William Blake (1757-1827) was one of the strangest and most difficult to categorize of eighteenth century British literary figures. We are not even sure that “literary figure” correctly describes him, since it was as an illustrator that he primarily earned his bread.
His early life
He came from humble origins as the son of a London hosier. From early youth he was haunted by religious and demonic visions. He claimed to have seen angels, gods, and spirits beginning at the age of four, and thereafter enjoyed a close association with the supernatural.
As a child he was withdrawn and moody, and lived in a world of his own sensations. At the age of ten, he attended a school for illustrators in the Strand; this was followed by an extended apprenticeship with an engraver. All this time he immersed himself in Romantic poetry, from which he acquired a taste for exotic themes and lush, gothic settings.
It was not long before he began to take up the pen. Unique in the annals of poetry, he illustrated his own written verses with as much ability as he wrote them. His illustrated poems thus comprise a self-contained world, in which the reader finds himself immersed entirely in Blake’s dreamscapes.
He tried to attend the Royal Academy at the age of twenty-five, but was rejected for lack of sufficient academic credentials. How old is the story of genius spurned by the establishment!
Marriage discovered him at the age of twenty-five as well. His wife, Catherine Boucher, tolerated him about as much any woman could under the circumstances; but moody, visionary geniuses do not often make for good bedfellows. But he was no prude; in fact, he condemned sexual abstinence as a mark of ignorance and repression.
And yet he must have had some redeeming human qualities, for in 1783 two moneyed well-wishers financed the private printing of a volume of his verses named Poetical Sketches. Here was first displayed the main themes of his work: moody mysticism, individuality, and a fiery religious fervor.
An innovator as well
One of the main factors in preventing Blake’s work from reaching a large audience was the financial cost of printing his books: they required both engraved plates as well as regular typescript, as he insisted on illustrating his own volumes.
Inexpensive editions of his works were hard to generate with the printing technology of the day, and so the circulation of his books remained low. Art to him could never be compromised. He would later, however, invent a process of engraving both text and illustrations on the same plate.
By 1784 he had sufficient means to open his own print shop on Broad Street in London. His brother Robert gave him valuable assistance in the beginning, but perished from tuberculosis in 1787.
The year 1789 saw the publication of Songs of Innocence, which was tinged by religious themes. This was followed in 1794 with Songs of Experience, which contains a personal favorite of mine. An excerpt below gives us a taste of his mystical tendencies:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame they fearful symmetry?…
And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hands and what dread feet?
He was an idealist at heart, and believed in the brotherhood of man; the failure of the French Revolution to produce a utopia was a crushing disappointment to him. He was darkly suspicious of science, as he believed it to be a corrupter of faith, as well as an artifice used to oppress the common man.
After 1815 he gradually drifted away from poetry, probably finding that it did little to fatten his purse. His bread and butter remained illustration. He won in 1819 a commission from a wealthy man named John Linnell to illustrate some passages in the Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
While hard at work on this task, he was overtaken by death. By this time he had become an obscure figure, and his funeral passed without notice. For many years the precise location of his grave-site was not known; in 1957, finally, a bronze bust of Blake was erected at Westminster Abbey.
The essence of the man
He had been so far ahead of his time that his contemporaries had lost sight of him. He distrusted political reactionaries; despised slavery; and believed that the imagination above all must be cultivated as the beating heart of the creative process.
He reminds us vaguely of Blaise Pascal, with the frequency and intensity of his religious visions, and the perhaps untreated medical issues he may have suffered from. No one quite knew how to categorize him. For many years after his death, his work, like that of Herman Melville in the United States much later, remained forgotten.
The publication of a sympathetic biography of his life in 1863 by Alexander Gilchrist changed all this, and he eventually came to be seen as a key figure in the Romantic movement. His reputation has increased steadily since the twentieth century.
He remains a fascinating figure. No poet before or since has combined such mastery of words and images. His work seems surprisingly modern: the lines of poetry are usually short, the impact is powerful, and the images stay fixed in the mind.
He was an apostle of the imagination, and a testament to the consuming power of a visionary ideal.
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