Who is William Blake? He's a Romantic poet, an illustrator and a mystic. He used words, drawings and an innovative relief etching style, called illuminated printing, to create some of the most unusual and creative works of the Romantic era.
Early Life and Visions
William Blake was a major Romantic poet, and he was also kind of a visual artist. He did a lot of engravings. He was also kind of a religious mystic in a lot of ways; he was kind of into all that stuff. He was largely unknown, actually, during his lifetime.
Nowadays, you might not be able to name a poem that he wrote, but you should probably know who he is. That's his level of fame. He's kind of like Lady Gaga in the sense that he's almost more famous for being weird than for any specific work of art. But he did actually make significant contributions to Romantic poetry; I don't want to belittle that, and I don't think he ever wore a meat dress, so there are some differences.
He was born in London in 1757. His father was a hosier, which means he made hosiery. You know you see those pictures of old British people wearing tights and those fun buckle shoes, men especially? Somebody had to make those; someone had to make the tights that they wore with their man-heels, and that was William Blake's father, so that's kind of cool. From the beginning he was sort of different in a lot of ways than other kids his age. He had these religious visions. He would think he saw God outside his window or, like, a tree full of angels. I once saw a bush full of raccoons outside my window, but that was, unfortunately, real.
Like a lot of precious, weird kids, his parents pulled him out of school when he was ten and home-schooled him. At the same time, they also sent him off to drawing school so he could learn how to be more artistic. When he was twelve, he began writing poetry. When he was fourteen, drawing school got a little too expensive, so they moved him over to be an apprentice with an engraver. Engravers make detailed images on metal stuff with tools. That can be used as a print, essentially - fill it with ink and print it on something.
In 1781, Blake was heartbroken because he unsuccessfully proposed to a woman and she said no. He was talking about his deep grief with another woman, whose name was Catherine Boucher. He asked her 'Do you pity me?' She said that she did. Then he said 'I love you.' A year later, they got married. No, this usually this doesn't work out if you try to coax a friend out of their break-up, but in his case it worked out great. She was kind of illiterate, so he taught her how to read and write, which was kind of sweet. She actually ended up collaborating with him on a lot of his works as time went on. For most of his adult life, he eked out a living engraving and illustrating books and magazines. That was how he made his money.
Blake was primarily known for something called relief etching, also known as illuminated printing.
Basically, what this involves is adding text and illustrations to copper plates with pens and brushes - usually it's acid-resistant to do that - then you put the whole plate in acid, which etches and leaves the text and drawings behind in relief (hence the name), kind of raised.
He came up with this method... he says that he still had these weird visions as an adult. Remember the tree full of angels and the God outside the window? When his brother died in 1787, Blake claimed to see his brother's spirit rise up and go through the ceiling, clapping its hands as it went, like really happily. That spirit would return to him and teach him that style of printing. Okay, there was kind of a friendly ghost teaching him how to do stuff. I guess that's nice. As you can probably imagine, this process is kind of time-consuming and expensive. Blake was poor for most of his life. You'd think as long as we're in the ghost-story realm, his brother could have taught him something a little more lucrative, like helping him to invent a laser printer or something like that, but that's not how it went.
Blake's doing a lot of this etching stuff, but he also wrote poetry. He published his first book of poems, called Poetical Sketches, in 1783. It was not very good. It was kind of derivative. It bombed. No one liked it, but he didn't let that stop him. In 1789, he publishes something called Songs of Innocence, then Songs of Experience in 1793. That kind of makes sense. These would be combined in 1794 into Songs of Innocence and Experience.
This book contains Blake's most well-known poems, including 'The Little Boy Lost', 'The Little Boy Found', 'The Lamb' , and 'The Tyger'. 'The Tyger' is really Blake's most famous poem, probably. Yes, it's a little weird to spell 'tiger' like that with a 'y,' even in Blake's time. He probably did it for effect, kind of an anachronism. It's like having a shop nowadays called 'Ye Old Fudge Shop;' it's harkening back to prior times.
