Blakes father, James, was a successful London hosier and a Dissenter attracted by the doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg; nevertheless his son William was baptized at St Jamess Church in Piccadilly. Blake never went to school but was educated at home, chiefly by his mother. He read widely in Shakespeare, Milton, Ben Jonson and the Bible, and somehow picked up a knowledge of French, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. This learning, randomly acquired and independently held, underlay his later writing.
At the age of 14 Blake was apprenticed to James Basire, an engraver specializing in antiquarian and topographical work. Basire sent his pupil to make drawings of Westminster Abbey and other old churches, thus exposing him to the influence of Gothic art. At this time also Blakes fascination with the nude began, through a study of Henry Fuselis Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks. He stayed with Basire until he was 21, but aimed higher than being a journeyman engraver; he was accepted at the recently founded Royal Academy at Somerset House, though he would soon become restless with its traditional approach.
In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, and the Blakes had their first home in Leicester Fields, London. Among their neighbours were Jane Hogarth, widow of the artist, the pioneer surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter whose Discourses on Art epitomized the neo-classicism Blake rejected.
In 1783 two of Blakes friends, the artist John Flaxman and a bluestocking named Mrs Mathew, decided to print a collection of his poems. Poetical Sketches contained such poems as ‘To the Muses’ and ‘My Silks and Fine Array’. In 1789 he published Songs of Innocence, the gentlest of all his volumes of lyrics, and The Book of Thel, which illustrates his early mysticism and use of emblems. Tiriel, written in 1788-9, is the first of his elaborately symbolic writings. Blake added Songs of Experience to an edition of Songs of Innocence in 1794; the full title of the volume was Songs of Innocence and of ExperienceShewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. The poems set the world of pastoral innocence and childhood against the world of adult corruption and repression; they contrast the meek virtue of ‘The Lamb’ with the darker forces of energy in ‘The Tyger’.
Blake's dislike of human authority and his radical sympathies found natural expression in friendships with William Godwin and Thomas Paine, and increasingly in his writing. He published two sets of prose aphorisms under the title There is No Natural Religion, and a third called All Religions are One (all c. 1788), as well as The French Revolution: A Poem in Seven Books (c. 1791), only one book of which survived. 1790 was the year in which he engraved The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his principal prose work.
The Blakes moved south of the Thames to Lambeth in 1793, the period when he began to work on his ‘prophetic books’. In his new home Blake executed some of his most famous engravings, including those for The Book of Job and for Edward Young's Night Thoughts, though his early admiration for the graveyard poets waned and he came to regard their work as insipid. He wrote The Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), introducing the figures of his personal mythology: Urizen, the grim symbol of restrictive morality, and Orc, the arch-rebel. Urizen appears with all his depressing characteristics in America: A Prophecy (1793).
The ideas of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and the personified symbols encountered in The Visions of the Daughters of Albion are developed in Europe and The Book of Urizen (1794), The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los and The Song of Los (1795), in which Blake pursued his exposure of the errors of the moral code. Urizen has been expelled from the abode of the immortals and has taken possession of man; his agent, or archangel, is Enitharmon. Los is apparently the champion of light and the lord of time, but is held in bondage. Orc is the symbol of anarchy, opposed to Urizen. The whole sequence is an inversion of Milton's Paradise Lost, which Blake denounced for trying to justify the evil committed by God. His criticism of Christianity is strongest in Europe and The Song of Los. Vala was probably begun in 1795; its rewritten version, The Four Zoas: The Torments of Love and Jealousy in the Death and Judgement of Albion the Ancient Man, appeared in 1797. The four Zoas of the title-Urizen (reason), Urthonah (spirit), Luvah (passion) and Tharmas (body)- are traced in a great cloud of symbols. Urizen and Orc oppose each other: the oppressive moral code is condemned; Orc and liberty triumph, and the figure of Jesus as Redeemer is introduced.
In 1800 Blake was taken up by the wealthy William Hayley, a bad poet but a patron of good ones, and the Blakes went to live in Hayleys house at Felpham in Sussex. They stayed three years but the association was not a success, and Blakes time at Felpham was soured by his arrest on trumped-up charges of sedition; they returned again to London in 1803. Blake remained there for the rest of his life. At Felpham he had worked on Milton: A Poem in Two Books, To Justify the Ways of God to Men; it was finished and engraved between 1803 and 1808. The most famous part of this poem, when Milton returns to earth and in the person of the living poet corrects the spiritual error glorified in Paradise Lost, appears at the conclusion of the preface in the lines beginning ‘And did those feet in ancient time’. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, written between 1804 and 1820, is a complex account of Albion (Man), continually torn between the forces of imagination and the forces of natural religion. The Ghost of Abel (1822) came the year after Byron's Cain and challenges the younger poets views in a minute poetic drama of 70 lines. The shadow of Cain is seen as Satans work, not Jehovahs, and the atonement is made on Calvary.
Other notable poems by Blake are difficult to place in the chronology of his career. Auguries of Innocence probably dates from 1802, for example, and The Everlasting Gospel perhaps from 1810. Some works were unknown until his papers were examined after his death, while many were not issued in the conventional way. Defying the usual methods of publication, Blake became a one-man industry, designing, engraving and producing his own works like the medieval craftsmen who so intrigued him. Now famous, his engraved books then did not reach more than a small circle of readers. To fellow writers he remained an eccentric and a curiosity, known more through rumour and report than directly through his writings.
The years after Blakes return to London were trying, if only because he never shook off the poverty which had accompanied him through life. The publisher Robert Hartley Cromek cheated him over the commission of ‘The Canterbury Pilgrims’; an exhibition of his work in 1809 was a commercial fiasco, though the Descriptive Catalogue is a prized addition to his output. But in spite of these discouragements, he remained tenaciously independent. At his death he left no debts, though he was buried in an unmarked grave at the public cemetery of Bunhill Fields.
One of the most difficult artists to assess, Blake was a mixture of extremes in both thought and work, by turns profound and naive. Though the mythology he evolved was highly complex, its allusive sources only now being unravelled by scholars, it was never meant to be private and impenetrable, and the image of Blake as a totally isolated figure is no longer acceptable. His vision of the contradictory forces beneath the appearance of human civilization mirrors the intense political turmoil of Europe (and the New World) during his lifetime. His interest in legend and antiquity was revived with the Romantics' rediscovery of the past, especially the Gothic and the medieval. His insistence on the need to remake those legends in the poet's own terms, and the need to find a new language for expressing them, has pointed the way to the poetry of later generations. But it was left to later generations to recognize his importance.
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