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William Blake

William Blake in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips.
Born 28 November 1757(1757-11-28)
London, England
Died 12 August 1827 (aged 69)
London, England
Occupation Poet, Painter, Printmaker, Editor
Genres Visionary Poetry
Literary movement Romanticism
Notable work(s) Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Four Zoas, Jerusalem, Milton a Poem

William Blake (28 November 1757–12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language".[1] His visual artistry has led one British art journalist to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced".[2] Although he only once journeyed farther than a day's walk outside London during his lifetime,[3] he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God",[4] or "Human existence itself".[5]

Considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterized as part of both the Romantic movement and "Pre-Romantic",[6] for its large appearance in the 18th century. Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England, Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions,[7] as well as by such thinkers as Jakob Böhme and Emanuel Swedenborg.[8]

Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake's work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th century scholar William Rossetti characterised Blake as a "glorious luminary,"[9] and as "a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors."[10]

Historian Peter Marshall has classified Blake as one of the forerunners of modern anarchism, along with Blake's contemporary William Godwin.[11]


Early life

The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in Blake's work. Here, the demiurgic figure Urizen prays before the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecies.

William Blake was born in 28 Broad Street, London, England on 28 November 1757, to a middle-class family. He was the third of seven children,[12][13] two of whom died in infancy. Blake's father, James, was a hosier.[13] William never attended school, and was educated at home by his mother Catherine Wright Armitage Blake.[14] The Blakes were Dissenters, and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life.

Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that was then preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Dürer. His parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he was not sent to school but was instead enrolled in drawing classes. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period, Blake was also making explorations into poetry; his early work displays knowledge of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.

Apprenticeship to Basire

On 4 August 1772, Blake became apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, for the term of seven years.[13] At the end of this period, at the age of 21, he was to become a professional engraver. No record survives of any serious disagreement or conflict between the two during the period of Blake's apprenticeship. However, Peter Ackroyd's biography notes that Blake was later to add Basire's name to a list of artistic adversaries—and then cross it out.[15] This aside, Basire's style of engraving was of a kind held to be old-fashioned at the time,[16] and Blake's instruction in this outmoded form may have been detrimental to his acquiring of work or recognition in later life.

After two years Basire sent his apprentice to copy images from the Gothic churches in London (it is possible that this task was set in order to break up a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice), and his experiences in Westminster Abbey contributed to the formation of his artistic style and ideas; the Abbey of his day was decorated with suits of armour, painted funeral effigies and varicoloured waxworks. Ackroyd notes that "the most immediate [impression] would have been of faded brightness and colour".[17] In the long afternoons Blake spent sketching in the Abbey, he was occasionally interrupted by the boys of Westminster School, one of whom "tormented" Blake so much one afternoon that he knocked the boy off a scaffold to the ground, "upon which he fell with terrific Violence".[18] Blake beheld more visions in the Abbey, of a great procession of monks and priests, while he heard "the chant of plain-song and chorale".

The Royal Academy

On 8 October 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school's first president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds' attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of "general truth" and "general beauty". Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the "disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind"; Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that "To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit".[19] Blake also disliked Reynolds' apparent humility, which he held to be a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds' fashionable oil painting, Blake preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Gordon Riots

Blake's first biographer Alexander Gilchrist records that in June 1780, Blake was walking towards Basire's shop in Great Queen Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison in London.[20] They attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, set the building ablaze, and released the prisoners inside. Blake was reportedly in the front rank of the mob during this attack. These riots, in response to a parliamentary bill revoking sanctions against Roman Catholicism, later came to be known as the Gordon Riots. They provoked a flurry of legislation from the government of George III, as well as the creation of the first police force.

Despite Gilchrist's insistence that Blake was "forced" to accompany the crowd, some biographers have argued that he accompanied it impulsively, or supported it as a revolutionary act.[21] In contrast, Jerome McGann argues that the riots were reactionary, and that events would have provoked "disgust" in Blake.[22]

Marriage and early career

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)

In 1782, Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron, and Catherine Boucher, who was to become his wife. At the time, Blake was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. He recounted the story of his heartbreak for Catherine and her parents, after which he asked Catherine, "Do you pity me?" When she responded affirmatively, he declared, "Then I love you." Blake married Catherine – who was five years his junior – on 18 August 1782 in St. Mary's Church, Battersea. Illiterate, Catherine signed her wedding contract with an 'X'. The original wedding certificate may still be viewed at the church, where a commemorative stained-glass window was installed between 1976 and 1982.[23] Later, in addition to teaching Catherine to read and write, Blake trained her as an engraver. Throughout his life she would prove an invaluable aid to him, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes.

At this time George Cumberland, one of the founders of the National Gallery, became an admirer of Blake's work. Blake's first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was published circa 1783 [24]. After his father's death, William and his brother Robert opened a print shop in 1784, and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson's house was a meeting-place for some of the leading English intellectual dissidents of the time: theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, philosopher Richard Price, artist John Henry Fuseli [25] early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the French and American revolutions and wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in France. In 1784 Blake also composed his unfinished manuscript An Island in the Moon.

Blake illustrated Original Stories from Real Life (1788; 1791) by Mary Wollstonecraft. They seem to have shared some views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage, but there is no evidence proving without doubt that they actually met. In 1793's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment.

Relief etching

In 1788, at the age of 31, Blake began to experiment with relief etching, a method he would use to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and, of course, his poems, including his longer 'prophecies' and his masterpiece the "Bible." The process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and final products as illuminated books or prints. Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid in order to dissolve away the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name).

This is a reversal of the normal method of etching, where the lines of the design are exposed to the acid, and the plate printed by the intaglio method. Relief etching, which Blake invented, later became an important commercial printing method. The pages printed from these plates then had to be hand-coloured in water colours and stitched together to make up a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem.


A study in 2005 of Blake's surviving plates showed that he made frequent use of a technique known as "repoussage" which is a means of obliterating mistakes by hammering them out by hitting the back of the plate. This discovery puts strain on Blake's own assessment of his abilities as well of those of admirers and may also help to explain why some of Blake's work took so long to complete.[26]

Later life and career

Blake's marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one until his death. Blake taught Catherine to write, and she helped him to colour his printed poems.[27] Gilchrist refers to "stormy times" in the early years of the marriage.[28] Some biographers have suggested that Blake tried to bring a concubine into the marriage bed in accordance with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society,[29] but other scholars have dismissed these theories as conjecture.[30] William and Catherine's first daughter and last child might be Thel described in The Book of Thel who was conceived as dead.[31]


Hecate, 1795. Blake's vision of Hecate, Greek goddess of black magic and the underworld

In 1800, Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex (now West Sussex) to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a minor poet. It was in this cottage that Blake wrote Milton: a Poem (published between 1805 and 1808). The preface to this work includes a poem beginning "And did those feet in ancient time", which became the words for the anthem, "Jerusalem". Over time, Blake came to resent his new patron, coming to believe that Hayley was uninterested in true artistry, and preoccupied with "the meer drudgery of business".[32] Blake's disenchantment with Hayley has been speculated to have influenced Milton: a Poem, in which Blake wrote that "Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies" (3:26).[32]

Blake's trouble with authority came to a head in August 1803, when he was involved in a physical altercation with a soldier called John Schofield.[33] Blake was charged not only with assault, but also with uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King. Schofield claimed that Blake had exclaimed, "Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves."[34] Blake would be cleared in the Chichester assizes of the charges. According to a report in the Sussex county paper, "The invented character of [the evidence] was ... so obvious that an acquittal resulted."[35] Schofield was later depicted wearing "mind forged manacles" in an illustration to Jerusalem.[36]

Return to London

Blake's The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (1805) is one of a series of illustrations of Revelation 12.

Blake returned to London in 1804 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804–1820), his most ambitious work. Having conceived the idea of portraying the characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Blake approached the dealer Robert Cromek, with a view to marketing an engraving. Knowing that Blake was too eccentric to produce a popular work, Cromek promptly commissioned Thomas Stothard, a friend of Blake's, to execute the concept. When Blake learned that he had been cheated, he broke off contact with Stothard. He also set up an independent exhibition in his brother's haberdashery shop at 27 Broad Street in the Soho district of London. The exhibition was designed to market his own version of the Canterbury illustration (titled The Canterbury Pilgrims), along with other works. As a result he wrote his Descriptive Catalogue (1809), which contains what Anthony Blunt has called a "brilliant analysis" of Chaucer. It is regularly anthologised as a classic of Chaucer criticism.[37] It also contained detailed explanations of his other paintings.

