William Blake (Nov. 28, 1757 – Aug. 12, 1827) was an English poet and artist, seen posthumously as an important figure in the Romantic Movement. He earned his living as an engraver, and spent all his life, apart from three years at Felpham in Sussex, in modest accommodation in the London area. His work was little known or esteemed in his lifetime. His first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist (whose work was completed by his wife Anne) assumed that the main interest was in his art., but in 1868 Swinburne published an appreciation of his poetry, and this was followed by editions of his works.
All of the poems that Blake put before the public in his lifetime were self-published as etchings or engravings, many of them hand-coloured, the text and the setting interdependent and enriching each other. His most accessible works are his early lyrics, including Songs of Innocence, published in 1789 and reissued as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with many contrasting additions, in 1794. The "prophetic" books (see below) based on his own private cosmology require an understanding of that cosmology for full appreciation, but their long flowing lines and powerful passages can have a strong appeal.
He also produced some prose works, including The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
According to Crabb Robinson, Wordsworth thought him mad but interesting. Ruskin thought his mind "great and wise", but A.E. Housman held him up as an example of "the Muses' madness" and quoted him as an example of "poetry neat, or adulterated with so little meaning that nothing except poetical emotion is perceived and matters." Swinburne's great contribution to Blake's reputation was to insist that the prophetic books should be taken seriously, though his interpretation of them was mistaken.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience
In 1789 Blake produced, by his method of illuminated printing, a small volume entitled Songs of Innocence, containing 22 poems. In 1794 he added a new title page Songs of Innocence and Of Experience/Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (elsewhere he pointed out that "Negations are not Contraries: Contraries mutually Exist/But Negations Exist Not"), and added another 22 poems. However, the plates of two of the original poems were transferred to the new Experience section, so there was no deliberate balancing of numbers. It is not known that he ever issued the Songs of Experience separately. The tone of the earlier collection is happy, optimistic, seeing the good side of everything. The tone of the Experience collection is that of a social critic. This is particularly evident in the three pairs of poems with identical titles: The Chimney Sweeper, Nurse's Song and Holy Thursday. The Songs of Experience contain what may be Blake's best known poem (as a poem), The Tyger.
The Prophetic books
Blake probably began Milton in 1804, after he had returned to London from living in Felpham, where he had been much under the influence of William Hayley; and it represents his final rejection of Hayley's wish to keep him in conventional and money-making occupations. He had written to Thomas Butts in the previous year: "If a Man is the Enemy of my Spiritual Life while he pretends to be the Friend of my Corporeal, he is a Real Enemy". It is a poem in two books, with a preface which ends with the four-stanza poem commonly miscalled "Jerusalem" ("And did those feet in ancient time").
Stated baldly, the story of the poem is that Milton, hearing the prophetic song of a Bard narrating the disastrous errors of the present time, descends into Blake so that the world can be rectified and the great harvest prepared. Alongside this, Blake narrates the history of his relations with Hayley, who represents the perverter of art and truth. All of it is expresssed by means of Blake's personal mythological framework.
There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find,
- Nor can his Watch Fiends find it, but the Industrious find
- This Moment & it multiply; and when it once is found,
- It renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed. . . .
- Just in this Moment when the morning odours rise abroad,
- And first from the Wild Thyme, stands a Fountain in a rock
- Of crystal flowing into two Streams. . . .
Milton plate 35, lines 42ff
- I must Create a System or be enslaved by another Man's.
- I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.
(plate 10, lines 20-21)
Jerusalem is a poem in four chapters, with the date 1804 on the title page, but printed from Blake's engravings between 1818 and 1820. The poem proper begins "Of the Sleep of Ulro [life in this world]! and of the passage through/Eternal Death! and of the awakening to Eternal Life." The opening passages show every human perfection withered, and the problems of a preoccupation with Sin. Against these the imagination labours. After much tribulation, with references to contemporary social conditions and the continental wars, Albion (Humanity, in one signification) awakens and compels the four Zoas (imagination, reason, passion, the senses) to their proper functions. The poem ends with all Human Forms going forth into the planetary lives of years, months, days and hours, reposing, and then awaking into immortality. The name of the Emanations of these human forms is Jerusalem. In chapter 3, Blake has already written:
In Great Eternity every particular Form gives forth or Emanates
- Its own particular Light, & the Form is the Divine Vision
- And the Light is his Garment. This is Jerusalem in every Man,
- A Tent and Tabernacle of Mutual Forgiveness, Male & Female Clothings.
- And Jerusalem is called Liberty among the Children of Albion.
(Plate 54,lines 1—5)
Blake writes in terms of the correspondence between mental states and the repressive political and social conditions of his day. The symbolism is difficult to follow, and S. Foster Damon suggests that ignoring the name-symbolism helps the meaning to emerge.
Note that this poem should not be confused with another, untitled poem by Blake, a musical setting of which by Sir Hubert Parry is very well known under the title Jerusalem, though it seems neither Blake nor Parry ever used that title (see above under Milton).
Vala, or the Four Zoas
The manuscript of this poem, the first of the three long prophetic books, never achieved a finalised form, and was never engraved. Lines from it were incorporated in Milton and Jerusalem. In nine Nights, it deals with the history of the world in Blake's mythological system, the warring elements of sensuality, reason, imagination and passion, often appearing in different forms with different names, until they are restored to their proper places.
The Book of Thel (1789), Tiriel (1789, never engraved, but with some decoration), The French Revolution (1791), America: a Prophecy (1793), The Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), The Book of Urizen (1794), Europe, a Prophecy (1794), The Book of Ahania (1795), The Song of Los (1795), and The Book of Los (1795), are all poetical "prophetic" works steadily developing Blake's personal system.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790—93) stands apart, both as a prose work and in its subject matter, being largely a collection of aphorisms in defiance of conventional wisdom.
In addition to his engravings, Blake worked in watercolour and what he called fresco (more like tempera). Like his poetry, his art has a visionary quality. Despising the dominant artist of his time, Joshua Reynolds and admiring Michelangelo and Gothic art, he annotated Reynolds's Discourses with rude comments. The static character of Reynolds's fashionable portraits contrasts with Blake's romantic dynamicism. He did influence a small group including John Linnell and Samuel Palmer. After his death the first exhibitions of his work were held in London in 1876 and Boston in 1880.
- Gilchrist, A. Life of William Blake. 1863
- Drabble, M, ed. Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford University Press. Revised ed 1995
- Drabble, ed, under Blake
- Drabble, ed, under Blake
- Housman, A E. The Name and Nature of Poetry. 1933, in Carter, J, ed. A E Housman Selected Prose. Cambridge University Press. 1961
- Swinburne, A C. William Blake. Hotten. 1868
- S. Foster Damon. William Blake. 1924
- Blunt, A. The Art of William Blake, in Butlin, M. A Catalogue of the works of William Blake in the Tate Gallery. The Tate Gallery. 1957
- Rothenstein, J in Butlin