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William Blake

Early life

The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in Blake’s work. Here, the demiurgic figure Urizen prays before the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecies.

William Blake was born in 28 Broad Street, London, England on 28 November 1757, to a middle-class family. He was the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Blake’s father, James, was a hosier. William never attended school, and was educated at home by his mother Catherine Wright Armitage Blake. The Blakes were Dissenters, and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life.

Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that was then preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Drer. His parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he was not sent to school but was instead enrolled in drawing classes. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period, Blake was also making explorations into poetry; his early work displays knowledge of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.

Apprenticeship to Basire

On 4 August 1772, Blake became apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, for the term of seven years. At the end of this period, at the age of 21, he was to become a professional engraver. No record survives of any serious disagreement or conflict between the two during the period of Blake’s apprenticeship. However, Peter Ackroyd’s biography notes that Blake was later to add Basire’s name to a list of artistic adversariesnd then cross it out. This aside, Basire’s style of engraving was of a kind held to be old-fashioned at the time, and Blake’s instruction in this outmoded form may have been detrimental to his acquiring of work or recognition in later life.

After two years Basire sent his apprentice to copy images from the Gothic churches in London (it is possible that this task was set in order to break up a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice), and his experiences in Westminster Abbey contributed to the formation of his artistic style and ideas; the Abbey of his day was decorated with suits of armour, painted funeral effigies and varicoloured waxworks. Ackroyd notes that “the most immediate [impression] would have been of faded brightness and colour”. In the long afternoons Blake spent sketching in the Abbey, he was occasionally interrupted by the boys of Westminster School, one of whom “tormented” Blake so much one afternoon that he knocked the boy off a scaffold to the ground, “upon which he fell with terrific Violence”. Blake beheld more visions in the Abbey, of a great procession of monks and priests, while he heard “the chant of plain-song and chorale”.

The Royal Academy

On 8 October 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school’s first president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds’ attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of “general truth” and “general beauty”. Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the “disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind”; Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit”. Blake also disliked Reynolds’ apparent humility, which he held to be a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds’ fashionable oil painting, Blake preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Gordon Riots

Blake’s first biographer Alexander Gilchrist records that in June 1780, Blake was walking towards Basire’s shop in Great Queen Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison in London. They attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, set the building ablaze, and released the prisoners inside. Blake was reportedly in the front rank of the mob during this attack. These riots, in response to a parliamentary bill revoking sanctions against Roman Catholicism, later came to be known as the Gordon Riots. They provoked a flurry of legislation from the government of George III, as well as the creation of the first police force.

Despite Gilchrist’s insistence that Blake was “forced” to accompany the crowd, some biographers have argued that he accompanied it impulsively, or supported it as a revolutionary act. In contrast, Jerome McGann argues that the riots were reactionary, and that events would have provoked “disgust” in Blake.

Marriage and early career

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)

In 1782, Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron, and Catherine Boucher, who was to become his wife. At the time, Blake was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. He recounted the story of his heartbreak for Catherine and her parents, after which he asked Catherine, “Do you pity me?” When she responded affirmatively, he declared, “Then I love you.” Blake married Catherine who was five years his junior on 18 August 1782 in St. Mary’s Church, Battersea. Illiterate, Catherine signed her wedding contract with an ‘X’. The original wedding certificate may still be viewed at the church, where a commemorative stained-glass window was installed between 1976 and 1982. Later, in addition to teaching Catherine to read and write, Blake trained her as an engraver. Throughout his life she would prove an invaluable aid to him, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes.

At this time George Cumberland, one of the founders of the National Gallery, became an admirer of Blake’s work. Blake’s first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was published circa 1783 . After his father’s death, William and his brother Robert opened a print shop in 1784, and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s house was a meeting-place for some of the leading English intellectual dissidents of the time: theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, philosopher Richard Price, artist John Henry Fuseli early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the French and American revolutions and wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in France. In 1784 Blake also composed his unfinished manuscript An Island in the Moon.

Blake illustrated Original Stories from Real Life (1788; 1791) by Mary Wollstonecraft. They seem to have shared some views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage, but there is no evidence proving without doubt that they actually met. In 1793’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment.

Relief etching

In 1788, at the age of 31, Blake began to experiment with relief etching, a method he would use to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and, of course, his poems, including his longer ‘prophecies’ and his masterpiece the “Bible.” The process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and final products as illuminated books or prints. Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid in order to dissolve away the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name).

This is a reversal of the normal method of etching, where the lines of the design are exposed to the acid, and the plate printed by the intaglio method. Relief etching, which Blake invented, later became an important commercial printing method. The pages printed from these plates then had to be hand-coloured in water colours and stitched together to make up a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem.


A study in 2005 of Blake’s surviving plates showed that he made frequent use of a technique known as “repoussage” which is a means of obliterating mistakes by hammering them out by hitting the back of the plate. This discovery puts strain on Blake’s own assessment of his abilities as well of those of admirers and may also help to explain why some of Blake’s work took so long to complete.

