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William Blake Biography

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William Blake


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William Blake Biography


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William Blake

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Alan Richardson, Boston College. Dictionary of Literary Biography. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.

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William Blake Biography


William Blake

Birth Date:

November 28, 1757

Death Date:

August 12, 1827

Nationality: English

Gender: Male

Occupations: poet, engraver, painter

Further Reading

The standard editions of Blake's writings are Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Complete Writings of William Blake (1957; rev. ed. 1966), and David V. Erdman, ed., The Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1965), with commentary by Harold Bloom. Alexander Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake (1863), is still a standard biography; another biography is Mona Wilson, The Life of William Blake (1927; rev. ed. 1948). A recommended biography is G.E. Bentley's The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (2001). For Blake the artist see Anthony Blunt, The Art of William Blake (1959). For the reader making his first acquaintance with Blake, Max Plowman, An Introduction to the Study of Blake (1927; 2d ed. 1967), and Herschel M. Margoliouth, William Blake (1951), are recommended. The most searching critical study is Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947). Excellent commentary on the longer poems is provided by S. Foster Damon, William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols (1924), and Harold Bloom, Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (1963).

William Blake Biography

Dictionary of Literary Biography Biography

William Blake, poet, painter, illustrator, and printer, is one of the most compelling and idiosyncratic figures in the history of British culture. His works, little known until their rediscovery some forty years after his death, have eluded one interpretive category after another, including genre, period, and even conventional distinctions between literature and the graphic arts. In considering Blake's relation to the British tradition of writing for children, the difficulties in classifying his work become even more pronounced, as it remains unclear whether Blake wrote for children at all. Are the Songs of Innocence (1789) and For Children: The Gates of Paradise (1793) books intended for children, parodies of children's books, or sophisticated versions of children's genres aimed primarily at adults? Despite lasting uncertainty regarding the intended audience of these works, Blake has become a crucial presence in modern interpretations of early children's literature as a brilliant adapter and implicit critic of the writing for children available in his time, and as an exemplar of what children's poetry and picture books could become.

William Blake was born on 28 November 1757 in London, and he would live most of his life in or near the city. His father, James Blake, was a hosier (selling stockings, gloves, and haberdashery) who maintained a precarious competency somewhere above working-class poverty and below middle-class prosperity. His mother, Catherine Harmitage Blake, was thirty, a year older than her husband, when they married in 1752; she gave birth to seven children during the next fifteen years, two dying in infancy. The youngest, Robert (born in 1767) became William's favorite sibling.

Although city bred, Blake lived within walking distance of the fields, hills, and rustic villages then bordering on London, and as a child he wandered urban streets and rural lanes alike. According to his first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, Blake's visionary tendencies were already manifest when, at around age nine, he looked up in the course of a country ramble to see a tree filled with angels. Still younger, at age four, Blake had allegedly screamed when he saw God "put his head to the window." Blake's

William Blake Biography

parents, probably Baptists (at least by the mid 1760s), did not encourage these visions:

William's insistence once nearly led to a beating (for lying) by his father, who generally found corporal punishment useless with a boy of his son's high temper. Neither did he force William to attend school, for which Blake later expressed gratitude.

If fundamentally self-taught, however, Blake did receive instruction in drawing, painting, and engraving, a marketable skill that his father encouraged. At age ten Blake began drawing lessons at Henry Pars's academy; at fourteen he was apprenticed to James Basire, a master engraver who held to an unfashionable preference for clean outline. One of Blake's assignments as apprentice was to sketch the tombs at Westminster Abbey, exposing him to a variety of Gothic styles from which he would draw inspiration throughout his career. After completing his apprenticeship at twenty-one, Blake briefly enrolled (1779-1780) in the Royal Academy, though the theory and practice of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, were antithetical to Blake's emerging aesthetic ideals.

More congenial (at least for a time) was the circle of young artists Blake met through the painter and collector George Cumberland, which included Thomas Stothard and John Flaxman. Blake began receiving his first independent engraving jobs, including a design for William Enfield's The Speaker, an anthology of recitation pieces for students, commissioned by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson in 1780. Johnson would eventually become Blake's major link to the relatively new world of publishing and writing for children.

