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William Blake (1757-1827)

 

British poet, painter, visionary mystic, and engraver, who illustrated and printed his own books. Blake proclaimed the supremacy of the imagination over the rationalism and materialism of the 18th-century. He joined for a time the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in London and considered Newtonian science to be superstitious nonsense. Mocking criticism and misunderstanding shadowed Blake's career as a writer and artist and it was left to later generations to recognize his importance.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

(from 'Auguries of Innocence')

William Blake was born in Soho, London, where he spent most of his life. The house of his parents, on the corner of Broad Street and Marshall Street, was erected upon an old burial ground. His father, James Blake, was a successful London hosier, who was attracted by the doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg and deeply opposed to the Court. Blake was first educated at home, chiefly by his mother, Catherine Wright Armitage; her first husband, also a hosier, had died in 1751. When she married James in 1752, she was thirty. Blake's first biographer, Frederick Tatham, wrote that Blake "depised restraints & rules, so much that his Father dare not send him to School."

From his early years, Blake had experienced visions of angels and ghostly monks, he saw and conversed with the angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, and various historical figures. Blake's parents encouraged him to collect prints of the Italian masters, and his father gave him engravings and plaster casts. Gothic art and architecture influenced him, and the work of Adam Ghisi and Albert Dürer.

In 1767 Blake was sent to Henry Pars' drawing school, at No. 101 the Strand. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed for seven years to the engraver James Basire, working for him twelve hours a day, six days a week. Only on Sundays Blake returned to his family home. After studies at the Royal Academy School, where he did not have much respect for Sir Joshua Reynolds, the president of the Academy, Blake started to produce watercolors and engrave illustrations for magazines.

When Blake met Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a market gardener, he was rcovering from rejection by another woman. Catherine fainted on being introduced to him. They married in 1783; Catherine who was ílliterate signed her wedding contract with an "X". The marriage was childless – none of Blake's siblings had children. Blake taught Catherine to draw and paint and how to use a printing press. She assisted him devoutly. Just before his death Blake drew a portrait of her, saying, "you have ever been an angel to me". Blake's younger brother Robert, who had died of consumption when he was twenty-five, regularly visited him in dreams. Once Robert adviced him in printing technology.

Blake's important cultural and social contacts included Henry Fuseli, who was a Member of the Royal Academy, Reverend A.S. Mathew and his wife, John Flaxman (1755-1826), a sculptor and draftsman, Tom Paine, William Godwin, and Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), married to the wealthy grandson of the earl of Sandwich. Blake never met the Swedish philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who died in London in 1772, but he read widely Swedenborg's writings in his search for ancient truths, before turning to the writings of Paracelsus and Jacob Boehme.

His early poems Blake wrote at the age of 12. However, being early apprenticed to a manual occupation, journalistic-social career was not open to him. His first book of poems, Poetical Sketches, came out in 1783 and was followed by Songs of Innocence (1789), and Songs of Experience (1794). Each copy of Songs of Innocence was unique and the poems were never in the same order. The book was not a commercial or critical success.

Blake's most famous poem, 'The Tyger', was part of his Songs of Experience. Typical for Blake's poems were long, flowing lines and violent energy, combined with aphoristic clarity and moments of lyric tenderness. Blake was not blinded by conventions, but approached his subjects sincerely with a mind unclouded by current opinions. On the other hand this made him also an outsider. He approved of free love, and sympathized with the actions of the French revolutionaries but the Reign of Terror sickened him.

In 1790 Blake engraved The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his principal prose work, in which he expressed his revolt against the established values of his time: "Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion." Radically Blake sided with the Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost and attacked the conventional religious views in a series of paradoxical aphorisms. In Hell he walked around like a tourist. The poet's life in the realms of images did not please his wife who once remarked: "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company. He is always in Paradise." Some of Blake's contemporaries called him a harmless lunatic. The Examiner dismissed him as "an unfortunate lunatic" who had published "a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibliness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain." George III shouted "Take them away! Take them away! when he was shown some of Blake's drawings.

Henry Fuseli, who was sixteen years Blake's senior, recognized also a debt to him, and Fuseli was the only contemporary artist, whose 'superiority' Blake seems to have acknowledged. Blake's writings did not interest Fuseli, but when he required a good draughtsman to prepare a frontispiece to his translation of Lavater's Aphorisms on Man, which Joseph Johnson was about to publish, he asked Blake to do the engraving. However, Blake was not an easy person to get along with, especially in a subordinate role, and although they worked together on a number of designs, by 1803 their paths had separated. Fuseli is said to have admitted that "Blake is d—good to steal from."

