Biography of William Blake, English Poet and Artist

William Blake British poet
William Blake, British poet, painter and engraver, portrait by T. Phillips.

Culture Club / Getty Images 

William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) was an English poet, engraver, printmaker, and painter. He is mostly known for his lyric poems Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which combine simple language with complex subject matters, and for his epic poems, Milton and Jerusalem, that contrasted the canon of classical epic.

Fast Facts: William Blake

  • Known For: Poet and engraver known for his seemingly simple poems containing complex themes and their companion illustrations and prints. As an artist, he is known for devising an innovative technique for colored engravings called illuminated printing.
  • Born​: November 28, 1757 in Soho, London, England
  • Parents: James Blake, Catherine Wright
  • Died​: August 12, 1827 in London, England
  • Education​: Largely homeschooled, apprenticed with engraver James Basire
  • Selected Works: Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), Jerusalem (1804–1820), Milton (1804-1810)
  • Spouse: Catherine Boucher
  • Notable Quote​: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.” And "It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend."

Early Life

William Blake was born on November 28, 1757. His parents were Henry and Catherine Wright Blake. His family worked in the hosiery business and as small tradesmen, and money was tight but they weren’t poor. Ideologically, his parents were dissenters who challenged the teachings of the church, but they used the Bible and religious passages to interpret events of the world around them. Blake was raised with a sense that the righteous would triumph over the privileged.

William Blake's house
William Blake's house, 23 Hercules Road, London, 1912. Illustration from Famous Houses and Literary Shrines of London, by John Adcock. Print Collector / Getty Images

Growing up, Blake was considered "different" and he was homeschooled. At age 8 or 10, he reported seeing angels and spangled stars, but it was a world where having visions wasn’t so peculiar. His parents recognized his artistic talent and his father bought him plaster casts and gave him small change to buy prints at auction houses. That’s where he was first exposed to the works of Michelangelo and Raffaello. From age 10 to 14, he went to drawing school, and after that, he started his apprenticeship with an engraver, where he stayed for the next seven years.

The engreaver's name was James Basire and he was the official engraver of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Society. He never had more than two apprentices. Near the end of his apprenticeship, Blake was sent to Westminster Abbey to draw the tombs of the ancient kings and queens of England. This “gothicized” Blake’s imaginary, as he acquired a feeling of the medieval, which proved to be lasting influence throughout his career.

The Engraver (1760-1789)

Blake finished his apprenticeship at age 21 and became a professional engraver. For some time, he was enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Four years later, in 1782, he married Catherine Boucher, an illiterate woman who is said to have signed her marriage contract with an X. Blake soon taught her to read, write, and etch.

Catherine and William Blake
circa 1800: English mystic, poet, painter and engraver, William Blake (1757 - 1827) and his wife Catherine (1762 - 1831). Original Publication: From a sketch by William Blake. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1783, he published Poetical Sketches, and opened his own print shop with fellow apprentice James Parker in 1784. It was a turbulent time in history: the American revolution was coming to a close, and the French revolution was approaching. It was a period marked by instability, which affected him enormously. 

Innocence and Experience (1790-1799)

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

In 1790, Blake and his wife moved to North Lambeth and he had a decade of success, where he made enough money to produce his best known works. These include Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) which are the two states of the soul. These were first written separately and then published together in 1795. Songs of Innocence is a collection of lyric poems, and superficially they appear to be written for children. Their form, however, sets them apart: they’re hand printed and hand colored works of art. The poems do have a nursery-rhyme quality about them.

Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience: A Cradle Song
Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Cradle Song, circa 1825. Artist William Blake. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Songs of Experience presents the same themes as Songs of Innocence, but examined from the opposite perspective. “The Tyger” is one of the most notable examples; it’s a poem that's seen in dialogue with “The Lamb of Innocence” where the speaker asks the lamb about the Creator who made it. The second stanza answers the question. “The Tyger” consists of a series of questions that are not answered, and is a source of energy and fire, something uncontrollable. God made both “The Tyger” and “The Lamb” and by stating this, Blake defied the idea of moral opposites.

Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–1793), a prose work containing paradoxical aphorisms, presents the devil as a heroic figure; while Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) combines radicalism with ecstatic religious imagery. For these works, Blake invented the style of "illuminated printing," in which he reduced the need of two different workshops that were till then needed to make an illustrated book. He was in charge of every single stage of production, and he also had freedom and could avoid censorship. In this period he produced Jerusalem and what is known as “Minor Prophecies.”

The Book of Job illustrations by William Blake
Job Affrighted by a Vision of his God by William Blake, from the illustrations of the Book of Job, 1825. Culture Club / Getty Images

Later Life (1800-1827)

Jerusalem

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Blake's success did not last forever. By 1800, his lucrative period was over and he took a job in Felpham, Sussex, to illustrate the works of William Hailey. While in Sussex, he had a fight with a drunk soldier who accused him of speaking treasonable words against the king. He went to trial and was acquitted. 

