are now ranked amongst the greatest achievements of Romantic art. They indicate his artisanal approach to his craft - influential on the 'cottage industries' of subsequent printer-poets such as William Morris - and his hatred of the printing press and mechanization in general. The question underlying this collection is how a benevolent God could allow space for both good and evil - or rather, innocence and experience - in the universe, these two necessary and opposing forces summed up by the contrasting images of the lamb and "the tyger", the subjects of the two best-known poems in the sequence. The influence of Blake's "tyger", in particular, its eyes "burning bright,/ In the forests of the night", echoes down through literary and artistic history, seeping into popular culture in a myriad of ways.

Pen and watercolor - Various editions

The Ancient of Days

The Ancient of Days, one of Blake's most recognizable works, portrays a bearded, godlike figure kneeling on a flaming disk, measuring out a dark void with a golden compass. This figure is Urizen, a fictional deity invented by Blake who forms parts of the artist's complex mythology, embodying the spirit of reason and law: two concepts with a very vexed position in Blake's moral universe. Urizen features as a character in several of Blake's illuminated long poems, including Europe: A Prophecy, for which this illustration was created. There, and here, Urizen is a repressive force, impeding the positive power of imagination. This piece can thus be read in light of a famous line from another of Blake's long works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."

In many ways, Blake is the exemplar for our modern conception of the Romantic artist. He prized imagination above all else, describing it not as "a state" but as the essence of "human existence itself." Thus, as The Ancient of Days implies, he disdained attempts to rationally curtail or control the power of imagination. This is also clear from the annotated version of Sir Joshua Reynold's Discourses on Art (1769-91) which he produced around this time. Blake was highly critical of Reynolds, an older and more established artist who, as President of the Royal Academy of Arts, embodied what Blake saw as the formulaic and stultifying ideals of the academy his teeming marginalia to Reynold's treatise serves in some ways as a conscious affront to these ideals. But if The Ancient of Days also encapsulates the rational spirit Blake was wary of, the undeniable majesty of the figure also reflects his belief in human beings' visionary power, just as his famous and beautiful line from Auguries of Innocence compels the reader "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".

With his oppositional critiques of the art establishment, Blake set the stage for artists later in the nineteenth century, like the French painters Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, who deliberately set about to challenge academic paradigms. The Ancient of Days sums up something of the spirit Blake was opposing, but also of the spirit he was endorsing. It is also known to have been one of his favorite images, an example of his early work, but also one of his last works, as he painted a copy of it in bed shortly before his death.

Watercolor etching - Private Collection

This piece, like Songs of Innocence and Experience, was made using Blake's illuminated printing technique. It seems to portray two cherubim, one of whom holds a baby, on white horses in a darkened sky, jumping over a prostrated female figure. The image is generally understood as an interpretation of a passage from Shakespeare's Macbeth: "And pity, like a naked new-born babe,/ Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, hors'd/ Upon the sightless couriers of the air,/ Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye".

Blake's use of blues and greens, contrasting with the whites of the figures, grants the work a nocturnal, dreamlike quality. Indeed, some scholars have questioned the extent to which the piece draws on Shakespeare's verse, suggesting instead that it might depict figures from Blake's own imaginative pantheon, as its visionary intensity seems to imply. The figure turning away from the viewer might be the god Urizen, for example, the face leaning down from the horse that of Los, an oppositional force to Urizen but also his prophet on earth, who has taken on the female form of Pity - often embodied in the character of his partner, Enitharmion - to enact Urizen's will. The woman below might be Eve, fulfilling the biblical prophecy that "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children" by generating the miniaturized male figure cradled in Los's arms. By this reading, Pity represents the fall of man, in particular the moment when he becomes aware of his sexuality, and his subjugation to God.

Through mythological and literary-inspired works such as Pity, Blake would exert an immense influence on the course of post-Romantic art, including on the Pre-Raphaelites, who often drew on literary and Shakespearean themes, as in John Everett Millais's Ophelia (1851) and John William Waterhouse's Miranda (1916). The hallucinatory quality of works such as Pity, meanwhile, along with their apparent deep allegorical significance, would have a profound effect on movements such as Symbolism and Surrealism.

Relief etching, printed in color and finished with pen and ink and watercolor - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Isaac Newton

In this, perhaps Blake's most famous visual artwork, the mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton is shown drawing on a scroll on the ground with a large compass. He sits on a rock surrounded by darkness, hunched over and entirely consumed by his thoughts. This engraving was developed from the tenth plate of Blake's early illustrated treatise There is No Natural Religion, which shows a man kneeling on the floor with a compass and features the caption "He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only".

For Blake, Newton was the living embodiment of rationality and scientific enquiry, a mode of intelligence which he saw as reductive, sterile, and ultimately blinding. Isaac Newton is clearly a critical visual allegory, therefore, the sharp angles and straight lines used to mark out Newton's body emphasizing the repressive spirit of reason, while the organic textures of the rock, apparently covered in algae and living organisms, represent the world of nature, where the spirit of human imagination finds its true mirror. The deep, consuming black surrounding Newton, generally taken to represent the bottom of the sea or outer space, indicates his ignorance of this world, his distance from the Platonic light of truth. The compass is a symbol of geometry and rational order, a tool and emblem of the stultifying materialism of the Enlightenment. Blake's scorn for the scientific worldview, which also gave rise to his famous depiction of the god Urizen in The Ancient of Days - another figure who tries to measure out the universe with a compass - is summed up by his assertion that "Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death".

Blake's Isaac Newton has been the subject of numerous reproductions, homages, and reinterpretations, and the figure of Newton himself is probably Blake's best-known visual image, perhaps because it sums up his creative credo so perfectly. The image is also famous because it has proved so fascinating to subsequent artists. In 1995, the British pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi created a large number of bronze sculptures inspired by Blake's work, including a huge sculptural homage to Blake's Newton - though both curvier and more machine-like than its predecessor - which now sits outside the British Library in London.

Engraving - Tate Modern, London

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

The painting, finished in pen and ink, illustrates a passage from the Bible, a prophecy described in the Gospel of Matthew as having been used by Jesus to advise the faithful on spiritual vigilance, describing how "A trumpeting angel flying overhead signifies that the moment of judgment has arrived". Blake contrasts the elegant and wise virgins on the left, prepared for the trumpet's call from the angel above, with the foolish virgins on the right, who fall over their feet in agitation and fear. The Parable was commissioned by Blake's patron and friend Thomas Butts, one of a huge number of tempera and watercolor paintings completed by Blake at Butt's behest between 1800 and 1806, all depicting Biblical scenes.

Though his own faith was anything but conformist, Blake had a profound respect for the Bible, considering it to be the greatest work of poetry in human history, and the basis of all true art. He often used it as a source of inspiration, and believed that its allegories and parables could serve as a wellspring for creative spirit opposing the rational, Neoclassical principles of the 18th century. The message of Matthew's passage is enhanced here by strong tonal contrasts, the graceful luminosity of the wise women contrasted with the ignominious darkness surrounding them.

Works such as The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins were influenced by various Renaissance artists who had explored similar, Biblical themes, and whose work Blake had devoured as a child. Leonardo da Vinci's The Adoration of the Magi (1481-82), The Annunciation (c. 1474), and The Last Supper (c. 1495-98) are good examples of such works, as are Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes (c. 1508-12), and Fra Angelico's The Madonna of Humility (1430). By not only entering into dialogue with these pieces, but by putting his own gloss on the moral and emotional dynamics of the scene, Blake expressed the ambition of his religious vision.