On 18 August 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, who signed the marriage register with an X. Under her husband's tutelage she became an able assistant and something of a disciple. The marriage seems to have been stable and successful, but for some reason the Blakes had no children. Catherine once remarked, "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company; he is always in Paradise"; she came to have visions like those of her husband, who described her (in Milton, 1804) as his "Shadow of Delight." Through Flaxman, Blake found early supporters in the Reverend Anthony Stephen

William Blake Biography

Mathew and Harriet Mathew, a fashionable couple who hosted gatherings of artists, musicians, and writers in their Soho parlor. There Blake would sing lyrics from Poetical Sketches (1783) and perhaps from Songs of Innocence to tunes of his own devising that, sadly, went unrecorded.

The printing of Poetical Sketches, Blake's first published volume, was underwritten by the Mathews and Flaxman in 1783; the condescending "Advertisement" by the Reverend Mathew describes it as the work of "untutored youth," replete with "irregularities and defects," but redeemed by "poetic originality." Modern readers have found in Poetical Sketches a remarkable series of experiments in various styles and modes, including imitations of traditional ballads, the works of Edmund Spenser, and Elizabethan lyrics; verses in the manner of "Ossian" (the Celtic bard fabricated by James Alan McPherson); and poems in the "sensibility" register of William Collins, Christopher Smart, and Thomas Gray. The Mathews also helped Blake open a small print-selling shop in 1784 with James Parker, a fellow apprentice of Basire's, at 27 Broad Street (next to Blake's family home), but the partnership was soon dissolved.

Given Blake's fierce sense of artistic independence and his often fiery temperament, it is hardly surprising that he eventually broke with the patronizing Mathews and went on to satirize them in An Island in the Moon (composed in 1784). This work, unpublished in Blake's lifetime, is a sometimes trenchant, sometimes airy satire in prose and verse; its targets are not only avant-garde conversation parties of the type held by the Mathews but also the scientific, philosophical, and educational ideas, innovations, and jargons likely to be encountered there.

The one-sided dialogues between wise adults and docile children characteristic of late-eighteenth-century children's authors such as Eleanor Fenn are parodied in the exchanges between the pedant Obtuse Angle and Aradobo, a hopeful youth ever in quest of information. Blake also includes parodies of versified alphabets in the style of the Newbery books and the simplistic style of writing for small children recently introduced by Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Sarah Trimmer. The last chapter of the unfinished manuscript includes versions of three songs that became better known as

William Blake Biography

"Holy Thursday," "Nurse's Song," and "The Little Boy Lost" in the Songs of Innocence. Blake's satire on modern children's literature and education seems to have led him toward a different and more telling mode of imitating and implicitly commenting on his era's innovative writing for and about children.

Following Blake's withdrawal from print-selling in 1785, he and Catherine moved to Poland Street, where he struggled to succeed as an independent engraver and continued training his brother Robert (who had made himself part of the family at 27 Broad Street) in drawing, painting, and engraving. Robert fell ill during the winter of 1787 and died, most likely of consumption, after being lovingly tended by William, who went the last fortnight without sleep keeping vigil at his brother's bedside. As Robert died, William saw his spirit rise up and ascend through the ceiling, "clapping its hands for joy." Exhausted and (presumably) depressed, William slept through three days and nights. He felt that Robert's spirit continued to visit him and later claimed that in a dream Robert taught him the secret of stereotype printing (etching text and illustration in relief on a single copper plate), which Blake developed for use in Songs of Innocence and other "illuminated" works. In contrast to the specialization that increasingly marked the engraving and illustrating professions, relief etching allowed Blake personally to control nearly every aspect of book production and marketing, and he remained uniquely independent of the established book trade.

Blake's first trials of stereotype, or "illuminated printing," as he referred to it--the companion pieces All Religions Are One (1788") and There is No Natural Religion (1788")--are brief aphoristic works that readers have found helpful in first approaching Blake's difficult "prophetic" books, a series in which the author's religious, political, and social thought, his dazzling poetic mythmaking, and his ongoing self-representation all become intertwined.

