William Blake Life
William Blake was an English poet and artist who lived around 200 years ago. He was not well known by the public during his lifetime, but his fame began to grow some 50 years after his death.
Blake is a famous figure in British culture because he created a new kind of illustrated book, while the words and ideas of his poetry make for fascinating reading. He is also interesting because his work tells us something about the cultural changes that were starting to affect philosophy, art and literature at the end of the 18th century.
BLAKE’S EARLY LIFE
William Blake was born in London on November 28, 1757. His father was a hosier, someone who sold socks and stockings for a living. When he was a small child, William did not go to school, but he learnt to read and write at home. While he was growing up he wanted to become a painter and he was an avid collector of artistic prints (copies of paintings).
When William was ten years old he went to art school. Four years later he became an apprentice to an engraver, who trained him in printmaking. One of his tasks was to go around London drawing pictures of monuments in old churches, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
Engraving involved recreating pictures or words by scratching their outlines onto a flat piece of metal (called a plate) or wood (called a block). The plate or block was then covered with a thin layer of ink and wiped clear, so that the only ink left was in the grooves. When the plate or block was pressed against some paper it produced a print. Engravers were often highly talented people who could reproduce very detailed pictures with great skill and subtlety.
After his seven-year apprenticeship, Blake studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, but he did not like the strict teaching methods of its president, Joshua Reynolds. Blake preferred to draw from his imagination. Later he would use this imagination, and the engraving skills he had learned, to produce extraordinary illustrated versions of his poems.
In about 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher. They did not have any children, and she devoted herself to helping him with his engravings, when nobody else would publish his work.
BELIEFS—LIFE, ART, RELIGION AND POLITICS
Blake had rebellious beliefs. He rejected the ideals of the Enlightenment, which were based on the importance of education, science and reason. Instead he embraced the ideals of the new Romantic movement. The Romantics gave greater importance to the individual, imagination, freedom of thought and expression, and they held an idealized view of nature.
In art Blake chose to follow his own, very vivid imagination, instead of doing what everyone else was doing. He believed that imagination was a vital part of human existence. Today everyone is encouraged to use their imagination, but in Blake’s day, it was unusual for someone to give so much importance to it. He believed that he had visions, or hallucinations, and these visions guided his decisions about what he should do in life.
Blake also had an unusual view of Christianity. He was opposed to religions that had strict and severe rules. He felt religion should be a kinder and more open-minded force than it was in his day. He and his wife joined a small, new church led by the Christian preacher Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed to have had supernatural visions.
During Blake’s lifetime, Europe went through a period of major political upheaval. Unlike the majority of people in England, Blake agreed with many of the ideals held by the revolutionaries in America and France. The revolutionaries threw out the ruling monarchies and wanted political rule by the people. He explored these ideas in his political works such as The French Revolution (1791) and Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793).
Blake started to create his own visionary mythology in his poems, inventing imaginary worlds and symbolic characters, such as Urizen, who symbolized reason, and Orc, the spirit of revolution. He had a burning desire to express his own, highly original ideas, and even wrote in one poem, “I must Create a System, or be enslaved by another Man’s”.
Blake first developed his mythology in the volumes of poetry Songs of Innocence (1789) and The Book of Thel (1789), as well as in a book of prose The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793). “The Tyger”, one of his most famous poems, appeared in Songs of Experience (1794).
Blake’s poems have been much praised for their clarity and the lilting way in which they can be read aloud. A good example is “The Nurse’s Song”, which first appeared in Songs of Innocence:
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.
Blake was a great admirer of the earlier English poet John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost (1667). Blake was inspired by his works to write Milton (1804-1808) and Jerusalem (1804-1820). Blake’s style changed in these later poems, which did not have traditional plots, characters, rhyme or rhythm (metre), and described a new kind of innocence in which the human spirit was more powerful than reason.
Awake, Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion
Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time
For lo! the Night of Death is past and the Eternal Day
Appears upon our Hills. Awake, Jerusalem, and come away!
In 1821 Blake was asked to paint some illustrations for the Book of Job from the Bible. These watercolour illustrations are now among his most famous works of art. He was working on engraving illustrations to The Divine Comedy, by the Italian writer Dante, when he died in London on August 12, 1827.
Blake died a very poor man, disappointed at the lack of recognition he and his works had received. Those who knew him, regarded him as eccentric, or possibly mad, even if they did think he had talent. It was not until years after his death, in the 19th century, that people finally realized what a brilliant poet and man of ideas he had been.