Watercolor, pen and black ink over graphite - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Great Red Dragon and The Woman Clothed in Sun

This ink and watercolor work depicts a hybrid creature, half human half dragon, spreading its wings over a woman enveloped in sunlight. It belongs to a body of works known as "The Great Red Dragon Paintings", created during 1805-10, a period when Thomas Butts commissioned Blake to create over a hundred Biblical illustrations. The Dragon paintings represent scenes from the Book of Revelation, inspired mainly by the book's apocalyptic description of "a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads".

The Great Red Dragon is an example of Blake's mature artistic style, expressing the vividness of his mythological imagination in its dramatic use of color, and its sinuously expressive lines. The poet Kathleen Raine explains that Blake's linear style is characteristic of religious art: "Blake insists that the 'spirits', whether of men or gods, should be 'organized', within a 'determinate and bounding form'." This work also bears out Blake's claim that "Art can never exist without Naked Beauty display'd". Even in the portrayal of a destructive and aggressive subject, beauty, in particular the beauty of the human body, always plays a fundamental and central role in Blake's art: indeed, there is something of the human vigor and strength of Milton's Satan in the central, winged form.

Like Blake's Newton, his Great Red Dragon is an image which has permeated artistic and popular culture, particularly during the 20th century. Famously, the main character of Thomas Harris's 1981 novel Red Dragon obsesses over Blake's beast, believing that he can become the dragon himself by emulating its brutal power. The sequels to Harris's novel, Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999) - adapted, like Red Dragon, into successful films - ensured the cultural resonance of Blake's monstrous but enticingly human creation.

Ink, watercolor and graphite on paper - The Brooklyn Museum, New York

The Angels Hovering Over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre

This watercolor and ink work, commissioned like The Great Red Dragon and The Wise and Foolish Virgin by Blake's great patron Thomas Butts, depicts a scene from the Biblical story of Jesus's death and rebirth. Following his crucifixion, Jesus's body was buried in a cave or tomb. As described in the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene visited the tomb to find two angels sitting "where the body of Jesus had lain". Upset at the body's absence, she began to weep, only to find Jesus standing beside her. Adapting the details of this scene, Blake places the two angels hovering above Jesus's body, probably portraying the moment just before his resurrection.

Though Blake's alteration of the details of the Gospel story are minor, they express his unorthodox, irreverently creative approach to faith and scripture. His depiction of the angels, for example, is said to be inspired by a passage from the Old Testament's Book of Exodus: "the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high. and their faces shall look one to another". The angelic forms also seem to allude to the wings which Blake claimed to have seen appearing on trees and stars as a child. As such, the image is testament to his belief in the central role of individual imagination in the interpretation of faith. In compositional terms, the darkness of the sepulchre, and the delicate whites and yellows of the aureoles around the angels' heads, give the painting an almost monochromatic quality, while the symmetry of the composition grants it a visual harmony in keeping with its spiritual significance.

In his imaginative adaptations of Biblical and religious scenes, Blake not only responded to a tradition of religious paintings extending back to the Renaissance, but also predicted the post-Romantic, imaginative adaptation of religious iconography in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, Symbolists, and other proto-modernist movements. As such, the vision expressed in works such as The Angels is both historically aware and subtly radical.

Pen, ink and watercolor on paper - Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Ghost of a Flea

This delicate tempera painting, finished in gold leaf, depicts the ghost of a flea, represented as a combination of man and animal, staring into an empty bowl or cup. The figure appears to be pacing the boards of a stage, set against a backdrop adorned with painted stars, flanked by the heavy patterned curtains of a theater. His pose is suitably melodramatic, while the awkward weight of his body dwarfs his small, half-human head. This work was composed on a miniature scale, on a wooden board measuring roughly 21 by 16 cm.

Whereas much of Blake's earlier work draws on Biblical or literary themes, this painting is the expression of a macabre, darkly comic inner vision, and is considered amongst the most 'Gothic' of his works. According to John Varley, an astrologer, artist, and close friend of Blake's, who made notes on his practice, the painting was created after one of Blake's séances, during which he claimed to have been visited by the ghost of a flea who explained to him that fleas were the resurrected souls of men prone to excess. In this sense, the cup is a symbol for "blood-drinking", for overindulgence and intemperance. That interpretation is complemented by the half-human form of the spirit, suggesting a man in thrall to his animal instincts, while the stage might be a metaphor for society - the horror or scorn of the crowd - or for the vanity bound up with compulsive behavior.

The Ghost of A Flea is a singular manifestation of Blake's unique spiritual and imaginative temperament. Its late composition suggests that his visions became more idiosyncratic, more untethered from the collective, social view of reality, as he aged.

Tempera and gold leaf on mahogany - Tate Gallery, London

The Lovers Whirlwind

The Lovers Whirlwind illustrates a scene from the fifth canto of The Inferno, the first book of The Divine Comedy (c. 1308-20), by the medieval Florentine poet Dante. As the poem's protagonist, Dante himself, descends into the outer circles of hell, he comes across a number of people caught up in a whirlwind, shrieking with pain. Dante's guide, the Roman poet Virgil, explains that these are lovers "whom love bereav'd of life", punished for the illicit nature of their desire. They include Francesca, the daughter of a lord of Ravenna, who fell in love with her husband's brother Paolo, and was sentenced to die alongside him. Profoundly moved by their story, Dante faints, as portrayed in the painting to the right of the bearded Virgil. Above Virgil's head, Blake seems to depict Paolo and Francesca in a sphere of light, while the surrounding whirlwind of lovers ascends to heaven.

This painting belongs to a series of works commissioned by John Linnell, Blake's friend and second great patron, after the success of the illustrations for The Book of Job which Blake was already composing for Linnell. There was an established tradition of creating illustrations for the Divine Comedy, stretching back to the early Renaissance period, and to artists such as Premio della Quercia, Vechietta, and Sandro Botticelli. Blake was probably inspired by their work, but with typical immodesty he spoke of his superiority to many Renaissance masters in his handling of color, seen to be at its most accomplished in the Divine Comedy sequence. Blake believed that the effective use of color depended on control of form and outline, claiming that "it is always wrong in Titian and Correggio, Rubens and Rembrandt." As for his response to Dante, it is typical of Blake's critical stance on religious orthodoxy, and his belief in the sanctity of love, that he chooses to deliver the condemned lovers from their torment.

The Divine Comedy commission was left incomplete as Blake died in 1827, having produced only a few of the paintings. However, those that survive are noted for their exquisite use of color, and for their complex, proto-Symbolist, visionary motifs. Linnell's commission is also said to have filled Blake with energy despite his age and ill health he reputedly spent the last of his money on a pencil to continue his drawings.

Pen and watercolor - City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham

Satan Before the Throne of God: When the Almighty was yet with me

This engraving depicts the Old Testament character of Job surrounded by his children, while Satan sits above him in heaven, in front of a large sun, encircled by angels. The scene is an illustration of Job 29.5, which is written below the plate: "When the Almighty was yet with me, When my Children were about me". Satan Before the Throne of God is one of 22 engraved prints created towards the end of Blake's life, known as the Illustrations of the Book of Job. In the passage above, God has allowed Satan to kill Job's family and take away his wealth in order to test his faith. Though his relationship with God ultimately endures, at this point Job is lamenting his lost happiness, and questioning the creator's wisdom.

The Book of Job had preoccupied Blake since 1785, and was the subject of two previous watercolor paintings, created for Thomas Butts in 1805 and John Linnell in 1821. When he began the engravings Blake was therefore able to adapt various existing images, but the engravings became his most virtuosic response to the theme. The whole series expresses his fascination with the figure of Job who, like Blake, had lived a life of penury coupled with intense religious devotion. In compositional terms, the Job illustrations are Blake's most technically complex engravings, rendered with an extraordinary degree of tonal and figurative detail.

