Last reviewed: June 2018
English poet, engraver, artist, and lyricist.
November 28, 1757
August 12, 1827
William Blake, the greatest visionary poet in the English language, was born on November 28, 1757, the second son of James Blake, a London native of obscure origin who was a hosier by occupation. A few remarkable incidents of Blake’s childhood have been recorded, among them the manifestation of his first known vision, when, at the age of four, he beheld God’s head at a window and was seized with a fit of screaming. On other occasions he informed his parents that during his walks about the fields he had seen angels; once he returned to say that the prophet Ezekiel had appeared to him under a tree. Blake, in fact, often claimed to hear voices and later to have visions of prophets, fairies, and his dead brother Robert. He was so fiery-tempered that his father preferred not to send him to school, where he might be whipped, but chose to give him elementary instruction at home. At the age of ten Blake was enrolled in Henry Pars’s drawing school, from which, at fourteen, he advanced to a formal apprenticeship in the engraver’s trade under James Basire. He was already writing poetry, and several of the pieces collected in Poetical Sketches were composed when he was only twelve. William Blake
Blake’s youthful influences were Gothic art, antiquarianism, and especially the Bible as influenced by his antinomian heritage. Antinomianism was an iconoclastic belief that resisted written and assumed moral codes. Blake learned at an early age to question and resist any tradition that limited the fullest expression of the body and the imagination. He read modern philosophers and poets, including Emanuel Swedenborg, Jakob Böhme, and Edmund Burke. In 1778, having qualified as an engraver, he began to accept commissions from booksellers and was quickly able to assert his professional competence.
In 1781 he fell in love with Catherine Boucher; reaching an understanding almost at once, he married her the following year. At their first meeting she had been suddenly overwhelmed with the intuitive knowledge that she had met her destined husband, and she had been forced to leave the room to keep from fainting. The match so easily made was in many respects ideal: Blake taught her to read, write, sketch, and paint, and she became an essential participant in his labors. Crabbe Robinson writes of the Blakes that they often arrived at parties and gatherings in a dirty condition, which suggests that they were often mutually engaged in Blake’s work as an artist, etcher, and engraver.
Blake’s most active period was during the 1790s. During this time he employed and perfected his etching and engraving techniques, which he had developed by the late 1780s (as shown by the 1788 tractate All Religions Are One). His technique included writing his poetry backward onto a copper plate using a substance impervious to acid, and then biting the rest of the surface away; this is called relief etching. He also used intaglio methods at different times and for different occasions. During the years 1794–1795 he also invented a type of color printing which consisted of applying inks directly to the paper rather than coloring them on by hand as with relief etching. His final masterpieces, however, the illustrations for the Book of Job and his illustrations of Dante, were engraved from watercolors, as were the illustrations for Edward Young’s The Complaint and the Consolation: Or, Night Thoughts, The Pastorals of Virgil, and numerous other books.
In 1800 Blake formed an association with William Hayley, who engaged him to illustrate a Life of Cowper, and he moved from London to Felpham, Sussex, in order to work there with Hayley. The scheme proved unsatisfactory, however; after three years he returned to London to set up as a publisher of his own writings, for which the commercial arrangement with Hayley had made no provision. Because his works were not in demand, his new venture failed; he and his wife subsequently lived in straitened circumstances, subsisting on commissions from Thomas Butts, already for some years Blake’s patron. Butts was the first Blake collector and enthusiast. For an exhibition of his works in 1809, Blake issued a Descriptive Catalogue, and in 1910 he analyzed his painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims.
Between 1804 and 1818, Blake worked as a commercial engraver and spent time working on his ultimate compositions, Vala: Or, The Four Zoas, Milton: A Poem, and the magnificent Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. Between 1818 and his death in London on August 12, 1827, he gained many friends, including the well-known painter John Linnell. In this period he reproduced work that he had created in the 1790s, suggesting his reawakened faith in his skills as an artist. Since his lifetime, his work has become more and more a topic of specialized study, and the complex symbolism of his prophetic books in particular has been subjected to much exegesis.