Although he was misunderstood and underappreciated throughout his lifetime, William Blake and his work only truly became influential after his death in 1827 (William Blake, 2014). Although he is best known for his poetry, Blake also created a significant amount of art work and other publications throughout his life. Despite the fact that his work found no profound audience during his life, Williams Blake was nonetheless a visionary, whose work and life combined to make of him an interesting and important poet, even to this day, nearly two centuries after his death.
William Blake found his calling already at an early age. He was born on 28 November 1757 in Soho, London. From an early age, he reported seeing "visions," the first of which the one of the first was the "face of God" he reported to see at his window at the age of four. While his parents tried to ensure that he was truthful about his experiences, they did recognize that he was not the same as others from his age group (Poets.org, 2014). He was therefore mostly educated at home by his mother, who gave him a profound and deep respect for the Bible. This was one of the first and most long-lasting influences in Blake's work and spirituality (William Blake, 2014). It is evident from Blake's poetry that he remained close to his mother throughout her life (Pettinger, 2006). He showed his love and fondness for his memories of her by means of many poems, including "Cradle Song." The poem, as the title suggests, is a lullaby a mother sings to her infant child. It is filled with a tenderness and sweetness and the reader can almost hear the soft voice of the mother singing to her child. The poem is infused with the love Blake clearly felt from his mother. Both Blake's parents supported and encouraged his artistic temperament. The first manifestation of this was his collection of Italian prints.
When he was 10 years old in 1767, he claimed to have had a vision of a tree full of angels. This inspired and fortified his spirituality and became evident in the art and poetry he studied and created. Pettinger (2006) mentions The Auguries of Innocence as a collection of poems that most clearly illustrates Blake's vision of the spirit world. In one poem, Blake sees "a world in a grain of sand" and "heaven in a wild flower." For Blake, even the simplest elements of earth and its images are indicative of an eternal, spiritual aspect. It is this spirituality that brought him the most profound meaning in his life and work.
At was at the tender age of 10 that his artistic ability became evident. At Henry Pars's drawing school, he sketched a human figure using plaster casts of ancient statues as a guide. At 14, he was apprenticed to an engraver, after which he was sent to Westminster Abbey. Here, his task to draw tombs and monuments created a lifelong love for gothic art in him (William Blake, 2014). During his years as a young artist, Blake tended to reject the current trends in art and literature, preferring artists like Durer, Raphael, and Michelangelo and Elizabethan writers like Shakespeare, Johnson and Spenser, along with ancient ballads.
As such, Blake tended towards noonconformism, just like he did as a small boy. He associated with leading radical thinkers, including Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft (Poets.org, 2014). In addition to his prevailing spirituality, he preferred to give precedence to imagination over reason; an unpopular stance during his time. As such, he insisted upon creating images and poetry based not on observation of reality, but rather on his inner visions. He wrote against the English monarchy and social tyranny in works like "The French Revolution" (1791), "America, a Prophecy" (1793), "Visions of the Daughters of Albion" (1793), and "Europe, a Prophecy" (1794) (Poets.org, 2014).
In addition to a particular rebellion against what he saw as the inferior artistic trends and politics of his time, Blake also rebelled against the prevalent cruelty he witnessed by people towards each other and especially towards children. Hence, his lofty mysticism was often accompanied by an angry and frustrated lashing out against a world that he saw as unnecessarily terrible....
In his collection of poems "Songs of Experience," Blake gives frequent voice to this frustration (Pettinger, 2006). In the poem "The Schoolboy," for example, Blake laments the cruelty of a school system that forces young children to learn by fearing punishment rather than for the love of learning or the love of life. He compares the Schoolboy to a bird locked in a cage and whose wings "droop" as a result of the fears imposed upon him by those in charge of the learning process.