Later life and career

Blake’s marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one until his death. Blake taught Catherine to write, and she helped him to colour his printed poems. Gilchrist refers to “stormy times” in the early years of the marriage. Some biographers have suggested that Blake tried to bring a concubine into the marriage bed in accordance with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society, but other scholars have dismissed these theories as conjecture. William and Catherine’s first daughter and last child might be Thel described in The Book of Thel who was conceived as dead.


Hecate, 1795. Blake’s vision of Hecate, Greek goddess of black magic and the underworld

In 1800, Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex (now West Sussex) to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a minor poet. It was in this cottage that Blake wrote Milton: a Poem (published between 1805 and 1808). The preface to this work includes a poem beginning “And did those feet in ancient time”, which became the words for the anthem, “Jerusalem”. Over time, Blake came to resent his new patron, coming to believe that Hayley was uninterested in true artistry, and preoccupied with “the meer drudgery of business”. Blake’s disenchantment with Hayley has been speculated to have influenced Milton: a Poem, in which Blake wrote that “Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies” (3:26).

Blake’s trouble with authority came to a head in August 1803, when he was involved in a physical altercation with a soldier called John Schofield. Blake was charged not only with assault, but also with uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King. Schofield claimed that Blake had exclaimed, “Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves.” Blake would be cleared in the Chichester assizes of the charges. According to a report in the Sussex county paper, “The invented character of [the evidence] was … so obvious that an acquittal resulted.” Schofield was later depicted wearing “mind forged manacles” in an illustration to Jerusalem.

Return to London

Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (1805) is one of a series of illustrations of Revelation 12.

Blake returned to London in 1804 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (18041820), his most ambitious work. Having conceived the idea of portraying the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Blake approached the dealer Robert Cromek, with a view to marketing an engraving. Knowing that Blake was too eccentric to produce a popular work, Cromek promptly commissioned Thomas Stothard, a friend of Blake’s, to execute the concept. When Blake learned that he had been cheated, he broke off contact with Stothard. He also set up an independent exhibition in his brother’s haberdashery shop at 27 Broad Street in the Soho district of London. The exhibition was designed to market his own version of the Canterbury illustration (titled The Canterbury Pilgrims), along with other works. As a result he wrote his Descriptive Catalogue (1809), which contains what Anthony Blunt has called a “brilliant analysis” of Chaucer. It is regularly anthologised as a classic of Chaucer criticism. It also contained detailed explanations of his other paintings.

The exhibition itself, however, was very poorly attended, selling none of the temperas or watercolours. Its only review, in The Examiner, was hostile.

He was introduced by George Cumberland to a young artist named John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the Shoreham Ancients. This group shared Blake’s rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. At the age of 65 Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job. These works were later admired by Ruskin, who compared Blake favourably to Rembrandt, and by Vaughan Williams, who based his ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing on a selection of the illustrations.

Later in his life Blake began to sell a great number of his works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend than a man whose work held artistic merit; this was typical of the opinions held of Blake throughout his life.

Dante’s Divine Comedy

The commission for Dante’s Divine Comedy came to Blake in 1826 through Linnell, with the ultimate aim of producing a series of engravings. Blake’s death in 1827 would cut short the enterprise, and only a handful of the watercolours were completed, with only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form. Even so, they have evoked praise:

‘[T]he Dante watercolours are among Blake’s richest achievements, engaging fully with the problem of illustrating a poem of this complexity. The mastery of watercolour has reached an even higher level than before, and is used to extraordinary effect in differentiating the atmosphere of the three states of being in the poem’.

Blake’s The Lovers’ Whirlwind illustrates Hell in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno

Blake’s illustrations of the poem are not merely accompanying works, but rather seem to critically revise, or furnish commentary on, certain spiritual or moral aspects of the text.

Because the project was never completed, Blake’s intent may itself be obscured. Some indicators, however, bolster the impression that Blake’s illustrations in their totality would themselves take issue with the text they accompany: In the margin of Homer Bearing the Sword and His Companions, Blake notes, “Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost.” Blake seems to dissent from Dante’s admiration of the poetic works of the ancient Greeks, and from the apparent glee with which Dante allots punishments in Hell (as evidenced by the grim humour of the cantos).

At the same time, Blake shared Dante’s distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power, and clearly relished the opportunity to represent the atmosphere and imagery of Dante’s work pictorially. Even as he seemed to near death, Blake’s central preoccupation was his feverish work on the illustrations to Dante’s Inferno; he is said to have spent one of the very last shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching.


Monument near Blake’s unmarked grave in London

On the day of his death, Blake worked relentlessly on his Dante series. Eventually, it is reported, he ceased working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her, Blake is said to have cried, “Stay Kate! Keep just as you are I will draw your portrait for you have ever been an angel to me.” Having completed this portrait (now lost), Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses. At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died. Gilchrist reports that a female lodger in the same house, present at his expiration, said, “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.”

George Richmond gives the following account of Blake’s death in a letter to Samuel Palmer:

He died … in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten’d and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.

