William Blake: Artist and Poet


William Blake (November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827) may just be my single favorite British poet so I will need to offer fair warning as to the possibility of some bias. Blake has long been accepted as one of the “great six” of British Romanticism (Blake, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge) and one of the greatest poets ever to have written in the English language. His achievements in the visual arts have gained him near equal acclaim. Nevertheless, Blake has also been one of the most misunderstood and maligned of any major poet. He is often portrayed as a half-mad genius, a wacked-out visionary who spoke to spirits, a political naif, a curmudgeon and “outsider”, a self-taught artist and poet who had little knowledge or experience of the art of his predecessors or of his own time. Most of these stereotypes have little reality to them.

Blake may not have had the advantage of a formal education in literature at the university level… nevertheless, he was most certainly not unlearned. The reality is that Blake was very well-read and often of literature which was not part of the accepted canon of his time. Of course Blake was well-versed in the works of Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Spencer, and the Bible… but other sources of inspiration include Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, with whom he was friends and a political ally, Emanuel Swedenborg, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Plato, Plotinus, the Hermetica and the Bhagavad Gita, mythologies of the world from Egypt to Iceland to India to ancient Britain and even the Kabbalah. Not only was Blake well-read, but he was also an insightful reader who developed interpretations that freely challenged the accepted ones.

Blake developed an early love of drawing by copying engravings of masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Albrecht Dürer. In this he was was fully supported by his father. Unable to afford apprenticeship to a painting master, Blake was initially apprenticed to the fashionable William Ryland, engraver to King George. Blake however would request that his father find a more suitable match for his talents, declaring that Ryland had “the hanging look about him”. (In fact Ryland would end on the scaffold some years later, convicted for forging currency.) Blake spent his apprentice years under James Basire. Basire’s manner of working was rather out-dated stressing the linear contours and avoiding the more painterly affects that would allow for replication of paintings or the creation of more atmospheric elements. His manner, however, was perfectly suited to Blake’s own personal preferences for the linear sculptural form. Basire’s chief source of income was the result of commissioned engravings to be made of architectural and sculptural details of English churches and cathedrals. Through his apprenticeship to Basire Blake was exposed to the stylistic abstractions of Romanesque and Gothic art which would have been largely dismissed by most artists of the time.

In 1778 Blake enrolled in the Royal Academy. He quickly rebelled against the preference of the academy for such painterly masters as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Titian… as well as against the president of the academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds. He detested Reynold’s pursuit of “abstractions” and “generalizations” and he would write in the margins of his personal copy of Reynold’s Discourses, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit”.

In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman (sculptor) and George Cumberland (one of the founders of the National Gallery) who would both become patrons of his work. He also met Catherine Boucher, who would become his wife. Illiterate at the time of his marriage, Blake would not only teach her to read and write, but also educate her in the art of watercolors and engraving. She would become an invaluable aid to him in the creation of his printed books and a great moral support.

In 1784 Blake and his brother, Robert opened a print shop, and began working with the radical publisher, Joseph Johnson. Through Johnson, Blake met with some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time, including Joseph Priestly, John Henry Fuseli (whose art work clearly influenced Blake’s own), Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Godwin. Inspired by Wollstonecraft’s views on marriage and sexuality Blake composed his Visions of the Daughters of Albion in 1793. It is quite possible that Percy Shelley may have come across Blake’s writings in the possession of Mary Godwin (Shelley), Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter.

In 1788 Blake developed his method of “relief etching” (reportedly revealed to him by his deceased brother Robert in a dream) by which he produced most of his printed and illustrated books. Blake often referred to his illustrated books as “illuminated books”… a term used to describe the medieval books such as the Book of Kells, the Lindesfarne Gospels

…or the Tres Riches Heures of the Limbourg Brothers, in which the text and imagery were woven into a single unified artistic entity. These books were engraved or etched in a single color and then each volume was handpainted in watercolors by himself or Catherine.

Blake also produced a large number of watercolor paintings illustrating scenes from the Bible, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, and Chaucer. Some of these were bound with folios, while others were imagined as the basis for more ambitious printed books that he would never realize.


Cain and Abel

The Lustful Caught in the Whirlwind- from the Inferno

Blake’s two thin volumes The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience are perhaps his most famous poetic and artistic productions… and also the first instances in which he fully integrated his visual and poetic talents.

The Songs of Innocence consist mostly of poems describing the innocence and joy of the natural world… or the world seen from an innocent viewpoint, advocating free love and a personal relationship with God unmediated by religion. The poems and the accompanying imagery are deceptively child-like. They strike one initially as simple… even naive… but reveal a deeper meaning with with repeated reading:

The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing whooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice.
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a lamb.
He is meek and he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Infant Joy

“I have no name;
I am but two days old.”
What shall I call thee?
“I happy am,
Joy is my name.”
Sweet joy befall thee!
Pretty joy!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet Joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while;
Sweet joy befall thee!

