William Blake

born Nov. 28, 1757, London
died Aug. 12, 1827, London

English poet, painter (see ), engraver, and visionary mystic whose hand-illustrated series of lyrical and epic poems, beginning with Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), form one of the most strikingly original and independent bodies of work in the Western cultural tradition. Blake is now regarded as one of the earliest and greatest figures of Romanticism. Yet he was ignored by the public of his day and was called mad because he was single-minded and unworldly; he lived on the edge of poverty and died in neglect.
Education and early career.

Blake was the second of five children; his father was a hosier. William grew up in London and later described the visionary experiences he had as a child in the surrounding countryside, when he saw angels in a tree at Peckham Rye and the prophet Ezekiel in a field. He wanted to be an artist and in 1767, at age 10, started to attend the drawing school of Henry Pars in the Strand. He educated himself by wide reading and the study of engravings from paintings by the great Renaissance masters. In 1772 he was apprenticed to an engraver, James Basire, who taught him his craft very thoroughly. Basire sent him to make drawings of the sculptures in Westminster Abbey, and thus awakened his interest in Gothic art.

On completion of his apprenticeship in 1779 Blake entered the Royal Academy as an engraving student. His period of study there seems to have been stormy. He took a violent dislike to Sir Joshua Reynolds, then president of the Royal Academy, and felt that his talents were being wasted. While still at the Academy he was earning his living by engraving for publishers and was also producing independent watercolours. At this time his friends included a group of brilliant young artists, among them the sculptor John Flaxman and the painter Thomas Stothard. He also came into contact with the painter Henry Fuseli.

On Aug. 18, 1782, Blake married a poor, illiterate girl, Catherine Boucher, who was to make a perfect companion for him. Flaxman introduced him to the Rev. Anthony S. Mathew and his wife, and for a time Blake was one of the chief attractions at their literary parties. Flaxman and Mathew paid for the printing of a collection of verses by the iryoung friend, Poetical Sketches. By W. B. (1783). A preface provides the information that the verses were written between Blake's 12th and 20th years. This is a remarkable first volume of poetry, and some of the poems contained in it have a freshness, a purity of vision, and a lyric intensity unequaled in English poetry since the 17th century.

Blake's visits to the Mathews' eventually became less frequent and finally ceased. Nevertheless, in the 1780s he was one of a group of progressive-minded people that met at the house of Blake's employer, the Radical bookseller Joseph Johnson. In about 1787 he wrote the fragment of a prose fantasy called An Island in the Moon, in which members of this group are satirized. In 1784, after his father's death, Blake started a print shop in London and took his younger brother Robert to live with him as assistant and pupil. Early in 1787 Robert fell ill and in February he died; and William, who had nursed him devotedly, later said that he had seen Robert's soul joyfully rising through the ceiling. He also said that Robert had appeared to him in a vision and revealed a method of engraving the text and illustrations of his books without having recourse to a printer. This method was Blake's invention of what he called “illuminated printing,” in which, by a special technique of relief etching, each page of the book was printed in monochrome from an engraved plate containing both text and illustration: an invention foreshadowed by his friend, George Cumberland. The pages were then usually coloured with watercolour or printed in colour by Blake and his wife, bound together in paper covers, and sold for prices ranging from a few shillings to 10 guineas. Most of Blake's works after the Poetical Sketches were engraved and “published” in this way, and so reached only a limited public during his lifetime; today these“ illuminated books,” with their dynamic designs and glowing colours, are among the world's art treasures.

The first books in which Blake made use of his new printing method were two little tracts, There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One, engraved about 1788. They contain the seeds of practically all the subsequent development of his thought. In them he boldly challenges accepted contemporary theories of the human mind derived from Locke and the prevailing rationalistic-materialistic philosophy and proclaims the superiority of the imagination over other “organs of perception,” since it is the means of perceiving “the Infinite,” or God. Immediately following these tracts came Blake's first masterpieces, in an astonishing outburst of creative activity: Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel (both engraved 1789), The French Revolution (1791), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Visions of the Daughters of Albion (both engraved 1793), and Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794). The production of these works coincided with the outbreak of the French Revolution, of which Blake, like the other members of the group that met at Johnson's shop, was at first an enthusiastic supporter. Blake significantly differed from other English revolutionaries, however, in his hatred of deism, atheism, and materialism, and his profound, though undogmatic, religious sense.

Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Songs of Innocence is Blake's first masterpiece of “illuminated printing.” In it the fragile and flowerlike beauty of the lyrics harmonizes with the delicacy and rhythmical subtlety of the designs. Songs of Innocence differs radically from the rather derivative pastoral mode of the Poetical Sketches; in the Songs, Blake took as his models the popular street ballads and rhymes for children of his own time, transmuting these forms by his genius into some of the purest lyric poetry in the English language.

In 1794 he finished a slightly rearranged version of Songs of Innocence with the addition of Songs of Experience; the double collection, in Blake's own words in the subtitle, “shewing the two contrary states of the human soul.” The “two contrary states” are innocence, when the child's imagination has simply the function of completing its own growth; and experience, when it is faced with the world of law, morality, and repression. Songs of Experience provides a kind of ironic answer to Songs of Innocence. The earlier collection's celebration of a beneficent God is countered by the image of him in Experience, in which he becomes the tyrannous God of repression. The key symbol of Innocence is the Lamb; the corresponding image in Experience is the Tyger, the subject of the famous poem that stands at the peak of Blake's lyrical achievement:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The Tyger in this poem is the incarnation of energy, strength, lust, and cruelty, and the tragic dilemma of mankind is poignantly summarized in the final question, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” Blake also viewed the larger society, in the form of contemporary London, with agonized doubt in Experience, in contrast to his happy visions of the city in Innocence. The great poem “London” in Experience is an especially powerful indictment of the new “acquisitive society” then coming into being, and the poem's naked simplicity of language is the perfect medium for conveying Blake's anguished vision of a society dominated by money.
Early narrative poems.

Blake was experimenting in narrative as well as lyrical poetry at this time. Tiriel, a first attempt, was never engraved. The Book of Thel, with its lovely flowing designs, is an idyll akin to Songs of Innocence in its flowerlike delicacy and transparency. In Tiriel and The Book of Thel Blake uses for the first time the long unrhymed line of 14 syllables, which was to become the staple metre of his narrative poetry. The fragment called The French Revolution is a heroic attempt to make epic poetry out of contemporary history. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell satire, prophecy, humour, poetry, and philosophy are mingled in a way that has few parallels. Written mainly in terse, sinewy prose, it may be described as a satire on institutional religion and conventional morality. In it Blake defines the ideal use of sensuality: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Blake reverses the tenets of conventional Christianity, equating the good with reason and repression and regarding evil as the natural expression of a fundamental psychic energy. The book includes a famous criticism of Milton and the “Proverbs of Hell,” 70 pithy aphorisms that are notable for their praise of heroic energy and their sense of creative vitality. The Marriage culminates in the “Song of Liberty,” a hymn of faithin revolution, ending with the affirmation that “everything that lives is Holy.” In Visions of the Daughters of Albion Blake develops the theme of sexual freedom suggested in several of the Songs of Experience. The central figure in the poem, Oothoon, finds that she has attained to a new purity through sexual delight and regeneration. In this poem the repressive god of abstract morality is first called Urizen.


All Blake's works of the revolutionary period were produced at a house in Soho in London, where he and his wife went to live shortly after Robert's death. In 1793 they moved south of the Thames to Lambeth. They lived there for seven years, and this, the period of Blake's greatest worldly prosperity, was also that of his deepest spiritual uncertainty. Blake's poetry of this period appears in the so-called “Prophetic books”: America, A Prophecy (1793), Europe, A Prophecy (1794), The Book of Urizen (1794), and The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los, and The Song of Los (all 1795). In these works Blake elaborates a series of cosmic myths and epics through which he sets forth a complex and intricate philosophical scheme. A principal symbolic figure in these books is Urizen, a spurned and outcast immortal who embodies both Jehovah and the forces of reason and law that Blake viewed as restricting and suppressing the natural energies of the human soul.

