The purpose of this paper is to compare some of the writings and artworks of William Blake (1757-1827) to the art of his time. But first we must learn a bit about Blake and his background, to better understand where he was coming from.
William Blake was a 19th century writer but also an artist and visionary, who nowadays is regarded as a groundbreaking figure of the Romantic Age. His writings have influenced many writers and artists through the ages, and he has been characterized both as a major poet and an original thinker.1
Born in 1757 in London, England, William Blake began writing at an early age and claimed to have had his first vision, of a tree full of angels, at age 10. He studied engraving and grew to love Gothic art, which he incorporated into his own unique works. A misunderstood poet, artist and visionary throughout much of his life, Blake found admirers late in life and has been vastly influential since his death in 1827.
William Blake was born on November 28, 1757, in the Soho district of London,England. He only briefly attended school, being chiefly educated at home by his mother. The Bible had an early, profound influence on Blake, and it would remain a lifetime source of inspiration, coloring his life and works with intense spirituality.
At an early age, Blake began experiencing visions, and his friend and journalist Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window when Blake was four years old. He also allegedly saw the prophet Ezekiel under a tree and had a vision of “a tree filled with angels.” Blake’s visions would have a lasting effect on the art and writings that he produced.
Blake’s artistic ability became evident in his youth, and by age ten, he was enrolled at Henry Pars’ drawing school, where he sketched the human figure by copying from plaster casts of ancient statues. At age 14, he apprenticed with an engraver. Blake’s master was the engraver to the London Society of Antiquaries, and Blake was sent to Westminster Abbey to make drawings of tombs and monuments, where his lifelong love of gothic art was seeded.
Blake developed mythic creatures inspired by Greek and Roman mythology including Los, who represents the poetic imagination; Albion, who represents England; and Orc, who embodies youthful rebelliousness. His illustrations for the Bible’s “Book of Revelations” include ‘The Great Red Dragon’ (Satan). rejected 18th century literary trends, preferring the Elizabethans (Shakespeare, Jonson and Spenser) and ancient ballads instead.
In 1779, at age 21, Blake completed his seven-year apprenticeship and became a journeyman copy engraver, working on projects for book and print publishers. Also preparing himself for a career as a painter, that same year, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art’s Schools of Design, where he began exhibiting his own works in 1780. Blake’s artistic energies branched out at this point, and he privately published his Poetical Sketches (1783), a collection of poems that he had written over the previous 14 years.
In August 1782, Blake married Catherine Sophia Boucher, who was illiterate. Blake taught her how to read, write, draw and color (his designs and prints). He also helped her to experience visions, as he did.
One of the most traumatic events of William Blake’s life occurred in 1787, when his beloved brother, Robert, died from tuberculosis at age 24. At the moment of Robert’s death, Blake allegedly saw his spirit ascend through the ceiling, joyously. The moment, which entered into Blake’s psyche, greatly influenced his later poetry. The following year, Robert appeared to Blake in a vision and presented him with a new method of printing his works, which Blake called “illuminated printing”, which allowed him to combine etchings and text on the same plate. Once incorporated, this method allowed Blake to control every aspect of the production of his art.
While Blake was an established engraver, soon he began receiving commissions to paint watercolors, and he painted scenes from the works of Milton, Dante,Shakespeare and the Bible.
In 1804, Blake began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804-20), his most ambitious work to date. He also began showing more work at exhibitions (including Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims and Satan Calling Up His Legions), but these works were met with silence, and the one published review was absurdly negative; the reviewer called the exhibit a display of “nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity,” and referred to Blake as “an unfortunate lunatic.”
Blake was devastated by the review and lack of attention to his works, and, subsequently, he withdrew more and more from any attempt at success. In 1819, however, Blake began sketching a series of “visionary heads,” claiming that the historical and imaginary figures that he depicted actually appeared and sat for him. By 1825, Blake had sketched more than 100 of them, including those of Solomon and Merlin the magician and those included in “The Man Who Built the Pyramids” and “Harold Killed at the Battle of Hastings”; along with the most famous visionary head that was included in Blake’s “The Ghost of a Flea.”
