William Blake – Literary Background


Literary Background:

Blake was a self-taught man (an autodidact) and as such relied very heavily in literary terms on those texts most readily available to him. First and foremost among these was the Bible, the influence of which can be seen throughout his works.


Second in importance is Milton, who published the epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ in 1667. ‘Paradise Lost’ sought to ‘justify the ways of God to man’, by charting the history of the universe starting with the fall of the Devil from Heaven and the fall of man from the Garden of Eden (both of which can be seen as a fall from Innocence to Experience) in an attempt to explain the existence of sin, death and pain in the world despite the fact that an all-powerful God could easily obliterate this suffering if he wished. However, Blake argues that in fact Milton was ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it’. In other words, Milton’s poem was a failure because instead of presenting the Devil as an ungrateful rebel he in fact comes across as a hero revolting against the injustice of God’s tyranny. This kind of rebellion, Blake thought, was always justified; repression, whether it be divine or human, will always breed revolution.


In some ways Blake seems to be a mystic enraptured with incommunicable visions, standing apart, a lonely and isolated figure, out of touch with his own age and without influence on the following one. He is an interruption in cultural history, a separable phenomenon. Partly this is an exaggeration. As the only major Romantic poet poor enough to have had to work for his living, Blake experienced real city life in a way that many of his artistic contemporaries did not, giving him a clear insight into the issues of his time. Nonetheless, Blake is an incongruity, an anachronistic oddity whose out-of-placeness is no doubt partly a result of the fact that his individualism, resistance to authority and stubborn commonsense attitude are values more typical of modern Britain than the England of the 1700’s.