Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Though largely
unrecognised during his lifetime, today Blake's work, produced in
partnership with his wife Catherine, is widely known. According
to Northrop Frye, who undertook a study of Blake's entire poetic
opus, his prophetic poems form "what is in proportion to its
merits the least read body of poetry in the [English] language".
Others have praised Blake's visual artistry, in particular his engravings:
"[Blake] is far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever
produced". In recent years, a memorial was erected for him
and his wife.
Blake's accomplishments in either poetry or in the visual arts
separately is to do him a disservice; Blake himself saw these
two disciplines as being companions in a unified spiritual endeavour,
and they are inseparable in a proper appreciation of his work.
His life is, perhaps, summed up by his statement that "The
imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself";
though this alone does not do justice to the originality of his
thought, nor the determination with which he pursued it.
Blake was born at 28a Broad Street, Golden Square, London into
a middle-class family. He was one of four children (an older brother
died in infancy). His father was a hosier and his mother was chiefly
in charge of her son's education. The Blakes were Dissenters and
are believed to have belonged to the Moravian sect. The Bible
was an early and profound influence on Blake, and would remain
a crucial source of inspiration throughout his life.
a young age Blake saw visions. The earliest certain instance was
when he was at the age of about eight or ten in Peckham Rye, London,
when he saw a tree filled with angels "bespangling every
bough like stars." According to Blake's Victorian biographer
Gilchrist, he returned home and reported this vision, and only
escaped a thrashing from his father by the intervention of his
mother. Though all the evidence suggests that Blake's parents
were supportive and of a broadly liberal bent, his mother seems
to have been especially supportive; several of Blake's early drawings
and poems decorated the walls of her chamber.
another occasion, Blake watched the haymakers at work, and saw
angelic figures walking among them. It is possible that other
visions occurred before these incidents: in later life, Blake's
wife Catherine would recall to him the time he saw God's head
"put to the window". The vision, Catherine reminded
her husband, "set you ascreaming" (543, Blake Record,
ed. Bentley Jr., Oxford, 1969).
began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased
for him by his father (a further indication of the support Blake's
parents lent their son), a practice that was then preferred to
real-life drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first
exposure to classical forms, through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo,
Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Dürer (Blake Record, 422).
His parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he
was not sent to school but was instead enrolled in drawing classes.
He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period,
Blake was also making explorations into poetry; his early work
displays knowledge of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.
On the 4th August, 1772, Blake became apprenticed to an engraver,
James Basire of Great Queen Street, for the term of seven years.
At the end of this period, at the age of twenty-one, he was to
become a professional engraver.
seems to have been a kind master to Blake: there is no record
of any serious disagreement between the two during the period
of Blake's apprenticeship. However, Ackroyd's biography notes
that Blake was later to add Basire's name to a list of artistic
adversaries—and then cross it out (43, Blake, Peter Ackroyd,
aside, Basire's style of engraving copy images from the Gothic
churches in London (it is possible that this task was set in order
to break up a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow
apprentice). It was Blake's experiences in Westminster Abbey in
particular that first informed his artistic ideas and style.
must be remembered that the Abbey was a different environment
entirely from its more sombre modern aspect: it was decorated
with suits of armour, painted funeral effigies and varicoloured
waxworks. Ackroyd notes that 'the most immediate [impression]
would have been of faded brightness and colour' (44, Blake, Ackroyd).
During the many long afternoons Blake spent sketching in the cathedral,
he was occasionally interrupted by the boys of Westminster School,
one of whom "tormented" Blake so much one afternoon
that he knocked the boy off a scaffold to the ground, "upon
which he fell with terrific Violence". Another, less violent
tale may be related; Blake beheld more visions in the Abbey, of
a great procession of monks and priests, while he heard "the
chant of plain-song and chorale".
In 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset
House, near the Strand. The terms of his study required him to
make no payment; he was, however, required to supply his own materials
throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what
he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such
as Rubens, championed by the school's first president, Joshua
time, Blake came to detest Reynolds' attitude to art, especially
his pursuit of 'general truth' and 'general beauty'. During an
address given by Reynolds in which he maintained that the tendency
to abstraction is "the great glory of the human mind",
Blake reportedly responded "to generalise is to be an idiot;
to particularise is alone the distinction of merit". Blake
also disliked Reynolds' apparent humility, which he held to be
a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds' fashionable oil painting,
Blake preferred the Classical exactness of his early influences,
Michelangelo and Raphael.
