William Blake (November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. He is considered one of the greatest romantic poets leaving a legacy of memorable poetry. He combined a lofty mysticism, imagination and vision – with an uncompromising awareness of the harsh realities of life.
“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
– William Blake – The Tyger (from Songs of Experience)
Short Bio of William Blake
William Blake was born in London 28 November 1757, where he spent most of his life. His father was a successful London hosier and attracted by the Religious teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Blake was first educated at home, chiefly by his mother. Blake remained very close to his mother and wrote a lot of poetry about her. Poems such as Cradle Song illustrate Blake’s fond memories for his upbringing by his mother:
Sweet dreams, form a shade
O’er my lovely infant’s head;
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy, silent, moony beams.
Sweet sleep, with soft down
Weave thy brows an infant crown.
Sweep sleep, Angel mild,
Hover o’er my happy child.
– William Blake
His parents were broadly sympathetic with his artistic temperament and they encouraged him to collect Italian prints. He found work as an engraver, joining the trade at an early age. He found the early apprenticeship rather boring, but the skills he learnt proved useful throughout his artistic life. He became very skilled as an engraver and after completing his apprenticeship in 1779, he set up as an independent artist. He received many commissions and became well known as a skilled artist. Throughout his life, Blake was innovative and his willingness to depict the spirit world in physical form was criticised by elements of the press.
In 1791, Blake fell in love with Catherine Boucher, an illiterate and poor woman from Battersea across the Thames. The marriage proved a real meeting of mind and spirit. Blake taught his wife to read and write, and freely shared his inner and outer experiences. Catherine became a devoted wife and an uncompromising supporter of Blake’s artistic genius.
“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.”
– Songs of Experience, The Clod and the Pebble, st. 1
Mystical experiences and poetry
As a young boy, Blake recalls having a most revealing vision of seeing angels in the trees. These mystical visions returned throughout his life, leaving a profound mark on his poetry and outlook.
“I am not ashamed, afraid, or averse to tell you what Ought to be Told: That I am under the direction of Messengers from Heaven, Daily & Nightly; but the nature of such things is not, as some suppose, without trouble or care.”
– Letters of William Blake
William Blake was also particularly sensitive to cruelty. His heart wept at the sight of man’s inhumanity to other men and children. In many ways he was also of radical temperament, rebelling against the prevailing orthodoxy of the day. His anger and frustration at the world can be seen in his collection of poems “Songs of Experience”
“How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!”
– William Blake: The Schoolboy
As well as writing poetry that revealed and exposed the harsh realities of life, William Blake never lost touch with his heavenly visions. Like a true seer, he could see beyond the ordinary world and glimpse another possibility.
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.”
This poem from Auguries of Innocence is one of the most loved poems in the English language. Within four short lines, he gives an impression of the infinite in the finite, and the eternal in the transient.
One of Blake’s greatest poems – popularly referred to as ‘Jerusalem’ – was the preface to his epic work “Milton: A poem in two books”. This hymn was inspired by the story that Jesus travelled to Glastonbury, England – in the years before his documented life in the Gospels. To Blake, Jerusalem was a metaphor for creating Heaven on earth and transforming all that is ugly about modern life ‘dark satanic mills’ into ‘England’s green and pleasant land.” Jerusalem, set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916, is often seen as England’s unofficial national anthem.
During his lifetime Blake never made much money. It was only after his death that his genius was fully appreciated. His engravings and commissioned work drew enough money to survive, but at times he had to rely on the support of some of his close friends. Because of Blake’s emotional and free-spirited temperament, he was not always suited to maintaining friendships.
On one occasion he got into trouble with the authorities for forcing a soldier to leave his back garden. It was in the period of the Napoleonic Wars where the government were cracking down on any perceived lack of patriotism. In this climate, he was arrested for sedition and faced the possibility of jail. Blake defended himself and despite the prejudices of those who disliked Blake’s anti-military attitude, he was able to gain an acquittal.
Religion of Blake
Outwardly Blake was a member of the Church of England, where he was christened, married and buried. However, his faith and spiritual experience was much deeper and more unconventional than orthodox religion. He considered himself a sincere Christian but was frequently critical of organised religion.
“And now let me finish with assuring you that, Tho I have been very unhappy, I am so no longer. I am again. Emerged into the light of day; I still & shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God” – Letters of Blake
For the last few decades of his life, he never attended formal worship but saw religion as an inner experience to be held in private. Throughout his life, he experienced mystical experiences and visions of heavenly angels. These experiences informed his poetry, art and outlook on life. It made Blake see beyond conventional piety and value human goodness and kindness. He was a strong opponent of slavery and supported the idea of equality of man.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”
– Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–1793)
Blake read the Bible and admired the New Testament, he was less enamoured of the judgements and restrictions found in the Old Testament. He was also influenced by the teaching of Emanuel Swedenborg, a charismatic preacher who saw the Bible as the literal word of God. Although Blake was, at times, enthusiastic about Swedenborg, he never became a member of his church, preferring to retain his intellectual and spiritual independence.
Blake died on August 12 1827. Eyewitnesses report that his death was a ‘glorious affair’. After falling ill, Blake sang hymns and prepared himself to depart. He was buried in an unmarked grave in a public cemetery and Bunhill Fields. After his death, his influence steadily grew through the Pre-Raphaelites and later noted poets such as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats.
The esteemed poet, William Wordsworth, said on the death of Blake:
“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.”
The Art of William Blake
Newton by Blake
The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake
- The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake at Amazon.com
- The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake at Amazon.co.uk
To See a World in a Grain of Sand
Famous Poets – The great poets, including William Blake, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth and Shelley.
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