Catherine paid for Blake’s funeral with money lent to her by Linnell. He was buried five days after his death on the eve of his forty-fifth wedding anniversary at the Dissenter’s burial ground in Bunhill Fields, where his parents were also interred. Present at the ceremonies were Catherine, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, Frederick Tatham and John Linnell. Following Blake’s death, Catherine moved into Tatham’s house as a housekeeper. During this period, she believed she was regularly visited by Blake’s spirit. She continued selling his illuminated works and paintings, but would entertain no business transaction without first “consulting Mr. Blake”. On the day of her own death, in October 1831, she was as calm and cheerful as her husband, and called out to him “as if he were only in the next room, to say she was coming to him, and it would not be long now”.

On her death, Blake’s manuscripts were inherited by Frederick Tatham, who burned several of those which he deemed heretical or too politically radical. Tatham had become an Irvingite, one of the many fundamentalist movements of the 19th century, and was severely opposed to any work that “smacked of blasphemy”. Sexual imagery in a number of Blake’s drawings was also erased by John Linnell.

Since 1965, the exact location of William Blake’s grave had been lost and forgotten, while gravestones were taken away to create a new lawn. Nowadays, Blake grave is commemorated by a stone that reads “Near by lie the remains of the poet-painter William Blake 1757-1827 and his wife Catherine Sophia 1762-1831”. This memorial stone is situated approximately 20 metres away from the actual spot of Blake grave, which is not marked. However, members of the group Friends of William Blake have rediscovered the location of Blake’s grave and intend to place a permanent memorial at the site.

Blake is now recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. The Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour in Australia in 1949. In 1957 a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey, in memory of him and his wife.

Development of Blake’s Views

Because Blake’s later poetry contains a private mythology with complex symbolism, his late work has been less published than his earlier more accessible work. The recent Vintage anthology of Blake edited by Patti Smith focuses heavily on the earlier work, as do many critical studies such as William Blake by D. G. Gillham.

The earlier work is primarily rebellious in character, and can be seen as a protestation against dogmatic religion. This is especially notable in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which Satan is virtually the hero rebelling against an imposter authoritarian deity. In the later works such as Milton and Jerusalem, Blake carves a distinctive vision of a humanity redeemed by self-sacrifice and forgiveness, while retaining his earlier negative attitude towards the rigid and morbid authoritarianism of traditional religion. Not all readers of Blake agree upon how much continuity exists between Blake’s earlier and later works.

Psychoanalyst June Singer has written that Blake’s late work displayed a development of the ideas that were first introduced in his earlier works, namely, the humanitarian goal of achieving personal wholeness of body and spirit. The final section of the expanded edition of her Blake study The Unholy Bible suggests that the later works are in fact the “Bible of Hell” promised in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Regarding Blake’s final poem “Jerusalem”, she writes:

[T]he promise of the divine in man, made in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is at last fulfilled.

However, John Middleton Murry notes discontinuity between Marriage and the late works, in that while the early Blake focused on a “sheer negative opposition between Energy and Reason”, the later Blake emphasized the notions of self-sacrifice and forgiveness as the road to interior wholeness. This renunciation of the sharper dualism of Marriage of Heaven and Hell is evidenced in particular by the humanization of the character of Urizen in the later works. Middleton characterizes the later Blake as having found “mutual understanding” and “mutual forgiveness”.

Religious views

Blake’s Ancient of Days. The “Ancient of Days” is described in Chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel.

Although Blake’s attacks on conventional religion were shocking in his own day, his rejection of religiosity was not a rejection of religion per se. His view of orthodoxy is evident in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a series of texts written in imitation of Biblical prophecy. Therein, Blake lists several Proverbs of Hell, amongst which are the following:

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.

As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.

In The Everlasting Gospel, Blake does not present Jesus as a philosopher or traditional messianic figure but as a supremely creative being, above dogma, logic and even morality:

If he had been Antichrist, Creeping Jesus,

He’d have done anything to please us:

Gone sneaking into the Synagogues

And not used the Elders & Priests like Dogs,

But humble as a Lamb or an Ass,

Obey himself to Caiaphas.

God wants not man to humble himself

Jesus, for Blake, symbolises the vital relationship and unity between divinity and humanity: “[A]ll had originally one language and one religion: this was the religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel. Antiquity preaches the Gospel of Jesus.”

Blake designed his own mythology, which appears largely in his prophetic books. Within these Blake describes a number of characters, including ‘Urizen’, ‘Enitharmon’, ‘Bromion’ and ‘Luvah’. This mythology seems to have a basis in the Bible and in Greek mythology, and it accompanies his ideas about the everlasting Gospel.

“I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create.”

Words uttered by Los in Blake’s Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.

One of Blake’s strongest objections to orthodox Christianity is that he felt it encouraged the suppression of natural desires and discouraged earthly joy. In A Vision of the Last Judgement, Blake says that:

Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d their Passions or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion, but Realities of Intellect, from which all the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their Eternal Glory.

One may also note his words concerning religion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.

2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.

3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.

