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William Blake was born in London in 1757, the son of a hosier. He attended a drawing school and was subsequently apprenticed to an engraver from 1772-9, before attending the Royal Academy as a student from 1779 to 1780. During this time he made his living as an engraver, producing illustrations for the book trade, and was also composing and illustrating his own poetical works. He married Catherine Boucher in 1782. His first published work was Poetical Sketches (1783), the appearance of which was funded by members of the intellectual circle of artistic and literary friends with which Blake had become associated in the early 1780s. In 1784 Blake established his own printing shop, which was commercially unsuccessful, failing in 1787. Blake continued to earn a living by engraving for the commercial publishing market, but also worked on his own poems and engravings. In 1788 he conceived of combining poetical text and illustrative engraving as a unified whole on a single page, and the concept of the 'illustrated books' was born. The first of these, Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel, were published in 1789, and represent the early stages in the evolution of Blake's highly personal mystical philosophy.
The Blakes lived in Lambeth, south London, from 1790 to 1800, and during this time Blake produced many of his poetic works including America: A Prophecy (1793), Songs of Experience (1794), and The Book of Los (1795). He was also engaged in producing much commercial engraving. Blake lived and worked in Felpham, Sussex, between 1800 and 1803, but returned to London where he spent the rest of his life. He continued to write, engrave and publish, but work was scarce, his relations with friends and patrons were often difficult, and he increasingly sank into obscurity and impoverishment. In his later years, however, he had inspired admiration and interest among a small circle of younger artists, who did what they could to support him towards the end of his life. William Blake died in London in 1827.
As the summary above makes clear, Blake was of modest social origin and his life was lived in modest circumstances. He earned his livelihood through most of his life not as an independent creative writer but as an engraver doing work for other people. His publication of Poetical Sketches in 1787 was only made possible by the financial support of his friends, and none of his later published works sold in great numbers or could be accounted successful. Poetical Sketches contained significant early poems such as 'To The Muses'. His next published work was Songs of Innocence (1789) which was followed by Songs of Experience (1794); the lyrics of the former are gentler than those of the latter, with the combined work powerfully setting a world of pastoral innocence, associated with childhood, against one of power and corruption, relating to the state of adulthood.
Blake's aversion to systems of authority and repression was a constant theme in his writings, in prose as well as poetry. He published a number of collections of politically radical works in the late 1780s and early 1790s, a period of revolution and radicalism in Europe: There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One reflected his rejection of organized religion, while The French Revolution: A Poem in Seven Books (of which only one survives) hymned the liberating energies of the revolution in France for the human soul and for society at large. In 1790 Blake also engraved his principal work of prose, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which sought to declare the values of truth against what Blake perceived as the false values of the age and in particular condemned false religion for obstructing the paths of truth. During the Lambeth years Blake was busy with commissions such as the ultimately abortive project to publish an illustrated edition of Edward Young's Night Thoughts, but he also continued to work on what have become known as his 'prophetic books', the works combining poetry, aphorism and illustration which he had begun writing and engraving in the 1780s. The Visions of the Daughters of Albion was published in 1793 and introduced the figures of the personal mythology Blake had evolved to address his particular spiritual concerns, notably Urizen, a figure of repressive authority, and Orc, the eternal rebel. Urizen appears again in Blake's politically charged America: A Prophecy (1793). The visionary and radical ideas of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and the symbolic personages of Albion and America appear again in the further prophetic books Europe (1794), The Book of Urizen (1794), The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los and The Song of Los (all 1795). All these works articulated Blake's critique of the prevailing moral order, particularly as manifested in political and religious institutions. The same themes are developed in the increasingly complex and difficult visionary and philosophical poems Blake went on to write: The Four Zoas (1797), Milton (1803-8) and Jerusalem (1804-20).
Blake's literary output is extensive, rich and challenging, and has always been difficult to assess and place in context. Blake was an isolated figure in many ways, prone to extremes in thought and work, but determined to bring his vision to the world despite its apparent obscurity. He was a many-sided artist -- painter, engraver, poet, prose writer, philosopher, political pamphleteer -- who does not fit neatly into any of the conventional categories of artistic endeavour. His lack of success during his own lifetime has tended to minimize his importance, allowing later scholars to depict him as an entirely isolated, maverick figure, but in fact his work was closely tied to the context of his times and was written to convey his vision of the politically turbulent world in which he lived.
Blake lived all his life in relatively humble circumstances, and his work reflects his connection with the culture of the common people, reflecting the culture of ballads, hymns and street-rhymes which was intrinsic to common London life. A good example of this is 'The Divine Image' from Songs of Innocence, which is in a four-line stanza form with alternating four-stress and three-stress lines ('To Mercy Pity Peace and Love / All pray in their distress') typical of traditional ballads. The vocabulary, however, is reminiscent of hymns rather than ballads, being drawn from the Bible -- an example of Blake using a common verse-form for his own particular message. The sentiments of the poem are concerned with the generous and loving nature of God, and with the loving kindness of God as an ideal for man to live by:
For Mercy Pity Peace and Love
Is God our father dear,
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love
Is Man his child and care. (Poems, 14)
The way in which Blake remakes the vocabulary and form of hymns and ballads for his own purposes is very clear in the poem 'The School Boy', also from Songs of Innocence. This bears comparison with the improving and moralistic ballads and poems that were part of contemporary culture for Blake, but whereas they took a stance of teaching conventional goodness to the young, Blake's poem is on the side of the boy, and seems to be trying to teach adults something from the child's point-of-view rather than the other way around:
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? (Poems, 36)
"The School Boy' can be seen as an archetypal 'song of innocence' which advocates freedom, spontaneity and escape from discipline, and takes its inspiration from the natural world of birds, buds, blossoms and song -- a beneficent world, of which the child is a natural part. Despite its gentle lyric and pastoral imagery this is a socially and intellectually radical poem, forcefully criticizing the moral improvers, disciplinarian parents and dreary teachers who threaten the natural freedom and goodness of the child.
Another of Blake's shorter poems, 'Ah! Sun-flower' (Poems 29), dramatizes the same distinction between the eternal, ideal, natural world (in the first stanza) and the disciplined, grim world of 'experience' (in the second stanza). The sunflower is 'weary of time' symbolizing the hard work of keeping in touch with spiritual reality amid the dull mundane world of ordinary life, and aspires to a condition of rest achieved by harmony with that spiritual world: 'that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller's journey is done'. The 'Youth pined away with desire' and the 'pale Virgin shrouded in snow' symbolize the incompleteness and imprisonment in earthly preoccupation that prevents the soul from embracing eternity, working as the sunflower always to face eternity and truth.
To turn to Blake's longer works: Thel was the first of his narrative poems and is written in the same loosely structured, seven-stress line he used for most of his longer poems. Thel herself is a virgin, a figure of youthful innocence and purity whose gentleness and mildness are…[continue]
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