A marvelous final expression of Blake's imaginative and religious vision, Kathleen Raine describes the Illustrations of the Book of Job as "more than an illustration of the Bible they are in themselves a prophetic vision, a spiritual revelation, at once a personal testimony and replete with Blake's knowledge of Christian Cabbala, Neoplatonism, and the mystical theology of the Western Esoteric tradition as a whole". She calls them as "a complete statement of Blake's vision of man's spiritual drama."


There is something about zooming in that enlarges one’s perception

There is indeed something about zooming in that enlarges one’s perception. It is only when we adjust our eyes to the small (46 x 60 cm) aperture through which Blake invites us to glimpse his submarine sighting of Newton that we appreciate the cramped and claustrophobic tensions that squeeze the work into meaning. Perched uncomfortably on a coral-encrusted stone shelf in what appears to be an underwater grotto, Newton stretches awkwardly to doodle on a scroll of parchment that he has unfurled at his feet – an awkward ergonomics that makes Rodin’s rocky Thinker look positively cosy. Newton’s imperturbable gaze and the precise positioning of his spindly fingers suggest he is on the verge of a cognitive breakthrough, as if he has cracked the code that will unlock the mysteries of the universe: an emblem, surely, of the invincible power of the human mind amid the myriad discomforts and pressures of our world.

Newton, 1795-1805: Blake was a staunch defender of the fundamental role of art in society and the importance of artistic freedom

Or is it? Look closer, and the instrument with which Blake has calculatingly equipped the renowned English physicist and mathematician is one we’ll encounter time and again in the most famous of Blake’s works: a pair of draughtsman’s compasses. In Blake’s unique visual vocabulary, the implement is shorthand for the pinching tight of human perception and becomes a kind of “mind forg’d manacle” that enslaves our vision.


William Blake

William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry has led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". Although he lived in London his entire life except for three years spent in Felpham he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God", or "Human existence itself".

Considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterised as part of both the Romantic movement and "Pre-Romantic", for its large appearance in the 18th century. Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England, Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions as well as by such thinkers as Jakob Böhme and Emanuel Swedenborg.

Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake's work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th century scholar William Rossetti characterised Blake as a "glorious luminary," and as "a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors."

William Blake was born on 28 November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick St) in the Soho district of London. He was the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Blake's father, James, was a hosier. William attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing, leaving at the age of ten, and was otherwise educated at home by his mother Catherine Wright Armitage Blake. The Blakes were Dissenters, and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life.

Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that was then preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Dürer. His parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he was not sent to school but was instead enrolled in drawing classes. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period, Blake was also making explorations into poetry his early work displays knowledge of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.

Apprenticeship to Basire

The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in Blake's work. Here, the demiurgic figure Urizen prays before the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecies.

On 4 August 1772, Blake became apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, for the term of seven years. At the end of this period, at the age of 21, he was to become a professional engraver. No record survives of any serious disagreement or conflict between the two during the period of Blake's apprenticeship. However, Peter Ackroyd's biography notes that Blake was later to add Basire's name to a list of artistic adversaries𠅊nd then cross it out. This aside, Basire's style of engraving was of a kind held to be old-fashioned at the time, and Blake's instruction in this outmoded form may have been detrimental to his acquiring of work or recognition in later life.

After two years, Basire sent his apprentice to copy images from the Gothic churches in London (perhaps to settle a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice). His experiences in Westminster Abbey helped form his artistic style and ideas. The Abbey of his day was decorated with suits of armour, painted funeral effigies, and varicoloured waxworks. Ackroyd notes that ". the most immediate [impression] would have been of faded brightness and colour". In the long afternoons Blake spent sketching in the Abbey, he was occasionally interrupted by the boys of Westminster School, one of whom "tormented" Blake so much one afternoon that he knocked the boy off a scaffold to the ground, "upon which he fell with terrific Violence". Blake beheld more visions in the Abbey, of a great procession of monks and priests, while he heard "the chant of plain-song and chorale."

Royal Academy

On 8 October 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school's first president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds' attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of "general truth" and "general beauty". Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the "disposition to abstractions, to generalising and classification, is the great glory of the human mind" Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that "To Generalize is to be an Idiot To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit". Blake also disliked Reynolds' apparent humility, which he held to be a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds' fashionable oil painting, Blake preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.

David Bindman suggests that Blake's antagonism towards Reynolds arose not so much from the president's opinions (like Blake, Reynolds held history painting to be of greater value than landscape and portraiture), but rather "against his hypocrisy in not putting his ideals into practice." Certainly Blake was not averse to exhibiting at the Royal Academy, submitting works on six occasions between 1780 and 1808.

Marriage and early career

Blake met Catherine Boucher in 1782. At the time, Blake was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. He recounted the story of his heartbreak for Catherine and her parents, after which he asked Catherine, "Do you pity me?" When she responded affirmatively, he declared, "Then I love you." Blake married Catherine – who was five years his junior – on 18 August 1782 in St. Mary's Church, Battersea. Illiterate, Catherine signed her wedding contract with an 'X'. The original wedding certificate may still be viewed at the church, where a commemorative stained-glass window was installed between 1976 and 1982. Later, in addition to teaching Catherine to read and write, Blake trained her as an engraver. Throughout his life she would prove an invaluable aid to him, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes.

Blake's first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was printed around 1783. After his father's death, William and former fellow apprentice James Parker opened a print shop in 1784, and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson's house was a meeting-place for some of the leading English intellectual dissidents of the time: theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, philosopher Richard Price, artist John Henry Fuseli early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the French revolution and American revolutions and wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in France. In 1784 Blake also composed his unfinished manuscript An Island in the Moon.

Blake illustrated Original Stories from Real Life (1788 1791) by Mary Wollstonecraft. They seem to have shared some views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage, but there is no evidence proving without doubt that they actually met. In 1793's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment.

Relief etching

In 1788, at the age of 31, Blake began to experiment with relief etching, a method he would use to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. The process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and final products as illuminated books or prints. Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid to dissolve the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name).

This is a reversal of the normal method of etching, where the lines of the design are exposed to the acid, and the plate printed by the intaglio method. Relief etching (which Blake also referred to as "stereotype" in The Ghost of Abel) was intended as a means for producing his illuminated books more quickly than via intaglio. Stereotype, a process invented in 1725, consisted of making a metal cast from a wood engraving, but Blake’s innovation was, as described above, very different. The pages printed from these plates then had to be hand-coloured in water colours and stitched together to make up a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem.

Although Blake has become most famous for his relief etching, his commercial work largely consisted of intaglio engraving, the standard process of engraving in the eighteenth century in which the artist would incise an image into the copper plate. This was a complex and laborious process, with plates taking months or years to complete, but as Blake's contemporary, John Boydell, realised, such engraving offered a "missing link with commerce", enabling artists to connect with a mass audience and so becoming an immensely important activity by the end of the eighteenth century.

Blake also employed intaglio engraving in his own work, most notably for the illustrations of the Book of Job, completed just before his death. Most critical work has tended to concentrate on Blake's relief etching as a technique because it is the most innovative aspect of his art, but a 2009 study draws attention to Blake's surviving plates, including those for the Book of Job: these demonstrate that he made frequent use of a technique known as "repoussage", a means of obliterating mistakes by hammering them out by hitting the back of the plate. Such techniques, typical of engraving work of the time, are very different to the much faster and fluid way of drawing on a plate that Blake employed for his relief etching, and indicates why the engravings took so long to complete.

Later life and career

Blake's marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one until his death. Blake taught Catherine to write, and she helped him to colour his printed poems. Gilchrist refers to "stormy times" in the early years of the marriage. Some biographers have suggested that Blake tried to bring a concubine into the marriage bed in accordance with the beliefs of the more radical branches of the Swedenborgian Society, but other scholars have dismissed these theories as conjecture. William and Catherine's first daughter and last child might be Thel described in The Book of Thel who was conceived as dead.

