Blake's father, a prosperous hosier, encouraged young Blake's artistic tastes and sent him to drawing school. At 14 he was apprenticed to James Basire, an engraver, with whom he stayed until 1778. After attending the Royal Academy, where he rebelled against the school's stifling atmosphere, he set up as an engraver. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, whom he taught to read, write, and draw. She became his inseparable companion, assisting him in nearly all his work.
Blake's life, except for three years at Felpham where he prepared illustrations for an edition of Cowper, was spent in London. Poetical Sketches (1783), his first book, was the only one published conventionally during his lifetime. He engraved and published all his other major poetry himself (the rest remained in manuscript), for which he originated a method of engraving text and illustration on the same plate. Neither Blake's artwork nor his poetry enjoyed commercial or critical success until long after his death.
Blake's paintings and engravings, notably his illustrations of his own works, works by Milton, and of the Book of Job, are painstakingly realistic in their representation of human anatomy and other natural forms. They are also radiantly imaginative, often depicting fanciful creatures in exacting detail. Nearly unknown during his life, Blake was generally dismissed as an eccentric or worse long thereafter. His following has gradually increased, and today he is widely appreciated as a visual artist and as a poet.
In Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) the world is seen from a child's point of view, directly and simply but without sentimentality. In the first group, which includes such poems as "The Lamb," "Infant Joy," and "Laughing Songs," both the beauty and the pain of life are captured. The latter group, which includes "The Tyger," "Infant Sorrow," "The Sick Rose," and "London," reveal a consciousness of cruelty and injustice in the world, for which people, not fate, are responsible. As parables of adult life the Songs are rich in meaning and implication.
Blake's Prophetic Books combine poetry, vision, prophecy, and exhortation. They include The Book of Thel (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1790), The French Revolution (1791), America (1793), Europe (1794), The Book of Urizon (1794), The Book of Los (1795), Milton (1804-8), and Jerusalem (1804-20). These comprise no less than a vision of the whole of human life, in which energy and imagination struggle with the forces of oppression both physical and mental. Blake exalted love and pure liberty, and abhorred the reductive, rationalist philosophy that served to justify the political and economic inequities attendant upon the Industrial Revolution.
The Prophetic Books are founded in the real world, as are Blake's passions and anger, but they appear abstruse because they are ordered by a mythology devised by the poet, which draw from Swedenborg, Jacob Boehme, and other mystical sources. Despite this, and despite the fact that from childhood on Blake was a mystic who thought it quite natural to see and converse with angels and Old Testament prophets, he by no means forsook concrete reality for a mystical life of the spirit. On the contrary, reality, whose center was human life, was for Blake inseparable from imagination. The spiritual, indeed God himself, was an expression of the human.
See his complete writings, ed. by G. Keynes (rev. ed. 1966); his letters, ed. by G. Keynes (2d ed. 1968); his notebook, ed. by D. V. Erdman (1973); his complete illuminated books, ed. by D. Bindman (2000); biographies by M. Wilson, ed. by G. Keynes (3d ed. 1971), and P. Ackroyd (1996); studies by K. J. Raine (2 vol., 1968), D. V. Erdman (2d ed. 1969), G. Keynes (2d ed. 1971), D. G. Gillham (1973), D. Wagenknecht (1973), A. K. Mellor (1974), G. E. Bentley, ed. (1975), and J. Witke (1986); N. Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947); A. Blunt, The Art of William Blake (1959); D. V. Erdman and J. E. Grant, ed., Blake's Visionary Forms Dramatic (1970); R. J. Bertholf and A. S. Levitt, ed., William Blake and the Moderns (1982).
William Blake, watercolour portrait by John Linnell; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
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Considered mad for his idiosyncratic views by contemporaries, later criticism regards Blake highly for his expressiveness and creativity, as well as the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterized as part of both the Romantic movement and "Pre-Romantic", for its largely having appeared in the 18th century. Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the established Church, Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions, as well as by such thinkers as Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg.
Despite these known influences, the originality and singularity of Blake's work make him difficult to classify. The 19th century scholar William Rossetti characterised Blake as a "glorious luminary, and "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 in 28A Broad Street, Golden Square, London, England on 28 November 1757, to a middle-class family. He was the third of 7 children, two of whom died in infancy. Blake's father, James, was a hosier. William never attended school, and was educated at home by his mother. 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 began 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.
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—and 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 (it is possible that this task was set in order to break up a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice), and his experiences in Westminster Abbey contributed to the formation of 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".