The exhibition itself, however, was very poorly attended, selling none of the temperas or watercolours. Its only review, in The Examiner, was hostile.[38]

He was introduced by George Cumberland to a young artist named John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the Shoreham Ancients. This group shared Blake's rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. At the age of 65 Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job. These works were later admired by Ruskin, who compared Blake favourably to Rembrandt, and by Vaughan Williams, who based his ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing on a selection of the illustrations.

Later in his life Blake began to sell a great number of his works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend than a man whose work held artistic merit; this was typical of the opinions held of Blake throughout his life.

Dante's Divine Comedy

The commission for Dante's Divine Comedy came to Blake in 1826 through Linnell, with the ultimate aim of producing a series of engravings. Blake's death in 1827 would cut short the enterprise, and only a handful of the watercolours were completed, with only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form. Even so, they have evoked praise:

'[T]he Dante watercolours are among Blake's richest achievements, engaging fully with the problem of illustrating a poem of this complexity. The mastery of watercolour has reached an even higher level than before, and is used to extraordinary effect in differentiating the atmosphere of the three states of being in the poem'.[39]
Blake's The Lovers' Whirlwind illustrates Hell in Canto V of Dante's Inferno

Blake's illustrations of the poem are not merely accompanying works, but rather seem to critically revise, or furnish commentary on, certain spiritual or moral aspects of the text.

Because the project was never completed, Blake's intent may itself be obscured. Some indicators, however, bolster the impression that Blake's illustrations in their totality would themselves take issue with the text they accompany: In the margin of Homer Bearing the Sword and His Companions, Blake notes, "Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost." Blake seems to dissent from Dante's admiration of the poetic works of the ancient Greeks, and from the apparent glee with which Dante allots punishments in Hell (as evidenced by the grim humour of the cantos).

At the same time, Blake shared Dante's distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power, and clearly relished the opportunity to represent the atmosphere and imagery of Dante's work pictorially. Even as he seemed to near death, Blake's central preoccupation was his feverish work on the illustrations to Dante's Inferno; he is said to have spent one of the very last shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching.[40]


Monument near Blake's unmarked grave in London

On the day of his death, Blake worked relentlessly on his Dante series. Eventually, it is reported, he ceased working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her, Blake is said to have cried, "Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me." Having completed this portrait (now lost), Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses.[41] At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died. Gilchrist reports that a female lodger in the same house, present at his expiration, said, "I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel."[42]

George Richmond gives the following account of Blake's death in a letter to Samuel Palmer:

He died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ — Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.[43]

Catherine paid for Blake's funeral with money lent to her by Linnell. He was buried five days after his death – on the eve of his forty-fifth wedding anniversary – at the Dissenter's burial ground in Bunhill Fields, where his parents were also interred. Present at the ceremonies were Catherine, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, Frederick Tatham and John Linnell. Following Blake's death, Catherine moved into Tatham's house as a housekeeper. During this period, she believed she was regularly visited by Blake's spirit. She continued selling his illuminated works and paintings, but would entertain no business transaction without first "consulting Mr. Blake".[44] On the day of her own death, in October 1831, she was as calm and cheerful as her husband, and called out to him "as if he were only in the next room, to say she was coming to him, and it would not be long now".[45]

On her death, Blake's manuscripts were inherited by Frederick Tatham, who burned several of those which he deemed heretical or too politically radical. Tatham had become an Irvingite, one of the many fundamentalist movements of the 19th century, and was severely opposed to any work that "smacked of blasphemy".[46] Sexual imagery in a number of Blake's drawings was also erased by John Linnell.[47]

Since 1965, the exact location of William Blake's grave had been lost and forgotten, while gravestones were taken away to create a new lawn. Nowadays, Blake’s grave is commemorated by a stone that reads "Near by lie the remains of the poet-painter William Blake 1757-1827 and his wife Catherine Sophia 1762-1831". This memorial stone is situated approximately 20 metres away from the actual spot of Blake’s grave, which is not marked. However, members of the group Friends of William Blake have rediscovered the location of Blake's grave and intend to place a permanent memorial at the site.[48][49]

Blake is now recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. The Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour in Australia in 1949. In 1957 a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey, in memory of him and his wife.[50]

Development of Blake's Views

Because Blake's later poetry contains a private mythology with complex symbolism, his late work has been less published than his earlier more accessible work. The recent Vintage anthology of Blake edited by Patti Smith focuses heavily on the earlier work, as do many critical studies such as William Blake by D. G. Gillham.

The earlier work is primarily rebellious in character, and can be seen as a protestation against dogmatic religion. This is especially notable in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which Satan is virtually the hero rebelling against an imposter authoritarian deity. In the later works such as Milton and Jerusalem, Blake carves a distinctive vision of a humanity redeemed by self-sacrifice and forgiveness, while retaining his earlier negative attitude towards the rigid and morbid authoritarianism of traditional religion. Not all readers of Blake agree upon how much continuity exists between Blake's earlier and later works.

Psychoanalyst June Singer has written that Blake's late work displayed a development of the ideas that were first introduced in his earlier works, namely, the humanitarian goal of achieving personal wholeness of body and spirit. The final section of the expanded edition of her Blake study The Unholy Bible suggests that the later works are in fact the "Bible of Hell" promised in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Regarding Blake's final poem "Jerusalem", she writes:

[T]he promise of the divine in man, made in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is at last fulfilled.[51]

However, John Middleton Murry notes discontinuity between Marriage and the late works, in that while the early Blake focused on a "sheer negative opposition between Energy and Reason", the later Blake emphasized the notions of self-sacrifice and forgiveness as the road to interior wholeness. This renunciation of the sharper dualism of Marriage of Heaven and Hell is evidenced in particular by the humanization of the character of Urizen in the later works. Middleton characterizes the later Blake as having found "mutual understanding" and "mutual forgiveness".[52]

Religious views

Blake's Ancient of Days. The "Ancient of Days" is described in Chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel.

Although Blake's attacks on conventional religion were shocking in his own day, his rejection of religiosity was not a rejection of religion per se. His view of orthodoxy is evident in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a series of texts written in imitation of Biblical prophecy. Therein, Blake lists several Proverbs of Hell, amongst which are the following:

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.

In The Everlasting Gospel, Blake does not present Jesus as a philosopher or traditional messianic figure but as a supremely creative being, above dogma, logic and even morality:

If he had been Antichrist, Creeping Jesus,
He'd have done anything to please us:
Gone sneaking into the Synagogues
And not used the Elders & Priests like Dogs,
But humble as a Lamb or an Ass,
Obey himself to Caiaphas.
God wants not man to humble himself

Jesus, for Blake, symbolises the vital relationship and unity between divinity and humanity: "[A]ll had originally one language and one religion: this was the religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel. Antiquity preaches the Gospel of Jesus."[14]

Blake designed his own mythology, which appears largely in his prophetic books. Within these Blake describes a number of characters, including 'Urizen', 'Enitharmon', 'Bromion' and 'Luvah'. This mythology seems to have a basis in the Bible and in Greek mythology,[53] and it accompanies his ideas about the everlasting Gospel.

"I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create."

Words uttered by Los in Blake's Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.

One of Blake's strongest objections to orthodox Christianity is that he felt it encouraged the suppression of natural desires and discouraged earthly joy. In A Vision of the Last Judgement, Blake says that:

Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern'd their Passions or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion, but Realities of Intellect, from which all the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their Eternal Glory.

One may also note his words concerning religion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, c. 1825. Watercolour on wood.

Blake does not subscribe to the notion of a distinct body from the soul, and which must submit to the rule of soul, but rather sees body as an extension of soul derived from the 'discernment' of the senses. Thus, the emphasis orthodoxy places upon the denial of bodily urges is a dualistic error born of misapprehension of the relationship between body and soul; elsewhere, he describes Satan as the 'State of Error', and as being beyond salvation.[54]

Blake opposed the sophistry of theological thought that excuses pain, admits evil and apologises for injustice. He abhorred self-denial,[55] which he associated with religious repression and particularly with sexual repression:[56] "Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. / He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence."[57] He saw the concept of 'sin' as a trap to bind men’s desires (the briars of Garden of Love), and believed that restraint in obedience to a moral code imposed from the outside was against the spirit of life:

Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs & flaming hair,
But Desire Gratified
Plants fruits & beauty there.

He did not hold with the doctrine of God as Lord, an entity separate from and superior to mankind[58]; this is shown clearly in his words about Jesus Christ: "He is the only God ... and so am I, and so are you." A telling phrase in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is "men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast". This is very much in line with his belief in liberty and equality in society and between the sexes.

