Chandrashekhar R. Raut is passionate lover of literature. He likes to explore the lives and art of great literary figures.
William Blake, a great visionary poet and artist of the eighteenth century, had been veiled in mystery for more than a century. He was much ahead of his time, hence his contemporaries failed to understand him. Blake being obscure and difficult to comprehend was supposed an insane. Recent in-depth studies of Blake by eminent scholars have revealed his true genius. While alive Blake was ignored, but now his popularity has skyrocketed. His works are more relevant today than were ever before, proving him to be a visionary. It is impossible to reach at the kernel of Blake’s life and work without a serious study. This piece of writing is but a brief outline of the mastermind.
William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 in Broad Street, Golden Square, London. His father, James Blake was a hosier. He married with Catherine Hermitage on 15th of October 1752, at St. George’s, Hanover Square church. William was the third child. The first, James died in infancy. The second son was John who succeeded his father in the business and was favorite of the parents. However, he died young as an effect of dissipation. After William was born another John. His sister, Catherine Elizabeth, was much supportive to William in the family matters. Blake’s favorite brother, Robert was the youngest of the Blake children. He shared visions of angels like William and was one who really understood Blake. Robert died early at the age of nineteen in 1787. Even after his death he came in William’s dreams and suggested him method of illuminating painting.
Blake had inherently possessed a vivid imaginative faculty. He seems to materialize his imagination as he saw visions throughout his life. As early as at the age of four he told his mother that he had seen the prophet Ezekiel sitting under a tree. Later on, when he was seven years old he described his family members how he saw a tree full of angels,
“bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars”.
William was an unmanageable child. He was extremely emotional boy. He had a strong sense of self-esteem. He possessed his own opinions and was of questioning nature. He was a rebellious person since his early childhood and hated any kind of regulations. Understanding the unique temperament of the child James Blaken neversent him to the conventional school of rigorous and tedious type for it:
“….. drive all joy away;
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day,
In sighing and dismay,”
Willian received basic knowledge of reading and writing from his mother at home. In 1768, he was sent to Pars’ Drawing school in the Strand. It proved the wise move on the behalf of the father for it resulted in enhancement of Blake’s inborn creative talents. For that Blake expressed his gratitude:
“Thanks heaven I never was sent to school,
To be flogged into following the style of a fool.”
Principal works of Blake
Training of the Genius
Blake would have continued his pursuit of drawing had, the painter to whom he had applied not demanded a huge sum. Blake thought it would be unfair to his brothers and sister hence he disposed the plan. So as an alternative his father thought of apprenticing him with William Ryland, a highly respected engraver of the time. However, Blake refused to that proposal. Finally, William Blake was apprenticed to James Basire in 1771 at 31 Great Queen Street. For first two years he worked with the master and next some years in Westminster Abbey making careful drawings for the Society of Antiquities. The long period he spent here benefited him immensely. It trained him for solitary independence a basic requirement for a master artist. It shifted his interest from Greek form to Gothic form. He remarked later, “Greek is permanent in the mathematical memory,” while “Gothic is a living form.”
This was the only formal education that Blake received. He neither studied the classics and Latin grammar nor went through the course in conventional English versification. Consequently, no conventional standards were forced upon his mind. As a result, he never read any prescribed syllabus but tasted books of his own choice. He read Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser and acquainted himself with the contemporary poets. He dismissed the works of his predecessors on the charge that, “they mock inspiration.” For Blake inspiration and vision were his eternal dwelling place. This unusual education of Blake fostered his inclination for testing everything – social injustices, civil authority, religion, morality, rights of man, etc. He judged these subjects not against an intellectual yardstick but in the light of his imagination. He responded to the issues in the light of his imagination rather than his reason. So, he did not become a poet with a message, instead a poet with a vision. His cry was not to reform but to recreate!
Blake's Defination of Poetry
Allegory addressed to the intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the corporeal understanding, is My Defination of the most sublime poetry.
Blake was born when the sun of the old age was setting and the first rays of the upcoming age were arising at the horizon. It was the transition age. The entire landscape of British society was witnessing rapid radical changes. Stagnation in political, religious, literary and other fields had reached at its peak. The age-old village cottage industry was losing its ground. The center of trade was shifting to city-based industry. Woolen trade was replaced by industry made cotton staple. It resulted in silk weavers losing their livelihood along with the small merchants, trader and their skilled labors. Huge number of rural populations was migrating to industrial towns in search of jobs to find themselves in starvation and deprivation. Newly emerged industrialist class was hoarding enormous wealth at the cost of exploitation of large poor population. The government, the Church and the industrialists were in coalition to safeguard their crooked interests. In name of philanthropy workhouses were erected were the poor were kept in inhuman conditions. The poor children were put to hard work. The young boys were sent to sea or apprenticed. While the young girls were put to the church services. Workhouses were looked at by the authorities as a source of constant supply of workforce needed in factories. Poverty, high prices, huge taxation, dearth, rising crimes had reached at its top. All these culminated in riots which had become an integral part of life. In1769, Benjamin Franklin had seen within a year riots in this country – “about corn; riots about elections; riots about workhouses; riots of collies; riots of sawyers; riots of sailors;” and so on.
