William Blake was an English poet, painter, and engraver who created a unique form of
illustrated verse; his poetry, inspired by mystical vision, is among the most original lyric
and prophetic in the language.
Blake, the son of a hosier, was born November 28, 1757, in London, where he lived most
of his life. Largely self-taught, he was, however, widely read, and his poetry shows the
influence of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, for example, and of Swedenborgianism. As a child, Blake
wanted to become a painter. He was sent to drawing school and at the age of 14 was apprenticed to James
Basire, an engraver. After his 7-year term was over, he studied briefly at the Royal Academy, but he rebelled
against the aesthetic doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Blake did, however, later establish
friendships with such academicians as John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli, whose work may have influenced him.
In 1784 he set up a printshop; although it failed after a few years, for the rest of his life Blake eked out
a living as an engraver and illustrator. His wife helped him print the illuminated poetry for which he
Blake began writing poetry at the age of 12, and his first printed work, Poetical Sketches (1783), is a
collection of youthful verse. Amid its traditional, derivative elements are hints of his later innovative
style and themes. As with all his poetry, this volume reached few contemporary readers. Blake's most
popular poems have always been Songs of Innocence (1789). These lyrics—fresh, direct observations—are
notable for their eloquence. In 1794, disillusioned with the possibility of human perfection, Blake issued Songs of Experience, employing the same lyric style and much of the same subject matter as in Songs
of Innocence. Both series of poems take on deeper resonances when read in conjunction. Innocence and Experience, “the two contrary states of the human soul,” are contrasted in such companion pieces as
“The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” Blake's subsequent poetry develops the implication that true innocence
is impossible without experience, transformed by the creative force of the human imagination.
Blake as Artist
As was to be Blake's custom, he illustrated the Songs with designs that demand an imaginative reading
of the complicated dialogue between word and picture. His method of illuminated printing is not completely understood. The most likely explanation is that he wrote the words and drew the pictures for each poem on a copper plate, using some liquid impervious to acid, which when applied left text and illustration in relief. Ink or a color wash was then applied, and the printed picture was finished by hand in watercolors.
Blake has been called a preromantic because he rejected neoclassical literary style and modes of thought.
His graphic art too defied 18th-century conventions. Always stressing imagination over reason, he felt that ideal forms should be constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions. His rhythmically patterned linear style is also a repudiation of the painterly academic style. Blake's attenuated, fantastic
figures go back, instead, to the medieval tomb statuary he copied as an apprentice and to Mannerist sources. The influence of Michelangelo is especially evident in the radical foreshortening and exaggerated muscular
form in one of his best-known illustrations, popularly known as The Ancient of Days, the frontispiece to
his poem Europe, a Prophecy (1794).
Much of Blake's painting was on religious subjects: illustrations for the work of John Milton, his favorite poet (although he rejected Milton's Puritanism), for John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and for the Bible, including 21 illustrations to the Book of Job. Among his secular illustrations were those for an edition
of Thomas Gray's poems and the 537 watercolors for Edward Young's Night Thoughts—only 43 of which were
The Prophetic Books
In his so-called Prophetic Books, a series of longer poems written from 1789 on, Blake created a comple personal mythology and invented his own symbolic characters to reflect his social concerns. A true
original in thought and expression, he declared in one of these poems, “I must create a system or be
enslaved by another man's.” Blake was a nonconformist radical who numbered among his associates such
English freethinkers as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. Poems such as The French Revolution (1791), America, a Prophecy (1793), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), and Europe, a Prophecy (1794)
express his condemnation of 18th-century political and social tyranny. Theological tyranny is the subject
of The Book of Urizen (1794), and the dreadful cycle set up by the mutual exploitation of the sexes is
vividly described in “The Mental Traveller” (circa 1803). Among the Prophetic Books is a prose work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), which develops Blake's idea that “without Contraries is no progression.” It includes the “Proverbs of Hell,” such as “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses
In 1800 Blake moved to the seacoast town of Felpham, where he lived and worked until 1803 under the patronage of William Hayley. There he experienced profound spiritual insights that prepared him for his mature work, the great visionary epics written and etched between about 1804 and 1820. Milton (1804-08), Vala, or The Four Zoas
(that is, aspects of the human soul, 1797; rewritten after 1800), and Jerusalem (1804-20) have neither
traditional plot, characters, rhyme, nor meter; the rhetorical free-verse lines demand new modes of reading.
They envision a new and higher kind of innocence, the human spirit triumphant over reason.
Blake's writings also include An Island in the Moon (1784), a rollicking satire on events in his early life; a
collection of letters; and a notebook containing sketches and some shorter poems dating between 1793 and
1818. It was called the Rossetti Manuscript, because it was acquired in 1847 by the English poet Dante
Gabriel Rossetti, one of the first to recognize Blake's genius.
Blake's final years, spent in great poverty, were cheered by the admiring friendship of a group of younger
artists. He died in London, August 12, 1827, leaving uncompleted a cycle of drawings inspired by Dante's