In contrast, The Songs of Experience suggest a loss of innocence after exposure to the materialistic world, “unnatural” concepts such as good and evil, sin, and religion. Most of the poems of the latter volume offer a direct counterpart to the Songs of Innocence. Perhaps the best example is The Tyger, counterpart to The Lamb, and probably Blake’s most famous (deservedly) poem:

The Tyger

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

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

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

I have long held this lyric in my memory, like many nursery rhymes and poems learned in my youth. Like a nursery rhyme, it’s hypnotic and chant-like… seeming oh so simple at first… but soon revealing far greater depths of thought… questions about the very nature of good and evil and creation. I’m always struck with chills as the poet finally confronts us with the ultimate question, “Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?”, before returning once again to the beginning, “Tyger Tyger…” and leaving that question unanswered… but perhaps provoking a little spark in our minds.

Another favorite of the The Songs of Experience is The Garden of Love:

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

This poem… again deceptively simple and childlike… confronts us with what were certainly rather revolutionary ideas at the time. The poem clearly suggests the naturalness of sexuality and rages against the manner in which organized religion attempts to repress our natural desires and label them as “sinful”.

Blake was largely unknown outside of a small circle of admirers during his lifetime. His reputation began to be revived toward the end of the 19th century thanks to the admiration of poets such as W.B. Yeats and D.G Rossetti. Rossetti, an artist and poet, was greatly enamored of Blake’s attempt to merge both the visual and literary arts. In 1847, Dante Gabriel Rossetti purchased a journal of Blake’s from the brother of the artist Samuel Palmer in which one could see early compositional studies for many of Blake’s more famous art works. The text of the manuscript included copies of many of Blake’s poems from the Songs of Innocence and Experience. These exhibit numerous revisions. Perhaps more importantly, the so-called “Rossetti Manuscript” along with another original document known as the “Pickering Manuscript” contain several unpublished poems… including a number that contain some of Blake’s most well-known passages:

Auguries of Innocence

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

A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage

A Dove house fill’d with Doves and Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions

A Dog starved at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State…

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the world we safely go.

Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief and pine
Runs a Joy with silken twine…

Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.

Beyond Blake’s lyrical poetry we find some of his greatest, yet most misunderstood and underrated work. His prose piece, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

…may just be Blake’s masterpiece. This brief book is composed of a series of meditations or “fancies” as Blake titles them, in which he puts forth many of his ideas about good and evil, free will, creation and even of literature:

Note: The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

Perhaps the most known passages of this work come from the series of aphorisms entitled, Proverbs of Hell:

A fool sees not the same tree a wise man sees.

A dead body revenges not injuries.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

What is now proved was once only imagin’d.

The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

Expect poison from standing water.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Listen to the fool’s reproach! It is a kingly title!

Job, his Wife and his Accusers

Perhaps the most unique… and challenging work by Blake is his Job. This work is built of a title page and 21 engraved illustrations. At first glimpse one might assume that Blake has merely illustrated the Biblical text of Job… but as is usual with Blake, nothing is as simple as it first appears. The usual orthodox interpretation of Job is that he represents an admirable figure of faith and patience… a good man who is tested by God by having all of his worldly belongings stripped from him, his family killed, and his own body stricken with painful disease… and yet he does not lose his faith in God. Blake’s Job is something of a critique of this interpretation. Utilizing images as well as inscribed quotes from the Book of Job and other Biblical texts, Blake presents the idea that Job does not begin as a man deeply faithful to God… but rather as a figure who is faithful only in appearance. He may do the right things… but for the wrong reasons. Blake suggests that the various trials that Job undergoes amount to a spiritual journey… from a false believer to a truly spiritual man. In what in perhaps the most powerful image, Illustration XI:

Blake presents a Job condemned to the fires of Hell. Devils reach out from the hell fires below in an attempt to drag him down. Still his hands are clutched in prayer as he looks up to the Hebrew God, Jehovah, hovering over him. Jehovah points to the tablets of the law which condemn Job while the lightning bolt of damnation leap around him. And yet… as Job glances down at Jehovah’s cloven foot and at the serpent of materialism with which he is intertwined… he realizes that this immovable God of the law is one and the same with Satan. The inscription “I know that my redeemer liveth” suggests that Job has begun to imagine that there is a better God.