2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, c. 1825. Watercolour on wood.

Blake does not subscribe to the notion of a distinct body from the soul, and which must submit to the rule of soul, but rather sees body as an extension of soul derived from the ‘discernment’ of the senses. Thus, the emphasis orthodoxy places upon the denial of bodily urges is a dualistic error born of misapprehension of the relationship between body and soul; elsewhere, he describes Satan as the ‘State of Error’, and as being beyond salvation.

Blake opposed the sophistry of theological thought that excuses pain, admits evil and apologises for injustice. He abhorred self-denial, which he associated with religious repression and particularly with sexual repression: “Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. / He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.” He saw the concept of ‘sin’ as a trap to bind men desires (the briars of Garden of Love), and believed that restraint in obedience to a moral code imposed from the outside was against the spirit of life:

Abstinence sows sand all over

The ruddy limbs & flaming hair,

But Desire Gratified

Plants fruits & beauty there.

He did not hold with the doctrine of God as Lord, an entity separate from and superior to mankind; this is shown clearly in his words about Jesus Christ: “He is the only God … and so am I, and so are you.” A telling phrase in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is “men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast”. This is very much in line with his belief in liberty and equality in society and between the sexes.

Blake and Enlightenment Philosophy

Blake had a complex relationship with Enlightenment philosophy. Due to his visionary religious beliefs, Blake opposed the Newtonian view of the universe. This mindset is reflected in an excerpt from Blake’s Jerusalem:

Blake’s Newton (1795) demonstrates his opposition to the “single-vision” of scientific materialism: Newton fixes his eye on a compass (recalling Proverbs 8:27, an important passage for Milton) to write upon a scroll which seems to project from his own head.

I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe

And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.

Blake also believed that the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which depict the naturalistic fall of light upon objects, were products entirely of the “vegetative eye”, and he saw Locke and Newton as “the true progenitors of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ aesthetic”. The popular taste in the England of that time for such paintings was satisfied with mezzotints, prints produced by a process that created an image from thousands of tiny dots upon the page. Blake saw an analogy between this and Newton’s particle theory of light. Accordingly, Blake never used the technique, opting rather to develop a method of engraving purely in fluid line, insisting that

a Line or Lineament is not formed by Chance a Line is a Line in its

Minutest Subdivision[s] Strait or Crooked It is Itself & Not Intermeasurable with or by any Thing Else Such is Job.

Despite his opposition to Enlightenment principles, Blake thus arrived at a linear aesthetic that was in many ways more similar to the Neoclassical engravings of John Flaxman than to the works of the Romantics, with whom he is often classified.

Therefore Blake has also been viewed as an enlightenment poet and artist, in the sense that he was in accord with that movement’s rejection of received ideas, systems, authorities and traditions. On the other hand, he was critical of what he perceived as the elevation of reason to the status of an oppressive authority. In his criticism of reason, law and uniformity Blake has been taken to be opposed to the enlightenment, but it has also been argued that, in a dialectical sense, he used the enlightenment spirit of rejection of external authority to criticize narrow conceptions of the enlightenment.


Creative mindset

Northrop Frye, commenting on Blake’s consistency in strongly held views, notes that Blake “himself says that his notes on [Joshua] Reynolds, written at fifty, are ‘exactly Similar’ to those on Locke and Bacon, written when he was ‘very Young’. Even phrases and lines of verse will reappear as much as forty years later. Consistency in maintaining what he believed to be true was itself one of his leading principles … Consistency, then, foolish or otherwise, is one of Blake’s chief preoccupations, just as ‘self-contradiction’ is always one of his most contemptuous comments”.

Blake’s “A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows”, an illustration to J. G. Stedman’s Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796).

Blake abhorred slavery and believed in racial and sexual equality. Several of his poems and paintings express a notion of universal humanity: “As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various)”. In one poem, narrated by a black child, white and black bodies alike are described as shaded groves or clouds, which exist only until one learns “to bear the beams of love”:

When I from black, and he from white cloud free,

And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,

I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear

To lean in joy upon our Father’s knee;

And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,

And be like him, and he will then love me.

In one poem, The Book of Thel, Blake questioned the necessity of life which is believed to be an elegy to his dead newborn daughter.

‘O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?

Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?

Blake retained an active interest in social and political events for all his life, and social and political statements are often present in his mystical symbolism. His views on what he saw as oppression and restriction of rightful freedom extended to the Church. His spiritual beliefs are evidenced in Songs of Experience (1794), in which he distinguishes between the Old Testament God, whose restrictions he rejected, and the New Testament God (Jesus Christ in Trinitarianism), whom he saw as a positive influence.


From a young age, William Blake claimed to have seen visions. The first of these visions may have occurred as early as the age of four when, according to one anecdote, the young artist “saw God” when God “put his head to the window”, causing Blake to break into screaming. At the age of eight or ten in Peckham Rye, London, Blake claimed to have seen “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” According to Blake’s Victorian biographer Gilchrist, he returned home and reported this vision, and he only escaped being thrashed by his father for telling a lie through the intervention of his mother. Though all evidence suggests that his parents were largely supportive, his mother seems to have been especially so, and several of Blake’s early drawings and poems decorated the walls of her chamber. On another occasion, Blake watched haymakers at work, and thought he saw angelic figures walking among them.