In 1800, Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex (now West Sussex) to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a minor poet. It was in this cottage that Blake began Milton: a Poem (the title page is dated 1804 but Blake continued to work on it until 1808). The preface to this work includes a poem beginning "And did those feet in ancient time," which became the words for the anthem, "Jerusalem". Over time, Blake came to resent his new patron, coming to believe that Hayley was uninterested in true artistry, and preoccupied with "the meer drudgery of business" (E724). Blake's disenchantment with Hayley has been speculated to have influenced Milton: a Poem, in which Blake wrote that "Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies." (4:26, E98)

Blake's trouble with authority came to a head in August 1803, when he was involved in a physical altercation with a soldier called John Schofield.[36] Blake was charged not only with assault, but also with uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King. Schofield claimed that Blake had exclaimed, "Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves." Blake would be cleared in the Chichester assizes of the charges. According to a report in the Sussex county paper, "The invented character of [the evidence] was . so obvious that an acquittal resulted." Schofield was later depicted wearing "mind forged manacles" in an illustration to Jerusalem.

Return to London

Blake returned to London in 1804 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804�), his most ambitious work. Having conceived the idea of portraying the characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Blake approached the dealer Robert Cromek, with a view to marketing an engraving. Knowing that Blake was too eccentric to produce a popular work, Cromek promptly commissioned Blake's friend Thomas Stothard to execute the concept. When Blake learned that he had been cheated, he broke off contact with Stothard. He also set up an independent exhibition in his brother's haberdashery shop at 27 Broad Street in the Soho district of London. The exhibition was designed to market his own version of the Canterbury illustration (titled The Canterbury Pilgrims), along with other works. As a result he wrote his Descriptive Catalogue (1809), which contains what Anthony Blunt has called a "brilliant analysis" of Chaucer. It is regularly anthologised as a classic of Chaucer criticism. It also contained detailed explanations of his other paintings.

The exhibition itself, however, was very poorly attended, selling none of the temperas or watercolours. Its only review, in The Examiner, was hostile.

In 1818 he was introduced by George Cumberland's son to a young artist named John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the Shoreham Ancients. This group shared Blake's rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. At the age of 65 Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job. These works were later admired by Ruskin, who compared Blake favourably to Rembrandt, and by Vaughan Williams, who based his ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing on a selection of the illustrations.

Later in his life Blake began to sell a great number of his works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend than a man whose work held artistic merit this was typical of the opinions held of Blake throughout his life.

Dante's Divine Comedy

The commission for Dante's Divine Comedy came to Blake in 1826 through Linnell, with the ultimate aim of producing a series of engravings. Blake's death in 1827 would cut short the enterprise, and only a handful of the watercolours were completed, with only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form. Even so, they have evoked praise.

Blake's illustrations of the poem are not merely accompanying works, but rather seem to critically revise, or furnish commentary on, certain spiritual or moral aspects of the text.

Because the project was never completed, Blake's intent may itself be obscured. Some indicators, however, bolster the impression that Blake's illustrations in their totality would themselves take issue with the text they accompany: In the margin of Homer Bearing the Sword and His Companions, Blake notes, "Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost." Blake seems to dissent from Dante's admiration of the poetic works of ancient Greece, and from the apparent glee with which Dante allots punishments in Hell (as evidenced by the grim humour of the cantos).

At the same time, Blake shared Dante's distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power, and clearly relished the opportunity to represent the atmosphere and imagery of Dante's work pictorially. Even as he seemed to near death, Blake's central preoccupation was his feverish work on the illustrations to Dante's Inferno he is said to have spent one of the very last shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching.

On the day of his death, Blake worked relentlessly on his Dante series. Eventually, it is reported, he ceased working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her, Blake is said to have cried, "Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me." Having completed this portrait (now lost), Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses. At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died. Gilchrist reports that a female lodger in the same house, present at his expiration, said, "I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel."


Blake’s exhibition (1809–10)

There were few opportunities for a wider public to view Blake’s watercolours and his temperas. He showed work at the exhibition of the Associated Painters in Water-Colours (1812) and exhibited some pictures at the Royal Academy of Arts, but these works were greeted with silence.

Blake’s most determined effort to reach a wider public was his retrospective exhibition of 16 watercolours and temperas, held above the Blake family hosiery shop and home on Broad Street from 1809 to 1810. The most ambitious picture in the exhibition, called The Ancient Britons and depicting the last battle of the legendary King Arthur, had been commissioned by the Welsh scholar and enthusiast William Owen Pughe. The painting, now lost, was said to have been 14 feet (4.3 metres) wide by 10 feet (3 metres) tall—the largest picture Blake ever made, with what an advertisement for the exhibition described as “Figures full as large as Life.” The young art student Seymour Kirkup said it was Blake’s “masterpiece,” and Henry Crabb Robinson called it “his greatest and most perfect work.”

The first three pictures listed in the exhibition catalogue—The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (c. 1805–09), The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth (1805?), and Sir Jeffrey Chaucer and the Nine and Twenty Pilgrims on Their Journey to Canterbury (1808)—defined the style of the pictures and the expectations of the viewers. In his Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures (1809), Blake said that he “appeals to the Public,” but he scarcely attempted to accommodate his rhetoric to his audience. The works on display, he wrote, were “copies from some stupendous originals now lost…[which] The Artist having been taken in vision into the ancient republics, monarchies, and patriarchates of Asia, has seen.” Blake also inveighed against fashionable styles and artists, such as the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens—whom he called “a most outrageous demon” (i.e., villain)—and “that infernal machine called Chiaro Oscura” (a technique of shading, see chiaroscuro).

Only a few persons saw the exhibition, perhaps no more than a couple dozen, but they included Robinson, the essayist and critic Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, and Robert Hunt, brother of the journalist and poet Leigh Hunt. Robert Hunt wrote the only printed notice (in the radical family weekly The Examiner) of the exhibition and its Descriptive Catalogue, and through his vilification they became much more widely known than Blake had been able to make them. Hunt described the pictures as “wretched,” the Descriptive Catalogue as “a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity,” and Blake himself as “an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.” Few more destructive reviews have appeared in print, and Blake was devastated. He riposted by incorporating the Hunt brothers into his poems Milton and Jerusalem, but the harm was done, and Blake withdrew more and more into obscurity. From 1809 to 1818 he engraved few plates, his commissions for designs were mostly private, and he sank deeper into poverty.


Reputation and influence

Blake was scarcely noticed in his own lifetime. No contemporary reviewed any of his works in Illuminated Printing, but his designs for Blair’s The Grave and his Descriptive Catalogue of his exhibition were reviewed savagely and at length in The Antijacobin Review (1808) and The Examiner (1808, 1809)—in the latter publication he was called “an unfortunate lunatic.” After a flurry of obituaries in 1827 and brief lives of him in books by John Thomas Smith (1828) and Allan Cunningham (1830), the first important book on Blake was Alexander Gilchrist’s two-volume Life of William Blake, “Pictor Ignotus” (1863). Volume 1 was the biography, concentrating on Blake as an unknown artist, and volume 2 printed many of Blake’s poems and designs, most of them for the first time in conventional typography. Gilchrist’s work was completed after his death in 1861 by a coterie of Pre-Raphaelites, chiefly the artist-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother, William Michael Rossetti. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne was so carried away by Blake that he published an exclamatory and influential study William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868). Gilchrist’s book opened the floodgates of criticism, and since 1863 Blake has been considered a major figure in English poetry and art.