July 1780, Blake was walking towards Basire's shop in Great Queen
Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate
Prison in London. The mob were wearing blue cockades (ribbons)
on their caps, to symbolise solidarity with the insurrection in
the American colonies. They attacked the prison gates with shovels
and pickaxes, before setting the building ablaze.
rioters then clambered onto the roof of the prison and tore away
at it, releasing the prisoners inside. Blake was reportedly in
the very front rank of the mob during this attack, though it is
unlikely that he was forced into attendance. More likely, according
to Ackroyd, he accompanied the crowd impulsively.
riots were in response to a parliamentary bill designed to advance
Roman Catholicism. This disturbance, later known as the Gordon
Riots after Lord George Gordon (whose Protestant Association incited
the riots) provoked a flurry of legislation from the government
of George III, as well as the creation of the first police force.
In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron.
In the same year he met Catherine Boucher. At the time, Blake
was recovering from an unhappy relationship which had ended with
a refusal of his marriage proposal. Telling Catherine and her
parents the story, she expressed her sympathy, whereupon Blake
asked her 'Do you pity me?'. To Catherine's affirmative response
he himself responded 'Then I love you.'
married Catherine—who was five years his junior—on
18th August 1782 in St Mary's Church, Battersea. An illiterate,
Catherine signed her wedding contract with an 'X'. Later, as well
as teaching Catherine to read and write, Blake trained her as
an engraver; throughout his life she would prove an invaluable
aide to him, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining
his spirits following his numerous misfortunes.
this time, George Cumberland—one of the founders of the
National Gallery—became an admirer of Blake's work. Blake's
first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was also published,
circa 1783. After his father's death, William and brother Robert
opened a print shop in 1784 and began working with radical publisher
Joseph Johnson. At Johnson's house he met some of the leading
intellectual dissidents of the time in England, including Joseph
Priestley, scientist; Richard Price, philosopher; John Henry Fuseli,
painter with whom he became friends; Mary Wollstonecraft, an early
feminist; and Thomas
Paine, American revolutionary. Along with
William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for
the American and French revolution and wore a red liberty cap
in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with
the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in the French
Wollstonecraft became a close friend, and Blake illustrated her
Original Stories from Real Life (1788). They shared views on sexual
equality and the institution of marriage. In 1793's Visions of
the Daughters of Albion, Blake condemned the cruel absurdity of
enforced chastity and marriage without love and defended the right
of women to complete self-fulfillment. In 1788, at the age of
thirty-one, Blake began to experiment with relief etching, which
was the method used to produce most of his books of poems.
process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and final
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 in order to dissolve away the
untreated copper and leave the design standing. The pages printed
from these plates then had to be hand-colored in water colors
and stitched together to make up a volume. Blake used illuminated
printing for four of his works: the Songs of Innocence and Experience,
The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem.
life and career
Blake's marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one
until his death. There were early problems, however, such as Catherine's
illiteracy and the couple's failure to produce children. At one
point, in accordance with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society,
Blake suggested bringing in a concubine. Catherine was distressed
at the idea, and Blake promptly withdrew it.
the year 1800 Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex (now
West Sussex) to take up a job illustrating the works of William
Hayley, a poet. It was in this cottage that Blake wrote Milton:
a Poem (which was published later between 1805 and 1808). Over
time, Blake came to dislike the relationship he had with his new
patron, whom he saw - with arguable justification - as delivering
commissions that were beneath his (Blake's) ability.
returned to London in 1802 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem
(1804–1820). He was introduced by George Cumberland to a
young artist named John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel
Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves
the Shoreham Ancients. This group shared Blake's rejection of
modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age.