Despite Gilchrist's insistence that Blake was "forced" to accompany the crowd, some biographers have argued that he accompanied it impulsively, or supported it as a revolutionary act. In contrast, Jerome McGann argues that the riots were reactionary, and that events would have provoked "disgust" in Blake.
In 1782, Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron, and Catherine Boucher, who was to become his wife. At the time, Blake was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. Telling Catherine and her parents the story, she expressed her sympathy, whereupon Blake asked her, "Do you pity me?" To Catherine's affirmative response he responded, "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'. 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.
At this time George Cumberland, one of the founders of the National Gallery, became an admirer of Blake's work. Blake's first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was published circa 1783. After his father's death, William and his brother Robert opened a print shop in 1784, and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson's house was a place of meeting for some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time in England: Joseph Priestley, scientist; Richard Price, philosopher; John Henry Fuseli; Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist; and Thomas Paine, American revolutionary. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the American and French revolution and wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in the French revolution.
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.
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 of course his poems, including his longer 'prophecies' and his masterpiece the "Bible." 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 in order to dissolve away 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 invented, later became an important commercial printing method. 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.
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 wrote Milton: a Poem (published between 1805 and 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 disinterested in true artistry, and preoccupied with "the meer drudgery of business". Blake's disenchantment with Hayley has been speculated to have influenced Milton: a Poem, in which Blake wrote that "Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies" (3:26).
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. 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.
Blake returned to London in 1804 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804–1820), his most ambitious work. Having conceived the idea of portraying the characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims, 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 Thomas Stothard to execute the concept. When Blake learned that he had been cheated, he broke off contact with Stothard, formerly a friend. He also set up an independent exhibition in his brother's shop, designed to market his own version of the Chaucer illustration, 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.
He was introduced by George Cumberland 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.
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. In illustrating Paradise Lost, for instance, Blake seemed intent on revising Milton's focus on Satan as the central figure of the epic; for example, in Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808), Satan occupies an isolated position at the picture's top, with Adam and Eve centered below. As if to emphasise the effects of the juxtaposition, Blake has shown Adam and Eve caught in an embrace, whereas Satan may only onanistically caress the serpent, whose identity he is close to assuming.
In this instance, 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 the ancient Greeks, 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.
Since 1965, the exact location of William Blake's grave had been lost and forgotten, while gravestones were taken away to create a new lawn. Nowadays, William Blake’s grave is commemorated by a stone that reads "Near by lie the remains of the Poet-Painter William Blake 1757-1827 and his wife Catherine Sophia 1762-1831". This memorial stone is situated approximately 20 metres away from William Blake’s grave. The actual spot of Blake’s grave is not marked. However, members the group Friends of William Blake have rediscovered the location of Blake's grave and intend to place a permanent memorial at the site.
He died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ — Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.
Catherine paid for Blake's funeral with money lent to her by Linnell. He was buried five days after his death – on the eve of his forty-fifth wedding anniversary – at the Dissenter's burial ground in Bunhill Fields, where his parents were also interred. Present at the ceremonies were Catherine, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, Frederick Tatham and John Linnell. Following Blake's death, Catherine moved into Tatham's house as a housekeeper. During this period, she believed she was regularly visited by Blake's spirit. She continued selling his illuminated works and paintings, but would entertain no business transaction without first "consulting Mr. Blake". On the day of her own death, in October 1831, she was as calm and cheerful as her husband, and called out to him "as if he were only in the next room, to say she was coming to him, and it would not be long now".
On her death, Blake's manuscripts were inherited by Frederick Tatham, who burned several of those which he deemed heretical or too politically radical. Tatham had become an Irvingite, one of the many fundamentalist movements of the 19th century, and was severely opposed to any work that smacked of blasphemy. Sexual imagery in a number of Blake's drawings was also erased by John Linnell. Blake is now recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. The Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour in Australia in 1949. In 1957 a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey, in memory of him and his wife.
Although Blake's attacks on conventional religion were shocking in his own day, his rejection of religiosity was not a rejection of religion per se. His view of orthodoxy is evident in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a series of texts written in imitation of Biblical prophecy. Therein, Blake lists several Proverbs of Hell, amongst which are the following:
Jesus, for Blake, symbolises the vital relationship and unity between divinity and humanity: "[A]ll had originally one language and one religion: this was the religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel. Antiquity preaches the Gospel of Jesus."
Blake designed his own mythology, which appears largely in his prophetic books. Within these Blake describes a number of characters, including 'Urizen', 'Enitharmon', 'Bromion' and 'Luvah'. This mythology seems to have a basis in the Bible and in Greek mythology, and it accompanies his ideas about the everlasting Gospel.
|"I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create."|
|Words uttered by Los in Blake's Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.|
One of Blake's strongest objections to orthodox Christianity is that he felt it encouraged the suppression of natural desires and discouraged earthly joy. In A Vision of the Last Judgement, Blake says that:
Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern'd their Passions or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion, but Realities of Intellect, from which all the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their Eternal Glory.
