William Blake, (born Nov. 28, 1757, London, Eng.—died Aug. 12, 1827, London), English engraver, artist, poet, and visionary, author of exquisite lyrics in Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) and profound and difficult “prophecies,” such as Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), The First Book of Urizen (1794), Milton (1804[–?11]), and Jerusalem (1804[–?20]). The dating of Blake’s texts is explained in the Researcher’s Note: Blake publication dates. These works he etched, printed, coloured, stitched, and sold, with the assistance of his devoted wife, Catherine. Among his best known lyrics today are “The Lamb,” “The Tyger,” “London,” and the “Jerusalem” lyric from Milton, which has become a kind of second national anthem in Britain. In the early 21st century, Blake was regarded as the earliest and most original of the Romantic poets, but in his lifetime he was generally neglected or (unjustly) dismissed as mad.
Blake was born over his father’s modest hosiery shop at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, London. His parents were James Blake (1722–84) and Catherine Wright Armitage Blake (1722–92). His father came from an obscure family in Rotherhithe, across the River Thames from London, and his mother was from equally obscure yeoman stock in the straggling little village of Walkeringham in Nottinghamshire. His mother had first married (1746) a haberdasher named Thomas Armitage, and in 1748 they moved to 28 Broad Street. In 1750 the couple joined the newly established Moravian church in Fetter Lane, London. The Moravian religious movement, recently imported from Germany, had had a strong attraction to the powerful emotions associated with nascent Methodism (see Moravian church). Catherine Armitage bore a son named Thomas, who died as a baby in 1751, and a few months later Thomas Armitage himself died.
Catherine left the Moravians, who insisted on marriages within the faith, and in 1752 married James Blake in the Church of England chapel of St. George in Hanover Square. James moved in with her at 28 Broad Street. They had six children: James (1753–1827), who took over the family haberdashery business on his father’s death in 1784; John (born 1755, died in childhood); William, the poet and artist; another John Blake (born 1760, died by 1800), whom Blake referred to in a letter of 1802 as “my Brother John the evil one” and who became an unsuccessful gingerbread baker, enlisted as a soldier, and died; Richard (1762–87), called Robert, a promising artist and the poet’s favourite, at times his alter ego; and Catherine Elizabeth (1764–1841), the baby of the family, who never married and who died in extreme indigence long after the deaths of all her brothers.
William Blake grew up in modest circumstances. What teaching he received as a child was at his mother’s knee, as most children did. This he saw as a positive matter, later writing, “Thank God I never was sent to school/ To be Flogd into following the Style of a Fool[.]”
Blake was christened, married, and buried by the rites of the Church of England, but his creed was likely to outrage the orthodox. In “A Vision of the Last Judgment” he wrote that “the Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being,” whom Blake called variously Nobodaddy and Urizen, and in his emblem book For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, he addressed Satan as “The Accuser who is The God of This World.” To Robinson “He warmly declared that all he knew is in the Bible. But he understands the Bible in its spiritual sense.” Blake’s religious singularity is demonstrated in his poem “The Everlasting Gospel” (c. 1818):
The Vision of Christ that thou dost See
Is my Visions Greatest Enemy
Both read the Bible day & night
But thou readst black where I read White.
But some of the orthodox not only tolerated but also encouraged Blake. Two of his most important patrons, the Rev. A.S. Mathew and the Rev. Joseph Thomas, were clergymen of the Church of England.
Blake was a religious seeker but not a joiner. He was profoundly influenced by some of the ideas of Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, and in April 1789 he attended the general conference of the New Church (which had been recently founded by followers of Swedenborg) in London. Blake’s poem “The Divine Image” (from Songs of Innocence) is implicitly Swedenborgian, and he said that he based his design called The Spiritual Preceptor (1809) on the theologian’s book True Christian Religion. He soon decided, however, that Swedenborg was a “Spiritual Predestinarian,” as he wrote in his copy of Swedenborg’s Wisdom of Angels Concerning the Divine Providence (1790), and that the New Church was as subject to “Priestcraft” as the Church of England.
Blake loved the world of the spirit and abominated institutionalized religion, especially when it was allied with government; he wrote in his annotations to Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible (1797), “all […] codes given under pretence [sic] of divine command were what Christ pronounced them, The Abomination that maketh desolate, i.e. State Religion” and later in the same text, “The Beast & the Whore rule without control.” According to his longtime friend John Thomas Smith, “He did not for the last forty years attend any place of Divine worship.” For Blake, true worship was private communion with the spirit.
Education as artist and engraver
From childhood Blake wanted to be an artist, at the time an unusual aspiration for someone from a family of small businessmen and Nonconformists (dissenting Protestants). His father indulged him by sending him to Henry Pars’s Drawing School in the Strand, London (1767–72). The boy hoped to be apprenticed to some artist of the newly formed and flourishing English school of painting, but the fees proved to be more than the parental pocket could withstand. Instead he went with his father in 1772 to interview the successful and fashionable engraver William Wynne Ryland. Ryland’s fee, perhaps £100, was both “more attainable” than that of fashionable painters and still, for the Blakes, very high; furthermore the boy interposed an unexpected objection: “Father, I do not like the man’s face; it looks as if he will live to be hanged.” Eleven years later, Ryland was indeed hanged—for forgery—one of the last criminals to suffer on the infamous gallows known as Tyburn Tree.
The young Blake was ultimately apprenticed for 50 guineas to James Basire (1730–1802), a highly responsible and conservative line engraver who specialized in prints depicting architecture. For seven years (1772–79) Blake lived with Basire’s family on Great Queen Street, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. There he learned to polish the copperplates, to sharpen the gravers, to grind the ink, to reduce the images to the size of the copper, to prepare the plates for etching with acid, and eventually to push the sharp graver through the copper, with the light filtered through gauze so that the glare reflected from the brilliantly polished copper would not dazzle him. He became so proficient in all aspects of his craft that Basire trusted him to go by himself to Westminster Abbey to copy the marvelous medieval monuments there for one of the greatest illustrated English books of the last quarter of the 18th century, the antiquarian Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain (vol. 1, 1786).
Career as engraver
On the completion of his apprenticeship in 1779, Blake began to work vigorously as an independent engraver. His most frequent commissions were from the great liberal bookseller Joseph Johnson. At first most of his work was copy engraving after the designs of other artists, such as the two fashion plates for the Ladies New and Polite Pocket Memorandum-Book (1782). He also engraved important plates for the Swiss writer John Caspar (Johann Kasper) Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (vol. 1, 1789), for the English physician Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden (1791), and for his friend John Gabriel Stedman’s violent and eccentric Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), which included illustrations titled A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows and Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave.
Blake became so well known that he received commissions to engrave his own designs. These included 6 plates for Original Stories from Real Life (1791), a collection of narratives for children by Johnson’s friend Mary Wollstonecraft, and 43 folio plates for part one of Edward Young’s poem Night Thoughts (1797), with a promise, never fulfilled, for a hundred more. Blake’s style of designing, however, was so extreme and unfamiliar, portraying spirits with real bodies, that one review in The British Critic (1796; of Gottfried August Bürger’s Leonora) called them “distorted, absurd,” and the product of a “depraved fancy.”
You can read William Blake’s poetry here