In 1774 Blake opened with his wife and younger brother Robert a print shop at 27 Broad Street, but the venture failed after the death of Robert in 1787. Moreover,  deadlines were always too short for him. Immediately upon his death Blake slept for three days and nights. The Blakes moved south of the Thames to Lambeth in 1790, where they had more room. During this time Blake began to work on his 'prophetic books', where he recorded his lifelong concern with the struggle of the soul to free its natural energies from reason and organized religion.

Although Blake first accepted Swedenborg's ideas, he eventually rejected him. His mythical and visionary world he recorded in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), in which the motto is, "The Eye sees more than the Heart knows", America: a Prophecy (1793), about the rebellion of American colonies and the British response, The Book of Urizen (1794), an introduction to his cosmogony, The Song of Los  (1795), and Europe (1794), which contains one of his most extraordinary images, God measuring the abyss below him with a pair of compasses. Blake hated the effects of the Industrial Revolution in England and looked forward to the establishment of a New Jerusalem "in England's green and pleasant land." Between 1804 and 1818 he produced an edition of his own poem Jerusalem  with 100 engravings.

"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."

(from 'Jerusalem' in Milton, 1804-1808)

In 1800 Blake was taken up by the wealthy William Hayley, poet and patron of poets, who had a house in Felpham, Sussex, and whose writings he began to illustrate, executing also other commissions. The Blakes rented a cottage at Felpham, staying there for three years. In a letter to a friend he wrote: "Meat is cheaper than in London, but the sweet air&the voices of winds, trees&birds, &the odours of the happy ground, makes it a dwelling for immortals."

In this period, his attention was again drawn to Milton, perhaps after discussions with Hayley. Milton: A Poem in a Books To Justify the Ways of God to Men was finished and engraved between 1803 and 1808. After exchanging some heated words in argument with Private John Scofield, Blake was charged in 1803 at Chichester with high treason for having uttered such expressions as "D-n the King, d-n all his subjects..." Blake was acquitted, and as the Sussex Advertiser later reported, the verdict "so gratified the auditory that the court was, in defiance of all decency, thrown into an uproar by their noisy exultations".

Blake's exhibition in 1809 at the shop once owned by his brother was commercially unsuccessful. However, economic problems did not diminish his creativity, but he continued to produce energetically poems, aphorisms, and engravings. "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction," he wrote. While working on his own version of the Canterbury Pilgrims, Blake produced The Four Zoas, first called Vala. The long epic poems was rediscovered in 1889, and published in The Writings of William Blake (1893). Many of its drawings are erotic; the central motif is the erect penis.

In his old age, Blake enjoyed the admiration of a group of young artist, known as 'The Ancients'. One of them called him "divine Blake", who "had seen God, sir, and had talked with angels". Moreover, he was many times helped by John Linnell, an younger artist. Blake's last years were passed in obscurity, quarreling even with some of the circle of friends who supported him. Among Blake's later works are drawings and engravings for Dante's Divine Comedy and the 21 illustrations to the book of Job, which was completed when he was almost 70 years old. Blake never managed to get out of poverty, in large part due to his inability to compete with fast engravers and his expensive invention that enabled him to design illustrations and print words at the same time.

Independent through his life, Blake left no debts at his death on August 12, 1827. He was buried in a common grave at the Dissenter's burial ground in Bunhill Fields, where his parents lie. Over the years, four bodies were placed above him. Catherine's final resting place was also at Bunhill Fields, but her grave was not near her husband. Wordsworth's verdict after Blake's death reflected many opinions of the time: "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." Blake's influence grew through Pre-Raphealites and W.B. Yeats especially in Britain. His interest in legend was revived with the Romantics' rediscovery of the past, especially the Gothic and medieval.