Blake and Enlightenment Philosophy

Blake had a complex relationship with Enlightenment philosophy. Due to his visionary religious beliefs, Blake opposed the Newtonian view of the universe. This mindset is reflected in an excerpt from Blake's Jerusalem:

Blake's Newton (1795) demonstrates his opposition to the "single-vision" of scientific materialism: Newton fixes his eye on a compass (recalling Proverbs 8:27, an important passage for Milton)[59] to write upon a scroll which seems to project from his own head.[60]
I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe

And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.[61]

Blake also believed that the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which depict the naturalistic fall of light upon objects, were products entirely of the "vegetative eye", and he saw Locke and Newton as "the true progenitors of Sir Joshua Reynolds' aesthetic".[62] The popular taste in the England of that time for such paintings was satisfied with mezzotints, prints produced by a process that created an image from thousands of tiny dots upon the page. Blake saw an analogy between this and Newton's particle theory of light.[63] Accordingly, Blake never used the technique, opting rather to develop a method of engraving purely in fluid line, insisting that

a Line or Lineament is not formed by Chance a Line is a Line in its

Minutest Subdivision[s] Strait or Crooked It is Itself & Not Intermeasurable with or by any Thing Else Such is Job.[64]

Despite his opposition to Enlightenment principles, Blake thus arrived at a linear aesthetic that was in many ways more similar to the Neoclassical engravings of John Flaxman than to the works of the Romantics, with whom he is often classified.

Therefore Blake has also been viewed as an enlightenment poet and artist, in the sense that he was in accord with that movement's rejection of received ideas, systems, authorities and traditions. On the other hand, he was critical of what he perceived as the elevation of reason to the status of an oppressive authority. In his criticism of reason, law and uniformity Blake has been taken to be opposed to the enlightenment, but it has also been argued that, in a dialectical sense, he used the enlightenment spirit of rejection of external authority to criticize narrow conceptions of the enlightenment.[65]


Creative mindset

Northrop Frye, commenting on Blake's consistency in strongly held views, notes that Blake "himself says that his notes on [Joshua] Reynolds, written at fifty, are 'exactly Similar' to those on Locke and Bacon, written when he was 'very Young'. Even phrases and lines of verse will reappear as much as forty years later. Consistency in maintaining what he believed to be true was itself one of his leading principles ... Consistency, then, foolish or otherwise, is one of Blake's chief preoccupations, just as 'self-contradiction' is always one of his most contemptuous comments".[66]

Blake's "A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows", an illustration to J. G. Stedman's Narrative, of a Five Years' Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796).

Blake abhorred slavery and believed in racial and sexual equality. Several of his poems and paintings express a notion of universal humanity: "As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various)". In one poem, narrated by a black child, white and black bodies alike are described as shaded groves or clouds, which exist only until one learns "to bear the beams of love":

When I from black, and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,
I'll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our Father's knee;
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.[67]

In one poem, The Book of Thel, Blake questioned the necessity of life which is believed to be an elegy to his dead newborn daughter.[68]

'O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?

Blake retained an active interest in social and political events for all his life, and social and political statements are often present in his mystical symbolism. His views on what he saw as oppression and restriction of rightful freedom extended to the Church. His spiritual beliefs are evidenced in Songs of Experience (1794), in which he distinguishes between the Old Testament God, whose restrictions he rejected, and the New Testament God (Jesus Christ in Trinitarianism), whom he saw as a positive influence.


From a young age, William Blake claimed to have seen visions. The first of these visions may have occurred as early as the age of four when, according to one anecdote, the young artist "saw God" when God "put his head to the window", causing Blake to break into screaming.[69] At the age of eight or ten in Peckham Rye, London, Blake claimed to have seen "a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars."[69] According to Blake's Victorian biographer Gilchrist, he returned home and reported this vision, and he only escaped being thrashed by his father for telling a lie through the intervention of his mother. Though all evidence suggests that his parents were largely supportive, his mother seems to have been especially so, and several of Blake's early drawings and poems decorated the walls of her chamber. On another occasion, Blake watched haymakers at work, and thought he saw angelic figures walking among them.[69]

The Ghost of a Flea, 1819-1820. Having informed painter-astrologer John Varley of his visions of apparitions, Blake was subsequently persuaded to paint one of them.[70] Varley's anecdote of Blake and his vision of the flea's ghost became well-known.[70]

Blake claimed to experience visions throughout his life. They were often associated with beautiful religious themes and imagery, and therefore may have inspired him further with spiritual works and pursuits. Certainly, religious concepts and imagery figure centrally in Blake's works. God and Christianity constituted the intellectual centre of his writings, from which he drew inspiration. In addition, Blake believed that he was personally instructed and encouraged by Archangels to create his artistic works, which he claimed were actively read and enjoyed by those same Archangels. In a letter to William Hayley, dated May 6, 1800, Blake writes:

I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.

In a letter to John Flaxman, dated September 21, 1800, Blake writes:

[The town of] Felpham is a sweet place for Study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen; & my Cottage is also a Shadow of their houses. My Wife & Sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace... I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels.

In a letter to Thomas Butts, dated April 25, 1803, Blake writes:

Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy'd, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv'd & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends.

In A Vision of the Last Judgement Blake writes:

Error is Created. Truth is Eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it. I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. "What," it will be Question'd, "When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?" Oh no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.' I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning Sight. I look thro' it & not with it.[71]

William Wordsworth remarked, "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."[72]

D.C.Williams (1899–1983) said that Blake was a romantic with a critical view on the world, he maintained that Blake's Songs of Innocence were made as a view of an ideal, somewhat Utopian view whereas he used the Songs of Experience in order to show the suffering and loss posed by the nature of society and the world of his time.

General cultural influence

Blake's work was neglected for almost a century after his death, but his reputation gained momentum in the 20th century, both from being rehabilitated by critics such as John Middleton Murry and Northrop Frye, but also due to an increasing number of classical composers such as Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams adapting his works.

Many such as June Singer have argued that Blake's thoughts on human nature greatly anticipate and parallel the thinking of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, although Jung dismissed Blake's works as "an artistic production rather than an authentic representation of unconscious processes."[73]

Blake had an enormous influence on the beat poets of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s, frequently being cited by such seminal figures as beat poet Allen Ginsberg and songwriter Bob Dylan. Much of the central ideas from Phillip Pullman's famous fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials are rooted in the world of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

In wider culture Blake's poetry has been set to music by popular composers. It has been especially popular with musicians since the 1960s. Blake's engravings have also had significant influence on the modern graphic novel.


Illuminated books

William Blake's portrait in profile, from Songs of Innocence and Experience, published 1794


Illustrated by Blake

On Blake

  • Peter Ackroyd (1995). Blake. Sinclair-Stevenson. ISBN 1-85619-278-4.
  • Donald Ault (1974). Visionary Physics: Blake's Response to Newton. University of Chicago. ISBN 0-226-03225-6.
  • (1987). Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning William Blake's The Four Zoas. Station Hill Press. ISBN 1886449759.
  • G.E. Bentley Jr. (2001). The Stranger From Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-08939-2.
  • Harold Bloom (1963). Blake’s Apocalypse. Doubleday.
  • Jacob Bronowski (1972). William Blake and the Age of Revolution. Routledge and K. Paul. ISBN 0-7100-7277-5 (hardcover) ISBN 0-7100-7278-3 (pbk.)
  • (1967). William Blake, 1757–1827; a man without a mask. Haskell House Publishers.
  • G. K. Chesterton (1920s). William Blake. House of Stratus ISBN 0-7551-0032-8.
  • S. Foster Damon (1979). A Blake Dictionary. Shambhala. ISBN 0-394-73688-5.
  • David V. Erdman (1977). Blake: Prophet Against Empire: A Poet's Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-486-26719-9.
  • Irving Fiske (1951). "Bernard Shaw's Debt to William Blake." (Shaw Society)
  • Northrop Frye (1947). Fearful Symmetry. Princeton Univ Press. ISBN 0-691-06165-3.
  • Alexander Gilchrist, Life and Works of William Blake, (second edition, London, 1880) (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 9781108013697)
  • James King (1991). William Blake: His Life. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-07572-3.
  • Benjamin Heath Malkin (1806). A Father's Memoirs of his Child.
  • Peter Marshall (1988). William Blake: Visionary Anarchist ISBN 0-900384-77-8
  • Blake, William, William Blake's Works in Conventional Typography, ed. by G. E. Bentley, Jr., 1984. Facsimile ed., Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, ISBN 9780820113883.
  • W.J.T. Mitchell (1978). Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-691-01402-7.
  • Victor N. Paananen (1996). William Blake. Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7053-4.
  • George Anthony Rosso Jr. (1993). Blake's Prophetic Workshop: A Study of The Four Zoas. Associated University Presses. ISBN 0-8387-5240-3.
  • G. R. Sabri-Tabrizi (1973). The ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ of William Blake, (New York, International Publishers)
  • June Singer, The Unholy Bible: Blake, Jung, and the Collective Unconscious (SIGO Press, 1986)
  • Sheila A. Spector (2001). "Wonders Divine": the development of Blake's Kabbalistic myth, (Bucknell UP)
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Blake: A Critical Essay, (London, 1868)
  • E.P. Thompson (1993). Witness Against the Beast. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22515-9.
  • W. M. Rossetti (editor), The Poetical Works of William Blake, (London, 1874)
  • A. G. B. Russell (1912). Engravings of William Blake.
  • Basil de Sélincourt, William Blake, (London, 1909)
  • Joseph Viscomi (1993). Blake and the Idea of the Book, (Princeton UP). ISBN 0-691-06962-X.
  • David Weir (2003). Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental Renaissance, (SUNY Press)
  • Jason Whittaker (1999). William Blake and the Myths of Britain, (Macmillan)
  • William Butler Yeats (1903). Ideas of Good and Evil. Contains essays.


