William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry has led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”. Although he lived in London his entire life except for three years spent in Felpham he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God”, or “Human existence itself”.
Considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterised as part of both the Romantic movement and “Pre-Romantic”, for its large appearance in the 18th century. Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England – indeed, to all forms of organised religion – Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions, as well as by such thinkers as Jakob Böhme and Emanuel Swedenborg.
Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake’s work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th century scholar William Rossetti characterised Blake as a “glorious luminary,” and as “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”.
William Blake and his works have been extensively discussed and criticised over the twentieth and now this century, however previous to that he was barely known. He first became known in 1863 with Alexander Gilchrist’s biography “Life” and only fully appreciated and recognised at the beginning of the twentieth century. It seems his art had been too adventurous and unconventional for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, maybe you could even say he was ahead of his time? Either way, today he is a hugely famous figure of Romantic literature, whose work is open to various interpretations, which has been known to take a lifetime to establish. As well as his works being difficult to interpret, him as a person has also provoked much debate. Henry Crabb Robinson, who was a diarist and friend of Blake’s at the end of his life asked the question many students of Blake are still unable to conclusively answer:
“Shall I call him artist or genius – or mystic – or madman?” (Lucas, 1998 p. 1)
Born on 28th November 1757 in Soho in London, he had a grounded and happy upbringing. Although always a well read and intelligent man, Blake left school at the early age of ten to attend the Henry Pars Drawing Academy for five years. The artists he admired as a child included Raphael, Michelangelo, Giulio, Romano and Dürer. He started writing poetry at the age of twelve and in 1783 his friends paid for his first collection of verses to be printed, which was entitled “Poetical Sketches” and is now seen as a major poetical event of the 18th century. Despite his obvious talents as a poet, his official profession was as an engraver because he could not afford to do a painter’s apprenticeship and therefore began his apprenticeship with the engraver James Basire in 1772. After completing his apprenticeship six years later, he joined the Royal Academy of Art. At this point his art and engraving remained separate – he wrote and drew for pleasure and simply engraved to earn a living. In 1784 he opened his own shop and in the same year completed “Island in the Moon”, which ridiculed his contemporaries of the art and literature social circles he mixed with. Two years previous to this, he married Catherine Boucher.
Now Blake was an established engraver, he began experimenting with printing techniques and it was not long before he compiled his first illuminated book, ‘Songs of Innocence’ in 1788. Blake wanted to take his poetry beyond being just words on a page and felt they needed to be illustrated to create his desired effect. Shortly after he completed ‘The Book of Thel’ and from 1790-3, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, which followed on from his significant Prophetic books. These books were a collection of writings on his philosophical ideas and although they have nothing to do with his poetry, it was a sign of his increasing awareness of the social injustices of his time, which led to the completion of his ‘Songs of Experience’ in 1794.
One of Blake’s main influences was the society in which he lived. He lived during revolutionary times and witnessed the downfall of London during Britain’s war with republican France. His disgust with society grew as he matured and ‘The Songs of Innocence and Experience’ depict this transition. As well as having radical religious ideas for the time (he did not believe in “religion of nature or reason, but thought man’s nature was imaginative and mystical” (Lister 1968, p.27)), he also had radical political ideas due to the day-to-day poverty he was forced to witness.
“Living near the end of a century, born in a period of imperialistic wars, coming to maturity during the American Revolution and to the full bloom of his genius during the French Revolution, aware of impending economic change and sick to the bone of ruling hypocrisy, he viewed the evnts of his own days as the fulfilment of prophecy…” (Hagstrum 1964, p. 97-98)
Blake’s preoccupation with good and evil as well as his strong philosophical and religious beliefs remained throughout his life and he never stopped depicting them in his poetry and engravings. He died at the age of sixty-nine in 1827 and although the Blake family name died with him, his legacy as a fascinating, complex man of many artistic talents will no doubt remain strong well into this century. Other famous works include ‘Europe’, ‘America’, ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’ and ‘The Book of Urizen’.
Although Blake is not well known for being a specifically grotesque artist, it is his experiences and disgust with London society in the late eighteenth century that clearly emulates elements of the grotesque. As it would be impossible to discuss all of Blake’s works, this study will focus on ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, particularly ‘Songs of Experience’ to learn how he portrayed his views on society and how the grotesque falls into that.
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William Blake Poems
- A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe:
- The Tyger
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye
- 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 Divine Image
Cruelty has a human heart, And Jealousy a human face; Terror the human form divine,
- Love’s Secret
Never seek to tell thy love, Love that never told can be; For the gentle wind does move Silently, invisibly.
- The Angel
I dreamt a dream! What can it mean? And that I was a maiden Queen Guarded by an Angel mild: Witless woe was ne’er beguiled!
- A Cradle Song
Sweet dreams form a shade, O’er my lovely infants head. Sweet dreams of pleasant streams, By happy silent moony beams
I wandered through each chartered street, Near where the chartered Thames does flow, A mark in every face I meet,
- A Dream
Once a dream did weave a shade O’er my angel-guarded bed, That an emmet lost its way
- A Little Girl Lost
Children of the future age, Reading this indignant page, Know that in a former time
- A Little Boy Lost
Nought loves another as itself, Nor venerates another so, Nor is it possible to thought A greater than itself to know.
- A Song
Sweet dreams, form a shade O’er my lovely infant’s head! Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
- And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time
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?
- Ah Sunflower
Ah Sunflower, weary of time, Who countest the steps of the sun; Seeking after that sweet golden clime Where the traveller’s journey is done;