William Blake was one of the earliest English Romantic poets. Blake’s poetry emphasizes the importance of recognizing the place of instinct and intuition in human life. Blake was in rapport with the new revolutionary thought. Blake is obscure in his poetry mainly because of his use of symbols. In this unit, we shall consider his poetry – its nature and style. But before this, we shall examine his background.
Summary of William Blake’s Life History
William Blake was born in London on November 28, 1757 to James and Catherine Blake. Two of his six siblings died in infancy. From early childhood, Blake spoke of having some visions. His parents tried to discourage him from lying, but they observed that he was different from his peers and he was not forced to attend conventional school. He learned to read and write at home. At age ten, Blake expressed a wish to become a painter, so his parents sent him to a drawing school. Two years later, Blake began writing poetry.
When he turned fourteen, he was an apprentice to an engraver because he could not afford the cost of an art school. One of his assignments during his apprenticeship was to draw the Westminster Abbey which actually exposed him to Gothic styles from which he drew his inspiration throughout his career. After his seven-year term ended, he studied briefly at the Royal Academy.
In 1782, he married an illiterate woman named Catherine Boucher. Blake taught her to read and to write, and also instructed her in draftsmanship. Later, she helped him print the illuminated poetry for which he is remembered today. In 1784, Blake set up a printshop with a friend and former fellow apprentice, James Parker, but the business failed. For the remainder of his life, Blake made a meager living as an engraver and illustrator for books and magazines. Blake’s first printed work, Poetical Sketches (1783), is a collection of apprentice verse, mostly imitating classical models. The poems protest against war, tyranny, and King George III’s treatment of the American colonies. He published his most popular collection, Songs of Innocence, in 1789 and followed it in 1794 with Songs of Experience.
Blake was a nonconformist who associated with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day, such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. In defiance of 18th – century neoclassical conventions, he privileged imagination over reason in the creation of both his poetry and images, asserting that ideal forms should be constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions. In his final years, he was cohered by the admiring friendship of a group of younger artists who called themselves “the Ancients”. In 1818 he met John Linnell, a young artist who helped him financially and also helped to create new interest in his work. Linnell also in 1825 commissioned him to design illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, the cycle of drawings that Blake worked on until his death in 1827.