  1. ^ Frye, Northrop and Denham, Robert D. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. 2006, pp 11-12.
  2. ^ Jones, Jonathan (2005-04-25). "Blake's heaven". The Guardian.,1169,1469584,00.html. 
  3. ^ Thomas, Edward. A Literary Pilgrim in England. 1917, p. 3.
  4. ^ Yeats, W. B. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. 2007, p. 85.
  5. ^ Wilson, Mona. The Life of William Blake. The Nonesuch Press, 1927. p.167.
  6. ^ The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge. 2004, p. 351.
  7. ^ Blake, William. Blake's "America, a Prophecy" ; And, "Europe, a Prophecy". 1984, p. 2.
  8. ^ Kazin, Alfred (1997). "An Introduction to William Blake". Retrieved 2006-09-23. 
  9. ^ Blake, William and Rossetti, William Michael. The Poetical Works of William Blake: Lyrical and Miscellaneous. 1890, p. xi.
  10. ^ Blake, William and Rossetti, William Michael. The Poetical Works of William Blake: Lyrical and Miscellaneous. 1890, p. xiii.
  11. ^ Marshall, Peter (January 1, 1994). William Blake: Visionary Anarchist (Revised Edition ed.). Freedom Press. ISBN 0900384778. 
  12. ^ Blake, retrieved online June 13, 2008
  13. ^ a b c Bentley, Gerald Eades and Bentley Jr., G. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. 1995, page 34-5.
  14. ^ a b Raine, Kathleen (1970). World of Art: William Blake. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20107-2. 
  15. ^ 43, Blake, Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995
  16. ^ Blake, William. The Poems of William Blake. 1893, page xix.
  17. ^ 44, Blake, Ackroyd
  18. ^ Blake, William and Tatham, Frederick. The Letters of William Blake: Together with a Life. 1906, page 7.
  19. ^ Erdman, David V. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (2nd edition ed.). p. 641. ISBN 0-385-15213-2. 
  20. ^ Gilchrist, A, The Life of William Blake, London, 1842, p. 30
  21. ^ Erdman, David, Prophet Against Empire, p. 9
  22. ^ McGann, J. "Did Blake Betray the French Revolution", Presenting Poetry: Composition, Publication, Reception, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.128
  23. ^ "St. Mary's Church Parish website". "St Mary's Modern Stained Glass" 
  24. ^ Reproduction of 1783 edition: Tate Publishing, London, ISBN 978 185437 768 5
  25. ^ Biographies of William Blake and Henry Fuseli, retrieved on May 31st 2007.
  26. ^ Kennedy, Mave, Art historian dents image of William Blake, engraver - 2005-4-18. Retrieved 2009-7-6.
  27. ^ Bentley, G. E, Blake Records, p 341
  28. ^ Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, 1863, p. 316
  29. ^ Schuchard, MK, Why Mrs Blake Cried, Century, 2006, p. 3
  30. ^ Ackroyd, Peter, Blake, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995, p. 82
  31. ^ Damon, Samuel Foster (1988). A Blake Dictionary
  32. ^ a b Blake, William. Milton a Poem, and the Final Illuminated Works. 1998, page 14-5.
  33. ^ Wright, Thomas. Life of William Blake. 2003, page 131.
  34. ^ The Gothic Life of William Blake: 1757-1827
  35. ^ Lucas, E.V. (1904). Highways and byways in Sussex. Macmillan. ASIN B-0008-5GBS-C. 
  36. ^ Peterfreund, Stuart, The Din of the City in Blake's Prophetic Books, ELH - Volume 64, Number 1, Spring 1997, pp. 99-130
  37. ^ Blunt, Anthony, The Art of William Blake, p 77
  38. ^ Peter Ackroyd, "Genius spurned: Blake's doomed exhibition is back", The Times Saturday Review, 4 April 2009
  39. ^ Bindman, David. "Blake as a Painter" in The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, Morris Eaves (ed.), Cambridge, 2003, p. 106
  40. ^ Blake Records, p. 341
  41. ^ Ackroyd, Blake, 389
  42. ^ Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake, London, 1863, 405
  43. ^ Grigson, Samuel Palmer, p. 38
  44. ^ Ackroyd, Blake, 390
  45. ^ Blake Records, p. 410
  46. ^ Ackroyd, Blake, p. 391
  47. ^ Marsha Keith Schuchard, Why Mrs Blake Cried: Swedenborg, Blake and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision, pp. 1-20
  48. ^ "Friends of Blake homepage". Friends of Blake. Retrieved 2008-07-31. 
  49. ^ "Coming up - William Blake". BBC Inside Out. 2007-02-09. Retrieved 2008-08-01. 
  50. ^ Tate UK. "William Blake's London". Retrieved 2006-08-26. 
  51. ^ The Unholy Bible, June Singer, p. 229.
  52. ^ William Blake, Murry, p. 168.
  53. ^ "a personal mythology parallel to the Old Testament and Greek mythology"; Bonnefoy, Yves. Roman and European Mythologies. 1992, page 265.
  54. ^ Damon, Samuel Foster (1988). A Blake Dictionary (Revised Edition). Brown University Press. p. 358. ISBN 0874514363. 
  55. ^ Makdisi, Saree. William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s. 2003, page 226-7.
  56. ^ Altizer, Thomas J.J. The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake. 2000, page 18.
  57. ^ Blake, William. Proverbs of Hell, via The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. 1982, page 35.
  58. ^ Blake, Gerald Eades Bentley (1975). William Blake: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & K. Paul. p. 30. ISBN 0710082347. 
  59. ^ Baker-Smith, Dominic. Between Dream and Nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia. 1987, page 163.
  60. ^ Kaiser, Christopher B. Creational Theology and the History of Physical Science. 1997, page 328.
  61. ^ Jerusalem Plate 15, lines 14-20 Complete Works of William Blake Online
  62. ^ *Ackroyd, Peter (1995). Blake. London: Sinclair-Stevenson. p. 285. ISBN 1-85619-278-4. 
  63. ^ Essick, Robert N. (1980). William Blake, Printmaker. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 248. 
  64. ^ Letter to George Cumberland, 12 April 1827 Complete Works of William Blake Online Blake is referring to his Illustrations of the Book of Job, often considered his artistic masterpiece.
  65. ^ Colebrook, C. Blake 1: The Enlightenment William Blake Retrieved on October 1st 2008
  66. ^ Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, 1947, Princeton University Press
  67. ^ Blake, William and Rossetti, William Michael. The Poetical Works of William Blake: Lyrical and Miscellaneous. 1890, page 81-2.
  68. ^ A Blake Dictionary, Samuel Foster Damon
  69. ^ a b c Bentley, Gerald Eades and Bentley Jr., G. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. 1995, page 36-7.
  70. ^ a b Langridge, Irene. William Blake: A Study of His Life and Art Work. 1904, page 48-9.
  71. ^ Blake, William. Complete Writings with Variant Readings. 1969, page 617.
  72. ^ John Ezard (2004-07-06). "Blake's vision on show". The Guardian.,,1254856,00.html#article_continue. Retrieved 2008-03-24. 
  73. ^ Letter to Nanavutty, 11 Nov 1948, quoted by Hiles, David. Jung, William Blake and our answer to Job 2001., retrieved 13 December 2009

Secondary sources

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

William Blake (1757-11-281827-08-21) was an English poet, painter, printmaker, and essayist.