Between 1823 and 1825, Blake engraved 21 designs for an illustrated Book of Job (from the Bible) and Dante’s Inferno. In 1824, he began a series of 102 watercolor illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy – a project that would be cut short by Blake’s death in 1827. In the final years of his life, William Blake suffered from recurring bouts of an undiagnosed disease. He died in August 12, 1827, leaving unfinished watercolor illustrations to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and an illuminated manuscript of the Bible’s Book of Genesis.
Artistic Trends and World Events Influencing Blake
As we learned in the introduction, Blake was a leading proponent of the Romantic Age, but he also loved Gothic Art and the artists of the Renaissance such as Michelangelo, Durer and Raphael. 3 as either Romantic or pre-Romantic. I find evidence that he was also an admirer of the works of Leonardo daVinci as I will try to show in the following section. Blake was reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England, indeed, to all forms of organized religion. The main events that shaped the period in which he lived were the French and American Revolution in 1789 and 1776-1790, respectively, the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) and the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution, especially in London society. One of the first books he wrote was titled The French Revolution: A Poem in Seven Books. It was typeset but never printed and survived only in one copy of paper proofs. It traces, largely without symbolism, the history of the revolution shortly before and just after the Fall of the Bastille (July 14, 1789). As the critic David Erdman describes it, “the revolutionary events of June and July are treated as a single Day of Judgment or Morning of Resurrection during which the dark night of oppression lingers and fades in the marble hall of the Old Order while the Sun of democracy rises above the city streets and the people’s Assembly.” Blake was also critical of the marriage laws of his day, and generally railed against traditional Christian notions of chastity as a virtue.4 At a time of tremendous strain in his marriage, in part due to Catherine’s apparent inability to Therefore it is difficult to classify him
bear children, he directly advocated bringing a second wife into the house.5 His poetry suggests that external demands for marital fidelity reduce love to mere duty rather than authentic affection, and decries jealousy and egotism as a motive for marriage laws. Poems such as “Why should I be bound to thee, O my lovely Myrtle-tree?” and “Earth’s Answer” seem to advocate multiple sexual partners. In his poem “London” he speaks of “the Marriage-Hearse” plagued by “the youthful Harlot’s curse”, the result alternately of false Prudence and/or Harlotry. Visions of the Daughters of Albion is widely read as a tribute to free love since the relationship between Bromion and Oothoon is held together only by laws and not by love.
Comments on Specific Art Projects and PoemsIlluminations
Ancient of Days (1794) – etching by Blake
In Blake’s vision of the Almighty in his famous metal relief etching Ancient of Days, the frontispiece of his book Europe: A Prophecy, we can see the influence of Michelangelo. The piece is full of energy. Gd is depicted as a muscular man in the style of a David statue or the likes with ideal, classical anatomy, which was so popular during the Renaissance. The sheer force of the muscles keeps him from falling, a novel way to depict Gd, who sits in the center of an orb or sun. This shows the influence of the Copernican discovery that the earth revolves around the sun and not the opposite (1514-1543), which was prevalent in medieval times.
Compass (1500?) – by daVinci
Kepler, almost a century later, proved the planets elliptical orbits by categorizing them into three mathematical functions (Kepler’s Laws, 1609-1619). A strong wind pulls Gd’s hair to the side, which I suggest could be another reference to the planets moving at high speed around the sun, although none of the art history books makes this connection. Gd’s left hand breaks through the cosmos and turns into twin rays of light that resemble an architect’s compass to create, design and influence the world. This is reminiscent of Leonardo DaVinci’s numerous drawings of a compass, a pair of dividers and other technical drawing tools.
Pair of Dividers (1500?) – by daVinci
Another example of the strong influence from DaVinci can be found in Blake’s etching of Satan trying to seduce Eve with the serpent being his companion.
Satan has wings and the scene is strikingly similar to daVinci’s sketches of a flying machine, e.g. in his drawing My Mind.
Blake’s contemporary, Francisco Goya in Spain, displayed a similar theme in his etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters from Los Caprochos ca 1798. The monsters attacking Goya, while he falls asleep at a table, are owls (symbolizing folly) and bats (symbolizing ignorance). If we can rely on the dates, it was Goya that was influenced by
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – Goya (1798)
Blake or they were both influenced by the Romantic notion that reason was giving way to “imagination, emotions and even nightmares.”6
Another example of Michelangelo’s influence can be seen in this detail from The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, showing the artist’s self- portrait within in St. Bartholomew’s skin. Blake illustrated many similar despairing scenes in watercolors and etchings for Dante’s Inferno, Divine Comedy and in other works, one of which is copied below to illustrate the likeness.
