Background Notes on William Blake


Biography and Contextual Information


Born: 1759

Died: 1827


Blake was born into a relatively poor family and, despite his eventual fame as a poet and considerable skill as an engraver lived in poverty throughout his life.


Blake was a visionary who, as a child, reported seeing sightings of angels in trees. He believed that a poet should be like a prophet and teach people the correct way to live their lives. For him, the correct way to live life was to retain the innocence of childhood by using imagination and creativity to fight against the soul-deadening developments of the Industrial Revolution and the increasing dominance of Science, Reason and Logic.


Other Romantic Poets:

Wordsworth       1770 – 1850

            Colerdige           1772 – 1853

            Byron                1788 – 1824

            Shelley             1792 – 1822

            Keats                1795 – 1821


Major Dates:

            1700’s               Industrial Revolution

1776                                  American Revolution

1789                 French Revolution



Major Themes:


Blake believed in the absolute freedom of the individual. This is not a very revolutionary idea today when people are commonly heard arguing that they ‘have rights’ and that their government, their state, their employers, their parents or their teachers cannot tell them what to do. However, 350 years ago, when Blake was writing, there was a much stronger belief in the concept of duty. The individual had a duty of obedience to their family, to the King and through the Church, to God. If this seems weird, a somewhat stereotypical modern day example of this may be found in Japan where many people place a high value on not bringing shame to their family by conforming to the laws of Japanese society.


As such Blake attacked anything that he felt undermined the ideal of individual freedom. Such as:

  • The Established Church (i.e. priests, bishop, churches, etc – individual beliefs in God are ok)
  • One divine, supremely powerful, all controlling, tyrannical God – other views of God are ok
  • The Government / State (he supported the American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions)
  • The Industrial Revolution (people reduced to robots instead of free, imaginative individuals)
  • Capitalist / Factory Owner exploitation of workers
  • Conservative Social Rules
  • Closed Mindedness
  • Social Inequality
  • Reason & Logic


Blake believed that man is at his best when he is a child. Children are the ideal symbol of freedom, purity and innocence and Blake sees modern living, what he calls Experience, as ruining this Innocence of childhood. Blake’s most famous poems are the ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’ written between 1789 and 1794 where he contrasts the Innocence and purity of childhood with the greed and wickedness of Experience. Blake is, however, realistic and does not believe that we can maintain an air of childish naivety throughout our lives. Instead, he believes that, although our eventual corruption is inevitable, we can prolong our innocence by fighting against things like the corruption of the church, the evils of Capitalist exploitation and the closed mindedness of adults who refuse to see the beauty of creativity and imagination – like Mr. Gradgrind.