Blake’s epic poems, especially Milton and Jerusalem are undoubtedly his most challenging works. The staggering achievement of these works is that Blake has essentially created his own cosmology and mythology… an achievement not unlike that of Muhammad, Dante, or Homer. He essentially attempts to live up to his own declaration:

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

In Milton, Blake presents a fantastic narrative in which Milton is driven out of Heaven for his false representation of God as an external authoritarian being. To Blake there was no God outside of the God that resides within the human breast. Milton enters into Blake himself and begins a spiritual journey of remaking himself. Milton contains some of Blake’s most fabulous and memorable poetry:

And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
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.

(The oft-quoted phrase from this introduction to Milton, “dark and Satanic Mills” is among the first criticisms directed at the dehumanizing and polluting elements of industrialization and clearly made Blake a hero with the socially like-minded Pre-Raphaelites.)

If you account it Wisdom when you are angry to be silent, and
Not to shew it: I do not account that Wisdom but Folly.
Every Mans Wisdom is peculiar to his own Individuality
O Satan my youngest born, art thou not Prince of the Starry Hosts
And of the Wheels of Heaven, to turn the Mills day & night?…

And this is the manner of the Daughters of Albion in their beauty
Every one is threefold in Head & Heart & Reins, & every one
Has three Gates into the Three Heavens of Beulah which shine
Translucent in their Foreheads & their Bosoms & their Loins
Surrounded with fires unapproachable: but whom they please
They take up into their Heavens in intoxicating delight…

Ah weak & wide astray! Ah shut in narrow doleful form
Creeping in reptile flesh upon the bosom of the ground
The Eye of Man a little narrow orb closed up & dark
Scarcely beholding the great light conversing with the Void
The Ear, a little shell in small volutions shutting out
All melodies & comprehending only Discord and Harmony
The Tongue a little moisture fills, a little food it cloys
A little sound it utters & its cries are faintly heard
Then brings forth Moral Virtue the cruel Virgin Babylon

Can such an Eye judge of the stars? & looking thro’ its tubes
Measure the sunny rays that point their spears on Udanadan
Can such an Ear fill’d with the vapours of the yawning pit.
Judge of the pure melodious harp struck by a hand divine?
Can such closed Nostrils feel a joy? or tell of autumn fruits
When grapes & figs burst their covering to the joyful air
Can such a Tongue boast of the living waters? or take in
Ought but the Vegetable Ratio & loathe the faint delight
Can such gross Lips perceive? alas! folded within themselves
They touch not ought but pallid turn & tremble at every wind…

But in the wine presses the human grapes sing not nor dance:
They howl & writhe in shoals of torment, in fierce flames consuming,
In chains of iron & in dungeons circled with ceaseless fires,
In pits & dens & shades of death, in shapes of torment & woe –
The plates & screws & racks & saws & cords & fires & cisterns,
The cruel joys of Luvah’s daughters, lacerating with knives
And whips their victims, & the deadly sport of Luvah’s sons…

The epic poem, Jerusalem is Blake’s longest and most ambitious work. The narrative, which is confusing and does not seem to follow a linear manner, centers upon the fall of Albion, a personification of Man… Britain… or Western Culture. The work is cloaked in a dense symbolism where characters are all inventions of Blake’s own personal mythology and where any single character can represent multiple persons, concepts, or even cities. In spite of this hermetic aspect the poem, like Milton, contains many brilliant passages:

Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine:
Fibres of love from man to man thro’ Albion’s pleasant land.
In all the dark Atlantic vale down from the hills of Surrey
A black water accumulates, return Albion! return!
Thy brethren call thee, and thy fathers, and thy sons,
Thy nurses and thy mothers, thy sisters and thy daughters
Weep at thy souls disease, and the Divine Vision is darken’d:
Thy Emanation that was wont to play before thy face,
Beaming forth with her daughters into the Divine bosom
Where hast thou hidden thy Emanation lovely Jerusalem
From the vision and fruition of the Holy-one?
I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend;
Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me:
Lo! we are One; forgiving all Evil; Not seeking recompense!
Ye are my members O ye sleepers of Beulah, land of shades!…

Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish’d at me.
Yet they forgive my wanderings, I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination
O Saviour pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness & love:
Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life!
Guide thou my hand which trembles exceedingly upon the rock of ages…

Los answer’d: Altho’ I know not this, I know far worse than this:
I know that Albion hath divided me, and that thou, O my Spectre,
Hast just cause to be irritated; but look steadfastly upon me;
Comfort thyself in my strength; the time will arrive
When all Albion’s injuries shall cease, and when we shall
Embrace him, tenfold bright, rising from his tomb in immortality.
They have divided themselves by Wrath, they must be united by
Pity; let us therefore take example & warning, O my Spectre.
O that I could abstain from wrath! O that the Lamb
Of God would look upon me and pity me in my fury!
In anguish of regeneration, in terrors of self annihilation,
Pity must join together those whom wrath has torn asunder…