Self-portrait hidden in St Bartholomew’s skin – detail of The Last Judgment by Michelangelo
Illumination (self-portrait?) – William Blake
William Blake critiques several aspects of his society. Perhaps the best known of his poems concerning child labor is “The Chimney Sweeper”, which evokes the cruelty of young children being forced to sweep chimneys:7
When my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue, Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep, So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
In “London”, Blake observes multiple social ills and blames them on the prevalence of commerce. The human misery he sees, he identifies with “charter’d” (commercial) streets. He references in the poems the suffering of young chimney sweeps, soldiers, infants, and prostitutes. He sees the commercialization of Britain and its “dark Satanic mills” as corrupting interpersonal relationships and religion. He is particularly concerned with preserving the innocence of childhood.
Songs of Innocence (1789), is a poetry collection written from the child’s point of view, of innocent wonderment and spontaneity in natural settings which includes “Little Boy Lost”, “Little Boy Found” and “The Lamb”;8
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Songs of Experience (1794) contains many poems in response to those in Innocence, suggesting ironic contrasts as the child matures and learns of such concepts as fear and envy. For example, to “The Lamb” comes the predatory “The Tyger”;
And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
The two books of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were later combined by Blake into a single volume, Songs of Innocence and Experience.
To Blake, law and love were opposites, and he criticized the “frozen marriage- bed”. As an example, in Visions, Blake writes:
Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust? (5.21-3, E49)
Blake was also opposed to slavery and believed in racial and sexual equality. Several of his poems and paintings express a notion of universal humanity, clearly influenced by the ideals of the French and American revolutions: “As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various)”. In one poem, narrated by a black child, white and black bodies are described as shaded groves or clouds, which exist only until one learns “to bear the beams of love”:
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me. (23-8, E9)
Blake retired to Felpham, Sussex and described his love for the English country- side and its cottage gardens:
Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates;
her windows are not obstructed by vapours;
voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard,
and their forms are more distinctly seen,
and my cottage is also a shadow of their houses.
Detail of William Blake’s illustration for Milton: A Poem 1804-1808, published in Poets in the Landscape: The Romantic Spirit in British Art (2007). Photograph: Pallant House Gallery, Chicester
In death, as in life, Blake received short shrift from observers, and obituaries tended to underscore his personal idiosyncrasies at the expense of his artistic accomplishments. Unappreciated in life, William Blake has over time become a legend in literary and artistic circles, and his visionary approach to art and writing have not only spawned countless, spellbound speculations about Blake, they have inspired numerous artists and writers.
This was my first encounter with William Blake, since I am not a literature major, but a graduate student in Creative Writing. I was equally inspired by his broad genius.
1) Berger, Pierre, William Blake: Poet and Mystic. E. P. Dutton & Company (1915). . p. 45.
2) Blake, William, The Biography.com website. Retrieved 06:14, Jan 07, 2015, from
3) Clark, Kenneth. Civilisation: A Personal View, Penguin (1982)
4) Hamblen, Emily, On the Minor Prophecies of William Blake. Kessinger Publishing(1995). p. 10.
5) Hunt, J.D. The Figure in the Landscape. London-Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press (1976)
6) Kleiner. (Gardner’s) Art Through the Ages, Vol. 2 (eleventh edition, 2001).
7) Klonsky, Milton. Blake’s Dante, The Complete Illustrations to the Divine Comedy. Harmony Books (1980)
8) Kroeber, K. Romantic Landscape Vision. London, Constable and Worsworth (1975)
9) Mellor, Anne K. Blake’s Human Form Divine. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press (1974)
10) Mitchell, W.J.T. Blake’s Composite Art, A Study of the Illuminated Poetry, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press (1978)
11) Monk, S.H. The Sublime. A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII – Century England. New York (1935), pp: 252.
12) Poetry Foundation’s bio of William Blake
13) Quoted from http://www.online-literature.com/blake/
14) Quoted from http://www.enotes.com/topics/london-william-blake