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William Blake

Dec - 1 - 2012

Blake, William (1757–1827), the third son of a London hosier. He did not go to school, but was apprenticed to James Basire, engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, and then became a student at the Royal Academy. From 1779 he was employed as an engraver by the bookseller J. Johnson, and in 1780 met Fuseli and Flaxman, the latter a follower of Swedenborg, whose mysticism deeply influenced Blake. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a market-gardener; their childless marriage was a lasting communion. Flaxman at this period introduced him to the progressive intellectual circle of the Revd A. S. Mathew and his wife (which included Mrs Barbauld, H. More, and Mrs E. Montagu), and Mathew and Flaxman financed the publication of Blake’s first volume, Poetical Sketches (1783). In 1784, with help from Mrs Mathew, he set up a print shop at 27 Broad Street, and at about the same period (although not for publication) wrote the satirical An Island in the Moon. He engraved and published his Songs of Innocence in 1789, and also The Book of Thel, both works which manifest the early phases of his highly distinctive mystic vision, and in which he embarks on the evolution of his personal mythology; years later (in Jerusalem) he was to state, through the character Los, ‘I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s’, words which have been taken by some to apply to his own need to escape from the fetters of 18th-cent. versification, as well as from the materialist philosophy (as he conceived it) of the Enlightenment, and a Puritanical or repressive interpretation of Christianity. The Book of Thel presents the maiden Thel lamenting transience and mutability by the banks of the river of Adona; she is answered by the lily, the cloud, the worm, and the clod who assure her that ‘He, who loves the lowly’ cherishes even the meanest; but this relatively conventional wisdom is challenged by a final section in which Thel visits the house of Clay, sees the couches of the dead, and hears ‘a voice of sorrow’ breathe a characteristically Blakean protest against hypocrisy and restraint—’Why a tender curb upon the youthful, burning boy? Why a tender little curtain of flesh upon the bed of our desire?’—a message which sends Thel back ‘with a shriek’ to the vales of Har. The ambiguity of this much-interpreted poem heralds the increasing complexity of his other works which include Tiriel (written 1789, pub. 1874), introducing the theme of the blind tyrannic father, ‘the king of rotten wood, and of the bones of death’, which reappears in different forms in many poems; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (engraved c.1790–3), his principal prose work, a book of paradoxical aphorisms; and the revolutionary works The French Revolution(1791); America: A Prophecy (1793); and Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), in which he develops his attitude of revolt against authority, combining political fervour (he had met Paine at Johnson’s) and visionary ecstasy; Urizen, the deviser of moral codes (described as ‘the stony law’ of the Decalogue) and Orc, the Promethean arch-rebel, emerge as principal characters in a cosmology that some scholars have related to that of Gnosticism. By this time Blake had already established his poetic range; the long, flowing lines and violent energy of the verse combine with phrases of terse and aphoristic clarity and moments of great lyric tenderness, and he was once more to demonstrate his command of the lyric in Songs of Experience (1794) which includes ‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright’, ‘O Rose thou art sick’, and other of his more accessible pieces.

Meanwhile the Blakes had moved to Lambeth in 1790; there he continued to engrave his own works and to write, evolving his mythology further in The Book of Urizen (1794); Europe, a Prophecy (1794); The Song of Los (1795); The Book of Ahania (1795); The Book of Los (1795); and The Four Zoas (originally entitled Vala, written and revised 1797–1804), and also working for the booksellers. In 1800 he moved to Felpham, Sussex, where he lived for three years, working for his friend and patron Hayley, and working on Milton (1804–8); in 1803 he was charged at Chichester with high treason for having ‘uttered seditious and treasonable expressions, such as “D–n the King, d–n all his subjects…” ‘, but was acquitted. In the same year he returned to London, to work on Milton and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written and etched, 1804–20). In 1805 he was commissioned by Cromek to produce a set of drawings for R. Blair’s poem The Grave, but Cromek defaulted on the contract, and Blake earned neither the money nor the public esteem he had hoped for, and found his designs engraved and weakened by another hand. This was symptomatic of the disappointment of his later years, when he appears to have relinquished expectations of being widely understood, and quarrelled even with some of the circle of friends who supported him. Both his poetry and his art had failed to find a sympathetic audience, and a lifetime of hard work had not brought him riches or even much comfort. His last years were passed in obscurity, although he continued to attract the interest and admiration of younger artists, and a commission in 1821 from the painter John Linnell produced his well-known illustrations for the Book of Job, published in 1826. (It was Linnell who introduced Blake to Samuel Palmer in 1824.) A later poem, ‘The Everlasting Gospel’, written about 1818, shows undiminished power and attack; it presents Blake’s own version of Jesus, in a manner that recalls the paradoxes of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, attacking the conventional ‘Creeping Jesus’, gentle, humble, and chaste, and stressing his rebellious nature, his forgiveness of the woman taken in adultery, his reversing of the stony law of Moses, praising ‘the Naked Human form divine’, and sexuality as the means whereby ‘the Soul Expands its wing’, and elevating forgiveness above the ‘Moral Virtues’.

At Blake’s death, general opinion held that he had been, if gifted, insane; Wordsworth’s verdict, according to C. Robinson, was that ‘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’, a view in some measure echoed by Ruskin, who found his manner ‘diseased and wild’ but his mind ‘great and wise’. It was not until A. Gilchrist’s biography of 1863 (significantly describing Blake as ‘Pictor Ignotus’) that interest began to grow. This was followed by an appreciation by Swinburne (1868) and by W. M. Rossetti’s edition of 1874, which added new poems to the canon and established his reputation, at least as a lyric poet; his rediscovered engravings considerably influenced the development of art nouveau. In 1893 Yeats, a devoted admirer, produced with E. J. Ellis a three-volume edition, with a memoir and an interpretation of the mythology, and the 20th cent. saw an enormous increase in interest. The bibliographical studies and editions of G. Keynes, culminating in The Complete Writings of William Blake (1966, 2nd edn), have added greatly to knowledge both of the man and his works, revealing him not only as an apocalyptic visionary but also as a writer of ribald and witty epigrams, a critic of spirit and originality, and an independent thinker who found his own way of resisting the orthodoxies of his age, and whose hostile response to the narrow vision and materialism (as he conceived it) of his bêtes noires Joshua Reynolds, Locke, and I. Newton was far from demented, but in part a prophetic warning of the dangers of a world perceived as mechanism, with man as a mere cog in an industrial revolution. There have been many interpretative studies, relating his work to traditional Christianity, to the Neoplatonic and Swedenborgian traditions, to Jungian archetypes and to Freudian and Marxist theory; the Prophetic Books, once dismissed as incoherent, are now claimed by many as works of integrity as well as profundity. Recently, Blake has had a particularly marked influence on the Beat Generation and the English poets of the underground movement, hailed by both as liberator; Auden earlier acclaimed him (‘New Year Letter’, 1941) as ‘Self-educated Blake…’ who ‘Spoke to Isaiah in the Strand | And heard inside each mortal thing | Its holy emanation sing’.

See also Blake Books (1977) by G. E. Bentley Jnr, including annotated catalogues of his writings and scholarly works about him;

The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. D. V. Erdman (1965, 1988);

Blake’s Illuminated Books, 6 vols (1991–5), gen. ed. D. Bindman;

and J. Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993), an authoritative account of Blake’s graphic process;

The William Blake Archive: http://jefferson. (ed. M. Eaves, R. Essick, J. Viscomi).

There is a life by P. Ackroyd, (1995).


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