William Blake (1757-1827)

The earliest of the English Romantic poets, William Blake's career as a poet marked a sharp break with the neo-classical writers of the eighteenth century. Unlike most earlier poets, Blake, the son of a London hosier, did not enjoy a formal university education, instead being apprenticed as an engraver, a trade that served him throughout his literary life. Eventually he enrolled as an engraving student at the Royal Academy.

After marrying in 1782, Blake managed to set up a print shop in London with the help of several friends, including a circle of intellectuals, among whom were followers of Swedenborg. Blake began publishing his most accessible work in 1789 with his Songs of Innocence. The companion volume, Songs of Experience, appeared in 1794. These works, like much of Blake's output, were not published in the traditional manner. Instead, Blake engraved his own texts, accompanying them with illustrations that he hand colored.

Throughout his career Blake demonstrated a preoccupation with spiritual themes. Among his titles are found The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) and Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-20). While a deeply religious man, Blake did not subscribe to any institutionalized religion or conventional. At several points in his life, he claimed to have experienced religious visions: an angel in a tree; the prophet Ezekiel in a field; and, as his brother died, his brother's soul rising from the body. His 1803 Milton developed his love-hate relationship with the great Puritan poet.

A second important theme in Blake's writing is politics, a topic that he approached from a distinctive, spiritualist direction. In 1791, he published The French Revolution, which was followed two years later by America: A Prophecy and Visions of the Daughters of Albion. In these works he develops an attitude of rebellion to authority, which he commingles with his idiosyncratic visionary approach.

Blake, while highly unorthodox in his religious beliefs, crosses the centuries as an important thinker, poet, and artist, whose imagery and verse helped to shape Western mysticism, literary thought, and speculative theology.

A selection of Blake's engravings is available online.

This text copyright 1998, Mark Browning. Permission is granted for all noncommercial use of this article.