William 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. Blake’s father, James, was a hosier. He attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing, leaving at the age of ten, and was otherwise educated at home by his mother Catherine Blake (née Wright). Even though the Blakes were English Dissenters, William was baptised on 11 December at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and remained a source of inspiration throughout his life.
Blake met Catherine Boucher in 1782 when he was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. He recounted the story of his heartbreak for Catherine and her parents, after which he asked Catherine, “Do you pity me?” When she responded affirmatively, he declared, “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. The original wedding certificate may be viewed at the church, where a commemorative stained-glass window was installed between 1976 and 1982. Later, in addition to teaching Catherine to read and write, Blake trained her as an engraver. Throughout his life she proved an invaluable aid, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes.
Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that was preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Maarten van Heemskerck and Albrecht Dürer. The number of prints and bound books that James and Catherine were able to purchase for young William suggests that the Blakes enjoyed, at least for a time, a comfortable wealth. When William was ten years old, his parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he was not sent to school but instead enrolled in drawing classes at Henry Pars’ drawing school in the Strand. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period, Blake made explorations into poetry; his early work displays knowledge of Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, and the Psalms.
Songs of Experience is a poetry collection of 26 poems forming the second part of William Blake‘s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The poems were published in 1794 (see 1794 in poetry). Some of the poems, such as “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found”, were moved by Blake to Songs of Innocence and were frequently moved between the two books.
Although Blake was considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, he is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterised as part of the Romantic movement and as “Pre-Romantic”. A committed Christian who was hostile to the Church of England (indeed, to almost all forms of organised religion), Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions. Though later he rejected many of these political beliefs, he maintained an amiable relationship with the political activist Thomas Paine; he was also influenced by thinkers such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake’s work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th-century scholar William Michael Rossetti characterised him 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”.
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)
Blake’s first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was printed around 1783. After his father’s death, Blake and former fellow apprentice James Parker opened a print shop in 1784, and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s house was a meeting-place for some leading 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. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the French and American revolutions and wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in France. In 1784 Blake composed his unfinished manuscript An Island in the Moon.
In 1788, aged 31, Blake experimented with relief etching, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. The process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and the finished 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 to dissolve the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name).
This is a reversal of the usual 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 referred to as “stereotype” in The Ghost of Abel) was intended as a means for producing his illuminated books more quickly than via intaglio. Stereotype, a process invented in 1725, consisted of making a metal cast from a wood engraving, but Blake’s innovation was, as described above, very different. The pages printed from these plates were hand-coloured in watercolours and stitched together to form a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Jerusalem.
From 1790 to 1800, William Blake lived in North Lambeth, London, at 13 Hercules Buildings, Hercules Road. The property was demolished in 1918, but the site is now marked with a plaque. There is a series of 70 mosaics commemorating Blake in the nearby railway tunnels of Waterloo Station. The mosaics largely reproduce illustrations from Blake’s illuminated books, The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the prophetic books.
Blake’s last years were spent at Fountain Court off the Strand (the property was demolished in the 1880s, when the Savoy Hotel was built). On the day of his death (12 August 1827), 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 house, present at his expiration, said, “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.”
Blake was not active in any well-established political party. His poetry consistently embodies an attitude of rebellion against the abuse of class power as documented in David Erdman’s major study Blake: Prophet Against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. Blake was concerned about senseless wars and the blighting effects of the Industrial Revolution. Much of his poetry recounts in symbolic allegory the effects of the French and American revolutions. Erdman claims Blake was disillusioned with the political outcomes of the conflicts, believing they had simply replaced monarchy with irresponsible mercantilism. Erdman also notes Blake was deeply opposed to slavery and believes some of his poems, read primarily as championing “free love“, had their anti-slavery implications short-changed.
Blake’s later writings show a renewed interest in Christianity, and although he radically reinterprets Christian morality in a way that embraces sensual pleasure, there is little of the emphasis on sexual libertarianism found in several of his early poems, and there is advocacy of “self-denial”, though such abnegation must be inspired by love rather than through authoritarian compulsion. Berger (more so than Swinburne) is especially sensitive to a shift in sensibility between the early Blake and the later Blake. Berger believes the young Blake placed too much emphasis on following impulses, and that the older Blake had a better formed ideal of a true love that sacrifices self. Some celebration of mystical sensuality remains in the late poems (most notably in Blake’s denial of the virginity of Jesus’s mother). However, the late poems also place a greater emphasis on forgiveness, redemption, and emotional authenticity as a foundation for relationships.
William Blake’s portrait in profile, by John Linnell. This larger version was painted to be engraved as the frontispiece of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of Blake (1863).
In 1818, he was introduced by George Cumberland’s son to a young artist named John Linnell. A blue plaque commemorates Blake and Linnell at Old Wyldes’ at North End, Hampstead. Through Linnell he 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. Aged 65, Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job, 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.
Blake’s work was neglected for a generation after his death and almost forgotten by the time Alexander Gilchrist began work on his biography in the 1860s. The publication of the Life of William Blake rapidly transformed Blake’s reputation, in particular as he was taken up by Pre-Raphaelites and associated figures, in particular Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne. In the 20th century, however, Blake’s work was fully appreciated and his influence increased. Important early and mid-20th-century scholars involved in enhancing Blake’s standing in literary and artistic circles included S. Foster Damon, Geoffrey Keynes, Northrop Frye, David V. Erdman and G. E. Bentley Jr.
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