William Blake

William Blake, 1757–1827, English poet and artist, b. London. Although he exerted a great influence on English romanticism, Blake defies characterization by school, movement, or even period. At the same time no poet has been more sensitive or responsive to the realities of the human condition and of his time.

Early Life and Work

Blake's father, a prosperous hosier, encouraged young Blake's artistic tastes and sent him to drawing school. At 14 he was apprenticed to James Basire, an engraver, with whom he stayed until 1778. After attending the Royal Academy, where he rebelled against the school's stifling atmosphere, he set up as an engraver. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, whom he taught to read, write, and draw. She became his inseparable companion, assisting him in nearly all his work.

Blake's life, except for three years at Felpham where he prepared illustrations for an edition of Cowper, was spent in London. Poetical Sketches (1783), his first book, was the only one published conventionally during his lifetime. He engraved and published all his other major poetry himself (the rest remained in manuscript), for which he originated a method of engraving text and illustration on the same plate. Neither Blake's artwork nor his poetry enjoyed commercial or critical success until long after his death.

Work in the Visual Arts

Blake's paintings and engravings, notably his illustrations of his own works, works by Milton, and of the Book of Job, are painstakingly realistic in their representation of human anatomy and other natural forms. They are also radiantly imaginative, often depicting fanciful creatures in exacting detail. Nearly unknown during his life, Blake was generally dismissed as an eccentric or worse long thereafter. His following has gradually increased, and today he is widely appreciated as a visual artist and as a poet.

Mature Poetry

In Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) the world is seen from a child's point of view, directly and simply but without sentimentality. In the first group, which includes such poems as "The Lamb," "Infant Joy," and "Laughing Songs," both the beauty and the pain of life are captured. The latter group, which includes "The Tyger," "Infant Sorrow," "The Sick Rose," and "London," reveal a consciousness of cruelty and injustice in the world, for which people, not fate, are responsible. As parables of adult life the Songs are rich in meaning and implication.

Blake's Prophetic Books combine poetry, vision, prophecy, and exhortation. They include The Book of Thel (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1790), The French Revolution (1791), America (1793), Europe (1794), The Book of Urizon (1794), The Book of Los (1795), Milton (1804–8), and Jerusalem (1804–20). These comprise no less than a vision of the whole of human life, in which energy and imagination struggle with the forces of oppression both physical and mental. Blake exalted love and pure liberty, and abhorred the reductive, rationalist philosophy that served to justify the political and economic inequities attendant upon the Industrial Revolution.

The Prophetic Books are founded in the real world, as are Blake's passions and anger, but they appear abstruse because they are ordered by a mythology devised by the poet, which draw from Swedenborg, Jacob Boehme, and other mystical sources. Despite this, and despite the fact that from childhood on Blake was a mystic who thought it quite natural to see and converse with angels and Old Testament prophets, he by no means forsook concrete reality for a mystical life of the spirit. On the contrary, reality, whose center was human life, was for Blake inseparable from imagination. The spiritual, indeed God himself, was an expression of the human.

Bibliography

See his complete writings, ed. by G. Keynes (rev. ed. 1966); his letters, ed. by G. Keynes (2d ed. 1968); his notebook, ed. by D. V. Erdman (1973); his complete illuminated books, ed. by D. Bindman (2000); biographies by M. Wilson, ed. by G. Keynes (3d ed. 1971), and P. Ackroyd (1996); studies by K. J. Raine (2 vol., 1968), D. V. Erdman (2d ed. 1969), G. Keynes (2d ed. 1971), D. G. Gillham (1973), D. Wagenknecht (1973), A. K. Mellor (1974), G. E. Bentley, ed. (1975), and J. Witke (1986); N. Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947); A. Blunt, The Art of William Blake (1959); D. V. Erdman and J. E. Grant, ed., Blake's Visionary Forms Dramatic (1970); R. J. Bertholf and A. S. Levitt, ed., William Blake and the Moderns (1982).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

William Blake
Kathleen Raine.
Longmans, Green, 1951
Blake: Complete Writings with Variant Readings
Geoffrey Keynes; William Blake.
Oxford University Press, 1966
Selected Poetry
William Blake; Michael Mason.
Oxford University Press, 1994
William Blake: The Critical Heritage
G. E. Bentley Jnr.
Routledge, 1995
The Wond'Rous Art: William Blake and Writing
John B. Pierce.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003
Wonders Divine: The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Myth
Sheila A. Spector.
Bucknell University Press, 2001
Knight of the Living Dead: William Blake and the Problem of Ontology
Kathleen Lundeen.
Susquehanna University Press, 2000
Locke and Blake: A Conversation across the Eighteenth Century
Wayne Glausser.
University Press of Florida, 1998
Spiritual History: A Reading of William Blake's Vala, or the Four Zoas
Andrew Lincoln.
Oxford University Press, 1995
The Moment of Explosion: Blake and the Illustration of Milton
Stephen C. Behrendt.
University of Nebraska Press, 1983
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