The Prophetic books describe a series of epic battles fought out in the cosmos, in history, and in the human soul, between entities symbolizing the conflicting forces of reason (Urizen), imagination (Los), and the spirit of rebellion (Orc). America, illustrated with brilliantly coloured designs, is a powerful short narrative poem giving a visionary interpretation of the American Revolution as the uprising of Orc, the spirit of rebellion. Europe shows the coming of Christ and the French Revolution of the late 18th century as part of the same manifestation of the spirit of rebellion. The Book of Urizen is Blake's version—or parody—of the biblical Book of Genesis. Here the Creator is not a beneficent, righteous Jehovah, but Urizen, a “dark power” whose rebellion against the primeval unity leads to his entrapment in the material world. The poetry of The Book of Urizen, written in short unrhymed lines of three accents, has a gloomy power, but is inferior in effect to the magnificent accompanying designs, which have an energy and monumental grandeur anticipating the quality of those of Jerusalem, Blake's most splendid illuminated book. Blake's saga of myths is continued in The Book of Ahania, a kind of Exodus following the Genesis of Urizen, and in The Book of Los. In The Song of Los Blake returns to the cosmic theme and brings the story of humanity down to his own time. By this time Blake seems to have reached his spiritual nadir, and his poetry peters out in the last of the Prophetic books. He had lost faith in the French Revolution as an apocalyptic and regenerating force, and was finding his attempt at a synthesis based on the “contraries” of good and evil inadequate as an answer to the complexities of human existence.

Major epics.

With The Song of Los the experimental period of his poetic career ended: he engraved no more books for nearly 10 years. In 1795 he had been commissioned by a bookseller to make designs for an edition of Edward Young's Night Thoughts. He worked on this until 1797, producing 537 watercolour drawings. It seems to have been while he was working on these illustrations that a fresh creative impulse led to the beginning of his first full-scale epic poem. The first draft of the epic, called Vala, was begun in 1795. He worked on it for about nine years, during which period he rewrote it under the title of The Four Zoas, but never engraved it. It remains a magnificent torso, but the quality of this work's poetry and its thought are obscured by its overly complicated mythological scheme. In spite of the grandeur of individual passages and of the major conception, The Four Zoas remains fragmentary and lacking in coherence. It provided the materials out of which Blake constructed his later epics, Milton and Jerusalem.

In 1800, at the invitation of William Hayley, a Sussex squire, Blake and his wife went to live in a cottage provided by Hayley at Felpham on the Sussex coast. This well-meaning, obtuse dilettante, who had employed Blake to make engravings, regarded his imaginative works with contempt and tried to turn him into a miniature painter and tame poet on his estate. At first Blake was delighted with life in Sussex, but he soon found the patronizing Hayley intolerable. The cottage was damp and Mrs. Blake's health suffered, and in 1803 the Blakes returned to London. Toward the end of his stay at Felpham, Blake was accused by a soldier called Schofield of having uttered seditious words when he had ejected him from his cottage garden. He was tried at the quarter sessions at Chichester, denied the charges, and was acquitted. Hayley gave bail for Blake and employed counsel to defend him. This experience became part of the mythology underlying Jerusalem and Milton.

It was also probably at Felpham that Blake wrote the most notable of his later lyrical poems, including “Auguries of Innocence,” with its memorable opening stanza:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

It was at Felpham, too, that he wrote some of his finest letters, many of them addressed to Thomas Butts, a government clerk who was for years a generous and loyal supporter and patron of Blake and who commissioned almost his total output of paintings and watercolours at this period.

In 1804–08 Blake engraved Milton. This poem is a comparatively brief epic which deals with a contest between the hero (Milton) and Satan; it too is couched in the propheticgrandeur and obscurity of Blake's invented mythology. Milton's struggle with evil in the poem is a reflection of Blake's own conflicts with the domineering patronage of William Hayley.