When Blake was 21, he began maturing as an artist as well. It was also during this year that he completed his seven-year apprenticeship (Blakearchive.org). He entered the profession of copy engraver, while also cultivating his career in art and poetry. During this year, he entered the Royal Academy of Art's Schools of Design. It was here that he began having exhibits for is works in the year 1780. In 1783, he also published his Poetical Sketches privately. This work included the poems he had created over the previous 14 years.
The Poetical Sketches illustrated Blake's apprenticeship not only to engraving, but also to verse. His poetry in this collection generally imitated classical models and were written in protest against the factors that he considered to be social evils (Poets.org, 2014). He wrote, for example, against war, tyranny, and the way in which the American colonies were treated.
Another source of great inspiration for Blake was his wife, Catherine Sophia Boucher, whom he married in August 1782. His marriage to her was in fact the result of a recent rejection Blake suffered in love. He told her and her parents the story of his rejection and declared his lover for Catherine when she expressed her sympathy (William-Blake.org). She was illiterate when they married, but Blake taught her reading and writing, along with drawing and coloring. She was also a firm believer in his visions and his genius as an artist. With the expertise she gained under his tutelage, she helped him to publish his illuminated works and supported him in everything until his death 45 years after their marriage (William Blake, 2014). She was an invaluable source of inspiration and love throughout the highs and lows of Blake's personal and artistic life.
As with many artists, traumatic experiences deeply touched Blake's heart and his work. When his brother, Robert, died from tuberculosis at 24, Blake had a vision of his brother's spirit ascending through the ceiling. This visionary moment had a significant influence on his later poetry and also his art work. Indeed, during the year after his death, Robert appeared to his brother to show him a new way to print his works. When Blake incorporated what he called illuminated printing in his work, it allowed him to control the production of his art completely, and in terms of every aspect.
At this time, Blake was an established engraver. His art began to gain public attention, and he began to receive commissions for watercolors. Many of his works included scenes from Scripture and ancient texts like those of Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. Both his passions for ancient art and spirituality manifested in his newest work.
Blake's most popular collection of poetry was Songs of Innocence, published in 1789. This was followed by Songs of Experience, published in 1794. both these manuscripts were printed in an illuminated manuscript format (Poets.org, 2014). Blake used copper plates to print the text and illustrations, while he finished the watercolors by hand.
In 1800, Blake's poetry began to gain attention. Specifically, the poet William Hayley was sufficiently impressed with Blake's work to invite him to the seaside village of Felphan as his protege.
Unfortunately, this fortune was not to last long, as an incident involving a soldier on Blake's property in 1803 nearly led to severe trouble for the poet. While he was acquitted with the help of a lawyer Hayley hired on his behalf, he had moved back to London by this time. Blake was not deterred, however.
In 1804, the poet began his most ambitious work, Jerusalem, which was a combination of writing and illustrations. This was also a time during which he increased his exhibitions. Works that he showed at this time included Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims and Satan Calling Up His Legions (William Blake, 2014). Unfortunately, Blake's works were met either with silence or negativity. According to one reviewer, the artist was "an unfortunate lunatic" (William Blake, 2014).
This was a turning point for Blake's ambition, and he became less and less committed to his ambitions as an artist and poet. His work also suffered, and he created only a few engravings from 1809 to 1818. Indeed, between 1806 and 1813, there is no record…
Bartleby.com (2013). William Blake: Collected Works. Retrieved from: http://www.bartleby.com/235/
Blakearchive.org (2014). William Blake (1757-1827). Retrieved from: http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/biography.xq?b=biography&targ_div=d1
William Blake. (2014). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 09:41, May 20, 2014, from http://www.biography.com/people/william-blake-9214491.
Pettinger, T. (2006, Jun. 1) "Biography of William Blake," Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net. Page updated 23rd Jan, 2012.
Poets.org. (2014). William Blake. Retrieved from: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/william-blake
Poetry Foundation (2014). William Blake. Retrieved from: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-blake
William-Blake.org (2014). William Blake Biography. Retrieved from: http://www.william-blake.org/biography.html
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