The Ghost of a Flea, 1819-1820. Having informed painter-astrologer John Varley of his visions of apparitions, Blake was subsequently persuaded to paint one of them. Varley’s anecdote of Blake and his vision of the flea’s ghost became well-known.

Blake claimed to experience visions throughout his life. They were often associated with beautiful religious themes and imagery, and therefore may have inspired him further with spiritual works and pursuits. Certainly, religious concepts and imagery figure centrally in Blake’s works. God and Christianity constituted the intellectual centre of his writings, from which he drew inspiration. In addition, Blake believed that he was personally instructed and encouraged by Archangels to create his artistic works, which he claimed were actively read and enjoyed by those same Archangels. In a letter to William Hayley, dated May 6, 1800, Blake writes:

I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.

In a letter to John Flaxman, dated September 21, 1800, Blake writes:

[The town of] Felpham is a sweet place for Study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen; & my Cottage is also a Shadow of their houses. My Wife & Sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace… I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels.

In a letter to Thomas Butts, dated April 25, 1803, Blake writes:

Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv’d & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends.

In A Vision of the Last Judgement Blake writes:

Error is Created. Truth is Eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it. I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. “What,” it will be Question’d, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” Oh no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.’ I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning Sight. I look thro’ it & not with it.

William Wordsworth remarked, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”

D.C.Williams (1899-1983) said that Blake was a romantic with a critical view on the world, he maintained that Blake’s Songs of Innocence were made as a view of an ideal, somewhat Utopian view whereas he used the Songs of Experience in order to show the suffering and loss posed by the nature of society and the world of his time.

General cultural influence

Main article: William Blake in popular culture

Blake’s work was neglected for almost a century after his death, but his reputation gained momentum in the 20th century, both from being rehabilitated by critics such as John Middleton Murry and Northrop Frye, but also due to an increasing number of classical composers such as Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams adapting his works.

Many such as June Singer have argued that Blake’s thoughts on human nature greatly anticipate and parallel the thinking of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, although Jung dismissed Blake’s works as “an artistic production rather than an authentic representation of unconscious processes.”

Blake had an enormous influence on the beat poets of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s, frequently being cited by such seminal figures as beat poet Allen Ginsberg and songwriter Bob Dylan. Much of the central ideas from Phillip Pullman’s famous fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials are rooted in the world of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

In wider culture Blake’s poetry has been set to music by popular composers. It has been especially popular with musicians since the 1960s. Blake’s engravings have also had significant influence on the modern graphic novel.


Illuminated books

William Blake’s portrait in profile, from Songs of Innocence and Experience, published 1794

c.1788: All Religions Are One

There Is No Natural Religion

1789: Songs of Innocence and of Experience

The Book of Thel

17901793: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

1793-1795: Continental prophecies

1793: Visions of the Daughters of Albion

America a Prophecy

1794: Europe a Prophecy

The First Book of Urizen

Songs of Experience

1795: The Book of Los

The Song of Los

The Book of Ahania

c.1804.1811: Milton a Poem

18041820: Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion


1783: Poetical Sketches

1784-5: An Island in the Moon

1789: Tiriel

1791: The French Revolution

1797: The Four Zoas

Illustrated by Blake

1791: Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life

1797: Edward Young, Night Thoughts

1805-1808: Robert Blair, The Grave

1808: John Milton, Paradise Lost

1819-1820: John Varley, Visionary Heads

1821: R.J. Thornton, Virgil

1823-1826: The Book of Job

1825-1827: Dante, The Divine Comedy (Blake died in 1827 with these watercolours still unfinished)

On Blake

Peter Ackroyd (1995). Blake. Sinclair-Stevenson. ISBN 1-85619-278-4.

Donald Ault (1974). Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton. University of Chicago. ISBN 0-226-03225-6.

(1987). Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning William Blake’s The Four Zoas. Station Hill Press. ISBN 1886449759.

G.E. Bentley Jr. (2001). The Stranger From Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-08939-2.

Harold Bloom (1963). Blake Apocalypse. Doubleday.

Jacob Bronowski (1972). William Blake and the Age of Revolution. Routledge and K. Paul. ISBN 0-7100-7277-5 (hardcover) ISBN 0-7100-7278-3 (pbk.)

(1967). William Blake, 1757-1827; a man without a mask. Haskell House Publishers.

G. K. Chesterton (1920s). William Blake. House of Stratus ISBN 0-7551-0032-8.

S. Foster Damon (1979). A Blake Dictionary. Shambhala. ISBN 0-394-73688-5.

David V. Erdman (1977). Blake: Prophet Against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-486-26719-9.

Irving Fiske (1951). “Bernard Shaw’s Debt to William Blake.” (Shaw Society)

Northrop Frye (1947). Fearful Symmetry. Princeton Univ Press. ISBN 0-691-06165-3.

