William Blake was an English Romantic artist and poet in the late 18th and early 19th century. Blake was trained as an engraver and painter, and spent most of his career producing commissioned works of art. He also published his own poetry along with his own illustrations. The most famous of his illustrated poems are “The Tyger” and “The Lamb”.
Blake was born in London in 1757. He was educated at home and demonstrated a love of art from a young age. As a child, Blake also began having visions, commonly of supernatural subjects. At 14, he was apprenticed to an engraver and learned the trade necessary to produce art for a living. Following his apprenticeship, he took instruction in painting and began fulfilling commissions as well as working on his own projects. In 1783, he published his first poems, in a small volume called Poetical Sketches. These were followed in 1789 by Songs of Innocence, a lighthearted collection of poems that celebrated childhood, goodness, and pastoral happiness. Five years later, Blake published a follow-up to his 1789 volume, called Songs of Experience, in which he explored the darker aspects of life. Blake believed his two Song collections captured the “two contrary states of the human soul”. Both were created with a technique called illuminated printing, by which Blake used relief etching on copper to illustrate his pages. His decision to add poetry to this was particularly innovative. Blake never set type for his poetry, but etched the words by hand as part of his illustration.
Apart from these now-famous collections, Blake published a number of other works, many of which were political or spiritual in nature. Blake moved in the rationalist circles of the Enlightenment, and shared many radical beliefs, including criticism of the authority of church and state. He was acquainted with Thomas Paine and wrote pieces dedicated to the French and American revolutions. Despite his associations with rationalists, his work is dominated by Romanticism, with its poetic sentimentality, spiritual emphasis, and Gothic-inspired paintings. In fact, Blake looked to the past for his models. In art, Blake most admired the work of Michelangelo and Raphael; in writing, he found his influences in Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible. Blake believed that his supernatural visions directed much of his work, inspiring in him a fascination with spiritual beings and the secret of the cosmos. Much of his work reflects his own religious theory, which incorporates elements of the Bible, existing mythology, and gods of Blake’s own invention. Thematically, his works sought to explain the coexistence of good and evil in the universe.
Between his visions and his unconventional style, Blake faced frequent criticism and even accusations of madness. As a result, he was not considered a writer of significance in his own time. In the last 150 years, however, he has received considerable attention. His more famous poems are regularly anthologized and modern scholars tend to admire the originality of his unconventional ideas. His Song collections remain staples for students of English literature today.
“The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure.”
“The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.”
“Without contraries there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.”
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