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) and complete poetry and prose, ed. by D. V. Erdman (2008); his letters, ed. by G. Keynes (2d ed. 1968); his notebook, ed. by D. V. Erdman (1973); his complete illuminated books, ed. D. V. Erdman (1992) and 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); L. Damrosch, Eternity's Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake (2015).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

William Blake: Selected full-text books and articles

The Wond'Rous Art: William Blake and Writing By John B. Pierce Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003
William Blake: The Critical Heritage By G. E. Bentley Jnr Routledge, 1995
William Blake, Visionary Rebel By Stern, Fred The World and I, Vol. 24, No. 10, October 2009
The Chained Boy: Orc and Blake's Idea of Revolution By Christopher Z. Hobson Bucknell University Press, 1999
William Blake By Kathleen Raine Longmans, Green, 1951
Blake: Complete Writings with Variant Readings By William Blake; Geoffrey Keynes Oxford University Press, 1972
PRIMARY SOURCE
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Selected Poetry By William Blake; Michael Mason Oxford University Press, 1994
PRIMARY SOURCE
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Wonders Divine: The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Myth By Sheila A. Spector Bucknell University Press, 2001
The Moment of Explosion: Blake and the Illustration of Milton By Stephen C. Behrendt University of Nebraska Press, 1983
William Blake, Richard Phillips and the Monthly Magazine By Paley, Morton D Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 51, No. 1, Spring 2012
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
William Blake and the Hunt Circle By Ripley, Wayne C Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 50, No. 1, Spring 2011
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Essence, Gender, Race: William Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion By Welch, Dennis M Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 49, No. 1, Spring 2010
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
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