Blake, William

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Blake, William (1757-1827): English Poet and Artist.

William Blake was an early Romantic writer and engraver. Though he died in relative obscurity, estimation of Blake began to increase in the late nineteenth century until he gained his present reputation as a premiere poet and visionary for the Romantic period. Blake's typically pious upbringing was influenced by mystic visions of angels. His life as a native Londoner, combined with his dissatisfaction with contemporary poetic and artistic productions, led to the production of innovative poetry, produced using equally original techniques of artistic engraving. Similarly dissatisfied with the major religious systems of his day, Blake’s mature work includes the production of his own comprehensive theological system. Though his direct influence on his contemporaries is uncertain, today he is nonetheless considered a major figure of the English Romantic movement.

As a youth, Blake trained as a draughtsman, then as an engraver, and early in life had intentions of a career as a painter. Though he was, in one sense, a devoted scholar—voraciously reading books of his own choosing—he never received any formal literary education. In Blake’s early childhood, he experienced mystic visions of angels and other phenomena, which would exert a clear influence on his future work. In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher, the uneducated daughter of a market gardener. Blake’s poetry, relating the possessive and demanding character of the feminine will, suggests that the marriage, which was childless, was also troubled. The death of Blake's brother Robert, in 1787, likely inspired him to further mysticism, and he was influenced as well by the writings of mystic theologian Swedenborg, Emanuel, whom Blake later rejected, however, in composing his own visionary work. In his final years, Blake restricted himself mostly to commissioned pieces, providing illustrations primarily for religious oriented texts.

His first volume of poetry, Poetical Sketches, was printed as a normal text in 1783, gaining him little distinction as a poet. But by 1789, with the release of The Book of Thel, Blake demonstrated his unique talent for poetic engraving. He drew his artistic designs and text in reverse, onto copper plates with a varnish that was resistant to acid. After being acid-washed, the treated text and design remained, standing in relief as a plate ready for printing. After printing, each sheet was individually colored by hand. In an era when texts were disseminated with an increasing ease of production and duplication, Blake’s labor intensive works went against the grain, and while no serious scholar today would analyze his texts without the inclusion of his artwork, the immediate result of this labor was that there were few editions of his work to be circulated.

Blake's Songs of Innocence were composed in 1789. While the poems were ostensibly intended for children, Blake would later collect them with Songs of Experience, produced in 1793. The result is a reflection upon individual states of existence, innocence leading to experience, though critics have also interpreted the poems as a reflection on the optimism of the 1789 French Revolution and the subsequently disappointing “Reign of Terror” in the years that followed. The Innocence poems reflect the enthusiasm, spontaneity, and energy for which Blake is well known. The Experience poems, some of which have the same titles as their Innocence counterparts, are not simple contrasts, however, but rather form a sophisticated dialogue with the prior works; these poems are still the subject of contemporary debate and criticism. The varying themes of these works, including man’s fall from grace and his capacity for divinity, would become enduring subjects in Blake’s poetry.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) marked the beginning of Blake's attempt to produce a sophisticated mythical universe. Specifically, the work is both a response to Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell and a critique of its principles. Blake saw concepts such as heaven and hell, good and evil, as potentially limiting systems of understanding. Sin, in Blake's eyes, exists only in the repression of human desire, or the failure to recognize the divine nature of desire. In elaborating these ideas, Blake stood in opposition to the standard Christian ideology of the time, proclaiming that transgression was necessary for growth, and Sin a necessary constituent of the divine within Man.

In 1793, Blake continued his exposition on the universe with Visions of the Daughters of Albion, a work likely influenced by Wollstonecraft, Mary's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and somewhat similar in its stance of liberation. In The Book of Urizen (1794), Blake began even more earnestly to delineate the specifics of his universal vision. In Urizen, Blake's version of the Book of Genesis, he developed an idea of the world of mankind, and man's perceptions, as shaped by degeneration and fragmentation from a original divine unity. For Blake, man's goal on earth is the recognition and reclamation of the lost divine nature that he already possesses. Vala, or The Four Zoas (1797, subsequent revisions 1802, 1807), followed by Milton (1804-1808?), and Jerusalem (1804-1820?), developed these ideas in full. In later years, his production of poetry declined, but his ties to the artistic community, generated after years of work in his field, resulted in work on a series of commissioned illustrations of religiously oriented texts, including illustrations of Dante, Milton, and the Book of Job.

Blake’s enthusiasm, combined with his lack of formal education, marked him as a natural and energetic poet and artist, held in distinction from the formal, elegant artistry otherwise championed in late eighteenth century Augustan literature and art. Contemporary editions of Blake’s work often include the color plates necessary to observe the full strength of his artistry and the startling differences between Blake and his contemporaries.

Further Reading:

Peter Ackroyd, Blake, 1995.

David Worral, ed., The Urizen Books, 1995.

Steven Zani

Lamar University