In the 1890s Blake was taken up by William Butler Yeats and Edwin John Ellis. They collaborated on a massive three-volume, extensively illustrated edition of Blake (1893), which introduced much of Blake’s prophetic poetry to the public for the first time—in texts that are often seriously corrupt: words misread, parts omitted, and “facts” invented. Their work was continued with other editions by Ellis and by Yeats and with a biography by Ellis called The Real Blake (1907), in which he claimed, with no shadow of justification, that Blake’s father was a renegade Irishman named John O’Neil, a fiction with which Yeats agreed..


William Blake

Poet, painter, engraver, and visionary William Blake worked to bring about a change both in the social order and in the minds of men. Though in his lifetime his work was largely neglected or dismissed, he is now considered one of the leading lights of English poetry, and his work has only grown in popularity. In his Life of William Blake (1863) Alexander Gilchrist warned his readers that Blake &ldquoneither wrote nor drew for the many, hardly for work&rsquoy-day men at all, rather for children and angels himself &lsquoa divine child,&rsquo whose playthings were sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth.&rdquo Yet Blake himself believed that his writings were of national importance and that they could be understood by a majority of his peers. Far from being an isolated mystic, Blake lived and worked in the teeming metropolis of London at a time of great social and political change that profoundly influenced his writing. In addition to being considered one of the most visionary of English poets and one of the great progenitors of English Romanticism, his visual artwork is highly regarded around the world.

Blake was born on November 28, 1757. Unlike many well-known writers of his day, Blake was born into a family of moderate means. His father, James, was a hosier, and the family lived at 28 Broad Street in London in an unpretentious but &ldquorespectable&rdquo neighborhood. In all, seven children were born to James and Catherine Wright Blake, but only five survived infancy. Blake seems to have been closest to his youngest brother, Robert, who died young.

By all accounts Blake had a pleasant and peaceful childhood, made even more pleasant by skipping any formal schooling. As a young boy he wandered the streets of London and could easily escape to the surrounding countryside. Even at an early age, however, his unique mental powers would prove disquieting. According to Gilchrist, on one ramble he was startled to &ldquosee a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.&rdquo His parents were not amused at such a story, and only his mother&rsquos pleadings prevented him from receiving a beating. His parents did, however, encourage his artistic talents, and the young Blake was enrolled at the age of 10 in Pars&rsquo drawing school. The expense of continued formal training in art was a prohibitive, and the family decided that at the age of 14 William would be apprenticed to a master engraver. At first his father took him to William Ryland, a highly respected engraver. William, however, resisted the arrangement telling his father, &ldquoI do not like the man&rsquos face: it looks as if he will live to be hanged!&rdquo The grim prophecy was to come true 12 years later. Instead of Ryland the family settled on a lesser-known engraver, James Basire. Basire seems to have been a good master, and Blake was a good student of the craft.

At the age of 21, Blake left Basire&rsquos apprenticeship and enrolled for a time in the newly formed Royal Academy. He earned his living as a journeyman engraver. Booksellers employed him to engrave illustrations for publications ranging from novels such as Don Quixote to serials such as Ladies&rsquo Magazine.

One incident at this time affected Blake deeply. In June of 1780 riots broke out in London incited by the anti-Catholic preaching of Lord George Gordon and by resistance to continued war against the American colonists. Houses, churches, and prisons were burned by uncontrollable mobs bent on destruction. On one evening, whether by design or by accident, Blake found himself at the front of the mob that burned Newgate prison. These images of violent destruction and unbridled revolution gave Blake powerful material for works such as Europe (1794) and America (1793).

Not all of the young man&rsquos interests were confined to art and politics. After one ill-fated romance, Blake met Catherine Boucher. After a year&rsquos courtship the couple were married on August 18, 1782. The parish registry shows that Catherine, like many women of her class, could not sign her own name. Blake soon taught her to read and to write, and under Blake&rsquos tutoring she also became an accomplished draftsman, helping him in the execution of his designs. By all accounts the marriage was a successful one, but no children were born to the Blakes.

Blake&rsquos friend John Flaxman introduced Blake to the bluestocking Harriet Mathew, wife of the Rev. Henry Mathew, whose drawing room was often a meeting place for artists and musicians. There Blake gained favor by reciting and even singing his early poems. Thanks to the support of Flaxman and Mrs. Mathew, a thin volume of poems was published under the title Poetical Sketches (1783). Many of these poems are imitations of classical models, much like the sketches of models of antiquity the young artist made to learn his trade. Even here, however, one sees signs of Blake&rsquos protest against war and the tyranny of kings. Only about 50 copies of Poetical Sketches are known to have been printed. Blake&rsquos financial enterprises also did not fare well. In 1784, after his father&rsquos death, Blake used part of the money he inherited to set up shop as a printseller with his friend James Parker. The Blakes moved to 27 Broad Street, next door to the family home and close to Blake&rsquos brothers. The business did not do well, however, and the Blakes soon moved out.

Of more concern to Blake was the deteriorating health of his favorite brother, Robert. Blake tended to his brother in his illness and according to Gilchrist watched the spirit of his brother escape his body in his death: &ldquoAt the last solemn moment, the visionary eyes beheld the released spirit ascend heaven ward through the matter-of-fact ceiling, &lsquoclapping its hands for joy.&rsquo"

Blake always felt the spirit of Robert lived with him. He even announced that it was Robert who informed him how to illustrate his poems in &ldquoilluminated writing.&rdquo Blake&rsquos technique was to produce his text and design on a copper plate with an impervious liquid. The plate was then dipped in acid so that the text and design remained in relief. That plate could be used to print on paper, and the final copy would be then hand colored.

After experimenting with this method in a series of aphorisms entitled There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One (1788?), Blake designed the series of plates for the poems entitled Songs of Innocence and dated the title page 1789. Blake continued to experiment with the process of illuminated writing and in 1794 combined the early poems with companion poems entitled Songs of Experience. The title page of the combined set announces that the poems show &ldquothe two Contrary States of the Human Soul.&rdquo

The introductory poems to each series display Blake&rsquos dual image of the poet as both a &ldquopiper&rdquo and a &ldquoBard.&rdquo As man goes through various stages of innocence and experience in the poems, the poet also is in different stages of innocence and experience. The pleasant lyrical aspect of poetry is shown in the role of the &ldquopiper&rdquo while the more somber prophetic nature of poetry is displayed by the stern Bard.

The dual role played by the poet is Blake&rsquos interpretation of the ancient dictum that poetry should both delight and instruct. More important, for Blake the poet speaks both from the personal experience of his own vision and from the &ldquoinherited&rdquo tradition of ancient Bards and prophets who carried the Holy Word to the nations.

The two states of innocence and experience are not always clearly separate in the poems, and one can see signs of both states in many poems. The companion poems titled &ldquoHoly Thursday&rdquo are on the same subject, the forced marching of poor children to St. Paul&rsquos Cathedral in London. The speaker in the state of innocence approves warmly of the progression of children:

&rsquoTwas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow[.]

The brutal irony is that in this world of truly &ldquoinnocent&rdquo children there are evil men who repress the children, round them up like herd of cattle, and force them to show their piety. In this state of innocence, experience is very much present.

If experience has a way of creeping into the world of innocence, innocence also has a way of creeping into experience. The golden land where the &ldquosun does shine&rdquo and the &ldquorain does fall&rdquo is a land of bountiful goodness and innocence. But even here in this blessed land, there are children starving. The sharp contrast between the two conditions makes the social commentary all the more striking and supplies the energy of the poem.

The storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 and the agonies of the French Revolution sent shock waves through England. Some hoped for a corresponding outbreak of liberty in England while others feared a breakdown of the social order. In much of his writing Blake argues against the monarchy. In his early Tiriel (written circa 1789) Blake traces the fall of a tyrannical king.