The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in his work. Here, Blake depicts his demiurgic figure Urizen stooped in prayer, contemplating the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecies.
  • Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
    • There Is No Natural Religion (1788)
  • The true method of knowledge is experiment.
    • All Religions are One (1788)
  • There can be no Good Will. Will is always Evil; it is persecution to others or selfishness.
    • Annotations to Swedenborg (1788)
  • If a thing loves, it is infinite.
    • Annotations to Swedenborg (1788)
  • Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?
    Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?
    Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
    Or Love in a golden bowl?
  • Nothing can be more contemptible than to suppose Public RECORDS to be True.
    • Annotations to An Apology for the Bible by R. Watson
  • That the Jews assumed a right Exclusively to the benefits of God. will be a lasting witness against them. & the same will it be against Christians
    • Annotations to An Apology for the Bible by R. Watson
  • Degrade first the arts if you'd mankind degrade,
    Hire idiots to paint with cold light and hot shade.
    • Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses, title page (c. 1798–1809)
  • To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit — General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.
    • Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses, pp. xvii–xcviii (c. 1798–1809)
  • The Foundation of Empire is Art & Science Remove them or Degrade them & the Empire is No More — Empire follows Art & Not Vice Versa as Englishmen suppose.
    • Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses
  • When a Man has Married a Wife
    He finds out whether
    Her Knees & elbows are only
    glued together.
    • Poems from Blake's Notebook (c. 1800–1803)
  • When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold,
    And Commerce settles on every tree.
    • On Art And Artists (1800) 'On the Foundation of the Royal Academy'
  • It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God alone.
    • "A Vision of the Last Judgement" (1806)
  • Fiery the Angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll'd
    Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc.
    • America, A Prophecy
Blake's "A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows", an illustration to J. G. Stedman's Narrative, of a Five Years' Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796).
  • Acts themselves alone are history, and these are neither the exclusive property of Hume, Gibbon nor Voltaire, Echard, Rapin, Plutarch, nor Herodotus. Tell me the Acts, O historian, and leave me to reason upon them as I please; away with your reasoning and your rubbish. All that is not action is not worth reading.
    • Blake's Exhibition and Catalogue of 1809, A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures: Number V. The Ancient Britons
  • Art can never exist without Naked Beauty displayed.
    • The Laocoön
  • Art is the tree of life.
    SCIENCE is the Tree of DEATH
    ART is the Tree of LIFE GOD is JESUS
    • The Laocoön
  • Commerce is so far from being beneficial to Arts or to Empire, that it is destructive of both, as all their History shows, for the above Reason of Individual Merit being its Great Hatred. Empires flourish till they become Commercial & then they are scattered abroad to the four winds
    • Public address, Blake's Notebook c. 1810
  • When I tell any Truth it is not for the sake of Convincing those who do not know it but for the sake of defending those who Do
    • Public address, Blake's Notebook c. 1810
  • Every Harlot was a Virgin once
    • For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise: [Epilogue] To The Accuser who is The God of This World
  • It is not because Angels are Holier than Men or Devils that makes them Angels but because they do not Expect Holiness from one another but from God only
    • A Vision of the Last Judgment
  • Thinking as I do that the Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being & being a Worshipper of Christ, I cannot help saying: "the Son, O how unlike the Father!" First God Almighty comes with a Thump on the Head. Then Jesus Christ comes with a balm to heal it.
    • A Vision of the Last Judgment
  • You cannot have Liberty in this world without what you call Moral Virtue & you cannot have Moral Virtue without the Slavery of that half of the Human Race who hate what you call Moral Virtue
    • A Vision of the Last Judgment
  • …some say that Happiness is not Good for Mortals & they ought to be answerd that Sorrow is not fit for Immortals & is utterly useless to any one a blight never does good to a tree & if a blight kill not a tree but it still bear fruit let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.
  • The Goddess Fortune is the devils servant ready to Kiss any ones Arse.
    • Inscription on Illustrations to Dante "No. 16: HELL Canto 7"

Poetical Sketches (1783)

Blake's "Newton" is a demonstration of his opposition to the "single-vision" of scientific materialism: The great philosopher-scientist is isolated in the depths of the ocean, his eyes (only one of which is visible) fixed on the compasses with which he draws on a scroll. He seems almost at one with the rocks upon which he sits (1795).
  • How sweet I roamed from field to field,
    And tasted all the summer's pride,
    Till I the prince of love beheld,
    Who in the sunny beams did glide!
    • Song (How Sweet I Roamed), st. 1
  • He loves to sit and hear me sing,
    Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
    Then stretches out my golden wing,
    And mocks my loss of liberty.
    • Song (How Sweet I Roamed), st. 4
  • My silks and fine array,
    My smiles and languished air,
    By love are driv'n away;
    And mournful lean Despair
    Brings me yew to deck my grave:
    Such end true lovers have.
    • Song (My Silks and Fine Arrays), st. 1
  • Like a fiend in a cloud,
    With howling woe,
    After night I do crowd,
    And with night will go;
    I turn my back to the east,
    From whence comforts have increased;
    For light doth seize my brain
    With frantic pain.
    • Mad Song, st. 3
  • How have you left the ancient love
    That bards of old enjoyed in you!
    The languid strings do scarcely move!
    The sound is forced, the notes are few!
    • To the Muses, st. 4

Annotations to Lavater (1788)

  • Damn sneerers!
  • True superstition is ignorant honesty & this is beloved of god and man.
  • Forgiveness of enemies can only come upon their repentance.
  • Active Evil is better than Passive Good.
  • They suppose that Woman's Love is Sin; in consequence all the Loves & Graces with them are Sin.

Songs of Innocence (1789–1790)

  • Piping down the valleys wild,
    Piping songs of pleasant glee,
    On a cloud I saw a child,
    And he laughing said to me:
    "Pipe a song about a Lamb."
    So I piped with merry cheer;
    "Piper, pipe that song again."
    So I piped; he wept to hear.
    • Introduction, st. 1–2
  • And I made a rural pen,
    And I stained the water clear,
    And I wrote my happy songs
    Every child may joy to hear.
    • Introduction, st. 5
  • Sing louder around
    To the bells' cheerful sound,
    While our sports shall be seen
    On the ecchoing green.
    • The Ecchoing Green, st. 1
  • Little Lamb, who made thee?
    Dost thou know who made thee?
    Gave thee life and bid thee feed
    By the stream and o'er the mead;
    Gave thee clothing of delight,
    Softest clothing, woolly bright.
    • The Lamb, st. 1
  • My mother bore me in the southern wild,
    And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
    White as an angel is the English child,
    But I am black as if bereaved of light.
    • The Little Black Boy, st. 1
  • And we are put on earth a little space,
    That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
    And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
    Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
    • The Little Black Boy, st. 4
  • I'll shade him from the heat till he can bear
    To lean in joy upon our Father's knee;
    And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
    And be like him and he will then love me.
    • The Little Black Boy, st. 7
  • When my mother died I was very young,
    And my father sold me while yet my tongue
    Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!'weep!
    So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
    • The Chimney Sweeper, st. 1
  • To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
    All pray in their distress;
    And to these virtues of delight
    Return their thankfulness.
    • The Divine Image, st. 1
  • For Mercy has a human heart,
    Pity, a human face,
    And Love, the human form divine,
    And Peace, the human dress.
    • The Divine Image, st. 3
  • The moon like a flower
    In heaven's high bower,
    With silent delight,
    Sits and smiles on the night.
    • Night, st. 1
  • And there the lion's ruddy eyes
    Shall flow with tears of gold,
    And pitying the tender cries,
    And walking round the fold,
    Saying: "Wrath by his meekness,
    And by his health, sickness,
    Is driven away
    From our immortal day."
    • Night, st. 5
  • "For washed in life's river,
    My bright mane forever
    Shall shine like the gold
    As Iguard o'er the fold."
    • Night, st. 6
  • When the voices of children are heard on the green
    And laughing is heard on the hill,
    My heart is at rest within my breast
    And everything else is still.
    • Nurse's Song, st. 1
  • Can I see another's woe,
    And not be in sorrow too?
    Can I see another's grief,
    And not seek for kind relief?
    • On Another's Sorrow, st. 1

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–1793)

  • Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;
    Hungry clouds swag on the deep.
    • The Argument
  • Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.
    • The Argument
  • The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
    • Note to The Voice of the Devil
  • Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
    • The Voice of the Devil
  • If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
    • A Memorable Fancy
  • The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.
    • A Memorable Fancy
  • Opposition is true Friendship.
    • A Memorable Fancy

Proverbs of Hell

  • The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
    • Line 3
  • He who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence.
    • Line 5
  • A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
  • He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
    • Line 8-9
  • Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
    • Line 10
  • The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
    • Line 11
  • The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure.
    • Line 12
  • No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
    • Line 15
  • If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
    • Line 18
  • Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.
    • Line 21
  • The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
    The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
    The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
    The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
    • Line 22
  • The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.
    • Line 35
  • One thought. fills immensity.
    • Line 36
  • Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
    • Line 37
  • The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
    • Line 39
  • Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
    • Line 41
  • The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
    • Line 44
  • You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
    • Line 46
  • The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
    • Line 49
  • When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!
    • Line 54
  • Exuberance is Beauty
    • Line 64
  • Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.
    • Line 66
  • Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed.
    • Line 69
  • Enough! or too much.
    • Line 70
  • The ancient poets animated all objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive. And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity; Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of, & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began priesthood; Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounc'd that the Gods had order'd such things. Thus men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast.
    • Line 71

Poems from Blake's Notebook (c. 1791-1792)

  • Never seek to tell thy love
    Love that never told can be;
    For the gentle wind does move
    Silently, invisibly.