In the 1960s Blake's work was acclaimed by the Underground movement. The American rock group The Doors took its name from Aldous Huxley's book The Doors of Perception, which refers to a line in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay on Blake that "the concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy is one of the reasons why Dante is a classic and Blake only a poet of genius." (from Selected Essays, 1960)

For further information: William Blake's Religious Vision: There's a Methodism in His Madness by Jennifer Jesse (2013);  Blake in the Nineties, ed. by Steve Clark, David Worrall (1999); The Chained Bo: Orc and Blake's Idea of Revolution by Christopher Z. Hobson (1999); Blake, Politics, and History, ed. by Jackie Disalvo et al (1998); The Dialectic of Vision: A Contrary Reading of William Blake's Jerusalem by Fred Dortort, Donald Ault (1998); Blake, Ethics, and Forgiveness by Jeanne Moskal (1994); Encounter With the Self: A Jungian Commentary on William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job by Edward F. Edinger (1986); Blake and Swedenborg, ed. by Rahl Bellin, Harvey Bellin (1985); A Blake Bibliography by G.E. Bentley Jr. and M.K. Nurmi (1977); Blake Books by G.E. Bentley Jnr (1977); A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake by S. Foster Damon (1979) William Blake and the Age of Revolution by J. Bronowski (1965); William Blake: A New Kind of Man by M. Davis (1977); Blake's Apocalypse by M.D. Paley (1970); The Complete Writings of William Blake by G. Keynes (1966); Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake by Northrop Frye (1947); The Life of William Blake by Mona Wilson (1927, ed. G. Keynes, 1971); The Life of William Blake by Alexander Gilchrist (1863) - See also: Jim Morrison, Kenzaburo Oe, Emanuel Swedenborg

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

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

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaved 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?

Selected works:

  • Poetical Sketches, 1783
  • There is No Natural Religion, c. 1788
  • All Religions Are One, c. 1788
  • Songs of Innocence, 1789
  • The Book of Thel, 1789
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790-1793 - Taivaan ja helvetin avioliitto ja muuta proosaa (suom. Tuomas Anhava, 1959)
  • (Illustrator): Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life, 1791
  • The French Revolution: A Poem in Seven Books, c. 1791
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793
  • America: A Prophecy, 1793
  • Songs of Experience, 1794
  • The First Book of Urizen, 1794
  • Europe: A Book of Prophecy, 1794
  • The Song of Los, 1795
  • The Book of Ahania, 1795
  • The Book of Los, 1795
  • The Four Zoas, 1795-1804
  • (Illustrator): Edward Young, Night Thoughts, 1797 (537 coloured illustrations)
  •  Milton a Poem, 1804-08
  • (Illustrator): Robert Blair, The Grave, 1805-1808
  • (Illustrator): John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1808
  • Everlasting Gospel, 1818?
  • (Illustrator): John Varley, Visionary Heads, 1819-1820
  • Jerusalem, 1820
  • (Illustrator): R.J. Thornton, Virgil, 1821
  • The Ghost of Abel, 1822
  • (Illustrator): The Book of Job, 1823-1826
  • (Illustrator, unfinished): Dante' Divine Comedy, 1825-1827
  • The Works of William Blake, 1893 (edited by E.J. Ellis, W.B. Yeats)
  • Poetical Works of William Blake, 1913 (edited by John Sampson)
  • The Prophetic Writings, 1926 (edited by D.J. Sloss and J.P.R. Wallis)
    - Taivaan ja helvetin avioliitto ja muuta proosaa (suom. Tuomas Anhava, 1959)
  • The Letter of William Blake, 1956 (edited by Geoffrey Keynes)
  • The Complete Writings, 1957 (edited by Geoffrey Keynes)
    - Taivaan ja helvetin avioliitto ja muuta proosaa (suom. Tuomas Anhava, 1959)
  • Vala, 1963 (edited by G.E. Bentley jnr.)
  • The Complete Writings of William Blake, 1966 (edited by Geoffrey Keynes)
  • The Poems of William Blake, 1971 (edited by W.H. Stevenson)
  • The Notebook of William Blake, 1973 (edited by David V. Erdman)
  • The Illuminated Blake, 1975 (annotated by David V. Erdman)
  • The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake, 1978 (annotated by David Bindman)
  • The Letters ofWilliam Blake, 1980 (edited by Geoffrey Keynes, 3rd ed., 1980)
  • The Paintings and Drawings William Blake, 1981 (edited by Martin Butlin)
  • The Complete Poetry and Poems of William Blake, 1982 (rev. ed., critical commentary by Harold Bloom)
  • An Island in the Moon, 1987 (annotated by Michael Phillips)
  • The Four Zoas, 1987 (commentary by Cettina Tramontano Magno and David V. Erdman)
  • The Complete Poetry and Poems William Blake, 1988 (edited by David V. Erdman)


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