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William Blake

Illustrator, engraver, painter, poet – William Blake wore many hats. Belonging to the first generation of Romantics, Blake composed poetry and drew illustrations that have stood the test of time and continue to be widely read over 200 years later. Read on to find out more about Blake and what inspired him.

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William Blake

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Illustration

Illustrator, engraver, painter, poet – William Blake wore many hats. Belonging to the first generation of Romantics, Blake composed poetry and drew illustrations that have stood the test of time and continue to be widely read over 200 years later. Read on to find out more about Blake and what inspired him.

William Blake, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - William Blake is an English poet and painter, known for his Songs of Innocence and Experience collection.

William Blake: biography

William Blake's Biography
Birth:28th November 1757
Death:12th August 1827
Father:James Blake
Mother:Catherine Blake (née Wright)
Spouse/Partners:Catherine Boucher (m. 1782-1827)
Cause of death:Natural causes (theories about liver failure due to copper ingestion)
Famous Works:
Nationality:English
Literary Period:Romanticism

William Blake is an English poet and visual artist affiliated with the Romantic movement in England in the 18th century. Born in London in 1757 to James and Catherine Blake, William Blake was homeschooled and had wanted to become a painter from the age of ten.

He was sent to drawing school by his parents and later became an apprentice to an engraver, continuing his education at art school. By that time, William Blake was already writing poetry, and he also briefly attended the Royal Academy in London.

William Blake spent most of his life in London, where he met his wife, Catherine Boucher. Blake trained his younger brother Robert in drawing, painting and engraving, and also taught his wife to read and write.

Although he held Christian beliefs, he was against any form of organised religion, particularly the Church of England. Blake's poems, paintings and illustrations often reflect his religious beliefs. His works are laden with symbolism, especially Christian symbolism, and he is considered one of the greatest British artists.

Both Blake and his wife are buried at Bunhill Cemetery in London. Blake passed away in 1827 after an intense day's work on his Dante series.

William Blake: poems

William Blake's most popular poetry collection, Songs of Innocence and Experience, was published partly in 1789 and then as a complete volume in 1794. The collection carries the dual symbolism of innocence and experience, reflected in the poems.

Innocence is reflected in childhood, signalled by a lack of worldly wisdom, corruption, fear, and inhibition. The most famous of Blake's poems in Songs of Innocence are:

  • 'Infant Joy'

  • 'The Lamb'

  • 'The blossom'

  • 'The Little Black Boy'

  • 'Laughing song'

On the other hand, experience is characterised by the notion of 'the fallen world,' political and social corruption, and oppression. These poems have darker undertones compared to the pastoral harmony in Songs of Innocence. The most famous of Blake's poems in Songs of Experience are:

Songs of Innocence and Experience features illustrations by William Blake which were done in watercolours by hand and printed from copper plates. The collection has inspired a number of musicians and composers and has been tuned to music. Other poems and poetry collections by William Blake include:

  • America, a Prophecy (1793)

  • There is No Natural Religion (1788)

  • 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion' (1793)

  • For Children: The Gates of Paradise (1793)

  • For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise (1820)

William Blake: paintings and illustrations

William Blake was a prolific painter, engraver and illustrator. Apart from his poetry collections, Blake illustrated the second edition of Original Stories from Real Life (1791) by Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley (the famous author of Frankenstein).

William Blake was often deemed 'insane', and he frequently found himself at odds with the Royal Academy's president, Joshua Reynolds. William Blake's paintings are influenced by the Classical style of Michelangelo and Raphael, and he exhibited his works at the Royal Academy in 1808 and at his brother's house in 1809. Blake's paintings, which he completed in watercolour, often contained Biblical themes.

In 1825, William Blake was commissioned by artist John Linnell to illustrate Dante Alighieri's 'Divine Comedy' (1320), which he worked on until his death in 1827.

William Blake, The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, StudySmarterFig. 2 - One of Blake's famous works is The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (1805). This illustration depicts Revelation 12 and is part of a series of watercolour paintings.

