William Blake – Life & Works

William Blake was born in 1757 in London, where he lived all his life apart from an extended stay in Feipham, near Bognor Regis in Sussex in 1800-3. He died in 1827. He had no formal early education, but studied drawing at a school in the Strand and in the early 1770s became a student, briefly, at the Royal Academy school (where he first met the painter John Flaxman). After this, he was apprenticed to a famous engraver, James Basire. Throughout his life he made his living as an engraver, achieving only modest and intermittent success. He married Catherine Boucher in 1782, but there were no children. About his life we know very little; he kept no diary, and we have very few of his letters. The recent, and excellent, biography by the novelist Peter Ackroyd is by far the best book to flesh out this scanty picture, but much of it is about Blake’s times rather than about the poet himself.

We know, from his works, much about his opinions, which were very strongly held. We know, for example, that he was a Christian in the Dissenting tradition which runs back to the seventeenth century, we know that he viewed Newtonian Science as superstitious nonsense and that he frequently had ‘visions’ of angels and claimed to have conversed with the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary and we know that politically he was a radical, sympathetic to the American and French revolutions and to the spirit of freedom wherever he found it. Through most of his life, his paintings and poetry were unknown to most; but in his sixties, he attracted a small circle of younger artists and fellow visionaries, including Samuel Palmer, John Linnell, John Varley, Edward Calvert and Henry Fuseli, and we may surmise that they at last began to realise the extraordinary genius of his artistic and poetic works.

Today he is known almost as much for his large visionary water colours illustrating the Book of Job (1820-6), his 102 illustrations of Dante and his colour-printed drawings of biblical subjects, as he is for his poetry.


His Works:

Blake’s poetry falls into three main categories. First, there are the lyrics. Of these, the most important are the Songs of Innocence and of Experience themselves, but there are also the earlier poems called Poetical Sketches (1769-78), many of which are really experiments in which Blake partly imitates earlier writers (Shakespeare, Thomson and others) as well as a number of other lyrics, some of the most interesting and important of which can be found in what is known as the Pickering Manuscript (c.1803). The student of Blake will particularly want to read from this manuscript ‘The Mental Traveller’ and ‘The Crystal Cabinet, which are essential to an understanding of his, developing mythology.

This mythology is further elaborated in the second group of poems, which we may refer to as the ‘shorter prophecies’. It is important to grasp that when we speak of ‘Blake’s mythology, as many critics do, we are using a metaphor, individuals cannot create mythologies, but Blake’s development of a private repertoire of characters and events often has a myth-like ring to it. These shorter prophecies, including Tiriel (c. 1789), The Book of The! (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1790-3), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) America (1793), Europe (1794) and the so-called books of the Infernal Bible (The Book of Urizen (1794), and The Song of Los, The Book of Ahania and The Book of Los (all 1795)) all written, as we can see, between 1789 and 1795, build up this mythology and provide Blake’s ‘alternative’ account of the creation of the world and the nature of God. What they also do is keep in remarkably close touch with the historical events unfolding around him during the closing years of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth, and they are thus highly complex works which need to be read at mythological, historical and psychological levels.

The third group of poems contains Blake’s three long prophecies, Vala, or, The Four Zoas (1795-1804), Milton (1804-8) and Jerusalem (1804-20), the first of which appears never really to have reached final form. These are poems of an epic scale, and quite unlike anything to be found elsewhere in British poetry. Between them, they attempt nothing less than a complete account of human history, from its beginnings to the present day-, they also represent Blake’s attempt to understand contemporary events and incorporate them into his world view, as well as providing us with a psychology which in many ways antedates the work of Freud and other founders of psychoanalysis.

As well as these works, the student may find helpful the short tracts called’ All Religions Are One’ and ‘There is No Natural Religion’ (c.1788),which provide useful, if highly complex, accounts of Blake’s thinking on such crucial questions as the nature of reason, energy and desire. Many of the poems are ‘illuminated’, and ideally they should be read in versions which reproduce the full-colour texts which most properly represent Blake’s mixture of poetic and visual creativity, taken together they represent British literature’s most determined attempt to create a world system, and although they make for dense reading there are many passages of great beauty to be found among them.