At the age of sixty-five Blake began work on illustrations for
the Book of Job. These works were later admired by John Ruskin,
who compared Blake favourably to Rembrandt.
abhorred slavery and believed in racial and sexual equality. Several
of his poems and paintings express a notion of universal humanity:
'As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various)'. He retained
an active interest in social and political events for all his
life, but was often forced to resort to cloaking social idealism
and political statements in protestant mystical allegory. Blake
rejected all forms of imposed authority; indeed, he was charged
with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions
against the King in 1803 but was cleared in the Chichester assizes
of the charges. [These charges were brought by a soldier (and
his friends) after Blake had bodily removed him from his garden.
According to a report in the Sussex county paper, "the invented
character of (the evidence) was ... so obvious that an acquittal
resulted." (Cited in E.V. Lucas's Highways and Byways in
Sussex, published in 1904.)]
views on what he saw as oppression and restriction of rightful
freedom extended to the Church. Blake was himself a follower of
Unitarian philosophy. His spiritual beliefs are evidenced in Songs
of Experience (in 1794), in which Blake showed his own distinction
between the Old Testament God, whose restrictions he rejected,
and the New Testament God (Jesus Christ), whom he saw as a positive
in his life Blake began to sell a great number of his works -
particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts - a patron
who saw Blake more as a friend rather than a man whose work held
any particular artistic merit; this was almost typical of the
opinions held of Blake throughout his life.
Blake had been taken severely ill in the spring and summer of
1825, wracked with shivering fits. In March of 1827, his brother
James died. In April of the same year, Blake believed himself
to "have been very near the Gates of Death"; yet despite
this recognition of the coming end, he remained fiery in spirit,
stating that "[I am] very weak ... but not in Spirit &
in Life, not in The Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for
Ever" (Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake, Oxford,
1980). In late June, after an apparent return of good health,
he made a journey to Hampstead; soon afterward he suffered a relapse,
and John Linnell, who visited him in August, noted in his diary
that William was 'not expected to live'.
Even close to death, Blake's greatest mental occupation was in
his art. He worked furiously on the illustrations to Dante's Inferno,
and one of the very last shillings in his possession was spent
on a pencil to allow him to continue sketching (Blake Records,
commission for Dante's Inferno came to Blake in 1826 through John
Linnell, with the ultimate aim of producing a series of engravings.
However, Blake's death in 1827 would cut short the enterprise,
and only a handful of the watercolours are finished, with only
seven of the engravings arriving at proof form. Even so, they
are considered worthy of praise:
Dante watercolors are among Blake's richest achievements, engaging
fully with the problem of illustrating a poem of this complexity.
The mastery of watercolour has reached an even higher level than
before, and is used to extraordinary effect in differentiating
the atmosphere of the three states of being in the poem' (Bindman,
David, "Blake as a Painter" in The Cambridge Guide to
William Blake, Morris Eaves (ed.), Cambridge, 2003, 106)
As always, it would be incorrect to see Blake's illustration of
the poem as simply that: rather, the manner of illustration -
as in those to Milton's Paradise Lost - has been utilised in way
of critically revising or correcting the spiritual flaws of the
text. In the case of Milton, Blake worked to correct Milton's
'mistake' in making Satan the central figure in the epic; for
example, in Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808)
Satan occupies an isolated position at the picture's top, with
Adam and Eve held separate below. As if to emphasize the effects
of the juxtaposition, Blake has shown Adam and Eve caught in an
embrace, whereas Satan may only onanistically caress the serpent,
whose identity he is close to assuming.
the case of Dante, the incompleteness of the watercolour series
forces the recognition that we may not know exactly the revisions
intended for this work by Blake. However, some indicators remain.
Pencilled in the margin of Homer Bearing the Sword, and His Companions
is: "Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical
Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the
Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost".