'Milton a poem' by William Blake
'Milton a poem' ' by William Blake . Caption reads: To Justify the Ways of God to Men. Culture Club / Getty Images

After Sussex, Blake returned to London and started working on Milton (1804–1808) and Jerusalem (1804–20), his two epic poems, the latter of which has its premise in a poem contained in the preface of the former. In Milton, Blake turned away from the classical epics—while typically this format deals with war, Milton was about poetic inspiration, featuring Milton coming back to Earth trying to explain what had gone wrong. He wants to set mankind against the movement towards war, which he identifies in the celebration of the classics, and wants to rectify with a celebration of christianity.

In Jerusalem, Blake portrayed the “sleep of Albion,” a figure for the nation, and it encouraged people to think beyond their limits. Jerusalem is a utopian idea on how mankind can live. Around 1818, he wrote the poem “The Universal Gospel.” In parallel to his poetic activity, his illustration business thrived. His Bible illustrations were popular objects, and in 1826, he was commissioned to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy. While this work was cut short by his death, the existing illustrations show that they’re not just decorative pieces, but are actually a commentary on the source material. 

William Blake died on August 12, 1827, and was buried in a ground for dissenters. On the day of his death, he still worked on his Dante illustrations. 

Beulah Throned on a Sun-Flower by William Blake
Beulah Throned on a Sun-Flower, page 53 of the poem 'Jerusalem' by William Blake. Culture Club / Getty Images

Themes and Literary Style

Blake's style is easy to recognize, both in poetry and in his visual art. There’s something askew that makes him stand out among late-18th-century poets. His language is straightforward and unaffected, yet powerful in its directness. His work contains Blake’s own private mythology, where he rejects moral absolutes that mark the authoritarianism of organized religion. It draws from the Bible as well as Greek and Norse mythology. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–1793) for example, the Devil is actually a hero rebelling against the authoritarianism of an impostor, a worldview that is mitigated in his later works; in Milton and Jerusalem, for instance, self-sacrifice and forgiveness are portrayed as redeeming qualities. 

Not a fan of organized religion, Blake only went to Church three times in his life: when he was christened, when he married, and when he died. He espoused the ideas of enlightenment, but he placed himself in a critical position towards it. He talked about Newton, Bacon, and Locke as the “Satanic Trinity” who had restricted it, leaving no place for art. 

Visions of the Daughters of Albion', 1793
Connoisseur Volume XC. [The Connoisseur Ltd, London, 1932]. Artist: William Blake. Print Collector / Getty Images

Blake was a fierce critic of colonialism and slavery, and was critical of the church because he claimed the clergy used their power to keep people down with the promise of the afterlife. The poem in which he expresses his vision of slavery is “Visions of the Daughters Albion,” which features a slave girl who is raped by her owner and is jilted by her lover because she is not virtuous anymore. As a consequence, she launches in a crusade for social, political, and religious freedom, but her story ends in chains. This poem equates rape with colonialism, and also sheds light on the fact that rape was actually a common occurrence in plantations. The Daughters of Albion are the English women who wanted to abolish slavery. 

Legacy

There is a complex mythology surrounding Blake, which makes every generation find something in his work that appeals to their specific time. In our time, one of the greatest threats is sovereignty, which manifests itself in Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump, and Blake notably spoke of similar regimes as “great evil.”

Cemetery For Noncomformist Writers Is Awarded Grade I Listed Status By English Heritage
The headstone and memorial for the poet and painter William Blake in the Bunhill Fields cemetery in Islington, London, England. The cemetery, located close to the heart of the City of London is notable for containing the graves of many non-comformists and other notable people. Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images

William Blake remained neglected for one generation after his death, until Alexander Gilchrist wrote his Life of William Blake in 1863, which led to a newfound appreciation for Blake among the pre-Raphaelites, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who illustrated the Divine Comedy, too) and Algernon Swinburne. Yet, he labelled him a pictor ignotus, which means “unknown painter,” which hinted at the obscurity he had died in.

The modernists deserve credit for fully bringing Blake into the canon. W.B. Yeats resonated with Blake’s philosophical ideas, and also edited an edition of his collected works. Huxley cites Blake in his work The Doors of Perception, while beat poet Allen Ginsberg, as well as songwriters Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Van Morrison all found inspiration in Blake’s work.

Sources

  • Blake, William, and Geoffrey Keynes. The Complete Writings of William Blake; with Variant Readings. Oxford U.P., 1966.
  • Bloom, Harold. William Blake. Blooms Literary Criticism, 2008.
  • Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • “The Forum, The Life and Works of William Blake.” BBC World Service, BBC, 26 June 2018, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswps4.