William Blake is one of the most renowned poets in the history of English literature. Born to the owners of a hosiery shop on Broad Street in the center of London in 1757, William Blake developed into a toddler of extraordinary imagination. While only a young boy (around the age of four), he spoke to his parents of seeing angels playing amongst him, encountering visions of heaven and hell throughout London and the nearby countryside, and spotting God keeping a close eye on him during tasks and chores. It was not long before the young Blake began to stencil out the visions from his imagination, and as an eleven year old, he enlisted in Pars’ Drawing School to learn the art of printing and plaster casting.
Soon thereafter, Blake began to apprentice under London artist James Basire, and as a fourteen-year-old, he was assigned to drawing monuments in Westminster Abbey, which led to a lifelong admiration for Gothic art and religious illustration. While working with Basire, Blake befriended contemporary apprentice James Parker. Parker and Blake would later become partners in a jointly owned print shop on Broad Street, right next door to the Blake hosiery shop and household, a partnership that only lasted one year (1784-85).
One must recall the historical context of Blake’s development from a young artist to a poet in his mid-twenties. In 1775, America began a revolution of independence from England, igniting tense controversy in London, and the young artist witnessed an angry society torn apart by liberal sympathizers with the American revolutionaries and conservative loyalists to the colonial empire.
In 1782, William Blake married Catherine Boucher, and one year later, he published his first book of poems, Poetical Sketches, at the encouragement of the Reverend Anthony Stephen Matthew and his wife, owners of a salon which was a frequent drinking spot for the twenty-six year old.
In the mid to late 1780s, two events came into Blake’s life that would change his method of expression and alter his artistic voice forever, while setting him up as one of the most unique and most referenced poetic geniuses of the English language. First, he began to read and study the works of Scandinavian poet Swedenborg, a philosophical rebel who refused and refuted the semi-materialistic philosophy that had grown so widespread in the late eighteenth century. Second, he began to draw and write on copper plates before dipping them into a corrosive acid that would allow for his words and images to stand out from the plate itself, ready to be colored and inked for easier printing. William Blake, the plating artist with a revolutionary voice, was born.
In 1789, Blake published Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel, which displayed the range of his talents, for one was a collection of short and witty rhymed stanzas and the other a lengthy epic “prophetic book.” This year also saw the beginning to the French Revolution, which further widened the cleavage in English society.
The next ten years (1790-1800) were arguably the most peaceful and successful times for the Blake couple. It was during this period that Blake completed iconic works like Songs of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, America: A Prophecy, Europe: A Prophecy, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, The Song of Los, and The Book of Urizen, all of which discernibly demonstrate Blake’s support of the Revolution.
As the French Revolution disintegrated into a war for national power and lost sight of its original mission of liberating idealism, Blake began to question his faith in humanity and in the revolutionary spirit. In 1800, the Blakes moved to a cottage in Felpham, on the coast of Sussex, next door to William Hayley, a long-time Blake companion. It was during this time that Blake completed most of the work on Vala, another one of his epic prophecies.
In 1803, William Blake reentered the world of religious doctrine, calling himself a re-born “soldier of Christ” in a letter to a friend. It is then that Blake began his work on his final epic prophecy, Jerusalem. Blake soon returned to London, where a series of events began a downward spiral into wretchedness and despair for William Blake. First, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, removing any hope for the revolutionary spirit that Blake once promoted. Second, a series of Blake’s illustrations were stolen and plagiarized by engraver and publisher Robert Cromek, which outraged Blake and broke him financially. In a final effort for Blake to gain fame and earn the respect from his contemporaries he deserved, he summoned friends Henry Crabb Robinson and Charles Lamb to finance an exhibition of his life works. Unfortunately, few were interested, and the exhibition even caused the well-respected periodical, The Examiner, to denounce the work as nothing more than art of “an unfortunate lunatic.”
In Blake’s final years of poverty and despair, he completed two of his most famous and respected religious works, Jerusalem and Milton. In 1818, William Blake began to be recognized by a new group of poets and artists for the revolutionary genius that he was. Among one of his highest enthusiasts was John Linnell, who summoned Blake to provide detailed illustrations to both the Book of Job and Dante’s Divine Comedy. William Blake died suddenly on August 12, 1827, before either of the works was completed.