The opening lines of the poem go like this:
'Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?'
In this poem, Blake's questioning, basically, how something really terrifying, like the tiger, could have been created by God if God creates everything in His/Her image. I guess Blake didn't think that tigers were awesome; that's maybe a cultural difference between then and now. 'The Tyger' is sort of interesting; it's a sister poem to 'The Lamb', which is in Songs of Innocence; 'The Tyger' is in Songs of Experience. These deliberate contrasts occur all over the poem. They sort of match up with each other across Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. In that sense, it ends up being this prototypical Romantic work, in the sense that there is this vision of innocence that refers to childhood, this time when we're sheltered from the dangerous world, then experience, which is what happens to us when we lose that childhood innocence due to the corruption of society or the oppression of organized religion in the form of the Church and the ruling classes. Romantic poets are always trying to capture this contrast between instinct and between reason or nature and civilization, negotiating the dynamics between those things, usually privileging the former over the latter. They like nature and instinct a lot better than reason and experience.
Outside of poetry, Blake was a radical thinker. He supported the French Revolution, and he opposed England's treatment of the Americas. You can remember this when you forget about when he lived and wrote: late 1700s... American Revolution, French Revolution, William Blake.
He also had interesting ideas about marriage and women. He illustrated Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life; she was a famous feminist and also the mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. He ended up, along with her, as kind of a pioneer of the free love movement. I guess British people in fancy tights were doing free love before the hippies were. Some of this might have had to do with the fact that he had some problems in his own marriage. Catherine couldn't have children. Rather than just accept this, Blake criticized the constraints of marriage and wanted to try to bring a concubine into the house. This did not go over well. Suddenly, it seems like he was a little bit less progressive and a little more self-serving, but I'm not going to pass judgments.
Moving along from that, a couple more poetic things that he did: in 1793, he completes a thing called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is kind of like in Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost; it's about Hell. Since the Romantics weren't such huge fans of organized religion, Hell's actually a really cool place. Blake suggests that Heaven is too authoritarian and too stuffy and guided by rules. In Hell, people can relax, which is quite different than what's going on in Milton and Dante. It's like that expression 'I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.' That's what's going on in Blake's poem. It's the same idea.
So it makes sense that Blake would also write an epic poem called Milton: A Poem (it's like Milton: A Movie.), which was completed in 1810. Again, he has this interest in Hell and poetic tradition in that sense. In this work, John Milton comes back from Heaven and hangs out with Blake. It's an interesting way of exploring the relationship with dead predecessors in poetry and working out things like influence and poetic trajectory in that sense. Writers actually do a lot of this, elegizing each other, talking about each other. Keep a look out for that. It's a favorite quiz question to ask about writers who wrote about other writers.
In 1804, Blake starts working on a poem called Jerusalem, which is his longest and also most illuminated work (that just means more of those illustrations), completed in 1820. It's really long; it has about 100 etched and illustrated plates, which is kind of cool. It involved Blake's own mythology about Britain. There's Albion, who is the primeval fallen man, and other characters. There isn't a linear plot. It's not really beach reading; it's kind of difficult. Jerusalem isn't just a city, it's a female character and it's the title of the book. It gets very complicated very fast. That one's not usually on the syllabus.
Blake died in 1827. At the time of his death, he was working on a bunch of engravings for Dante's Divine Comedy, which, like we said before, he doesn't totally agree with Dante and Milton and their concept of Hell, so his etchings end up being kind of critical of what's going on in Dante. So, that's kind of an interesting final project for him.
To sum things up, Blake was a Romantic poet, but he was also a prominent illustrator and engraver. His signature method involved this etching called illuminated printing, which was basically putting all the acid on the paint and letting the image come forth in relief. He thought that his dead brother's ghost taught it to him because, yeah, he was also a mystic who had visions. His major works are Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes that poem 'The Tyger' that we read, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Milton: A Poem and Jerusalem. That's a summary of William Blake.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain William Blake's early life and mystic nature
- Define illuminated printing and how Blake invented this method
- Identify and describe Blake's major poems