Alexander Gilchrist, Life and Works of William Blake, (second edition, London, 1880) (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 9781108013697)

James King (1991). William Blake: His Life. St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-07572-3.

Benjamin Heath Malkin (1806). A Father’s Memoirs of his Child.

Peter Marshall (1988). William Blake: Visionary Anarchist ISBN 0-900384-77-8

Blake, William, William Blake’s Works in Conventional Typography, ed. by G. E. Bentley, Jr., 1984. Facsimile ed., Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, ISBN 9780820113883.

W.J.T. Mitchell (1978). Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-691-01402-7.

Victor N. Paananen (1996). William Blake. Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7053-4.

George Anthony Rosso Jr. (1993). Blake’s Prophetic Workshop: A Study of The Four Zoas. Associated University Presses. ISBN 0-8387-5240-3.

G. R. Sabri-Tabrizi (1973). The eaven and ell of William Blake, (New York, International Publishers)

June Singer, The Unholy Bible: Blake, Jung, and the Collective Unconscious (SIGO Press, 1986)

Sheila A. Spector (2001). “Wonders Divine”: the development of Blake’s Kabbalistic myth, (Bucknell UP)

Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Blake: A Critical Essay, (London, 1868)

E.P. Thompson (1993). Witness Against the Beast. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22515-9.

W. M. Rossetti (editor), The Poetical Works of William Blake, (London, 1874)

A. G. B. Russell (1912). Engravings of William Blake.

Basil de Slincourt, William Blake, (London, 1909)

Joseph Viscomi (1993). Blake and the Idea of the Book, (Princeton UP). ISBN 0-691-06962-X.

David Weir (2003). Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental Renaissance, (SUNY Press)

Jason Whittaker (1999). William Blake and the Myths of Britain, (Macmillan)

William Butler Yeats (1903). Ideas of Good and Evil. Contains essays.


^ Frye, Northrop and Denham, Robert D. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. 2006, pp 11-12.

^ Jones, Jonathan (2005-04-25). “Blake’s heaven”. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/critic/feature/0,1169,1469584,00.html. 

^ Thomas, Edward. A Literary Pilgrim in England. 1917, p. 3.

^ Yeats, W. B. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. 2007, p. 85.

^ Wilson, Mona. The Life of William Blake. The Nonesuch Press, 1927. p.167.

^ The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge. 2004, p. 351.

^ Blake, William. Blake’s “America, a Prophecy” ; And, “Europe, a Prophecy”. 1984, p. 2.

^ Kazin, Alfred (1997). “An Introduction to William Blake”. http://www.multimedialibrary.com/Articles/kazin/alfredblake.asp. Retrieved 2006-09-23. 

^ Blake, William and Rossetti, William Michael. The Poetical Works of William Blake: Lyrical and Miscellaneous. 1890, p. xi.

^ Blake, William and Rossetti, William Michael. The Poetical Works of William Blake: Lyrical and Miscellaneous. 1890, p. xiii.

^ Marshall, Peter (January 1, 1994). William Blake: Visionary Anarchist (Revised Edition ed.). Freedom Press. ISBN 0900384778. 

^ poets.org/William Blake, retrieved online June 13, 2008

^ a b c Bentley, Gerald Eades and Bentley Jr., G. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. 1995, page 34-5.

^ a b Raine, Kathleen (1970). World of Art: William Blake. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20107-2. 

^ 43, Blake, Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995

^ Blake, William. The Poems of William Blake. 1893, page xix.

^ 44, Blake, Ackroyd

^ Blake, William and Tatham, Frederick. The Letters of William Blake: Together with a Life. 1906, page 7.

^ Erdman, David V. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (2nd edition ed.). p. 641. ISBN 0-385-15213-2. 

^ Gilchrist, A, The Life of William Blake, London, 1842, p. 30

^ Erdman, David, Prophet Against Empire, p. 9

^ McGann, J. “Did Blake Betray the French Revolution”, Presenting Poetry: Composition, Publication, Reception, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.128

^ “St. Mary’s Church Parish website”. http://home.clara.net/pkennington/VirtualTour/windows_modern.htm#Blake. “St Mary’s Modern Stained Glass” 

^ Reproduction of 1783 edition: Tate Publishing, London, ISBN 978 185437 768 5

^ Biographies of William Blake and Henry Fuseli, retrieved on May 31st 2007.

^ Kennedy, Mave, Art historian dents image of William Blake, engraver – 2005-4-18. Retrieved 2009-7-6.

^ Bentley, G. E, Blake Records, p 341

^ Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, 1863, p. 316

^ Schuchard, MK, Why Mrs Blake Cried, Century, 2006, p. 3

^ Ackroyd, Peter, Blake, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995, p. 82

^ Damon, Samuel Foster (1988). A Blake Dictionary

^ a b Blake, William. Milton a Poem, and the Final Illuminated Works. 1998, page 14-5.

^ Wright, Thomas. Life of William Blake. 2003, page 131.