Politics was surely often the topic of conversation at the publisher Joseph Johnson&rsquos house, where Blake was often invited. There Blake met important literary and political figures such as William Godwin, Joseph Priestly, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine. According to one legend Blake is even said to have saved Paine&rsquos life by warning him of his impending arrest. Whether or not that is true, it is clear that Blake was familiar with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day.

In The French Revolution Blake celebrates the rise of democracy in France and the fall of the monarchy. King Louis represents a monarchy that is old and dying. The sick king is lethargic and unable to act: &ldquoFrom my window I see the old mountains of France, like aged men, fading away.&rdquo The &ldquovoice of the people&rdquo demands the removal of the king&rsquos troops from Paris, and their departure at the end of the first book signals the triumph of democracy.

On the title page for book one of The French Revolution Blake announces that it is &ldquoA Poem in Seven Books,&rdquo but none of the other books has been found. Johnson never published the poem, perhaps because of fear of prosecution, or perhaps because Blake himself withdrew it from publication. Johnson did have cause to be nervous. Erdman points out that in the same year booksellers were thrown in jail for selling the works of Thomas Paine.

In America (1793) Blake also addresses the idea of revolution&ndashless as a commentary on the actual revolution in America as a commentary on universal principles that are at work in any revolution. The figure of Orc represents all revolutions:

The fiery joy, that Urizen perverted to ten commands,
What night he led the starry hosts thro&rsquo the wide wilderness,
That stony law I stamp to dust and scatter religion abroad
To the four winds as a torn book, & none shall gather the leaves.

The same force that causes the colonists to rebel against King George is the force that overthrows the perverted rules and restrictions of established religions.

The revolution in America suggests to Blake a similar revolution in England. In the poem the king, like the ancient pharaohs of Egypt, sends pestilence to America to punish the rebels, but the colonists are able to redirect the forces of destruction to England. Erdman suggests that Blake is thinking of the riots in England during the war and the chaotic condition of the English troops, many of whom deserted. Writing this poem in the 1790s, Blake also surely imagined the possible effect of the French Revolution on England.

Another product of the radical 1790s is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Written and etched between 1790 and 1793, Blake&rsquos poem brutally satirizes oppressive authority in church and state.

The powerful opening of the poem suggests a world of violence: &ldquoRintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden&rsquod air / Hungry clouds swag on the deep.&rdquo The fire and smoke suggest a battlefield and the chaos of revolution. The cause of that chaos is analyzed at the beginning of the poem. The world has been turned upside down. The &ldquojust man&rdquo has been turned away from the institutions of church and state, and in his place are fools and hypocrites who preach law and order but create chaos. Those who proclaim restrictive moral rules and oppressive laws as &ldquogoodness&rdquo are in themselves evil. Hence to counteract this repression, Blake announces that he is of the &ldquoDevil&rsquos Party&rdquo that will advocate freedom and energy and gratified desire.

The &ldquoProverbs of Hell&rdquo are clearly designed to shock the reader out of his commonplace notion of what is good and what is evil:

Prisons are built with stones of Law,
Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

It is the oppressive nature of church and state that has created the repulsive prisons and brothels. Sexual energy is not an inherent evil, but the repression of that energy is. The preachers of morality fail to understand that God is in all things, including the sexual nature of men and women.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell contains many of the basic religious ideas developed in the major prophecies. Blake analyzes the development of organized religion as a perversion of ancient visions: &ldquoThe ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & Numerous senses could perceive.&rdquo Ancient man created those gods to express his vision of the spiritual properties that he perceived in the physical world. The gods began to take on a life of their own separate from man: &ldquoTill a system was formed, which some took advantage of, & enslav&rsquod the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood.&rdquo The &ldquosystem&rdquo or organized religion keeps man from perceiving the spiritual in the physical. The gods are seen as separate from man, and an elite race of priests is developed to approach the gods: &ldquoThus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.&rdquo Instead of looking for God on remote altars, Blake warns, man should look within.

In August of 1790 Blake moved from his house on Poland Street across the Thames to the area known as Lambeth. The Blakes lived in the house for 10 years, and the surrounding neighborhood often becomes mythologized in his poetry. Felpham was a &ldquolovely vale,&rdquo a place of trees and open meadows, but it also contained signs of human cruelty, such as the house for orphans. At his home Blake kept busy not only with his illuminated poetry but also with the daily chore of making money. During the 1790s Blake earned fame as an engraver and was glad to receive numerous commissions.

One story told by Blake&rsquos friend Thomas Butts shows how much the Blakes enjoyed the pastoral surroundings of Lambeth. At the end of Blake&rsquos garden was a small summer house, and coming to call on the Blakes one day Butts was shocked to find the couple stark naked: &ldquoCome in!&rdquo cried Blake &ldquoit&rsquos only Adam and Eve you know!&rdquo The Blakes were reciting passages from Paradise Lost, apparently &ldquoin character."Sexual freedom is addressed in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), also written during the Lambeth period.

Between 1793 and 1795 Blake produced a remarkable collection of illuminated works that have come to be known as the &ldquoMinor Prophecies.&rdquo In Europe (1794), The First Book of Urizen (1794), The Book of Los (1795), The Song of Los (1795), and The Book of Ahania (1795) Blake develops the major outlines of his universal mythology. In these poems Blake examines the fall of man. In Blake&rsquos mythology man and God were once united, but man separated himself from God and became weaker and weaker as he became further divided.

The narrative of the universal mythology is interwoven with the historical events of Blake&rsquos own time. The execution of King Louis XVI in 1793 led to an inevitable reaction, and England soon declared war on France. England&rsquos participation in the war against France and its attempt to quell the revolutionary spirit is addressed in Europe. The very force of that repression, however, will cause its opposite to appear in the revolutionary figure of Orc: &ldquoAnd in the vineyards of reds France appear&rsquod the light of his fury.&rdquo

The causes of that repression are examined in The First Book of Urizen. The word Urizen suggests &ldquoyour reason&rdquo and also &ldquohorizon.&rdquo He represents that part of the mind that constantly defines and limits human thought and action. In the frontispiece to the poem he is pictured as an aged man hunched over a massive book writing with both hands in other books. Behind him stand the tablets of the 10 commandments, and Urizen is surely writing other &ldquothou shalt nots&rdquo for others to follow. His twisted anatomical position shows the perversity of what should be the &ldquohuman form divine."

The poem traces the birth of Urizen as a separate part of the human mind. He insists on laws for all to follow:

One command, one joy, one desire
One curse, one weight, one measure,
One King, one God, one Law.

Urizen&rsquos repressive laws bring only further chaos and destruction. Appalled by the chaos he himself created, Urizen fashions a world apart.

The process of separation continues as the character of Los is divided from Urizen. Los, the &ldquoEternal Prophet,&rdquo represents another power of the human mind. Los forges the creative aspects of the mind into works of art. Like Urizen he is a limiter, but the limitations he creates are productive and necessary. In the poem Los forms &ldquonets and gins&rdquo to bring an end to Urizen&rsquos continual chaotic separation.

Los is horrified by the figure of the bound Urizen and is separated by his pity, &ldquofor Pity divides the Soul.&rdquo Los undergoes a separation into a male and female form. His female form is called Enitharmon, and her creation is viewed with horror:

Eternity shudder&rsquod when they saw
Man begetting his likeness
On his own divided image.

This separation into separate sexual identities is yet another sign of man&rsquos fall. The &ldquoEternals&rdquo contain both male and female forms within themselves, but man is divided and weak.