    I told my love, I told my love,
    I told her all my heart;
    Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears—
    Ah, she doth depart.

    Soon as she was gone from me
    A traveler came by
    Silently, invisibly—
    Oh, was no deny.
    • Never Seek to Tell
  • I asked a thief to steal me a peach:
    He turned up his eyes.
    I asked a lithe lady to lie her down:
    Holy and meek, she cries.

    As soon as I went
    An angel came.
    He winked at the thief
    And smiled at the dame—

    And without one word said
    Had a peach from the tree,
    And still as a maid
    Enjoyed the lady.
    • I Asked a Thief
  • Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
    Dreaming o'er the joys of night.
    Sleep, sleep: in thy sleep
    Little sorrows sit and weep.
    • A Cradle Song, st. 1
  • Why art thou silent and invisible,
    Father of Jealousy?
    • To Nobodaddy, st. 1
  • Love to faults is always blind,
    Always is to joys inclined,
    Lawless, winged, and unconfined,
    And breaks all chains from every mind.
    • Love to Faults
  • The sword sung on the barren heath,
    The sickle in the fruitful field;
    The sword he sung a song of death,
    But could not make the sickle yield.
    • The Sword Sung
  • Abstinence sows sand all over
    The ruddy limbs and flaming hair,
    But desire gratified
    Plants fruits of life and beauty there.
    • Abstinence Sows Sand
  • If you trap the moment before it's ripe,
    The tears of repentance you'll certainly wipe;
    But if once you let the ripe moment go
    You can never wipe off the tears of woe.
    • If You Trap the Moment
  • Then old Nobodaddy aloft
    Farted and belched and coughed,
    And said, "I love hanging and drawing and quartering
    Every bit as well as war and slaughtering."
    • Let the Brothels of Paris, st. 2

Several Questions Answered

  • He who binds to himself a joy
    Does the wingèd life destroy;
    But he who kisses the joy as it flies
    Lives in eternity's sunrise.
    • No. 1, He Who Binds
  • The look of love alarms
    Because 'tis filled with fire;
    But the look of soft deceit
    Shall win the lover's hire.
    • No. 2, The Look of Love
  • What is it men in women do require?
    The lineaments of gratified desire.
    What is it women in men require?
    The lineaments of gratified desire.
    • No. 4, What Is It
  • You'll quite remove the ancient curse.
    • No. 5, An Ancient Proverb

Songs of Experience (1794)

  • Hear the voice of the Bard,
    Who present, past, and future, sees;
    Whose ears have heard
    The Holy Word
    That walked among the ancient trees.
    • Introduction, st. 1
  • Turn away no more;
    Why wilt thou turn away?
    The starry floor,
    The watery shore,>
    Is given thee till the break of day.
    • Introduction, st. 4
  • Love seeketh not itself to please,
    Nor for itself hath any care,
    But for another gives its ease,
    And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.
    • The Clod and the Pebble, st. 1
  • Love seeketh only Self to please,
    To bind another to its delight,
    Joys in another’s loss of ease,
    And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.
    • The Clod and the Pebble, st. 3
  • O rose, thou art sick!
    The invisible worm,
    That flies in the night,
    In the howling storm,

    Has found out thy bed
    Of crimson joy,
    And his dark secret love
    Does thy life destroy.
  • Little Fly,
    Thy summer’s play
    My thoughtless hand
    Has brushed away.

    Am not I
    A fly like thee?
    Or art not thou
    A man like me?

    For I dance,
    And drink, and sing,
    Till some blind hand
    Shall brush my wing.
    • The Fly, st. 1–3
  • The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
    The humble sheep a threat’ning horn:
    While the Lily white shall in love delight,
    Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.
    • The Lily
  • In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infant’s cry of fear,
    In every voice, in every ban,
    The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
    • London, st. 2
  • But most, thro' midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlot’s curse
    Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
    • London, st. 4
  • Pity would be no more
    If we did not make somebody Poor;
    And Mercy no more could be
    If all were as happy as we.
    • The Human Abstract, st. 1
  • My mother groan'd! my father wept.
    Into the dangerous world I leapt:
    Helpless, naked, piping loud:
    Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
    • Infant Sorrow, st. 1
  • I was angry with my friend:
    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, st. 1
  • In the morning glad I see
    My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.
    • Ibid., st. 4
  • Children of the future Age
    Reading this indignant page,
    Know that in a former time
    Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime.
    • A Little Girl Lost, st. 1
  • Cruelty has a human heart,
    And Jealousy a human face;
    Terror the human form divine,
    And Secrecy the human dress.
    • A Divine Image, st. 1

The Tyger

  • Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
    in the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
    • St. 1
  • In what distant deeps or skies
    Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
    On what wings dare he aspire?
    What the hand dare seize the fire?
    • St. 2
  • When the stars threw down their spears,
    And water'd heaven with their tears,
    Did he smile his work to see?
    Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
    • St. 5

Letter to Revd Dr Trusler, 1799-08-23

  • What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.
  • But Want of Money & the Distress of A Thief can never be alleged as the Cause of his Thieving, for many honest people endure greater hard ships with Fortitude. We must therefore seek the Cause else where than in want of Money for that is the Misers passion, not the Thiefs.
  • Fun I love, but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom. Mirth is better than Fun & Happiness is better than Mirth.
  • To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & and a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all Ridicule and Deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.

Poems from Blake's Notebook (c. 1804)

  • My specter around me night and day
    Like a wild beast guards my way,
    My emanation far within
    Weeps incessantly for my sin.
    • My Specter, st. 1
  • And throughout all eternity
    I forgive you, you forgive me.
    • My Specter, st. 14
  • Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau.
    Mock on, mock on—'tis all in vain!
    You throw the sand against the wind,
    And the wind blows it back again.
    • Mock On, st. 1
  • Terror in the house does roar,
    But Pity stands before the door.
    • Terror in the House

Poems form the Pickering Manuscript (c. 1805)

  • There is a smile of love,
    And there is a smile of deceit,
    And there is a smile of smiles
    In which these two smiles meet.
    • The Smile, st. 1
  • This cabinet is formed of gold
    And pearl and crystal shining bright,
    And within it opens into a world
    And a little lovely moony night.
    • The Crystal Cabinet, st. 2
  • For a tear is an intellectual thing,
    And a sigh is the sword of an Angel King,
    And the bitter groan of the martyr's woe
    Is an arrow from the Almighty's bow.
    • The Gray Monk, st. 8

Auguries of Innocence

Auguries of Innocence at Wikisource
  • To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.
    • Line 1
  • A robin redbreast in a cage
    Puts all Heaven in a rage.
    • Line 5
  • A dog starved at his master's gate
    Predicts the ruin of the state.
    • Line 9
  • He who shall hurt the little wren
    Shall never bebeloved by men.
    • Line 29
  • A truth that's told with bad intent
    Beats all the lies you can invent.
    • Line 53
  • Man was made for joy and woe,
    And when this we rightly know
    Through the world we safely go.
    • Line 56
  • Every tear from every eye
    Becomes a babe in eternity.
    • Line 67
  • He who shall teach the child to doubt
    The rotting grave shall ne'er get out.
    • Line 87
  • The strongest poison ever known
    Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
    • Line 97
  • He who doubts from what he sees
    Will ne'er believe, do what you please.
    If the sun and moon should doubt
    They'd immediately go out.
    • Line 107
  • The harlot's cry from street to street
    Shall weave old England's winding sheet.
    • Line 115
  • Every night, and every morn,
    Some to misery are born.
    Every morn, and every night,
    Some are born to sweet delight.
    Some are born to sweet delight.
    Some are born to endless night.
    • Line 123
  • God appears and god is light
    To those poor souls who dwell in night
    But does a human form display
    To those who dwell in realms of day
    • Line 129

Milton (c. 1809)

  • The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid, of Plato & Cicero, which all men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible
    • Preface
  • Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.
    • Ibid
  • And did those feet in ancient time,
    Walk upon England's mountains green?
    And was the holy Lamb of God
    On England's pleasant pastures seen?