Inspiration deny’d; Genius forbidden by laws of punishment:
I saw terrified; I took the sighs & tears, & bitter groans:
I lifted them into my Furnaces; to form the spiritual sword.
That lays open the hidden heart: I drew forth the pang
Of sorrow red hot: I work’d it on my resolute anvil:
I heated it in the flames of Hand, & Hyle, & Coban
Nine times; Gwendolen & Cambel & Gwineverra
Are melted into the gold, the silver, the liquid ruby,
The crysolite, the topaz, the jacinth, & every precious stone.
Loud roar my Furnaces and loud my hammer is heard:
I labour day and night, I behold the soft affections
Condense beneath my hammer into forms of cruelty
But still I labour in hope, tho’ still my tears flow down.
That he who will not defend Truth, may be compell’d to defend
A Lie:…

We are told to abstain from fleshly desires that we may lose no
time from the Work of the Lord. Every moment lost, is a moment
that cannot be redeemed every pleasure that intermingles with the
duty of our station is a folly unredeemable & is planted like the
seed of a wild flower among our wheat. All the tortures of
repentance. are tortures of self-reproach on account of our
leaving the Divine Harvest to the Enemy, the struggles of
intanglement with incoherent roots. I know of no other
Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body
& mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination.
Imagination the real & eternal World of which this Vegetable
Universe is but a faint shadow & in which we shall live in our
Eternal or Imaginative Bodies, when these Vegetable Mortal Bodies
are no more…

England! awake! awake! awake!
Jerusalem thy Sister calls!
Why wilt thou sleep the sleep of death?
And close her from thy ancient walls.

Thy hills & valleys felt her feet,
Gently upon their bosoms move:
Thy gates beheld sweet Zions ways;
Then was a time of joy and love.

And now the time returns again:
Our souls exult & London’s towers,
Receive the Lamb of God to dwell
In England’s green & pleasant bowers.

Blake never attained the recognition he deserved during his lifetime and he forever lived in near poverty. A prophet by calling and an engraver by trade he struggled to eek out a living in a highly competitive field working in what appeared to many to be a hopelessly outmoded manner… yet in many ways Blake was as innovative as a visual artist as he was as a poet. At a time when oil painting dominated the visual arts (and had dominated for centuries) Blake had the audacity to reject such in favor of print, watercolor and his ideal of the “illuminated books”. While Western art reveled in the abilities of the artist to mimic the appearance of physical reality, Blake rejected such a goal as worthy of the artist, declaring “One power alone makes a poet, Imagination. The Divine Vision.” As such it should come as little surprise that few took Blake’s art seriously until the advent of Modernism when invention and imagination would triumph over the imitation of nature.

Beyond the books that Blake completed in an engraved manner he also produced numerous watercolor “illustrations” for other texts: the Bible:

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

The Last Judgment

Milton’s Paradise Lost:

The Temptation and Fall

Dante’s Divine Comedy:

The Blasphemer

Antaeus Setting Down Dante and Virgil

…chief among them. These may have been intended as studies for color engraved versions of these books. One might even suggest that Blake may have intended something along the line of what he had achieved with his Job: a merger of text and image that is a completely new invention. Blake’s art would have a direct influence upon the work of a group of followers known as “the ancients” that included Samuel Palmer…

Samuel Palmer-Early Morning-engraving

and Edward Calvert…

Edward Calvert-The Bride-engraving

His work would be a model for the design of children’s books by the end of the 19th century as well as a major source of inspiration for the development of the so-called “book arts” as found in the works of Eric Gill…

Eric Gill-The Bible

and most importantly William Morris:

William Morris/Edward Burns Jones-“Kelmscott Chaucer”

In spite of this, Blake’s art did not attain a level of recognition equal to that afforded to his poetry until after mid-century with the increased access to color reproduction allowing for his work to be experienced as close as possible to the manner in which he had intended. Since that time Blake’s work has grown greatly in popularity with artists and art lovers (as with lovers of literature)… and especially with those who follow the “book arts”. A recent collection of 19 watercolors were broken up by the owners and 12 sold for more than $7 million US. In spite of the incredibly high price for works on paper, the sale was actually far below what was expected. (A good many buyers opted out of the auction due to anger over the fact that the collection had been quickly broken up by speculators out to make a quick dollar rather than allowing the Tate or another museum time to raise the funds needed to purchase the work as a whole) The recent exhibition of Blake’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art drew crowds in numbers usually reserved for the finest painters in oils… not for an artist working in print and watercolor and often regulated to the category of “outsider artist”. It is clear that Blake’s achievements as a visual artist have attained a status that equals his achievements as a poet.


1 Comment

  1. exuvia said,

    February 21, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    I am impressed and thankful for the fantastic collection and your commentary. You have done a tremendous job. May many people enjoy your efforts.


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