Songs of Innocence, a work of a different kind, represents Blake's first major success with illuminated writing. It originally included twenty-three lyrics, four of which were eventually transferred to its companion text, Songs of Experience, published as the second part of an enlarged edition, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794).

William Blake Biography

Blake continued to print separate copies of the 1789 volume, however.

The title page of Songs of Innocence features a mother or nurse holding an open book, which two children, a boy and a girl, are eagerly reading. The group is sheltered by an apple tree (the branches of which frame the word Innocence in the title) with a vine growing around its trunk, suggesting the children's dependence on the adult and perhaps also the folds of a serpent and the inevitable loss of innocence. The image clearly refers to the children's-book tradition, but whether it is meant to announce Songs of Innocence as a work for children, as a work that reflects and comments upon children's books, or (like Lewis Carroll's Alice books) as both remains an open question.

The first lyric, "Introduction," raises similar questions. The speaker, a pastoral poet, is "Piping songs of pleasant glee" when he sees perched on a cloud a laughing child muse, who commands him first to "Pipe a song about a Lamb"--pastoral and Christian traditions had often been combined in English poetry, including in poems for children--then to sing the songs, and finally to write them "In a book that all may read." Does the child muse mean a book that the simplest reader can comprehend or one that readers at all levels, children and adults, can appreciate in various ways? A specialized children's literature market had arisen in England only a half-century previously, and many popular chapbooks intended for a mixed audience of children and adults were still in circulation. Although Blake exploits the thematic, stylistic, and formal conventions of children's books throughout Songs of Innocence, he may also be attempting to recapture a not so distant time before children and adults had been segregated into distinct readerships.

Songs of Innocence refers to the developing tradition of children's literature in various ways. As verses wedded to graphic images, some of them overtly symbolic, specific songs such as "The Blossom" and "The Little Boy Lost" evoke the tradition of emblem books aimed at children, best known from the republication of John Bunyan's A Book for Boys and Girls (1686) as Divine Emblems (1724). As songs for children with religious content and associations, lyrics such as "The Lamb," "A Cradle Song,"

William Blake Biography

and "The Divine Image" recall such children's poems as Isaac Watts's Divine Songs, Attempted in Easie Language for the Use of Children (1715), the hymns for children included among Charles Wesley's works, and Barbauld's Hymns in Prose for Children (1781), and critics have detected echoes from all of these writers scattered throughout the Songs of Innocence. With their simple vocabulary, short phrases and easy syntax, familiar imagery, and use of repetition and refrain, "The Ecchoing Green,"[sic] "Spring," and "Infant Joy" reflect the simplified, accommodating style of children's writing that Barbauld, Trimmer, and Fenn were pioneering in the 1780s. And in their concern with questions of slavery, poor and working children, and compassion for others, "The Little Black Boy," "The Chimney Sweeper," "Holy Thursday," and "On Another's Sorrow" take up issues that socially conscious writers such as Barbauld, Thomas Day, and Mary Wollstonecraft were bringing into writing for children.

Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life, published by Joseph Johnson in 1788, was in fact illustrated by Blake when republished in 1791. Blake also engraved plates (from designs by Daniel Chodowiecki) for Wollstonecraft's translation of C. G. Salzmann's Elements of Morality, another children's book published by Johnson in 1791. Similar commissions from Johnson included engravings for Leonard Euler's Elements of Algebra (1797), Charles Allen's histories for children of England and Rome published in 1797-1798, and Salzmann's Gymnastics for Youth (1800).

Blake had begun frequenting Johnson's shop, a meeting place for authors, designers, and radicals, in the late 1780s under the wing of Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist and at the time Blake's close friend and supporter. There Blake met Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and other radical and liberal writers, perhaps including Barbauld (another of Johnson's authors). Through Johnson's circle Blake would have had greater and more direct access to the world of progressive thought on education and children's reading than he had encountered at the Mathews' parties.