^ The Gothic Life of William Blake: 1757-1827

^ Lucas, E.V. (1904). Highways and byways in Sussex. Macmillan. ASIN B-0008-5GBS-C. 

^ Peterfreund, Stuart, The Din of the City in Blake’s Prophetic Books, ELH – Volume 64, Number 1, Spring 1997, pp. 99-130

^ Blunt, Anthony, The Art of William Blake, p 77

^ Peter Ackroyd, “Genius spurned: Blake’s doomed exhibition is back”, The Times Saturday Review, 4 April 2009

^ Bindman, David. “Blake as a Painter” in The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, Morris Eaves (ed.), Cambridge, 2003, p. 106

^ Blake Records, p. 341

^ Ackroyd, Blake, 389

^ Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake, London, 1863, 405

^ Grigson, Samuel Palmer, p. 38

^ Ackroyd, Blake, 390

^ Blake Records, p. 410

^ Ackroyd, Blake, p. 391

^ Marsha Keith Schuchard, Why Mrs Blake Cried: Swedenborg, Blake and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision, pp. 1-20

^ “Friends of Blake homepage”. Friends of Blake. http://www.friendsofblake.org/home.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-31. 

^ “Coming up – William Blake”. BBC Inside Out. 2007-02-09. http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/london/series11/week5_healthy_living_working.shtml. Retrieved 2008-08-01. 

^ Tate UK. “William Blake’s London”. http://www.tate.org.uk/learning/learnonline/blakeinteractive/lambeth/london_05.html. Retrieved 2006-08-26. 

^ The Unholy Bible, June Singer, p. 229.

^ William Blake, Murry, p. 168.

^ “a personal mythology parallel to the Old Testament and Greek mythology”; Bonnefoy, Yves. Roman and European Mythologies. 1992, page 265.

^ Damon, Samuel Foster (1988). A Blake Dictionary (Revised Edition). Brown University Press. p. 358. ISBN 0874514363. 

^ Makdisi, Saree. William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s. 2003, page 226-7.

^ Altizer, Thomas J.J. The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake. 2000, page 18.

^ Blake, William. Proverbs of Hell, via The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. 1982, page 35.

^ Blake, Gerald Eades Bentley (1975). William Blake: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & K. Paul. p. 30. ISBN 0710082347. 

^ Baker-Smith, Dominic. Between Dream and Nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia. 1987, page 163.

^ Kaiser, Christopher B. Creational Theology and the History of Physical Science. 1997, page 328.

^ Jerusalem Plate 15, lines 14-20 Complete Works of William Blake Online

^ *Ackroyd, Peter (1995). Blake. London: Sinclair-Stevenson. p. 285. ISBN 1-85619-278-4. 

^ Essick, Robert N. (1980). William Blake, Printmaker. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 248. 

^ Letter to George Cumberland, 12 April 1827 Complete Works of William Blake Online Blake is referring to his Illustrations of the Book of Job, often considered his artistic masterpiece.

^ Colebrook, C. Blake 1: The Enlightenment William Blake Retrieved on October 1st 2008

^ Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, 1947, Princeton University Press

^ Blake, William and Rossetti, William Michael. The Poetical Works of William Blake: Lyrical and Miscellaneous. 1890, page 81-2.

^ A Blake Dictionary, Samuel Foster Damon

^ a b c Bentley, Gerald Eades and Bentley Jr., G. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. 1995, page 36-7.

^ a b Langridge, Irene. William Blake: A Study of His Life and Art Work. 1904, page 48-9.

^ Blake, William. Complete Writings with Variant Readings. 1969, page 617.

^ John Ezard (2004-07-06). “Blake’s vision on show”. The Guardian. http://arts.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1254856,00.html#article_continue. Retrieved 2008-03-24. 

^ Letter to Nanavutty, 11 Nov 1948, quoted by Hiles, David. Jung, William Blake and our answer to Job 2001. http://www.psy.dmu.ac.uk/drhiles/pdf’s/Microsoft Word – Jung paper.web.pdf, retrieved 13 December 2009

Secondary sources

External links

Poems by William Blake at Poetry Archive

William Blake on BBC Poetry Season

Works by or about William Blake in libraries (WorldCat catalog)

Works by William Blake at Project Gutenberg

An Archive of an Exhibit of his Work at the National Gallery of Victoria

Ch’an Buddhism and the Prophetic Poems of William Blake

Contents, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake edited by David V. Erdman

See Blake’s notebook online using the British Library’s Turning the Pages system (requires Shockwave).

