William Blake – Early LifeWilliam Blake was born on 28 November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick St.) in Soho, London. He was the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy, to James and Catherine Blake (née Wright). Blake was baptised on 11 December at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London, even though the Blakes were English Dissenters. Blake attended school only long enough to learn how to read and write. He left at the age of ten and was educated at home by his mother, before being enrolled in drawing classes at Henry Pars’ drawing school in the Strand. Throughout his childhood, Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father. The amount of prints that were bought for Blake suggests that the family were fairly well off, at least for some time. Through these drawings and engravings, Blake was introduced to the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Maarten van Heemskerck and Albrecht Dürer. He also enjoyed reading and began to discover poetry in his youth.
ApprenticeshipOn 4 August 1772, Blake became an apprentice to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street. He was paid £52.10, for a term of seven years, which took him to the age of 21. Basire would send Blake to the Gothic churches in London to copy images, and images in Westminster Abbey helped Blake to form his artistic style and ideas. Here, he would sometimes see the boys from Westminster School, who were allowed in the Abbey, and they would torment him. Blake claimed that he experienced visions in the Abbey. He saw Christ with his Apostles and a great procession of monks and priests, and heard their chant. These visions are something he claimed to see often throughout his entire life. Upon completing his seven year apprenticeship, Blake became a professional engraver.
Royal AcademyBlake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand, on 8 October 1779. He did not have to pay to study here, but was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year study period. During this time, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens. This style was championed by the school’s first president, Joshua Reynolds, whom Blake did not agree with. He preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael, instead of oil paintings that Reynolds was a fan of. During his first year at the Academy, Blake became friends with John Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, with whom he shared radical views.
MarriageIn 1782, Blake met Catherine Boucher. At the time, he was recovering from a relationship — he had proposed marriage but she had refused. He married Catherine on 18 August 1782 in St Mary’s Church, Battersea. Catherine was five years Blake’s junior and was illiterate, marking her wedding certificate with an X. Blake taught Catherine to read and write, as well as teaching her how to engrave. She helped him throughout his life by helping to print his illuminated works. Their marriage was happy and the couple stayed devoted to each other until Blake’s death.
Early Career and First PoemsBlake’s first poems, a collection named Poetical Sketches, were printed around 1783. In 1784, he opened a print shop with his fellow former apprentice James Parker, and they began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s home became a meeting place for English intellectual dissidents of the time: theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, philosopher Richard Price, artist John Henry Fuseli, early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and English revolutionary Thomas Paine. The same year, Blake composed his unfinished manuscript An Island in the Moon. Blake illustrated Original Stories from Real Life (2nd edition, 1791) by Mary Wollstonecraft. They seem to have shared some views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage, with Blake condemning the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love in his 1793 poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion.
Relief Etching and EngravingsAt the age of 31, in 1788, Blake began to experiment with relief etching, which he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. The process, also known as illuminated printing, involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. He then etched the plates in acid to dissolve the untreated copper, which left the design standing in relief. Blake used this method to produce his illuminated books more quickly than via intaglio. He used this method for many of his famous works, including Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Jerusalem. While Blake is best known for his relief etchings, his commercial work largely surrounded engravings. This process, intaglio engraving, was the standard process of engraving in the 18th century and included the artist incising an image into the copper plate. This was laborious and often took months or years to complete.
Move To FelpamFrom 1790 to 1800, Blake lived in North Lambeth, London, at 13 Hercules Buildings, Hercules Road. However, in 1800, he moved to a cottage at Felpham, in Sussex (now West Sussex). He made the move in order to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a minor poet. However, over time, Blake began to resent his new patron, believing that Hayley was uninterested in true artistry. It was in this cottage that Blake began Milton (the title page is dated 1804, but Blake continued to work on it until 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”. In 1803, Blake was involved with a physical altercation with a soldier, John Schofield. Blake was charged not only with assault, but with uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the king. He was cleared in the Chichester assizes of the charges.