Although none of the poems in Songs of Innocence is overtly satiric (unlike some of their counterparts in Songs of Experience), it is clear that Blake's relation to both traditional Christian writers for children and the progressive children's authors

William Blake Biography

cultivated by Johnson was often a critical one. Some readers have insisted on taking Songs of Innocence in a straightforward fashion, particularly those who consider it primarily a children's book, but others have found signs of parody or critique even in the most seemingly naive and simple of the lyrics. "The Divine Image," for example, can be read as a children's lyric in the tradition of Bunyan and Watts, enjoining the Christian child to pray to "God our father dear," who exemplifies the qualities of "Mercy Pity Peace and Love." But one could also read this poem as an instance of Blake's radical humanism, his insistence that God exists in and through human beings, and that no human being (Christian or not) stands beyond the pale of God's mercy:

"And all must love the human form / In heathen, turk or jew."

The critical edge of this song emerges through implicit contrast with earlier Christian poetry for children: Bunyan, for example, depicts the unredeemed child in Divine Emblems as a "swarthy Ethiopian" or "Black-a-more," and Watts gives "Praise for Birth and Education in a Christian Land" (as opposed to heathen "Ignorance and Darkness") in the Divine Songs. Blake's "Holy Thursday" could be read as an uncomplicated celebration of the Charity School movement, which gave rudimentary educations, clean uniforms, and a sense of order and decency to poor children. But details such as the children's regimented marching, the disciplinary "wands" of the beadles who shepherd them, and their placement above the "aged men" who have appointed themselves "wise guardians of the poor" suggest an implicit indictment of the condescending, self-interested, and frequently harsh treatment that poor and working children of the time frequently met at the hands of their would-be benefactors.

Much more has been made of the relation, however critical, of Blake's lyrics to "official" children's literature than of his evident interest in and relish for what can be called, in contrast, the "underground" world of oral forms--nursery rhymes, riddles, folk songs, fairy lore, folktales--and of the popular chapbooks that drew significantly upon the same traditions. These forms were still, in Blake's time, largely uncensored, often aimed at a mixed audience of children and adults, and represented a traditional lower-class culture under assault from the "guardians of the poor," religious and

William Blake Biography

progressive alike. The rhythms of Blake's songs owe as much to Mother Goose as to Watts or Wesley, and at a time when many educators and children's writers were working to lure children away from the streets and village greens, Blake took up the burden of popular rhymes. In the popular traditions Blake found ample precedent for including verbal ambiguity, covert satire, and sexual imagery in children's forms, whereas "official" children's literature had been increasingly marked by a program of formal simplicity and sanitized content.

In August 1790 the Blakes moved across the Thames to Lambeth, a suburban area with open meadows and swamps. There Blake wrote and etched the Songs of Experience, dating the combined Songs of Innocence and of Experience volume 1794, with the subtitle "Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul." In thus framing the two works, Blake forestalled attempts to read them in terms of a progression from a simplistic to a more sophisticated viewpoint, or a biographical shift from a youthful and naive attitude to an experienced and cynical one. Instead Blake--who wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793") that "Without Contraries is no progression"--has been understood as insisting that neither an innocent nor an experienced perspective is in itself adequate to the complexities of human life. Each underscores and corrects the partialities and deficiencies of the other:

a comprehensive vision allows on the one hand for the unguarded openness to life, the sense of a benign, quasi-parental providence, and the simple joys associated with innocence, and on the other for the acknowledgment of human perversity and cruelty, the questioning of natural and providential design, and the impatience with social repression associated with experience. Moreover, these contraries can be found inhering within individual lyrics in either group of songs. Some of the Songs of Innocence were given explicit counterparts in the Experience volume: there are "contrary" versions of "Holy Thursday," "The Chimney Sweeper," "Nurse's Song," and "The Lamb." But it would be oversimplifying to try to read the two volumes in terms of a series of one-to-one correspondences, and Blake rearranged the plates in every copy he produced, each arrangement suggesting new interpretive possibilities.

