William Blake – Biographical and Historical Background
Throughout his life, William Blake (1757 – 1827) was a radical and visionary, and these two aspects of his genius must be seen as interdependent. His radicalism – political, religious and artistic – was in part shaped by his background and upbringing. What gave it a distinctive quality, however, was Blake’s astonishingly vivid imagination – so vivid in fact, that the world around him was in some ways less real than his visions. This visionary capacity, of course, helped to fuel the charges made by his detractors that he was insane. In fact, it endowed Blake with a creative freedom in his poetry, engravings and paintings to express the truth as he saw it and to promote social and political change through an imaginative transformation of the world.
He was born in
Blake was initially educated at home, largely by his mother,
and this experience instilled from the start an independence of mind. When he
was ten he went to a drawing school, and at the age of fourteen he was
apprenticed as an engraver. In 1779, in his early twenties, he studied at the
From his earliest years, Blake was a visionary, subject to vivid ‘waking dreams’ and terrifying nightmares. When he was four years old he said that God had appeared to him at the window and on another occasion he claimed to have seen a tree full of angels. Once he rushed home to tell his surprised mother that he had seen the prophet Ezekiel sitting under a tree. How should we understand these claims? In part they may suggest a (not uncommon) refuge from the unhappiness of childhood. More significantly, we can perhaps already detect a kind of moral protest by a sensitive child against the harsh reality of late eighteenth-century society, and indeed of the human condition, which was to inform his later writing. It was early evidence of that imaginative capacity to transform the real world that was to be seen in Songs of Innocence. And just as there, where the ideal dream world is threatened by the evil and corruption described in Songs of Experience, so the young Blake’s optimistic ‘waking visions’ were overwhelmed by darker fears and anxieties when he slept and he was tortured by nightmares. The positive and negative images which haunted his imagination in these years were to resurface later – and to inform the patterns and symbolism in the poetry.
Blake’s social and political radicalism, however, distinctive its manner of expression, was to an extent influenced by his parents. They were religious dissenters and this puts his background firmly in a tradition of hostility towards the Church of England and, inevitably at this time, the State. Coming from humble origins himself, his sympathies were always with the common people and he hated the inequities perpetrated by the still powerful eighteenth-century alliance of monarchy, aristocracy and Church. Blake rejoiced that the old order was being challenged and later gave his enthusiastic support to the French and American Revolutions. However, while he belonged to the dissenting tradition, he was often at odds with the dissenting sects and the radical political groups who might have been seen as his natural allies. As a consequence, he was never part of a mainstream anti-establishment movement, but was rather a single voice, striving to be heard above the clamour of late eighteenth-century political and religious life.
To some extent this can be explained by the fact that Blake was a radical in more than simply political terms. Indeed, he was opposed to the very ways of thinking in his age. The philosophers and scientists of the eighteenth-century had promoted a rationalist and materialist world view which was to prove very influential and has survived into the twentieth century. Blake traced this process back to Isaac Newton (1642-1727) whose classical physics had generated a view of the universe as a great clockwork machine, all the laws of which we would eventually come to know. Blake hated this kind of understanding, feeling that it was anti-human and took all the mystery out of God’s creations. Blake might sympathize with the dissenters’ and radicals’ opposition to the old order of Church and King, but he rejected their faith in rationalism as the only basis for a new social and political order. His own mental experience suggested that there were other, more imaginative, ways of seeing, and more importantly, other forms of truth.
sought to write in quite new and
challenging ways in order to
offer an antidote to those habits of mind which were shaping
the emergent social, political and
religious conditions of the period. His
poetry demonstrated a new and distinctive
voice and this is evident in Songs
of Innocence and of Experience and in the later Prophetic Books e.g.
Thus Blake’s visionary capacities, and the symbolism derived from the dreams and nightmares of his childhood, shaped a philosophy and a language which were opposed to the scientific and materialist tendencies of his age. In celebrating the creative power of the imagination he wished to demonstrate ways of seeing which went beyond the understanding of the scientists and had the potential to improve the human lot. An inspired - and prophetic - art should, in Blake’s view, be enlisted in the service of humanity. In this way his radicalism and his poetic vision can be seen to be complementary. His was in every sense a revolutionary art.
Social and Political Background
One way of establishing the Importance of William Blake is to understand that he was writing at a time when our modem world was born. The literary artistic and cultural movement known as Romanticism - in which Blake is perhaps one of the first major figures - emerged at the time as far-reaching changes were taking place in all areas of British life.
The key word is ‘revolution’ - both at home and abroad. The Industrial Revolution initiated remarkable changes in manufacture and production based on technological and scientific developments. It created new wealth for the commercial and professional middle classes who increasingly challenged the power base of the landed gentry and their allies in the Established Church (the rise of dissent and especially Methodism, is an important factor here). And it called into being an exploited Industrial underclass who did not share in the new wealth
The Agrarian Revolution was prompted by an urgent need to feed an exploding population. The Enclosure Acts meant that common land passed into private ownership and, with developments in agricultural science, became productive arable land - but In the short-term this brought hardship with the decline of subsistence farming and the lass of grazing rights. Starving country people were increasingly forced Into the squalid slums of the growing manufacturing towns. Thus in a context of the rise of capitalism, shifting power structures and increasing social unrest, modern Britain was bom: urban, industrial, democratic, secular and religiously plural.
These transformations in British social, political and economic
life were accelerated by developments abroad. It is sometimes said that the American Revolution had as great an impact on this side of the Atlantic as it did In the Thirteen Colonies: it changed the political and social complexion of
We hold these truths to be self -evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Monarchical and aristocratic government - and the politics
of deference - were totally undermined
There were even more
startling developments across the Channel. Some thinkers saw the French Revolution as bringing about the ‘end
of history’, in other words a new beginning for human society where the ancien regime (based on the privileges
of nobility and king) would be
overthrown, and liberty, equality and
fraternity would prevail.
This optimism was short-lived. The French Revolution collapsed into internecine violence with the Reign of Terror In 1793-4. For those who had placed so many hopes in the Revolution - and this included Blake and the other Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge - worse was to follow when France ostensibly to spread the Revolution abroad, began under the leadership of Napoleon to invade other European countries in a bid for European dominance which was to last for twenty years. This seemed to be the final betrayal of the high ideals of the Revolution. Blake’s disillusionment with the course of the Revolution is reflected in the darker mood of Songs of Experience.
A revolutionary era ended with the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration at the Bourbons. Other European monarchies, whose futures had looked bleak, were re-established and the Congress of Vienna went a long way towards restoring the status quo on the continent. Nevertheless, the revolutionary spirit lived on and social and political thinking was changed irrevocably.