“I was angry with my friend;
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I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.” (‘A Poison Tree’ in Songs of Experience)
William Blake, the son of a London hosier, did not receive any formal education but was self-taught in many respects before he enrolled as an apprentice to James Basire who was the engraver for the Society of Antiquities. Following this he studied at the Royal Academy, and made a living from the age of twenty-two onwards as an engraver for Joseph Johnson, a famously radical bookseller who published Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing among others’. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher and their marriage was a lasting and happy one although it produced no children. At this time Blake came under the spell of Macpherson’s Ossianic writings and fell into the company of various intellectuals such as Flaxman and the circle of the Reverend A S Mathew. With their aid Blake published his first book of poetry, Poetical Sketches (1783), and set up his own print shop in 1784.
>From this time onwards Blake took the rather unusual step of engraving rather than printing his works, and doing so himself. He made his own ink, hand-printed the pages, illustrated them himself and got his wife to sew the covers on. This cottage industry produced two of the best loved and original books of poetry of the eighteenth century: namely, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). Their poems were written in a simple style that made them accessible for children and they show two opposite worlds: one in which God is trusted implicitly and there is no question of moral issues; and one in which the fallen state is examined and religious hypocrisy is examined. They question on a basic level the Enlightenment mode of thinking about Christianity in all its repressive, Puritanical vainglory. These themes continue in Thel which was etched around the time of 1789 and presents them in the words of invented characters who muse upon Blake’s radical interpretation of Christianity.
Blake’s works became increasingly complex with Tiriel (written in 1789 and published in 1874), where the poet first introduces his blind and fiercely repressive father figure that reappears frequently in his later works. In the early 1790s, Blake produced his single important prose work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and a number of revolutionary pieces including America: A Prophecy (1793) and Visions of the Daughters of Albion in the same year. A man touched by, if not madness as is frequently assumed, then at least a visionary instinct, Blake wrote with alleged aid of the spirit world and combined this mystical ecstasy with his radical political fervour. He said to a friend, “I write when commanded by the spirits, and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published and the spirits can read. My manuscripts are of no further use. I have been tempted to burn my manuscripts, but my wife won’t let me”.
Blake continued to write in Lambeth after 1790 without much acclaim, producing after Songs of Experience (with its well-known verse “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright”) various works including The Book of Urizen (1794), The Song of Los (1795) and The Four Zoas (also known as Vala, written and revised 1797-1804). Most important though was his poem in two books called Milton that was written and etched between 1804 and 1808. It is sometimes near impenetrable but contains the extremely famous lines known as ‘Jerusalem’ beginning, “And did those feet in ancient time”. The poem revolves around Blake’s continued obsession and fascination with Milton’s Paradise Lost. One story tells of Blake and his wife reading passages from Milton’s poem naked and aloud in their garden unfazed by the arrival of a friend.
The later years of the great poet and engraver were darkened by his lack of success and by various poor deals such as that for drawings to accompany Robert Blair’s The Grave that Robert Cromek refused to pay him for. He was lost in obscurity, alienating even his circle of friends. Despite his hard work he languished without an appreciative audience, still producing fine poetry such as “The Everlasting Gospel” in 1818. He died in 1827 but interest in his life and works only began after Gilchrist’s biography of 1863 and other poets’ realisation of his uniquely intelligent and complex prophetic vision of existence and religion so misunderstood in his time.
William Blake was born on November 28th, 1757 as the third of five children to a London hosier. Because of the relatively lower middle class status of his father’s profession, Blake was raised in the same state of poverty that he would experience throughout his entire life. As a child, he was already fond of painting and was eventually sent to drawing school as a result. Young William received only enough schooling to learn how to read and write while working in his father’s shop. While Blake received very little of a traditional education, he was well versed in Greek and Latin literature, the Bible, and Milton.
Blake continued to grow intellectually through the influence of his brother Robert who died by consumption when he was twenty. After he saw his brother’s soul “ascend heavenward clapping its hands for joy,” Blake continued to seek inspiration through his favorite brother. Blake continued his strong belief in the spiritual world throughout the rest of his life. When he was ten years old, he tried to convince his father that he had seen angels in a tree and, he asserted throughout the rest of his life, that he spoke with many of the spirits, angels, and devils that he wrote about.
