Blake's father, a prosperous hosier, encouraged young Blake's artistic tastes and sent him to drawing school. At 14 he was apprenticed to James Basire, an engraver, with whom he stayed until 1778. After attending the Royal Academy, where he rebelled against the school's stifling atmosphere, he set up as an engraver. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, whom he taught to read, write, and draw. She became his inseparable companion, assisting him in nearly all his work.
Blake's life, except for three years at Felpham where he prepared illustrations for an edition of Cowper, was spent in London. Poetical Sketches (1783), his first book, was the only one published conventionally during his lifetime. He engraved and published all his other major poetry himself (the rest remained in manuscript), for which he originated a method of engraving text and illustration on the same plate. Neither Blake's artwork nor his poetry enjoyed commercial or critical success until long after his death.
Blake's paintings and engravings, notably his illustrations of his own works, works by Milton, and of the Book of Job, are painstakingly realistic in their representation of human anatomy and other natural forms. They are also radiantly imaginative, often depicting fanciful creatures in exacting detail. Nearly unknown during his life, Blake was generally dismissed as an eccentric or worse long thereafter. His following has gradually increased, and today he is widely appreciated as a visual artist and as a poet.
In Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) the world is seen from a child's point of view, directly and simply but without sentimentality. In the first group, which includes such poems as “The Lamb,” “Infant Joy,” and “Laughing Songs,” both the beauty and the pain of life are captured. The latter group, which includes “The Tyger,” “Infant Sorrow,” “The Sick Rose,” and “London,” reveal a consciousness of cruelty and injustice in the world, for which people, not fate, are responsible. As parables of adult life the Songs are rich in meaning and implication.
Blake's Prophetic Books combine poetry, vision, prophecy, and exhortation. They include The Book of Thel (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1790), The French Revolution (1791), America (1793), Europe (1794), The Book of Urizon (1794), The Book of Los (1795), Milton (1804–8), and Jerusalem (1804–20). These comprise no less than a vision of the whole of human life, in which energy and imagination struggle with the forces of oppression both physical and mental. Blake exalted love and pure liberty, and abhorred the reductive, rationalist philosophy that served to justify the political and economic inequities attendant upon the Industrial Revolution.
The Prophetic Books are founded in the real world, as are Blake's passions and anger, but they appear abstruse because they are ordered by a mythology devised by the poet, which draw from Swedenborg, Jacob Boehme, and other mystical sources. Despite this, and despite the fact that from childhood on Blake was a mystic who thought it quite natural to see and converse with angels and Old Testament prophets, he by no means forsook concrete reality for a mystical life of the spirit. On the contrary, reality, whose center was human life, was for Blake inseparable from imagination. The spiritual, indeed God himself, was an expression of the human.
See his complete writings, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (rev. ed. 1966); his letters, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (2d ed. 1968); his notebook, ed. by D. V. Erdman (1973); biography by Mona Wilson, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (3d ed. 1971); studies by K. J. Raine (2 vol., 1968), D. V. Erdman (2d ed. 1969), Geoffrey Keynes (2d ed. 1971), D. G. Gillham (1973), David Wagenknecht (1973), A. K. Mellor (1974), Gerald E. Bentley, ed. (1975), and Jeanne Witke (1986); Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947); Anthony Blunt, The Art of William Blake (1959); D. V. Erdman and J. E. Grant, ed., Blake's Visionary Forms Dramatic (1970); Robert J. Bertholf and Annette S. Levitt, ed., William Blake and the Moderns (1982).
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