William Blake - Historical Background

Blake lived through a crucial phase of Western history. Among the major events with which he grapples is the American revolution of 1776, which secured American independence from British rule. Blake reads this, in America and other poems, as a decisive stroke for the freedom and emancipation of the human spirit. The French Revolution, coming thirteen years later, was widely welcomed in the radical artisan circles in which Blake, as a working-class cockney, moved, and Blake welcomed it, beginning what would have been a very large poem, The French Revolution, on the subject. Only the first volume of this poem was published, in 1791, and it remains unclear whether Blake desisted from writing it on political grounds or simply because of the pressure of other work.

He was, we might say, an instinctive radical, with a natural opposition to tyranny wherever he found it and a distrust of authority whether it be represented in kings, priests or even in the very idea of a monolithic deity who rules human affairs. Perhaps the best-known episode of his life was the occasion when he was put on trial for treason, on an apparently trumped up charge caused by his swearing at a soldier who had strayed into his garden; unimportant as this event may sound (he was not convicted), nevertheless it played a decisive part both in confirming his opposition to the forces of order and also in convincing him that ideas such as his could only in the end be put forth in cryptic, symbolic form.

It is also important to bear in mind that the years in which Blake was writing were ones of enormous change in Britain. We speak now of the ‘industrial revolution’; while Blake, living in London, did not see a great deal of this at first hand, he was highly and imaginatively aware of how the overall economy of the country was changing and particularly of how social life was becoming increasingly subservient to the demands of wage-labour and the new rules of life enjoined by the factory system.

He saw this, like many other tendencies of his time, as an attempt to restrict human capacity and the freedom of the imagination, and saw his role as contributing to the reinstatement of the imagination as the guiding principle of human affairs. To that extent, certainly, we may see him in terms of the larger movement we refer to as Romanticism; but his class background and his immersion in the London radical tradition set him apart from the other figures in this movement. His political sense was profound; but at the same time he always saw immediate events against a far wider and deeper background, as moments in the general evolution and development of humanity, and thus his poetry attains a cosmic dimension in which individual human battles are always seen as examples of a wider perennial battle between the expanding force of energy and the restrictive, numbing, death-dealing force of reason.