By age fourteen (1771), Blake was apprenticed to an engraver named James Basire where he served for seven years, learning the craft that would later become the focal point around which his other professions would center. Even before his apprenticeship, at the age of twelve, Blake began writing the poetry that would become his first printed work, Poetical Sketches, in 1783. After this time (1779), he enrolled at the Royal Academy but rebelled against the doctrines of its dominating president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was at the Royal Academy though, where Blake established relations with John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli whose work served as influences to his own projects.
>From 1779, Blake served as an engraver for a London bookseller while contracting his services to others. It is during this time, at the age of twenty-five (1782), that Blake married his lifelong companion and wife, Catherine Boucher. He taught her to read, write, and help him with his work. They never had any children. It is true that his wife actually helped him produce an edition Blake’s Songs of Innocence. For this edition and various other projects, Blake engraved the plates while Catherine made the impressions, helped hand-colored them, and bound the books together.
John Flaxman helped Blake set up his own print shop at 27 Broad Street in 1784. The business was an eventual failure. Blake continued to contract his skills to others while producing his major works with his wife. During this time, he produced An Island in the Moon (1784-5), All Religions Are One and There is No Natural Religion (1788), The Book of Thel (1789), and Songs of Innocence (1789). The year 1789 marked the beginning of tremendous creativity for Blake as he published his major works in the relatively short period to follow- The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), The French Revolution (1791), America: A Prophecy (1793), Visions of the Daughters of Albion
Blake and his wife left London for the southern coastal town of Felpham between 1800 and 1803. It is in Felpham where Blake evicted a drunken soldier from urinating in his garden who later accused him of making seditious remarks. A jury acquitted him but the event would surface in some of Blake’s later works including one of his masterpieces, Jerusalem (1804-20).
After 1818 and until his death on August 12, 1827, Blake produced no more poetry but continued his engravings including the twenty-one plates of the Book of Job and illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Blake continued his creative vision until his death having lived in London, with the exception of his time in Felpham, his entire life. He was buried in common grave in relative obscurity. His wife died four years later. The vast majority of Blake’s original copper engraved plates were destroyed after his death leaving his appreciators few and rare editions of his printed works.
Blake produced a multitude of works ranging from the creative to political to social and every combination in between. Blake’s major works serve as an excellent sample of the writing of an accomplished artisan and writer. Many Union College English classes demonstrate a commitment to furthering Blake in the classroom through the close examination of Blake’s work. During the ten-week Blake Seminar, students typically read and discuss all of Blake’s major works and some other “nuggets” related to an understanding of the man and his craft. Below, you will find a complete listing of Blake’s writing along with pertinent dates.
While Blake was the Poetic Genius defined, he was also a philosopher, radical, and great thinker. If we ignore the prophetic and epic qualities of Blake’s own written and engraved works, we discover further intended meanings on a social and political level. Blake’s Jerusalem is an example in which social ideas shine through the epic tale of Albion. In this work, Blake’s love-hate relationship with his native England is expressed through the tensions between characters. As another example, we may look toward Blake’s “London” in his Songs of Experience. Here, once again, Blake comments on the city he both loves and hates.
Some of Blake’s influences and those he influenced are easily traced. If we look toward his own Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake tells us, on plate 3, “And lo! Swedenborg is the Angel sitting at the tomb; his writings are the linen clothes folded up.” We see that Blake identifies the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg but, later he replaces those ideas with his own. Swedenborg’s thought appears to serve as a springboard for Blake’s expansive vision.
Swedenborg was a highly respected Swedish scientist and philosopher of the 18th century. Though Swedenborg was so accomplished, nevertheless, he was also incomplete. About the middle of his life, Swedenborg began to document various visions that appeared to him and ultimately, those visions which involved the teachings of the Lord. Supposedly, the Lord chose Swedenborg to be the human connection between heaven and earth. For the rest of his life, Emmanuel Swedenborg served the purposes of his God and developed an ability to predict the future. It is that ability that propelled him to fame for his teachings.
While Blake acknowledges Swedenborg’s thoughts, he later reveals what he perceives as limitations in Swedenborg’s teachings. Blake also thought much about religion and its status withing society. It is within his two works “There is no Natural Religion” and ” All Religions Are One,” that Blake tackles his own views on the role of religion in society and the individual life.
While we can not possibly give justice to all of Blake’s multitudinous ideas here, we may acknowledge that Blake’s ideas range throughout a wide scope of subjects and vary from the radical to the practical. Blake was indeed, no ordinary thinker. We would like to encourage future students to consider Blake in a way that not only challenges their own views and opinions about the world but, their opinions about the man himself.
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