Enitharmon gives birth to the fiery Orc, whose violent birth gives some hope for radical change in a fallen world, but Orc is bound in chains by Los, now a victim of jealousy. Enitharmon bears an &ldquoenormous race,&rdquo but it is a race of men and women who are weak and divided and who have lost sight of eternity.

In his fallen state man has limited senses and fails to perceive the infinite. Divided from God and caught by the narrow traps of religion, he sees God only as a crude lawgiver who must be obeyed.

The Book of Los also examines man&rsquos fall and the binding of Urizen, but from the perspective of Los, whose task it is to place a limit on the chaotic separation begun by Urizen. The decayed world is again one of ignorance where there is &ldquono light from the fires.&rdquo From this chaos the bare outlines of the human form begin to appear:

Many ages of groans, till there grew
Branchy forms organizing the Human
Into finite inflexible organs.

The human senses are pale imitations of the true senses that allow one to perceive eternity. Urizen&rsquos world where man now lives is spoken of as an &ldquoillusion&rdquo because it masks the spiritual world that is everywhere present.

In The Song of Los, Los sings of the decayed state of man, where the arbitrary laws of Urizen have become institutionalized:

Thus the terrible race of Los & Enitharmon gave
Laws & Religions to the sons of Har, binding them more
And more to Earth, closing and restraining,
Till a Philosophy of five Senses was complete.
Urizen wept & gave it into the hands of Newton & Locke.

The &ldquophilosophy of the five senses&rdquo espoused by scientists and philosophers argues that the world and the mind are like industrial machines operating by fixed laws but devoid of imagination, creativity, or any spiritual life. Blake condemns this materialistic view of the world espoused in the writings of Newton and Locke.

Although man is in a fallen state, the end of the poem points to the regeneration that is to come:

Orc, raging in European darkness,
Arose like a pillar of fire above the Alps,
Like a serpent of fiery flame!

The coming of Orc is likened not only to the fires of revolution sweeping Europe, but also to the final apocalypse when the &ldquoGrave shrieks with delight."

The separation of man is also examined in The Book of Ahania, which Blake later incorporated in Vala, or The Four Zoas. In The Book of Ahania Urizen is further divided into male and female forms. Urizen is repulsed by his feminine shadow that is called Ahania:

He groan&rsquod anguish&rsquod, & called her Sin,
Kissing her and weeping over her
Then hid her in darkness, in silence,
Jealous, tho&rsquo she was invisible.

&ldquoAhania&rdquo is only a &ldquosin&rdquo in that she is given that name. Urizen, the lawgiver, can not accept the liberating aspects of sexual pleasure. At the end of the poem, Ahania laments the lost pleasures of eternity:

Where is my golden palace?
Where my ivory bed?
Where the joy of my morning hour?
Where the sons of eternity singing.

The physical pleasures of sexual union are celebrated as an entrance to a spiritual state. The physical union of man and woman is sign of the spiritual union that is to come.

The Four Zoas is subtitled &ldquoThe Torments of Love and Jealousy in the Death and Judgement of Albion the Ancient Man,&rdquo and the poem develops Blake&rsquos myth of Albion, who represents both the country of England and the unification of all men. Albion is composed of &ldquoFour Mighty Ones": Tharmas, Urthona, Urizen, and Luvah. Originally, in Eden, these four exist in the unity of &ldquoThe Universal Brotherhood.&rdquo At this early time all parts of man lived in perfect harmony, but now they are fallen into warring camps. The poem traces the changes in Albion:

His fall into Division & his Resurrection to Unity:
His fall into the Generation of decay & death, & his
Regeneration by the Resurrection from the dead.

The poem begins with Tharmas and examines the fall of each aspect of man&rsquos identity. The poem progresses from disunity toward unity as each Zoa moves toward final unification.

In the apocalyptic &ldquoNight the Ninth,&rdquo the evils of oppression are overturned in the turmoil of the Last Judgment: &ldquoThe thrones of Kings are shaken, they have lost their robes & crowns/ The poor smite their oppressors, they awake up to the harvest.&rdquo

As dead men are rejuvenated, Christ, the &ldquoLamb of God,&rdquo is brought back to life and sheds the evils of institutionalized religions:

Thus shall the male & female live the life of Eternity,
Because the Lamb of God Creates himself a bride & wife
That we his Children evermore may live in Jerusalem
Which now descendeth out of heaven, a City, yet a Woman
Mother of myriads redeem&rsquod & born in her spiritual palaces,
By a New Spiritual birth Regenerated from Death.

Very little of Blake&rsquos poetry of the 1790s was known to the general public. His reputation as an artist was mixed. Response to his art ranged from praise to derision, but he did gain some fame as an engraver. His commissions did not produce much in the way of income, but Blake never seems to have been discouraged. In 1799 Blake wrote to George Cumberland, &ldquoI laugh at Fortune & Go on & on."

Because of his monetary woes, Blake often had to depend on the benevolence of patrons of the arts. This sometimes led to heated exchanges between the independent artist and the wealthy patron. Dr. John Trusler was one such patron whom Blake failed to please. Dr. Trusler was a clergyman, a student of medicine, a bookseller, and the author of such works as Hogarth Moralized (1768), The Way to be Rich and Respectable (1750?), and A Sure Way to Lengthen Life with Vigor (circa 1819). Blake found himself unable to follow the clergyman&rsquos wishes: &ldquoI attempted every morning for a fortnight together to follow your Dictate, but when I found my attempts were in vain, resolv&rsquod to shew an independence which I know will please an Author better than slavishly following the track of another, however admirable that track may be. At any rate, my Excuse must be: I could not do otherwise it was out of my power!&rdquo Dr. Trusler was not convinced and replied that he found Blake&rsquos &ldquoFancy&rdquo to be located in the &ldquoWorld of Spirits&rdquo and not in this world. Dr. Trusler was not the only patron that tried to make Blake conform to popular tastes for example, Blake&rsquos stormy relation to his erstwhile friend and patron William Hayley directly affected the writing of the epics Milton and Jerusalem.

Blake left Felpham in 1803 and returned to London. In April of that year he wrote to Butts that he was overjoyed to return to the city: &ldquoThat I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy&rsquod, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & Prophecy & Speak Parables unobserv&rsquod & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals.&rdquo In the same letter Blake refers to his epic poem Milton, composed while at Felpham: &ldquoBut none can know the Spiritual Acts of my three years &lsquoSlumber on the banks of the Ocean, unless he has seen them in the Spirit, or unless he should read My long Poem descriptive of those Acts."

In his &ldquoslumber on the banks of the Ocean,&rdquo Blake, surrounded by financial worries and hounded by a patron who could not appreciate his art, reflected on the value of visionary poetry. Milton, which Blake started to engrave in 1804 (probably finishing in 1808), is a poem that constantly draws attention to itself as a work of literature. Its ostensible subject is the poet John Milton, but the author, William Blake, also creates a character for himself in his own poem. Blake examines the entire range of mental activity involved in the art of poetry from the initial inspiration of the poet to the reception of his vision by the reader of the poem. Milton examines as part of its subject the very nature of poetry: what it means to be a poet, what a poem is, and what it means to be a reader of poetry.

In the preface to the poem, Blake issues a battle cry to his readers to reject what is merely fashionable in art:

Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever in Jesus our Lord.

In attacking the &ldquoignorant Hirelings&rdquo in the &ldquoCamp, the Court & the University,&rdquo Blake repeats a familiar dissenting cry against established figures in English society. Blake&rsquos insistence on being &ldquojust & true to our own Imaginations&rdquo places a special burden on the reader of his poem. For as he makes clear, Blake demands the exercise of the creative imagination from his own readers.

In the well-known lyric that follows, Blake asks for a continuation of Christ&rsquos vision in modern-day England:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England&rsquos green & pleasant Land.