    And did the Countenance Divine
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here
    Among these dark Satanic mills?

    Bring me my Bow of burning gold,
    Bring me my Arrows of desire,
    Bring me my Spear—O clouds, unfold!
    Bring me my Chariot of fire!

    I will not cease from mental fight,
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
    Till we have built Jerusalem
    In England's green & pleasant land.
    • Prefatory Poem

Poems from Blake's Notebook (c. 1807-1809)

  • Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
    This is not done by jostling in the street.
    • Great Things Are Done
  • If you have formed a circle to go into,
    Go into it yourself and see how you would do.
    • To God
  • The Angel that presided o'er my birth
    Said, "Little creature, formed of joy and mirth,
    Go love without the help of any thing on earth."
    • The Angel That Presided
  • Grown old in love from seven till seven times seven,
    I oft have wished for Hell for ease from Heaven.
    • Grown Old in Love

Jerusalem (c. 1803–1820)

  • Poetry fettered fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed, or flourish, in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish!
    • To the Public, plate 1
  • I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's;
    I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.
    • The Words of Los, plate 10
  • He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars;
    General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer:
    For art and science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.
    • Ch. 3, plate 55, line 60
  • What is a Wife & what is a Harlot? What is a Church & What
    Is a Theatre? are they Two & not One? can they Exist Separate?
    Are not Religion & Politics the Same Thing? Brotherhood is Religion
    O Demonstrations of Reason Dividing Families in Cruelty & Pride!
    • Ch. 3, plate 57
  • England! awake! awake! awake!
    Jerusalem thy sister calls!
    Why wilt thou sleep the sleep of death
    And close her from thy ancient walls?
    • Ch. 4, prefatory poem, plate 77, st. 1

The Everlasting Gospel (c. 1818)

  • The vision of Christ that thou dost see
    Is my vision's greatest enemy.
    • Sec. 4, line 1
  • Both read the Bible day and night,
    But thou read'st black where I read white.
    • Sec. 4, line 13
  • This life's dim windows of the soul
    Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
    And leads you to believe a lie
    When you see with, not through, the eye.
    • Sec. 5, line 101
  • I am sure this Jesus will not do
    Either for Englishman or Jew.
    • Sec. 8

Miscellaneous poems and fragments from the Nonesuch edition

  • "I die, I die!" the Mother said,
    "My children die for lack of Bread."
    • The Grey Monk, stanza 1
  • My Brother starv'd between two Walls,
    His Children's Cry my Soul appalls;
    • Ibid, stanza 5
  • The iron hand crush'd the Tyrant's head
    And became a Tyrant in his stead.
    • Ibid, stanza 9


  • When a sinister person means to be your enemy, they always start by trying to become your friend.

About William Blake

  • It is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as "revolutionary" — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down — as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. Blake was not a politician, but there is more understanding of the nature of capitalist society in a poem like "I wander through each charter'd street" than in three-quarters of Socialist literature.

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  • The Nonesuch Edition: Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes: pub. Nonesuch Press, 1927; 4th ed. 1939

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

William Blake
This is a disambiguation page, which lists works which share the same title. If an article link referred you here, please consider editing it to point directly to the intended page.

William Blake may refer to:

  • William Blake, a biography by G. K. Chesterton
  • William Blake, a biography by Arthur Symons, with contemporary sources in part 2
  • William Blake, a poem by James Thomson, (B.V.)

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

WILLIAM BLAKE (1757-1827), English poet and painter, was born in London, on the 28th of November 1757. His father, James Blake, kept a hosier's shop in Broad Street, Golden Square; and from the scanty education which the young artist received, it may be judged that the circumstances of the family were not very prosperous. For the facts of William Blake's early life the world is indebted to a little book, called A Father's Memoirs on a Child, written by Dr Malkin in 1806. Here we learn that young Blake quickly developed a taste for design, which his father appears to have had sufficient intelligence to recognize and assist by every means in his power. At the age of ten the boy was sent to a drawing school kept by Henry Pars in the Strand, and at the same time he was already cultivating his own taste by constant attendance at the different art sale rooms, where he was known as the "little connoisseur." Here he began to collect prints after Michelangelo, and Raphael, Diirer and Heemskerk, while at the school in the Strand he had the opportunity of drawing from the antique. After four years of this preliminary instruction Blake entered upon another branch of art study. In 1777 he was apprenticed to James Basire, an engraver of repute, and with him he remained seven years. His apprenticeship had an important bearing on Blake's artistic education, and marks the department of art in which he was made technically proficient. In 1778, at the end of his apprenticeship, he proceeded to the school of the Royal Academy, where he continued his early study from the antique, and had for the first time an opportunity of drawing from the living model.

This is in brief all that is known of Blake's artistic education. That he ever, at the academy or elsewhere, systematically studied painting we do not know; but that he had already begun the practice of water colour for himself is ascertained. So far, however, the course of his training in art schools, and under Basire, was calculated to render him proficient only as a draughtsman and an engraver. He had learned how to draw, and he had mastered besides the practical difficulties of engraving, and with these qualifications he entered upon his career. In 1780 he exhibited a picture in the Royal Academy Exhibition, conjectured to have been executed in water colours, and he continued to contribute to the annual exhibitions up to the year 1808. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a marketgardener at Battersea, with whom he lived always on affectionate terms, and the young couple of ter their marriage established themselves in Green Street, Leicester Fields. Blake had already become acquainted with some of the rising artists of his time, amongst them Stothard, Flaxman and Fuseli, and he now began to see something of literary society. At the house of the Rev. Henry Mathew, in Rathbone Place, he used to recite and sometimes to sing poems of his own composition, and it was through the influence of this gentleman, combined with that of Flaxman, that Blake's first volume of poetry was printed and published in 1783. From this time forward the artist came before the world in a double capacity. By education as well as native talent, he was pledged to the life of a painter, and these Poetical Sketches, though they are often no more than the utterances of a boy, are no less decisive in marking Blake as a future poet.

For a while the two gifts are exhibited in association. To the close of his life Blake continued to print and publish, after a manner of his own, the inventions of his verse illustrated by original designs, but there is a certain period in his career when the union of the two gifts is peculiarly close, and when their service to one another is unquestionable. In 1784 Blake, moving from Green Street, set up in company with a fellow-pupil, Parker, as print-seller and engraver next to his father's house in Broad Street, Golden Square, but in 1787 this partnership was severed, and he established an independent business in Poland Street. It was from this house, and in 1787, that the Songs of Innocence were published, a work that must always be remarkable for beauty both of verse and of design, as well as for the singular method by which the two were combined and expressed by the artist. Blake became in fact his own printer and publisher. He engraved upon copper, by a process devised by himself, both the text of his poems and the surrounding decorative design, and to the pages printed from the copper plates an appropriate colouring was afterwards added by hand. The poetic genius already discernible in the first volume of Poetical Sketches is here more decisively expressed, and some of the songs in this volume deserve to take rank with the best things of their kind in our literature. In an age of enfeebled poetic style, when Wordsworth, with more weighty apparatus, had as yet scarcely begun his reform of English versification, Blake, unaided by any contemporary influence, produced a work of fresh and living beauty; and if the Songs of Innocence established Blake's claim to the title of poet, the setting in which they were given to the world proved that he was also something more. For the full development of his artistic powers we have to wait till a later date, but here at least he exhibits a just and original understanding of the sources of decorative beauty. Each page of these poems is a study of design, full of invention, and often wrought with the utmost delicacy of workmanship. The artist retained to the end this feeling for decorative effect; but as time went on, he considerably enlarged the imaginative scope of his work, and decoration then became the condition rather than the aim of his labour.