LondonIn 1804, Blake returned to London and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804–20). He decided he wanted to portray the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and approached the dealer Robert Cromek, with a view to marketing an engraving. However, knowing Blake was too eccentric to produce a popular work, Cromek commissioned Blake’s friend Thomas Stothard to engrave the concept. Blake then promptly broke off contact with Stothard. Instead, he set up an independent exhibition in his brother’s haberdashery shop at 27 Broad Street in Soho. The exhibition was designed to market his own version of the Canterbury illustration (titled The Canterbury Pilgrims), along with other works. As a result, he wrote his Descriptive Catalogue (1809). It contained analysis’ of Chaucer and detailed explanations of his other paintings. Despite this, the exhibition was very poorly attended, selling none of the temperas or watercolours. Its only review the exhibition received, in The Examiner, was unfavourable. In 1818, Blake was introduced to John Linnell, a young artist. He was introduced by George Cumberland’s son. Through Linnell, Blake met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the Shoreham Ancients. The group shared Blake’s rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age.
Later WorkAt the age of 65, Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job. He also began to sell a number of his works later in life, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend than a man whose work held artistic merit. In 1826, Blake was commissioned by Linnell to engrave Dante’s Divine Comedy. The illustrations of the poem are not just accompanying works, but rather seem to critically revise certain spiritual or moral aspects of the text. However, Blake seemed to disagree with Dante’s admiration of the poetic works of ancient Greece. That being said, they did share the distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power. Blake’s work on Divine Comedy was never finished before his death, with only a handful of watercolours completed, and only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form.
DeathBlake died 12 August 1827. On that day, he worked tirelessly on his Dante series, but died that evening. His wife, Catherine, paid for the funeral with money lent to her by Linnell. Blake’s body was buried in a plot shared with others, five days after his death, on the eve of his 45th wedding anniversary, at the Dissenter’s burial ground in Bunhill Fields, in what is today the London Borough of Islington. Blake’s parents’ bodies were buried in the same graveyard. Present at the ceremonies were Catherine, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, Frederick Tatham and Linnell. Following Blake’s death, Catherine moved into Tatham’s house as a housekeeper. She believed she was regularly visited by Blake’s spirit. She continued selling his illuminated works and paintings, but died four years later, in October 1831. After Catherine died, longtime acquaintance Frederick Tatham took possession of Blake’s works and continued selling them.
Most Famous Works
Songs of Innocence and of ExperienceSongs of Innocence and of Experience is a collection of illustrated poems that appeared in two phases: a few first copies were printed and illuminated by Blake himself in 1789, and five years later he bound these poems with a set of new poems in a volume titled Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. “Innocence” and “Experience” are definitions of consciousness that rethink Milton’s existential-mythic states of “Paradise” and “Fall”. Blake juxtaposes the innocent, pastoral world of childhood against an adult world of corruption and repression, allowing the reader two different perspectives on the world. Many of the poems fall into pairs, so that the same situation or problem is seen through the lens of innocence first and then experience.
The Marriage of Heaven and HellThe Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a series of texts written in imitation of biblical prophecy but expressing Blake’s own personal Romantic and revolutionary beliefs. It was composed between 1790 and 1793 and describes the poet’s visit to Hell, a device adopted by Blake from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The book is written in prose, except for the opening “Argument” and the “Song of Liberty”.
The Four ZoasVala, or The Four Zoas is one of the uncompleted prophet books by Blake, which he started in 1797. The main characters of the book are the Four Zoas (Urthona, Urizen, Luvah and Tharmas), who were created by the fall of Albion in Blake’s mythology. It consists of nine books, referred to as “nights”, which outline the interactions of the Zoas, their fallen forms and their Emanations. Blake intended the book to be a summary of his mythic universe but he was dissatisfied with the work and abandoned it in 1807. Therefore, the poem is in a rough draft and the engraving is unfinished.
JerusalemJerusalem, subtitled The Emanation of the Giant Albion, was written between 1804 and 1820 and is the last, longest and greatest of Blake’s prophet books. It tells the story of the fall of Albion, Blake’s embodiment of man, Britain or the western world as a whole, and takes the form of a “drama of the psyche”. Blake etched this poem and created accompanying small sketches, marginal figures and huge full-plate illustrations. He believed it was his masterpiece, but only 6 copies were printed in his lifetime. The lyric to the famous hymn Jerusalem (text by Blake, with music by Sir Hubert Parry) is not connected to this poem. It is in fact taken from the preface to Blake’s “prophetic book”, Milton.
