William Blake

November 6, 2012 2:24 pm
William Blake (1757-1827), English poet, painter, and engraver, who created an unusual 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(stocking-maker), 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 (see Swedenborg, Emanuel). 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. The young Blake had to draw monuments in the old churches of London, a task he thoroughly enjoyed.
After his seven-year apprenticeship was over, Blake studied briefly at the Royal Academy, but he rebelled against the aesthetic doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds was a neoclassicist who took a very academic approach to the study of art. Blake preferred to draw from his imagination. At the Royal Academy Blake did, however, establish friendships with such artists as John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli, whose work may have influenced him.
In 1784 Blake married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a gardener, who proved a devoted wife. The Blakes set up a print shop; 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 is remembered today.
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EARLY POETRY
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.
In 1789, unable to find a publisher for his Songs of Innocence, Blake and his wife engraved and printed the work at home. This was the first large work created in his novel method of “illuminated printing,” which combined text and decorations on a single etched plate. Blake’s most popular poems have always been Songs of Innocence, and the volume displays characteristics that become more marked in Blake’s later work. It is written in a lyric style of great freshness, simplicity, and directness. Here are the first verses of the “Nurse’s Song” from 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.

Then come home, my children, the Sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise,
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.

In 1794, disillusioned by the apparent impossibility of human perfection, Blake issued Songs of Experience, employing the same lyric style, and often using the same titles and themes as in Songs of Innocence, but perverting the sing-song rhythms so that the verses seem sinister and resonant with a darker meaning. Here is the “Nurse’s Song” from Songs of Experience:

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And whisp’rings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

Then come home my children, the Sun is gone down,
And the dews of the night arise;
Your spring & your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.

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.
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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 (Romanticism). His favorite tenet was that “all things exist in the human imagination alone.” In his graphic art, too, he shunned 18th-century conventions and felt that ideal forms should be constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions. His style made great use of the line in repudiation of the painterly academic style. Blake’s attenuated, fantastic figures refer back to the medieval tomb sculptures he copied as an apprentice. The influence of Michelangelo is 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 published.
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THE PROPHETIC BOOKS
In his so-called Prophetic Books, a series of longer poems written from 1789 on, Blake created a complex 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 freethinkers as political theorist Thomas Paine and writer 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” (1803?). Among the Prophetic Books is a prose work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), 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 of instruction.”
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.
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OTHER WORKS
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 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 The Divine Comedy.
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