William Blake – Biographical and Historical Background



Biographical 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 London in 1757. His parents were hosiers – stocking weavers – and while that was a respectable occupation, it was no guarantee of luxury or comfort for William and his three brothers. Throughout his life, Blake was never financially secure and he had to work of his living as an engraver and publisher in addition illustrating his own work. His genius was largely unrecognised in his own time and he also suffered a series of commercial disasters which mean that poverty was never very far away. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, the illiterate daughter of a market gardener. The couple remained childless. When Blake died in 1827, he was without debts but he was buried in an unmarked grave.


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 Royal Academy but was later to reject its traditional approach to art and in particular the ideas of its President, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds believed that artists should imitate the past masters and seek commissions from wealthy patrons. Blake felt that this approach not only neglected the inspiration of genius but, worse, implied that artistic creation was an entirely rational process. His own mental life suggested quite the contrary.


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.


Consequently, Blake 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. Europe: A Prophecy, The Book of Urizen and The Four Zoas. Above all, then, Blake thought that art should be politically committed and continually challenge the dominant ideologies of the day.


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 Britain. The Declaration of Independence announced a break with older hierarchical social structures and in particular the petty tyranny of George III.


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 in Britain and great impetus was given to the growing call for democracy and parliamentary reform. BIake, who hated George III, was a whole-hearted supporter of the American Revolution.


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. In America and France the radical political thinking of the eighteenth-century with Its emphasis the perfectibility of man and the attainment of general happiness in a society constructed on a more rational basis, seemed to be taking shape in the real world.


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.


In Britain, Initial sympathy for the Revolution soon began to wane as power in France passed into the hands of the extremists. The atrocities associated with the Reign of Terror enhanced this conservative reaction which was confirmed by the execution of Louis XVI. In 1793, France declared war on Britain. This had serious consequences for the British economy and much hardship ensued for the poor during the years to 1815. This was made worse by a series of poor harvests and the on-going consequences of industrialisation and urbanization. In the absence of any significant intervention by the government to alleviate the situation there was an upsurge in radical thought and activity (including rioting and violence) which the government – in a panic about the French Revolution and fearing an invasion - took firm steps to repress. During this period of deepening social crisis, Blake’s sympathies were always with the sufferings of ordinary people. The climate of the period is, however, reflected in the fact that he was himself accused of sedition (but subsequently acquitted) in 1803.


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.