MiltonMilton is an epic poem by Blake, written and illustrated between 1804 and 1810. Its hero is John Milton, who returns from Heaven and unites with Blake to explore the relationship between living writers and their predecessors, and to undergo a mystical journey to correct his own spiritual errors.
PoliticalBlake was not active in any well-established political party, but many of his poems rebel against the abuse of class power. He was concerned with the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and many of his poems explore the effects of the French and American revolutions. Blake was also heavily anti-slavery and believed in sexual equality for all.
ReligiousCritics who have studied Blake’s works see a development of his views and a contrast between his earlier work and his later work, particularly in regards to religion. His earlier work can be seen as a protest against dogmatic religion, and is primarily rebellious, while his later work he creates a vision of a humanity redeemed by self-sacrifice and forgiveness, while still keeping his strong views on the rigidness of traditional religion. While Blake’s views were shocking in their own day, he did not reject all region. Blake believed Jesus symbolises the vital relationship and unity between divinity and humanity. However, he believed that orthodox Christianity encouraged the suppression of natural desires and discouraged earthly joy. Blake also had a complex relationship with Enlightenment philosophy — although he believed the imagination as the most important element of human existence, this actually ran contrary to Enlightenment ideals of rationalism and empiricism.
SexualityBlake is sometimes considered (along with Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband William Godwin) a forerunner of the 19th-century “free love” movement. This was a broad reform tradition starting in the 1820s that held that marriage is slavery, and advocated the removal of all state restrictions on sexual activity such as homosexuality, prostitution, and adultery. This culminated in the birth control movement of the early 20th century. While the “free love” movement was not particularly focused on the idea of multiple partners, Blake agreed with Wollstonecraft that state-sanctioned marriage was “legal prostitution”. Because of Catherine’s apparent inability to bear children, Blake directly advocated bringing a second wife into the house.
Historical SignificanceBlake’s poetry was not well received during his lifetime. At the time of his death, he had sold less than thirty copies of Songs of Innocence. After Blake’s death, some of his manuscripts were burnt. This was due to the influence of conservative members of that church that burned manuscripts that he deemed heretical. William Michael Rossetti also burned works by Blake that he considered lacking in quality, and John Linnell erased sexual imagery from a number of Blake’s drawings. His work remained neglected for almost a generation after his death and it was during the Modernist period that this work began to influence a wider set of writers and artists, including William Butler Yeats. Blake has become an important Romantic poet and is known for his views on class system, religion and issues such as slavery, and he has continued to influence writers into the twentieth century.
List Of Works
- Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
- Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
- The Book of Thel (written 1788–1790, edited 1789–1793)
- The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790–1793)
- Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
- Continental prophecies
- America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
- Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794–1821)
- The Song of Los (edited 1795)
- There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794–1795)
- The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794–1818)
- All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
- The Book of Los (edited 1795)
- The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
- Milton (written 1804–1810)
- Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804–1820 additions even later, edited 1820–1827 and 1832)
- Poetical Sketches (written 1769–1777, edited 1783 and 1868 as a volume)
- An Island in the Moon (written 1784, unfinished)
- The French Revolution (edited 1791)
- A Song of Liberty (edited 1792, published in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
- The Four Zoas (written 1797–1807, unfinished)
- Tiriel (written c. 1789, edited 1874)
Illustrated by Blake
- Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
- John Gay, Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
- Gottfried August Bürger, Leonora
- Edward Young, Night-Thoughts (1797)
- Thomas Gray, Poems (1798)
- Robert Blair, The Grave (1805–1808)
- John Milton, Paradise Lost (1808)
- John Varley, Visionary Heads (1819–1820)
- Robert John Thornton, Virgil (1821)
- The Book of Job (1823–1826)
- John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–1827, unfinished)
- Dante, Divine Comedy (1825–1827, unfinished)
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