One may also note his words concerning religion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
- 1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
- 2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
- 3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True
- 1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
- 2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
- 3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
Blake does not subscribe to the notion of a distinct body from the soul, and which must submit to the rule of soul, but rather sees body as an extension of soul derived from the 'discernment' of the senses. Thus, the emphasis orthodoxy places upon the denial of bodily urges is a dualistic error born of misapprehension of the relationship between body and soul; elsewhere, he describes Satan as the 'State of Error', and as being beyond salvation.
Blake opposed the sophistry of theological thought that excuses pain, admits evil and apologises for injustice. He abhorred self-denial, which he associated with religious repression and particularly with sexual repression: "Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. / He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence. He saw the concept of 'sin' as a trap to bind men’s desires (the briars of Garden of Love), and believed that restraint in obedience to a moral code imposed from the outside was against the spirit of life:
He did not hold with the doctrine of God as Lord, an entity separate from and superior to mankind; this is shown clearly in his words about Jesus Christ: "He is the only God ... and so am I, and so are you." A telling phrase in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is "men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast". This is very much in line with his belief in liberty and equality in society and between the sexes.
Blake had a complex relationship with the Enlightenment philosophy.
Blake also believed that the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which depict the naturalistic fall of light upon objects, were products entirely of the "vegetative eye", and he saw Locke and Newton as "the true progenitors of Sir Joshua Reynolds' aesthetic. The popular taste in the England of that time for such paintings was satisfied with mezzotints, prints produced by a process that created an image from thousands of tiny dots upon the page. Blake saw an analogy between this and Newton's particle theory of light, and significantly never used the technique..
Instead, Blake developed a method of engraving purely in fluid line, insisting that
Despite his opposition to Enlightenment principles, Blake thus arrived at a linear aesthetic that was in many ways more similar to the Neoclassical engravings of John Flaxman than to the works of the Romantics, with whom he is often classified.
Therefore Blake has also been viewed as an enlightenment poet and artist, in the sense that he was in accord with that movement's rejection of received ideas, systems, authorities and traditions. On the other hand, he was critical of what he perceived as the elevation of reason to the status of an oppressive authority. In his criticism of reason, law and uniformity Blake has been taken to be opposed to the enlightenment, but it has also been argued that, in a dialectical sense, he used the enlightenment spirit of rejection of external authority to criticize narrow conceptions of the enlightenment.
Blake abhorred slavery and believed in racial and sexual equality. Several of his poems and paintings express a notion of universal humanity: "As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various)". In one poem, narrated by a black child, white and black bodies alike are described as shaded groves or clouds, which exist only until one learns "to bear the beams of love":
Blake retained an active interest in social and political events for all his life, often cloaking social and political statements in mystical allegory. His views on what he saw as oppression and restriction of rightful freedom extended to the Church. His spiritual beliefs are evidenced in Songs of Experience (1794), in which he distinguishes between the Old Testament God, whose restrictions he rejected, and the New Testament God (Jesus Christ in Trinitarianism), whom he saw as a positive influence.
Blake claimed to experience visions throughout his life. They were often associated with beautiful religious themes and imagery, and therefore may have inspired him further with spiritual works and pursuits. Certainly, religious concepts and imagery figure centrally in Blake's works. God and Christianity constituted the intellectual centre of his writings, from which he drew inspiration. In addition, Blake believed that he was personally instructed and encouraged by Archangels to create his artistic works, which he claimed were actively read and enjoyed by those same Archangels. In a letter to William Hayley, dated May 6, 1800, Blake writes:
I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.
In a letter to John Flaxman, dated September 21, 1800, Blake writes:
[The town of] 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; voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen; & my Cottage is also a Shadow of their houses. My Wife & Sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace... I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels.
In a letter to Thomas Butts, dated April 25, 1803, Blake writes:
Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy'd, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv'd & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends.
In A Vision of the Last Judgement Blake writes:
Error is Created. Truth is Eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it. I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. "What," it will be Question'd, "When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?" Oh no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.' I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning Sight. I look thro' it & not with it.
D.C.Williams (1899-1983) said that Blake was a romantic with a critical view on the world, he maintained that Blake's Songs of Innocence were made as a view of an ideal, somewhat Utopian view whereas he used the Songs of Experience in order to show the suffering and loss posed by the nature of society and the world of his time.