William Blake Biography

Around this time Blake produced an emblem book, For Children: The Gates of Paradise, which has sometimes been considered a children's book owing to its title, its relation to earlier emblem books for children, and the fact that Fuseli is thought to have given a copy to a five-year-old girl; on the title page Blake printed the name and business address of Joseph Johnson, by then well-known as a publisher for children. Yet in his prospectus "To the Public," dated 10 October 1793, Blake listed this work simply as "The Gates of Paradise, a small book of engravings. price 3s," distinguishing neither it nor Songs of Innocence (priced still higher at 5 shillings) as a children's book. In any case the relation of The Gates of Paradise to the tradition exemplified by Bunyan's Divine Emblems is evidently a critical one. Whereas Bunyan's and later emblem books for children painstakingly spell out the meaning of each emblem and its moral application, Blake's captions are brief and suggestive, giving far more interpretive latitude to and demanding far more work of the reader. Blake reworked this volume some twenty-five years later as For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, expanding the captions and adding two plates of "Keys" and an epilogue.

Blake's extraordinary poetic and artistic career, as well as his criticizing and reversing of conventional pieties and wisdom, helped to develop his image as revolutionary poet and latter-day prophet. As a graphic artist Blake is best known for his illustrations inspired by the works of earlier poets; these illustrations (which include drawings and watercolors as well as engravings) are not mere ornaments to the poems they illustrate but constitute critical appreciations of them.

Blake's life was marked by conflict and the lack of widespread artistic recognition or lasting commercial success. He quarreled with one friend and patron after another. Blake's precarious commercial fortunes as an artist and engraver were not mended by the exhibition he mounted in his brother James's house on Broad Street in 1809-1810 and for which he wrote his Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures (1809), and he spent the next seventeen years working to stave off utter poverty.

Blake died on 12 August 1827 in a two-room flat in a house owned by relatives of his wife; Catherine survived him by four years. In his final years Blake had found a small

William Blake Biography

group of disciples in young artists such as Samuel Palmer and George Richmond, who wrote Palmer of Blake's death: "Just before he died his countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and He burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven."

Blake was known in his time primarily as an artist and engraver, but he had no great reputation and was highly regarded only by a few. As a poet he was virtually unknown--his insistence on printing his own works effectively excluded him from the established world of publishing and reviewing--but a few contemporaries encountered and left brief comments on his works. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had been lent a copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, considered the author a "man of Genius," and Wordsworth made his own copies of several songs. Charles Lamb sent a copy of "The Chimney Sweeper" from Songs of Innocence to James Montgomery for his Chimney-Sweeper's Friend, and Climbing Boys' Album (1824), and Robert Southey (who, like Wordsworth, considered Blake insane) attended Blake's exhibition and included the "Mad Song" from Poetical Sketches in his miscellany, The Doctor


The publication of Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus (1863) brought new interest to Blake's poetry, which was taken up by important literary figures such as A. C. Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Butler Yeats, who edited Blake's poetry in 1893. Selections from Songs of Innocence and of Experience were included by Francis Turner Palgrave in The Children's Treasury of Lyrical Poetry (1875) and by Samuel Eliot in Poetry for Children (1880) and have been featured in anthologies of children's verse ever since. A children's edition of Songs of Innocence, cloyingly reillustrated by Harold Jones, was published in 1961. Nancy Willard's A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travellers (1981) is a recent children's book inspired by Blake's Songs and has also been adapted for a video format (1986).

Blake's contribution to the children's literature of his own time must be considered negligible at best, given how few readers (children or adults) encountered his books. However, Blake's work has taken on major significance for the history and criticism of

William Blake Biography

writing for children in at least two ways: as a brilliant adapter, parodist, and implicit critic of early children's literature, Blake helped set the terms for any retrospective understanding of both its achievements and its limitations; and as a creator of poems in children's forms virtually unrivaled for their high aesthetic standards, compelling rhythms and imagery, and subtle complexities, Blake provided an important example and challenge to late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century children's writers. There is little doubt that Blake will continue to inspire the children's writers--and the children--of future ages.