William Blake was never fully appreciated in his own time but is still an influence on literary, political and theological analyses long after his death. While the amount of modern literary criticism that now exists should hold testament to his importance, Blake and his visions, pastoral-like settings and illuminated writings shaped the modern literary canon and paved the way for others. Specifically his works "The Divine Image," its companion poem "A Divine Image" and "The Human Abstract" cited within his collections Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) provide an open and continuous platform for interpretation and criticism.
William Blake was born in 1757 in London to a family of meager means. As a boy, his parents enrolled him in a drawing school in 1768 but the family funds only enabled him to stay there for four years before he was to become an engraver's apprentice. He became a student under James Basire which proved to foster his talents well. He left Basire at age 21 and enrolled in the Royal Academy. During this time frame, the American Revolution had been well under way and Britain was in the midst of a tumultuous time. In June of 1780, Lord George Gordon's stance on the resistance to the war with America and his anti-Catholic preaching invoked a series of riots throughout London. This appears to be an important turning point in Blake's life -- he was present (either actively or accidentally) in a mob that burned down Newgate Prison (Greenfield 1). This violent series of events surrounding Blake no doubt gave much inspiration for his works Europe (1794) and America (1793). Shortly after marrying his wife Catherine Boucher in 1782, he received some financial assistance and published a small collection of poems entitled Poetical Sketches (1783) which, while they imitated the classical styles of bards, contained political sentiments against war and the tyrannical power of kings. Only fifty known copies were produced and therefore reached a very limited audience (Greenfield 2).
When his brother Robert died in 1784, Blake claimed it was Robert's spirit that taught him how to illustrate his works of which he referred to as "illuminated writing."[footnoteRef:1] His first two series were entitled There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One (thought to be created in 1788). As he continued to perfect his method, he produced a series of poems called Songs of Innocence (1789). He later created Songs of Experience (1794) and compiled these poetic works together with Songs of Innocence with an engraving on the title plate stating that they were "Two Contrary States of the Human Soul." He meant for them to be read together and these pairs are referred to as "companion poems." [1: His method of creating these drawings were by drawing on copper plates with an impermeable liquid and then dipped the metal into acid so that the designs were permanently etched within the relief (Greenfield 3). He was able to print these onto paper and then hand-color the illustrations.]
While Blake was compiling Songs of Experience, his home country was in turmoil due to the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the repercussions of the French Revolution. During this time, he produced The Book of Thel (1789) which seems to explain both the difference and blending of innocence and experience -- his main character Thel is stuck in her own realm of innocence but as she remains in a homeostasis, there can be no growth. Due to the political position of England at the time, this could have been a great influence on Blake's mindset of the correlation of innocence, growth and experience. With the promotion of experience and growth in his mind, it is no surprise then, that Blake supported the uprising of France's new democracy during the peak of the French Revolution. Shortly after, he wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-3) where he lambasts the authority over church and state and their ever apparent and increasing relationship. This stance made him popular with radical thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft and would later make him renown and influential with twentieth century Marxists and other leftist and non-conformist groups . Blake writes:
Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion. / 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.
Greenfield claims that this is not an argument of anarchy but rather of "a proper balance of energy and its opposing force: reason" (7). The balance of innocence and experience and this balance of (metaphorical) physics in terms of opposing forces are related and this topic of equilibrium and understanding now appear to be two recurring themes in his writing.
After this period, he produces Urizen (1794), The Book of Los (1795), The Song of Los (1795), and The Book of Ahania (1795). While he had done a significant amount of writing during this time, Blake remained relatively unknown for his poetry. One of the last pieces he wrote before his death was Jerusalem (1820) whereby he ultimately concludes in a final vision that all of human kind's Identities (though separate from Essence) are identified and blend together into a singular man which ultimately breaks the barrier between humanity and the spiritual world. Jerusalem is largely recognized as being an important work in the Romantic period and influential to many writers after his death but much like his earlier works, it was not widely read when he was alive .
Before he died in 1827, Blake had a group of followers who were influenced by him and proved to be influential themselves, including Francis Oliver Finch and Edward Calvert. He was also deemed important enough to be mentioned in A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816). Aside from meager accolades, he died a man of relative unimportance in the literary world at the time.[footnoteRef:2] [2: As a further testament to how he was ignored: in the entirety of all 732 double columned pages of a work entitled Select Works of the British Poets in Chronological Series from Falconer to Sir Walter Scott (1850) (the volume presents itself as a continuation of Aikin's Select Works from Ben Jonson to Beattie, 10th ed.), Blake is excluded altogether in favor of William Jones, William Gifford and James Grahame as well as Burns, Wordsworth and Coleridge (Hilton 135). ]
Many literary scholars credit Alexander Gilchrist for reviving Blake's reputation. He wrote a biography in 1863 which included a small volume of his poetry which essentially put Blake back into the hands of readers in larger circulations. Gilchrist heralded Blake as "an emblem for faith in the life of the spirit." [footnoteRef:3] Having his works finally accessible, the general public's interest piqued and the literati, including William Butler Yeats, were beginning read and analyze his works in terms of, among other things, "the human form divine." [footnoteRef:4] There is a large amount of analysis on Blake's "The Divine Image" in Songs of Innocence due to its initial pastoral-esque reading but there is less literature on the corresponding work "A Divine Image." This is clearly a companion poem but it was never published with the original Songs of Experience. To simply read both poems next to each other, one could interpret that we are created in the image of God but now we have fallen from grace as demonstrated by the fact that the four positive virtues of "The Divine Image" (Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love) are replaced by four negative (inherent) qualities in "A Divine Image": Cruelty, Jealousy, Terror and Secrecy. This, however, is perhaps too simple E.P. Thompson calls upon "The Divine Image" in Swedenborgian terms and the idea of "the Divine Human." "Divine Humanity" supposed that God was one person who came into human form through divine influx and then back again: one god. The Swedenborgians proposed since Jesus was God and Jesus was a human, that believing in the holy Trinity implied that there were three gods and one of them was man. Thompson claims that at the time, critics found "The Divine Image" to be a testament to Swedenborgianism but this poem does not at all seem to be in line with either the Unitarian or Swedenborgian ideas of the divinity of God as evidenced by the fact that the four virtues are entirely human qualities. He does not mention worship but rather "prayers of distress" and therefore turns to the divine virtues in which he can see in himself. While no doubt Blake had his issues with the church and state, the calm tone that "The Divine Image" sets seems to follow along with this idea of innocence found in the potential for human divinity (through "prayers of distress") rather than the idea of "divine humanity" as obliquely…