George third who ascended to the throne in 1760 mismanaged the situation. His ministers were inefficient and corrupt. They pushed forward the authoritarian agenda. They tried to suppress the will of American colonies. It resulted in the American War of Independence – 1775 to 1783. Ultimately the American colonies broke the shackles of the British imperial and commercial oppression and declared themselves independent. Among English people were large number of American supporters.
Similar situation was prevailing in neighboring France. There it culminated into the French Revolution of 1789. It gave the world new ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality. It proved to be a fuel in the already burning fire of unrest in the British society.
Eighteen Century London
His poetical works
Such was the chaos around when Blake was growing up. He himself felt the flames of the changes. No surprise that he was a sympathizer of the revolutionaries. He had many insurgents around him as friends. He was a Republican all his life. In 1780, Blake was among the rioters who burnt Newgate Gaol and released the prisoners. Soon, He went on a diplomatic tour to Battersea, a pleasantly situated village. Here, he married to Catherine Boucher on 18 August 1782.
Poetical Sketches was his first book which was printed but never published. It was produced in 1783, one year after his marriage. In the preface, A. S. Mathew remarked that it is “the production of untutored youth…. irregularities and defects to be found in almost every page.” Most of it is conventional and reflects the ordinariness of a beginner. It reflects his unique and revolutionary way of thinking. Even at this early stage Blake had laid the first step towards breaking the shackles of language by “cleansing the perception.”
Blake’s minor works, King Edward Third – Blake’s opposition to political set up and other, An Island in the Moon, is his ridicule at the absurdities and hypocrisies of the learned, artistic, scientific set up of the day.
In 1789, Blake’s first major work appeared- Songs of Innocence. It was his first poetical work being published by his process of “Illuminated printing.” In 1789, Blake issued the combined volume Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of Human Soul. Blake completed the Songs of Innocence is the childish spirit of hope stirred by the French revolution. The Songs of Experience was in contrary to the Innocence songs which was finished in a mood of frustration prompted by social bitterness. The contrast was not to social but to spiritual innocence. The happy world of the Songs of Innocence had been a state of mind. The unhappy world of the Songs of Experience is the contrary state of mind, which is thrust upon the mind. It is the state of mind of the hypocrite. In the first Blake used the symbol of child, in the later that of mazy and manifold hypocrite- the father.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, dated 5 June 1793, consists largely prose and only a bit of poetry. It includes the aphorism and the prose account of visionary experiences called – “memorable fancies.” It is an ironic prophecy and a call to question the established values.
America, A Prophecy, appeared in 1793 is an account of the American revolution. With his genius Blake successfully extends the strife into a conflict of prophetic range. Thus, he demonstrates that any step taken in behalf of freedom is a step towards the perfect liberty. Similarly, Europe, a Prophecy is a symbolic account of the spreading spirit of revolt across the Europe and partial completion of it in the form of the French revolution. Then Blake make a prophecy that England will follow, with an end to all oppression through universal resurgence.
Visions of the Daughter of Albion, a work of year 1793, is Blake’s vigorous support to the cause of woman’s liberation. Blake observes that the root cause of repression of the British women is the jealousy. The repression is at once spiritual, moral, economic, social and sexual.
The Book of Urizon also belongs to the same period. It is probably the most successful attempt of turning the epic into a psychologically oriented form that deals with growth or change in perception. The work deals with the problem of limits we place on our perception. The poem tells the story of creation. The setting is eternity. Urizon – the protagonist acts like God by creating chaos. He disturbs the solitude by losing his mental health and in this process creates the physical world where –
“No more could they rise at will
In the infinity void, but bound down
To earth by their narrowing perceptions”
On, The Four Zoas Blake worked from 1797 to 1807. It is a long narrative poem on a colossal scale comparable to an epic. The subject of the poem is the disintegration and restoration to unity of the faculties that make up the human psychology. The epic poem remained unpublished and in manuscript.
Blake’s works belonging to the last phase are Milton and Jerusalem. Milton, in 1810, is Blake’s contention against the great epic poet for depicting Jesus a rational and bloodless. Blake’s claim is that if men were to be restored to Eternity, emotions and inspiration must be returned to their right places. Here, he calls the church to return to prophecy and inspiration. In 1820, Blake was engaged with Jerusalem, a recount of the passage of the human consciousness from what we call life- Eternal death for Blake – to authentic life in Eternity. Blake wrote it on the inspiration from Jesus.
Restoration to Eternity
Blake never ceased working despite neglect and failures. He was working on Dante’s Divine Comedy until his last day as he had prophesied:
“I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land”
On 12 August 1827 he sang in ecstasy very loudly and suddenly in silence slipped into his Jerusalem – the Eternity from where he had descended.
Returning to Eternity
“Now Art has lost its mental charms
France shall subdue the world in Arts”
So spoke an Angel at my birth,
Then said, “Descent thou upon Earth.”
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Chandrasekhar Rajendra Raut
Chandrasekhar Rajendra Raut (author) from Nagpur on October 13, 2020:
Thanks you very much to appreciate my humble attempt! Thanks..!
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 13, 2020:
This was interesting and an enjoyable read. I didn't know much about William Blake before, though I had heard the poem "Tyger! Tyger!" He certainly was a wonderful poet and artist.
Janhvi Raut on October 05, 2020:
Good so interesting