The poet-prophet must lead the reader away from man&rsquos fallen state and toward a revitalized state where man can perceive eternity.

"Book the First&rdquo contains a poem-within-a-poem, a &ldquoBard&rsquos Prophetic Song.&rdquo The Bard&rsquos Song describes man&rsquos fall from a state of vision. We see man&rsquos fall in the ruined form of Albion as a representative of all men and in the fall of Palamabron from his proper position as prophet to a nation. Interwoven into this narrative are the Bard&rsquos addresses to the reader, challenges to the reader&rsquos senses, descriptions of contemporary events and locations in England, and references to the life of William Blake. Blake is at pains to show us that his mythology is not something far removed from us but is part of our day to day life. Blake describes the reader&rsquos own fall from vision and the possibility of regaining those faculties necessary for vision.

The climax of the Bard&rsquos Song is the Bard&rsquos sudden vision of the &ldquoHoly Lamb of God": &ldquoGlory! Glory! to the Holy lamb of God: / I touch the heavens as an instrument to glorify the Lord.&rdquo At the end of the Bard&rsquos Song, his spirit is incorporated into that of the poet Milton. Blake portrays Milton as a great but flawed poet who must unify the separated elements of his own identity before he can reclaim his powers of vision and become a true poet, casting off &ldquoall that is not inspiration."

As Milton is presented as a man in the process of becoming a poet, Blake presents himself as a character in the poem undergoing the transformation necessary to become a poet. Only Milton believes in the vision of the Bard&rsquos Song, and the Bard takes &ldquorefuge in Milton&rsquos bosom.&rdquo As Blake realizes the insignificance of this &ldquoVegetable World,&rdquo Los merges with Blake, and he arises in &ldquofury and strength.&rdquo This ongoing belief in the hidden powers of the mind heals divisions and increases powers of perception. The Bard, Milton, Los, and Blake begin to merge into a powerful bardic union. Yet it is but one stage in a greater drive toward the unification of all men in a &ldquoUniversal Brotherhood."

In the second book of Milton Blake initiates the reader into the order of poets and prophets. Blake continues the process begun in book one of taking the reader through different stages in the growth of a poet.

Turning the outside world upside down is a preliminary stage in an extensive examination of man&rsquos internal world. A searching inquiry into the self is a necessary stage in the development of the poet. Milton is told he must first look within: &ldquoJudge then of thy Own Self: thy Eternal Lineaments explore, / What is Eternal & what Changeable, & what Annihilable.&rdquo Central to the process of judging the self is a confrontation with that destructive part of man&rsquos identity Blake calls the Selfhood, which blocks &ldquothe human center of creativity.&rdquo Only by annihilating the Selfhood, Blake believes, can one hope to participate in the visionary experience of the poem.

The Selfhood places two powerful forces to block our path: the socially accepted values of &ldquolove&rdquo and &ldquoreason.&rdquo In its purest state love is given freely with no restrictions and no thought of return. In its fallen state love is reduced to a form of trade: &ldquoThy love depends on him thou lovest, & on his dear loves / Depend thy pleasures, which thou hast cut off by jealousy.&rdquo &ldquoFemale love&rdquo is given only in exchange for love received. It is bartering in human emotions and is not love at all. When Milton denounces his own Selfhood, he gives up &ldquoFemale love&rdquo and loves freely and openly.

As Blake attacks accepted notions of love, he also forces the reader to question the value society places on reason. In his struggle with Urizen, who represents man&rsquos limited power of reason, Milton seeks to cast off the deadening effect of the reasoning power and free the mind for the power of the imagination.

Destroying the Selfhood allows Milton to unite with others. He descends upon Blake&rsquos path and continues the process of uniting with Blake that had begun in book one. This union is also a reflection of Blake&rsquos encounter with Los that is described in book one and illustrated in book two.

The apex of Blake&rsquos vision is the brief image of the Throne of God. In Revelation, John&rsquos vision of the Throne of God is a prelude to the apocalypse itself. Similarly Blake&rsquos vision of the throne is also a prelude to the coming apocalypse. Blake&rsquos vision is abruptly cut off as the Four Zoas sound the Four Trumpets, signaling the call to judgment of the peoples of the earth. The trumpets bring to a halt Blake&rsquos vision, as he falls to the ground and returns to his mortal state. The apocalypse is still to come.

The author falls before the vision of the Throne of God and the awful sound of the coming apocalypse. However, the author&rsquos vision does not fall with him to the ground. In the very next line after Blake describes his faint, we see his vision soar: &ldquoImmediately the lark mounted with a loud trill from Felpham&rsquos Vale.&rdquo We have seen the lark as the messenger of Los and the carrier of inspiration. Its sudden flight here demonstrates that the vision of the poem continues. It is up to the reader to follow the flight of the lark to the Gate of Los and continue the vision of Milton.

Before Blake could leave Felpham and return to London, an incident occurred that was very disturbing to him and possibly even dangerous. Without Blake&rsquos knowledge, his gardener had invited a soldier by the name of John Scofield into his garden to help with the work. Blake seeing the soldier and thinking he had no business being there promptly tossed him out.

What made this incident so serious was that the soldier swore before a magistrate that Blake had said &ldquoDamn the King&rdquo and had uttered seditious words. Blake denied the charge, but he was forced to post bail and appear in court. Blake left Felpham at the end of September 1803 and settled in a new residence on South Molton Street in London. His trial was set for the following January at Chichester. The soldier&rsquos testimony was shown to be false, and the jury acquitted Blake.

Blake&rsquos radical political views made him fear persecution, and he wondered if Scofield had been a government agent sent to entrap him. In any event Blake forever damned the soldier by attacking him in the epic poem Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is in many ways Blake&rsquos major achievement. It is an epic poem consisting of 100 illuminated plates. Blake dated the title page 1804, but he seems to have worked on the poem for a considerable length of time after that date. In Jerusalem he develops his mythology to explore man&rsquos fall and redemption. As the narrative begins, man is apart from God and split into separate identities. As the poem progresses man&rsquos split identities are unified, and man is reunited with the divinity that is within him.

In chapter one Blake announces the purpose of his &ldquogreat task":
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.

It is sometimes easy to get lost in the complex mythology of Blake&rsquos poetry and forget that he is describing not outside events but a &ldquoMental Fight&rdquo that takes place in the mind. Much of Jerusalem is devoted to the idea of awakening the human senses, so that the reader can perceive the spiritual world that is everywhere present.

At the beginning of the poem, Jesus addresses the fallen Albion: &ldquo&rsquoI am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend &lsquoWithin your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me.&rsquo&rdquo In his fallen state Albion rejects this close union with God and dismisses Jesus as the &ldquoPhantom of the overheated brain!&rdquo Driven by jealousy Albion hides his emanation, Jerusalem. Separation from God leads to further separation into countless male and female forms creating endless division and dispute.

Blake describes the fallen state of man by describing the present day. Interwoven into the mythology are references to present-day London. In chapter two the &ldquodisease of Albion&rdquo leads to further separation and decay. As the human body is a limited form of its divine origin, the cities of England are limited representations of the Universal Brotherhood of Man. Fortunately for man, there is &ldquoa limit of contraction,&rdquo and the fall must come to an end.

Caught by the errors of sin and vengeance, Albion gives up hope and dies. The flawed religions of moral law cannot save him: &ldquoThe Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions, / Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix&rsquod into furrows of death.&rdquo Our limited senses make us think of our lives as bounded by time and space apart from eternity. In such a framework physical death marks the end of existence. But there is also a limit to death, and Albion&rsquos body is preserved by the Savior.


Watch the video: The Life of Poet William Blake documentary 1995 (October 2022).

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