Authors: William Blake

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet, engraver, artist, and lyricist.

November 28, 1757

London, England

August 12, 1827

London, England


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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Poetry: Poetical Sketches, 1783 There Is No Natural Religion, 1788 All Religions Are One, 1788 Songs of Innocence, 1789 The Book of Thel, 1789 Tiriel, c. 1789, pb. 1874, 1967 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790 The French Revolution, wr. 1791, pb. 1913 America: A Prophecy, 1793 Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793 Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1794 Europe: A Prophecy, 1794 The [First] Book of Urizen, 1794 The Song of Los, 1795 The Book of Ahania, 1795 The Book of Los, 1795 Vala: Or, The Four Zoas, wr. 1795–1804, pb. 1963 (best known as The Four Zoas) Milton: A Poem, 1804–1808 Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, 1804–1820 The Poems of William Blake, 1971 Fiction: An Island in the Moon, wr. c. 1784, pb. 1987 To the Public: Prospectus, 1793 Nonfiction: The Notebooks of William Blake, c. 1793–1818, pb. 1973 A Descriptive Catalogue, 1809 Miscellaneous: The Complaint and the Consolation: Or, Night Thoughts, by Edward Young, 1797 (illustrations) Blair’s Grave, 1808 (illustrations) The Prologue and Characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims, 1812 The Pastorals of Virgil, 1821 Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1826 Illustrations of Dante, 1827 Bibliography Ackroyd, Peter. Blake: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. A penetrating biography of the poet and artist, paying special attention to the influence of place, particularly London, on Blake. Beer, John, William Blake: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. This biography traces Blake’s life, offering commentary on his religious background and painting a clear picture of the complexity of his poetry as well as his visual artistry. Blake, William. William Blake: The Illuminated Books. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000. Blake is better known as a poet than as a painter, but this book makes a strong case that Blake’s poems reveal only half of Blake the artist. An introduction by David Bindman tells how Blake, trained as an engraver, invented a technique for printing word and image together. Bloom, Harold, ed. William Blake. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Includes thirteen previously published essays or extracts from longer works, with the aim of providing a representative selection of criticism from 1950 to 1980. The essays are of varying difficulty, but no student should miss the contributions of Northrop Frye (overview of Blake’s myth), David E. Erdman (Blake and contemporary politics), Robert F. Gleckner (point of view in Songs of Innocence and of Experience), W. J. T. Mitchell (Blake’s composite art), and Leopold Damrosch, Jr. (Los and apocalypse). Bruder, Helen P. William Blake and the Daughters of Albion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Bruder’s overt concern is with issues of “women, sexuality, gender, and sexual difference,” but her book is perhaps better regarded as a reassessment of Blake’s relation to popular culture. Bruder presents a thorough and astute reception history. Includes a bibliography and an index. Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this brilliant and endlessly stimulating book, which reveals perhaps for the first time the full extent of Blake’s genius. Frye interprets Blake’s myth in terms of archetypal symbolic structures, which he also finds underlying much Western literature and mythology. Almost all later writers have been indebted to Frye, although some contemporary Blake critics are wary of being too captured by his ideas. Larrissy, Edward. William Blake. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1985. Blake’s reputation was strongly affected by the revolution in critical theory that swept through literary studies in the 1970s and 1980s, and this introductory study is useful because it applies these developments to Blake’s poems in a way that is intelligible to beginning students. Larrissy emphasizes Blake’s political radicalism without ignoring the spiritual aspects of his thought. One drawback to the book is that it undervalues Blake’s later works and covers them only briefly. Lindsay, David W. Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: Macmillan, 1989. A very informative, if brief, introduction that examines a range of critical approaches to Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Lindsay’s impartial discussions of different interpretations of selected poems will be useful for readers who want a concise survey of the field. The second part of the book gives attention to eight Songs of Experience in the context of Blake’s other works. Includes bibliography. Percival, Milton O. William Blake’s Circle of Destiny. 1938. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1977. This introduction to Blake’s prophetic books has stood the test of time. Percival demonstrates that Blake’s myth was firmly rooted in a traditional body of thought that included Neoplatonism, Kabala, alchemy, Gnosticism, and individual thinkers such as Jakob Böhme, Paracelsus, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Plotinus. This book should be read as a balance to the works of Bloom, Frye, and Erdman, who all minimized the esoteric aspects of Blake’s thought.

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