The Notebook of William Blake
William Blake is famous today as an imaginative and original poet, painter, engraver, and mystic. But his work, especially his poetry, was largely ignored during his own lifetime, and took many years to gain widespread appreciation. Blake wrote and sketched in this notebook, which came into his possession after his brother's death in 1787, for 30 years.
The closely-filled pages give a fascinating insight into Blake's compositional process, allowing us to follow the genesis of some of his best-known work, including 'London', 'The Tyger' and 'The Chimney Sweeper'.
This small notebook (159 x 197mm; 58 leaves) contained a few drawings by Robert, Blake's brother, when it passed to William upon his death. Blake was to treasure it as a reminder of Robert throughout his life. It was also, however, a practical work book that Blake filled with sketches and drafts of poems, and which now provides an enthralling insight into the composition of some of Blake's most well-known and highly-regarded works.
It is believed that Blake first used the notebook in February 1787, starting from the front and entering a series of pencil emblems, framed in the centre of each recto page, under the tentative title 'Ideas of Good and Evil'. Blake's series of emblems in this notebook record man's journey from birth to death, and may well have been prompted by his reaction to Robert's own premature death. From this series, Blake was to select 17 designs that he engraved and published in a small volume entitled For Children: The Gates of Paradise (1793).
At around the same time, having reached the end of the book, Blake turned it upside-down, and used these pages to transcribe fair copies (later heavily annotated) of earlier drafts of poems, many of which would appear in Songs of Experience (1794). When he started to enter these poems, some of the pages were already covered with sketches for an aborted edition of illustrations of John Milton's Paradise Lost. Some of these sketches were preserved, while others were overwritten. Although Blake mostly worked in this notebook between 1792 and 1794, he kept it with him throughout his life. He picked it up again to draft further poems at the front from 1801, and was still composing as late as 1818.
- Article by:
- Julian Walker
- Childhood and children's literature, Romanticism
Julian Walker looks at William Blake’s poetry in the context of 18th-century children’s literature, considering how the poems’ attitudes towards childhood challenge traditional ideas about moral education during that period.
- Article by:
- Ruth Mather
- Power and politics
Ruth Mather considers how Britain's intellectual, political and creative circles responded to the French Revolution.
- Article by:
- Emma Griffin
- Childhood and children's literature
Industrialisation led to a dramatic increase in child labour. Professor Emma Griffin explores the dangerous, exhausting work undertaken by children in factories and mines, and the literary responses of writers including Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.