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William Blake



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William Blake


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The Divine Image
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I Saw a Chapel
To the Muses

William Blake, a visionary English poet and painter who was a precursor of English Romanticism, combined the vocations of engraver, painter, and poet. He was born on Nov. 28, 1757, the son of a London hosier. Blake spent all of his relatively quiet life in London except for a stay at Felpham, on the southern coast of England, from 1800 to 1803.

Largely self-taught, Blake was, however, widely read, and his poetry shows the influence of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, for example, and of Swedenborgianism. As a child, Blake wanted to become a painter. He was sent to drawing school at age 10 and at the age of 14 was apprenticed to James Basire, an engraver. From sketching frequently at Westminster Abbey, he developed an interest in the Gothic style, which he combined with a taste for the art of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Durer. He exhibited his first artwork in 1780, married Catherine Boucher in 1782, and published his first poems, Poetical Sketches, in 1783. He quickly withdrew them from circulation, however, apparently offended by the condescending preface written by a patron. Amid its traditional, derivative elements are hints of his later innovative style and themes. As with all his poetry, this volume reached few contemporary readers.

Blake produced and published his other works himself, except those which remained in manuscript at his death, by using his own unique method of engraving both illustration and text on copper plates and coloring the printed volumes by hand. He executed numerous engravings for books by others as well as watercolors and other kinds of paintings. Blake gave only one private exhibition, for which he wrote an interesting Descriptive Catalogue (1809), but the show was a failure and received severe criticism. Some of the major works exhibited at it have since been lost.

The earliest of Blake's well-known works is Songs of Innocence (1789). These lyrics—fresh, direct observations—are notable for their eloquence. In 1794, disillusioned with the possibility of human perfection, Blake issued Songs of Experience, employing the same lyric style and much of the same subject matter as in Songs of Innocence. Both series of poems take on deeper resonances when read in conjunction. Innocence and Experience, "the two contrary states of the human soul," are contrasted in such companion pieces as "The Lamb" and "The Tyger." Blake wrote, but never published, a number of additional short poems, including the cryptic "Mental Traveller" and an unfinished poem on the acts of Jesus entitled "The Everlasting Gospel." For the most part, though, he concentrated on producing longer engraved works, most of which have powerful and astonishing illustrations and designs and form a huge, original cosmic drama of titanic powers who war among themselves, with their wives, and with views of reality different from their own. The best known of these so-called Prophetic Books (a title assigned to them by their early critics) are Milton (c. 1802-08) and Jerusalem (c. 1804-20), both engraved, and the unfinished Vala; or, The Four Zoas, written about the same time and discovered in manuscript only in 1893.

Before doing these, Blake executed a number of so-called minor prophecies, which extend the concepts of innocence and experience, as in Tiriel (c. 1789, unengraved) and The Book of Thel (1789). Blake followed these with Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), in which he offers radical views on sex, religion, and politics. Other works look forward to the later prophecies by introducing his "giant forms" in symbolical and historical poems heavily influenced by the Bible. The most notable of these are America (1793), Europe (1794), and the books of Urizen (1794), Ahania (1795), and Los (1795). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1792), a work that combines prose and verse, story, proverb, and argument, is especially important for understanding Blake's corpus.

Blake left no poetry written after about 1818, but he remained active as an engraver and artist. His graphic art too defied 18th-century conventions. Always stressing imagination over reason, he felt that ideal forms should be constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions. His rhythmically patterned linear style is also a repudiation of the painterly academic style. Blake's attenuated, fantastic figures go back, instead, to the medieval tomb statuary he copied as an apprentice and to Mannerist sources. The influence of Michelangelo is especially evident in the radical foreshortening and exaggerated muscular form in one of his best-known illustrations, popularly known as The Ancient of Days, the frontispiece to his poem Europe, a Prophecy (1794). Other art works of this later period are the illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy, illustrations for the work of John Milton, his favorite poet (although he rejected Milton's Puritanism), for John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the Book of Job, and Thornton's translation of Virgil, the last a set of charming woodcuts. After his death on Aug. 12, 1827, and that of his wife four years later, Blake's works were dispersed, and some may have been destroyed.

Blake's work was not well known in his lifetime, but his influence is apparent in the work of several painters who knew him when he was an old man, particularly Samuel Palmer. He also influenced the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the 19th century, and his first editor was W. B. Yeats, who knew much of his poetry by heart. James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Joyce Cary, among others, found inspiration in his writings, and he has had considerable influence on modern literary criticism through the work of Northrop Frye. Today Blake is one of the most frequently discussed poets. Of those who actually knew Blake, Palmer left the most interesting estimate of him: "In him you saw the Maker, the Inventor . . . He was energy itself and shed around him a kindling influence, an atmosphere of life, full of the idea. . . . He was a man without a mask."

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