Jerusalem is Blake's third major epic and his longest poem. Begun about 1804, and written and engraved soon after the completion of Milton, it is also the most richly decorated of Blake's illuminated books, and only a few of its 100 plates are without illustration. Although the details are complex and present many difficulties, the poem's main outlines are simple. At the opening of the poem the giant Albion (who represents both England and humanity) is shown plunged into the “Sleep of Ulro,” or the hell of abstract materialism. The core of the poem describes his awakening and regeneration through the agency of Los, the archetypal craftsman or creative man. The poem's consummation is the reunion of Albion with Jerusalem (his lost soul) and with God through his acceptance of Jesus' doctrine of universal brotherhood.

Last years.

Blake's life during the period from 1803 to about 1820 was one of worldly failure. He found it difficult to get work, and the engravings that can be identified as his from this period are often hack jobs. In 1809 he made a last effort to put his work before the public and held an exhibition of 16 paintings and watercolour drawings. He wrote a thoughtful Descriptive Catalogue for the exhibition, but only a few people attended. But after this long period of obscurity, Blake found in 1819 anew and generous patron in the painter John Linnell, who introduced him to a group of young artists among whom was Samuel Palmer. In his last years Blake became the centre of this group, whose members shared Blake's religious seriousness and revered him as their master.

The most notable poetry Blake wrote after Jerusalem is to be found in The Everlasting Gospel (1818?), a fragmentary and unfinished work containing a challenging reinterpretation of the character and teaching of Christ. But Blake's last years were devoted mainly to pictorial art. In 1821 Linnell commissioned him to make a series of 22 watercolours inspired by the Book of Job; these include some of his best known pictures. Linnell also commissioned Blake's designs for Dante's Divine Comedy, begun in 1825 and left unfinished at his death. These consist of 102 watercolours notable for their brilliant colour. Blake thus found in his 60s a following and support for the imaginative work he had longed to do all his life. As a result, it was in his last years that he produced his most technically assured and beautiful designs. Toward the end of his life Blake still coloured copies of his books while resting in bed, and that is how he died in a room off the Strand in his 70th year. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields.

Pictorial work.

In his painting, as in his poetry, Blake seemed to most of his contemporaries to be completely out of the artistic mainstream of their time. But his paintings belong to a recognizable artistic tradition, that of English figurative painting of the later 18th century. Blake was initially influenced by the engravings he studied of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. He then became deeply impressed with the work of such contemporary figurative painters as James Barry, John Mortimer, and Henry Fuseli, who, like Blake, depicted dramatically posed nude figures with strongly rhythmic, linear contours. Fuseli's extravagant pictorial fantasies in particular freed Blake to distort his figures to express his inner vision.

Throughout his life Blake stressed the preeminence of line, or drawing, over colour, commending the “hard wirey line of rectitude.” He condemned everything that he felt made painting indefinite in contour, such as painterly brushwork and shadowing. Finally, Blake stressed the primacy of art created from the imagination over that drawn from the observation of nature.

The figures in Blake's many prints and watercolour and tempera paintings are notable for the rhythmic vitality of their undulating contours, the monumental simplicity of their stylized forms, and the dramatic effectiveness and originality of their gestures. Blake's favourite subjects were episodes from the Bible, along with episodes found in the works of Milton and Dante. He also showed himself a daring and unusually subtle colourist in many of his works. His illustrations for the Book of Job were done late in life, and they mark the summit of his achievement in the visual arts.



The Divine Comedy

Illustrations by William Blake






Anteo conduce a Dante y Virgilio al final del noveno círculo


The Lovers' Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta

Pen and ink and watercolour, 374 x 530 mm
City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham


Beatriz en el carro, Matilde y Dante


Beatriz se dirige a Dante desde el carro


Blasfemos, usureros y sodomitas


Capaneo el Blasfemo



Caronte y las almas condenadas


Dante a punto de penetrar en las llamas


Dante adorando a Cristo



Dante coge a Bocca Degli Abbati por el cabello



Dante conversando con Farinata Degli Uberti



Dante tropieza con Bocca Degli Abbati



Dante y Beatriz en la constelacion de Geminis


Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy