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.
The third of six children of a Soho hosier, William Blake lived and worked in London all his life. As a boy, he claimed to have seen ‘bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’ in a tree on Peckham Rye, one of the earliest of many visions. In 1772, he was apprenticed to the distinguished printmaker James Basire, who extended his intellectual and artistic education. Three years of drawing murals and monuments in Westminster Abbey fed a fascination with history and medieval art.
In 1782, he married Catherine Boucher, the steadfast companion and manager of his affairs for the whole of his chequered, childless life. Much in demand as an engraver, he experimented with combining poetry and image in a printing process he invented himself in 1789. Among the spectacular works of art this produced were ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’, ‘Jerusalem’, and ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’.
Although always in demand as an artist, Blake’s intensely felt personal mythology, derived from radical ardour and the philosophy of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, led to wild mental highs and lows, and later in life he was sidelined as being close to insanity. On his deathbed, he saw one last glorious vision, and ‘burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven’.
Further information about the life of William Blake can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
 Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, ed. by Ruthven Todd (London: J M Dent, 1945), p. 353.
- Article by:
- Stephanie Forward
Dr Stephanie Forward explains the key ideas and influences of Romanticism, and considers their place in the work of writers including Wordsworth, Blake, P B Shelley and Keats.
- Article by:
- Andrew Lincoln
- Power and politics, Poverty and the working classes, Romanticism
The French Revolution inspired London radicals and reformers to increase their demands for change. Others called for moderation and stability, while the government tried to suppress radical activity. Professor Andrew Lincoln describes the political environment in which William Blake was writing.
- Article by:
- Julian Walker
One of William Blake’s acquaintances described him singing his songs in social gatherings. Julian Walker considers how Blake intends us to understand the word ‘song’ – and why his volume of poetry is called Songs – rather than ‘Poems’ – of Innocence and Experience.
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