Notwithstanding the distinct and precious qualities of this volume, it attracted but slight attention, a fact perhaps not very wonderful, when the system of publication is taken into account. Blake, however, proceeded with other work of the same kind. The same year he published The Book of Thel, more decidedly mystic in its poetry, but scarcely less beautiful as a piece of illumination; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell followed in 1790; and in 1793 there are added The Gates of Paradise, The Vision of the Daughters of Albion, and some other "Prophetic Books." It becomes abundantly clear on reaching this point in his career that Blake's utterances cannot be judged by ordinary rules. The Songs of Experience, put forth in 1794 as a companion to the earlier Songs of Innocence, are for the most part intelligible and coherent, but in these intervening works of prophecy, as they were called by the author, we get the first public expression of that phase of his character and of his genius upon which a charge of insanity has been founded. The question whether Blake was or was not mad seems likely to remain in dispute, but there can be no doubt whatever that he was at different periods of his life under the influence of illusions for which there are no outward facts to account, and that much of what he wrote is so far wanting in the quality of sanity as to be without a logical coherence. On the other hand, it is equally clear that no madness imputed to Blake could equal that which would be involved in the rejection of his work on this ground. The greatness of Blake's mind is even better established than its frailty, and in considering the work that he has left we must remember that it is by the sublimity of his genius, and not by any mental defect, that he is most clearly distinguished from his fellows. With the publication of the Songs of Experience Blake's poetic career, so far at least as ordinary readers are concerned, may be said to close. A writer of prophecy he continued for many years, but the works by which he is best known in poetry are those earlier and simpler efforts, supplemented by a few pieces taken from various sources, some of which were of later production. But although Blake the poet ceases in a general sense at this date, Blake the artist is only just entering upon his career. In the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and even in some of the earlier Books of Prophecy, the two gifts worked together in perfect balance and harmony; but at this point the supremacy of the artistic faculty asserts itself, and for the remainder of his life Blake was pre-eminently a designer and engraver. The labour of poetical composition continues, but the product passes beyond the range of general comprehension; while, with apparent inconsistency, the work of the artist gains steadily in strength and coherence, and never to the last loses its hold upon the understanding. It may almost be said without exaggeration that his earliest poetic work, The Songs of Innocence, and nearly his latest effort in design, the illustrations to The Book of Job, take rank among the sanest and most admirable products of his genius. Nor is the fact, astonishing enough at first sight, quite beyond a possible explanation. As Blake advanced in his poetic career, he was gradually hindered and finally overpowered by a tendency that was most serviceable to him in design. His inclination to substitute a symbol for a conception, to make an image do duty for an idea, became an insuperable obstacle to literary success. He endeavoured constantly to treat the intellectual material of verse as if it could be moulded into sensuous form, with the inevitable result that as the ideas to be expressed advanced in complexity and depth of meaning, his poetic gifts became gradually more inadequate to the task of interpretation. The earlier poems dealing with simpler themes, and put forward at a time when the bent of the artist's mind was not strictly determined, do not suffer from this difficulty; the symbolism then only enriches an idea of no intellectual intricacy; but when Blake began to concern himself with profounder problems the want of a more logical understanding of language made itself strikingly apparent. If his ways of thought and modes of workmanship had not been developed with an intensity almost morbid, he would probably have been able to distinguish and keep separate the double functions of art and literature. As it is, however, he remains as an extreme illustration of the ascendancy of the artistic faculty. For this tendency to translate ideas into image, and to find for every thought, however simple or sublime, a precise and sensuous form, is of the essence of pure artistic invention. If this be accepted as the dominant bent of Blake's genius, it is not so wonderful that his work in art should have strengthened in proportion as his poetic powers waned; but whether the explanation satisfies all the requirements of the case or not, the fact remains, and cannot be overlooked by any student of Blake's career.

In 1796 Blake was actively employed in the work of illustration. Edwards, a bookseller of New Bond Street, projected a new edition of Young's Night Thoughts, and Blake was chosen to illustrate the work. It was to have been issued in parts, but for some reason not very clear the enterprise failed, and only a first part, including forty-three designs, was given to the world. These designs were engraved by Blake himself, and they are interesting not only for their own merit but for the peculiar system by which the illustration has been associated with the text. It was afterwards discovered that the artist had executed original designs in water-colour for the whole series, and these drawings, 537 in number, form one of the most interesting records of Blake's genius. Gilchrist, the painter's biographer, in commenting upon the engraved plates, regrets the absence of colour, "the use of which Blake so well understood, to relieve his simple design and give it significance," and an examination of the original water-colour drawings fully supports the justice of his criticism. Soon after the publication of this work Blake was introduced by Flaxman to the poet Hayley, and in the year 180r he accepted the suggestion of the latter, that he should take up his residence at Felpham in Sussex. The mild and amiable poet had planned to write a life of Cowper, and for the illustration of this and other works he sought Blake's help and companionship. The residence at Felpham continued for three years, partly pleasant and partly irksome to Blake, but apparently not very profitable to the progress of his art. One of the annoyances of his stay was a malicious prosecution for treason set on foot by a common soldier whom Blake had summarily ejected from his garden; but a more serious drawback was the increasing irritation which the painter seems to have experienced from association with Hayley. In 1804 Blake returned to London, to take up his residence in South Moulton Street, and as the fruit of his residence in Felpham, he published, in the manner already described, the prophetic books called the Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion, and Milton. The first of these is a very notable performance in regard to artistic invention. Many of the designs stand out from the text in complete independence, and are now and then of the very finest quality.

In the years1804-1805Blake executed a series of designs in illustration of Robert Blair's The Grave, of much beauty and grandeur, though showing stronger traces of imitation of Italian art than any earlier production. These designs were purchased from the artist by an adventurous and unscrupulous publisher, Cromek, for the paltry sum of X 2 1, and afterwards published in a series of engravings by Schiavonetti. Despite the ill treatment Blake received in the matter, and the other evils, including a quarrel with his friend Stothard as to priority of invention of a design illustrating the Canterbury Pilgrims, which his association with Cromek involved, the book gained for him a larger amount of popularity than he at any other time secured. Stothard's picture of the Canterbury Pilgrims was exhibited in 1807, and in 1809 Blake, in emulation of his rival's success, having himself painted in water-colour a picture of the same subject, opened an exhibition, and drew up a Descriptive Catalogue, curious and interesting, and containing a very valuable criticism of Chaucer.

The remainder of the artist's life is not outwardly eventful. In 1813 he formed, through the introduction of George Cumberland of Bristol, a valuable friendship with John Linnell and other rising water-colour painters. Amongst the group Blake seems to have found special sympathy in the society of John Varley, who, himself addicted to astrology, encouraged Blake to cultivate his gift of inspired vision; and it is probably to this influence that we are indebted for several curious drawings made from visions, especially the celebrated "ghost of a flea" and the very humorous portrait of the builder of the Pyramids. In 1821 Blake removed to Fountain Court, in the Strand, where he died on the 12th of August 1827. The chief work of these last years was the splendid series of engraved designs in illustration of the book of Job. Here we find the highest imaginative qualities of Blake's art united to the technical means of expression which he best understood. Both the invention and the engraving are in all ways remarkable, and the series may fairly be cited in support of a very high estimate of his genius. None of his works is without the trace of that peculiar artistic instinct and power which seizes the pictorial element of ideas, simple or sublime, and translates them into the appropriate language of sense; but here the double faculty finds the happiest exercise. The grandeur of the theme is duly reflected in the simple and sublime images of the artist's design, and in the presence of these plates we are made to feel the power of the artist over the expressional resources of human form, as well as his sympathy with the imaginative significance of his subject.

A life of Blake, with selections from his works, by Alexander Gilchrist, was published in 1863 (new edition by W. G. Robertson, 1906); in 1868 A. C. Swinburne published a critical essay on his genius, remarkable for a full examination of the Prophetic Books, and in 1874 William Michael Rossetti published a memoir prefixed to an edition of the poems. In 1893 appeared The Works of William Blake, edited by E. J. Ellis and W. B. Yeats. But for a long time all the editors paid too little attention to a correct following of Blake's own MSS. The text of the poems was finally edited with exemplary care and thoroughness by John Sampson in his edition of the Poetical Works (1905), which has rescued Blake from the "improvements" of previous editors. See also The Letters of William Blake, together with a Life by Frederick Tatham; edited by A. G. B. Russell (1906);; and Basil de Selincourt, William Blake (1909). (J. C. C.)

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William Blake (November 28 1757August 12 1827) was an English poet, visionary, painter, and printmaker. During his lifetime he was not very well known. Today Blake's work is thought to be important in the history of both poetry and the visual arts. His most famous poem is "And did those feet in ancient time" which, more than 100 years later, was put to music by Hubert Parry. The hymn is called "Jerusalem".

Blake was voted 38th in a poll of the 100 Greatest Britons organized by the BBC in 2002.

= Illustrated by Blake


  • 1791: Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life[1]
  • 1797: Edward Young, Night Thoughts
  • 1805-1808: Robert Blair, The Grave
  • 1808: John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • 1819-1820: John Varley, Visionary Heads
  • 1821: R.J. Thornton, Virgil
  • 1823-1826: The Book of Job
  • 1825-1827: Dante, The Divine Comedy (Blake died in 1827 with these watercolours still unfinished)
  • 1827 Potato Marketing Board, Potatoes: Their Cultivation and Use


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