William Blake: beliefs

William Blake held Christian, nonconformist beliefs, which led his contemporaries to deem him 'radical'. He was vehemently opposed to the social and political oppression by the English monarchy during the 18th century. He also publicly rejected theological tyranny, which he expressed in his works.

Blake's beliefs were greatly influenced by the American and French revolutions, although he later rejected the political beliefs underlying both. William Blake denounced the Industrial Revolution and his complicated relationship with religious beliefs is reflected in the complex mystical symbolism which characterised his work.

Interestingly, Blake's sexual beliefs were aligned with the movement of 'free love,' which deemed marriage as slavery and called for the abolishment of all restrictions concerning sexual activities like homosexuality, polygamy, contraception, and prostitution.

William Blake: the Romantic

Romanticism in the 18th century is often seen as a reaction against Classicism and Neoclassicism. Romantics prized the individual over society and laid great emphasis on emotions. They believed in the immense power of emotions and the natural world around them. Romantics propagated free expression of feelings and tested artifice. Authenticity, imagination, individuality, nature and creativity were of extreme importance to the Romantics.

The first generation of Romantic poets includes Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Blake.

William Blake's Song of Innocence encompasses the purity and pastoral harmony of childhood. He often evokes themes concerning nature and the natural world, and also dives into the complexities of mystical and spiritual elements, which he expresses with immense creativity.

Blake's poems denounced Rationalism and repeatedly underlined individuality and the power of the imagination. Furthermore, Blake did not believe that poetry, literature and art, in general, were meant to be consumed only by the elite. He strongly supported the notion that common people could read, understand and appreciate poetry despite its complexities.

Blake's use of metaphors, symbolism and imagery that evoked a visceral, emotional response highlights the Romantic aspect of his works.

William Blake: quotes

The following quotes by William Blake reflect on the major themes found in his works.

A truth that's told with bad intent / Beats all the lies you can invent

(Auguries of Innocence, 1863)

This quote highlights the importance of good intentions when conveying the truth. Blake suggests that even if someone is telling the truth, if their intent is malicious or harmful, it is worse than lying. The quote emphasizes the moral responsibility we have in our communication with others.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night; / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

('The Tyger', 1794)

This quote is from one of Blake's most famous poems, 'The Tyger.' It is a contemplation of the creation of a powerful, awe-inspiring creature and the question of who or what could have created it. The poem explores the complexity of the natural world and the divine forces behind it.

Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1974)

This quote challenges the notion that desire should always be repressed. Blake suggests that people who restrain their desires do so because they lack the strength to pursue them. The quote encourages individuals to embrace their passions and desires, but also to exercise control over them.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom ... You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

This quote suggests that excess and indulgence can lead to knowledge and enlightenment. Blake argues that one must first experience and understand excess in order to know what moderation is. The quote emphasizes the importance of personal experience and experimentation in one's journey towards wisdom.

William Blake - Key takeaways

  • William Blake was a Romantic poet, engraver and painter who lived in 18th century London.

  • As a Romantic poet, Blake's works feature themes of nature, expression of emotion, mysticism, spiritualism and the individual.

  • William Blake held Christian beliefs and was a nonconformist who rejected all forms of organised religion. Christian and Biblical themes feature heavily in his poetry, prose and illustrations.

  • Blake was often considered to be a madman by his contemporaries because of the underlying Romantic complexities of his works.

  • Blake's most famous poetry collection is Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Frequently Asked Questions about William Blake

William Blake is best known for his collection of illustrated poetry, The Songs of Innocence and Experience

William Blake was a poet, engraver and painter who lived in 18th century London. He is considered to be one of the most influential Romantic poets.

  1. William Blake was born in 1757 and died in 1827 in London

  2. William Blake, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, belongs to the first generation of Romantic poets

  3. He is best known for his illustrated poetry collection, The Songs of Innocence and Experience, published as a complete collection in 1794

The Tyger

William Blake’s works feature elements of Romanticism such as expression of profound emotion, nature and the natural world, mysticism, spiritualism, pastoralism, creativity, and individualism. He is considered to have contributed significantly to the corpus of Romantic poetry.

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Where did William Blake live for most of his life?

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