Tate’s online resource on William Blake with notes for teachers

The recent re-discovery of the location of William Blake’s grave

www.William-Blake.org 128 works by William Blake

The William Blake Archive, a hypermedia archive sponsored by the Library of Congress and supported by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The William Blake Archive’s searchable edition of Erdman’s The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake

William Blake and Visual Culture: A special issue of the journal ImageText

William Blake Collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin

Free scores by William Blake in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)

Index entry for William Blake at Poet’s Corner

Archive of William Blake exhibit, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

v  d  e



Bohemianism  Ossian  Romantic nationalism  Wallenrodism


Almeida Garrett  Andersen  Blake  Bryant  Burns  Byron  Chateaubriand  Coleridge  Cooper  Eichendorff  Espronceda  Foscolo  Goethe  Grimm Brothers  Hawthorne  Heine  Hoffmann  Hlderlin  Hugo  Irving  Jean Paul  Keats  Kleist  Krasiski  Lamartine  Larra  Leopardi  Lermontov  Malczewski  Manzoni  Mickiewicz  Musset  Nerval  Norwid  Novalis  Oehlenschlger  Poe  Pushkin  Schiller  Scott  M. Shelley  P.B. Shelley  Shevchenko  Sowacki  Madame de Stal  Stendhal  Tieck  Wordsworth  Zhukovsky  Zorilla


Alkan  Auber  Beethoven  Bellini  Berlioz  Berwald  Chopin  Flicien David  Ferdinand David  Donizetti  Field  Franck  Glinka  Halvy  Kalkbrenner  Liszt  Loewe  Marschner  Mhul  Mendelssohn  Meyerbeer  Moscheles  Paganini  Rossini  Schubert  Schumann  Thalberg  Verdi  Wagner  Weber

Philosophy and aesthetics

Coleridge  Feuerbach  Fichte  Goethe  Mller  Schiller  A. Schlegel  F. Schlegel  Schleiermacher  Tieck  Wackenroder


Blake  Briullov  Constable  Corot  Dahl  Delacroix  Dsseldorf School  Friedrich  Fuseli  Gricault  Goya  Hudson River School  Leutze  Martin  Michaowski   Nazarene movement  Palmer  Runge  Turner  Ward  Wiertz


Gothic Revival  National Romantic style

  Age of Enlightenment


v  d  e

William Blake


Literary works

Early writings

Poetical Sketches   An Island in the Moon

Songs of Innocence

and Experience

Unique to

Songs of Innocence

Introduction   The Shepherd   The Ecchoing Green   The Little Black Boy   The Blossom  Laughing Song   A Cradle Song   Night   Spring  A Dream   On Anothers Sorrow

Unique to

Songs of Experience

Introduction   Earth’s Answer   The Clod and the Pebble   The Sick Rose   The Fly   The Angel   My Pretty Rose Tree   Ah! Sun-Flower   The Lilly   The Garden of Love   The Little Vagabond   London   A Poison Tree   A Little Girl Lost   To Tirzah   The School Boy   The Voice of the Ancient Bard

Paired poems

Nurse’s Song   Infant Joy   The Lamb  Holy Thursday   Holy Thursday   The Chimney Sweeper   The Little Boy lost   The Little Boy Found   The Divine Image  The Little Girl Lost   The Little Girl Found  The Tyger   The Human Abstract   Infant Sorrow



The continental


Europe a Prophecy   America a Prophecy   The Song of Los


The Marriage of Heaven and Hell  The Book of Thel  The Book of Ahania  The Book of Urizen  Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion  Milton a Poem   The Book of Los   The Four Zoas   Visions of the Daughters of Albion   The French Revolution

The Pickering


Auguries of Innocence   The Mental Traveler   The Crystal Cabinet



Ahania   Albion   Bromion  Enion   Enitharmon  Fuzon  Grodna   Har  Hela  Leutha   Los  Luvah   Orc   Spectre  Tharmas  Thiriel  Tiriel   Urizen  Urthona  Utha  Vala



Paintings and prints

Relief etching  Nebuchadnezzar  Descriptive Catalogue  The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne  The Ghost of a Flea  The Great Red Dragon Paintings  Illustrations of Paradise Lost   Illustrations of the Book of Job  Illustrations of The Divine Comedy   The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides   Illustrations of On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity   A Vision of the Last Judgment   Newton   Original Stories from Real Life   The Ancient of Days

The Ancients

Samuel Palmer  Edward Calvert  Frederick Tatham  George Richmond  John Linnell


Criticism and scholarship

Scholars and critics

Peter Ackroyd  Donald Ault  Harold Bloom  S. Foster Damon  David V. Erdman  Northrop Frye  Alexander Gilchrist  Geoffrey Keynes  E. P. Thompson

Scholarly works

Life of William Blake  Fearful Symmetry  Blake: Prophet Against Empire  Witness Against the Beast



 Blake at Wiktionary    Blake at Wikibooks    Blake at Wikiquote    Blake at Wikisource    Blake at Commons    Blake at Wikinews



Blake, William



Poet, Painter, Printmaker


28 November 1757


London, England


12 August 1827


London, England

Categories: William Blake | 1757 births | 1827 deaths | Artist authors | British vegetarians | English anarchists | English painters | English poets | English printmakers | English Swedenborgians | Christian mystics | Mythopoeic writers | People from Soho | Prophets | Romantic artists | Romantic poets | Writers who illustrated their own writing | English DissentersHidden categories: Wikipedia semi-protected pages | Wikipedia articles incorporating text from A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature
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