marks Blake's dissent from Dante's admiration for the poetic works
of pagan Greeks, and for the apparent pleasurable zeal with which
Dante allots punishments in Hell (demonstrated somewhat in the
cantos' frequent grim humour). He also appears to be criticising
Dante's apparent fealty to the 'fallen' world of feminine Nature
as being a hindrance to the acquirement of a perfect imaginative
state through creative union between the subject and the world
they inhabit, as Frye helps to clarify:
material world is feminine to the perceiver; it is the body which
receives the seed of [the artist's] imagination, and the works
of imagination which are the artist's children are drawn from
that body. ... But as the artist develops he becomes more and
more interested in the art and more and more impatient of the
help he receives from nature. ... Nature, in simpler language,
is Mother Nature, and in the perfect imaginative state there is
no mother. The fall of man began with the appearance of an independent
object-world, [bringing about an eventual] helpless dependence
on Mother Nature for our ideas.' (Frye, Northtop, Fearful Symmetry:
A Study of William Blake, Princeton University Press, Princeton,
NJ, 1969, 74-75)
Yet at the same time, Blake shared Dante's distrust of materialism
and the ability of power to corrupt, and clearly relished the
challenge of representing the atmosphere and imagery of Dante's
Blake was a strong libertarian, with a deep hate of the tyranny
that was rife during his lifetime. This is reflected strongly
in his poems 'Songs of Innocence and of Experience', where he
portrays upper class institutions and the Church of England as
corrupt and exploiters of the weak in society. He dreamed of an
idyllic England, free from corruption, which is mirrored in 'The
Echoing Green'. However, the impending tyranny in the poem shows
that even he doubted that England would be free.
Blake was an important proponent of imagination as the modern
western world currently defines the word. His belief that humanity
could overcome the limitations of its five senses is perhaps one
of Blake's greatest legacies. His words, "If the doors of
perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it
is, infinite," (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) were seen
as bizarre at the time, but are now accepted as part of our modern
definition of imagination. This quote was the source of the names
for both The Doors musical group and Aldous Huxley's book The
Doors of Perception.
On the day of his death Blake remained relentlessly working on
the 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;
it is reported also that he spoke to his wife, telling her that
he would remain with her always (Ackroyd, Blake, 389). At six
that evening, he died. Gilchrist reports that a female lodger
in the same house, who had been present at his expiration, said
"I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed
angel" (Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake, London, 1863,
Richmond gives the following account of Blake's death in a letter
to Samuel Palmer:
died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that
Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself
Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ - Just before
he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he
burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven" (Grigson,
Samuel Palmer, 38).
Blake's funeral was paid for by Catherine, using money lent to
her by Linnell. The affair was a modest one: he was taken five
days after his death – on the eve of his forty-fifth wedding
anniversary – to Dissenter's burial ground in Bunhill Fields,
where his parents were also interred. Present at the ceremonies
were Catherine, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, Frederick Tatham
and John Linnell.
Blake's death, Catherine moved in to Tatham's house as a housekeeper;
however, Blake would, she said, come and sit with her for two
or three hours every day. She continued selling his illuminated
works and paintings, but would entertain no business transaction
without first "consulting Mr Blake" (Ackroyd, Blake,
390). On the day of her own death, in October 1831, she was as
calm and cheerful as her husband, and called out to him "as
if he were only in the next room, to say she was coming to him,
and it would not be long now" (Blake Records, 410).
Catherine's death, Blake's manuscripts were inherited by Frederick
Tatham, who is said to have burned several of them in a fit of
religious ardour. Tatham had become an Irvingite, one of the many
fundamentalist movements of the 19th century, and was severely
opposed to any work that smacked of blasphemy (Ackroyd, Blake,
391). This is conjecture however.
is now recognised as a saint in Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. The
Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour in
Australia in 1949.
Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love him in the
greatest degree; now hear how he has given his sanction to the
law of the ten commandments: did he not mock at the Sabbath, and
so mock the sabbath's God? Murder those who were murdered because
of him? turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? Steal
the labor of others to support him? bear false witness when he
omitted making a defence before Pilate? Covet when he prayed for
his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their
feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue
can exist without breaking these ten commandments."
will say, "Is not God alone the Prolific?"
I answer, "God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or
reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote [in Paradise Lost]
of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell,
is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without
or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that
it shall be when we know more."
who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be
the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on,
so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys."
are built with stones of Law, Brothels with
bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging
of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are
portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
the Parson might preach, & drink, & sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.
hither, my boy, tell me what thou seest there?'
'A fool tangled in a religious snare.'
am sure this Jesus will not do,
Either for Englishman or Jew."
poets animated all objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them
by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers,
mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged
& numerous senses could perceive. And particularly they studied
the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental
deity; Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of,
& enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract
the mental deities from their objects: thus began priesthood;
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they
pronounc'd that the Gods had order'd such things. Thus men forgot
that all deities reside in the human breast."