William Blake is one of the well-known literary figures in England who is still in the memory of most people because of his excellent skills in painting, visionary mystic, engraving, and poetry. He was born on 28 November 1757 to an underprivileged household living in London and this condition of his family made him to receive little education and privileges when he was in his early years.
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Blake was largely unrecognized during his lifetime, may be because he dropped out of school in order to work in his father’s shop. However, he is now regarded as one of the influential figures in the history of both poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age since his works talk about the supremacy of the imagination over the rationalism and materialism of that period.
Blake started to embrace biblical teachings early in life, and these remained his source of motivation even in his later life (Blunt; Bronowski). In his early life, he also began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities given to him by his father, and these drawings gave him an early exposure to a number of classical works by various authors.
Because of his love for drawing, he was enrolled in drawing classes and he also made explorations into the world of poetry during that period. At fourteen years of age, he was apprenticed for a period of seven years to the British engraver, James Basire. After the completion of this term, he became a professional engraver. On October, 1779, he was enrolled at The Royal Academy for a six-year period. While at the school, he maintained the classical precision of his previous influences.
Blake was married to Catherine Boucher on 18 August, 1782, whom he taught how to read and write as well as engrave. Catherine thereafter assisted her husband in coloring his poems and giving him beneficial suggestions. In one of his books, The Book of Thel, Blake writes about the pain he had after the demise of his first daughter and last child.
Apart from the few years he spent in school, Blake was self-educated and most of his pictorial work mainly represented biblical subjects. Blake’s elaborate paintings and engravings were therefore mainly associated to literature. The interdependence of poetry and painting formed the key principle in all his work and represented his idiosyncratic views. Even though he spent most of his lifetime around the city of London, he authored a wide variety of literary works, which embraced the human imagination as “the very body of God.”
Blake was seen as mad because of the peculiar views he held. On the other hand, his expressiveness and creativity has currently made him an influential figure in the poetry world. The philosophical and mystical undercurrents that are demonstrated within his work were characterized to be part of the Romantic Movement and “Pre-Romantic,” because of their huge appearance during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.
During this period, his country was ruled by the oppressive British Monarchy and the corrupt Church of England; therefore, this atmosphere of oppression was suffocating to the talented, intelligent Blake. These happenings made him to voice out his views in the disguise of romantic poems.
The principles and aspirations of the French as well as of the American revolutions largely influenced his life and such theorists like Jacob Bohme and Emanuel Swendenborg also played a pivotal role in shaping his ideals. In spite of these known influences, the singularity of his work complicates any efforts to classify his work, for example, William Rossetti classified him as a “glorious luminary,” while Peter Marshall classified him as one of the forerunners of modern anarchism.
The development of Blake’s views can be seen in the differences that are evident between his early and late works. For that reason, Blake’s later literary work includes a private mythology with complicated use of symbols, his late work has received less preference than his earlier easily available work, for instance, the recent Vintage anthology of Blake was based on his earlier work.
His earlier work has been seen by many scholars as mainly rebellious in character; therefore, it as been regarded as a form of protestation against dogmatic religion, for example, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” depicts Satan as the victor who rebels against an imposter authoritarian deity.
In Blake’s later works, for example, “Milton” and “Jerusalem,” he portrays a distinguishing image of mankind as redeemed through self-sacrifice and forgiveness. He, however, maintains his previous position concerning the inflexible and gruesome authoritarianism of traditional belief system. Very few people have been able to understand the association that exists between Blake’s earlier and later works.
Some scholars have suggested that his late works showed a growth of the ideas he had when writing his earlier works, for instance, the humanitarian objective of realizing personal wholeness of body and spirit was displayed in his late works. This is evident in one of his later writings, “The Unholy Bible,” which has a section that depicts the “Bible of Hell” pledged in one of his earlier works.
Even though Blake criticized conservative religion, his denunciation of religiosity did not mean that he was totally against religion. His thoughts regarding orthodoxy Christianity is seen in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” which are series passages that emulate the Biblical prophecy wherein he lists numerous Proverbs of Hell.
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In “The Everlasting Gospel,” he gives a well-thought description of Jesus. He describes Him as a supremely created being, which is above code of belief, logic, and even principles. However, he does not present him as philosopher or conventional messianic figure. He sees Jesus as the one who forms the important connection and union that exists between divinity and humanity.
He was respectful to the word of God as given in the Bible but aggressive to the Church of England (Blake, 34). Blake formulated his own mythology that is evident in all his prophetic writings wherein he introduces some characters such as ‘Urizen,’ and ‘Bromion.’ Blake derived his mythology from the Bible and from some Greek scholars. His ideas of the everlasting gospel are mostly based on this mythology.
One of his major criticisms of conventional religion stems from the fact that he felt that it fostered the containment of human natural desires and depressed earthly happiness. This position that he takes is evident in “A vision of the Last Judgment” where he says that men get entrance into heaven, not because they have controlled their passions, but because they have been able to cultivate their inner understandings (Frye).
In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” he says that he does not agree to the orthodox ideology of a distinct body from the soul, and which must be under the submission of the soul. However, he says that the body is an extension of the soul taken from the ‘discernment’ of the human five senses.
Therefore, the importance traditionalism puts on the rejection of earthly joy is a dualistic error. This error is derived from misapprehension of the association that exists between the body and the soul. In another place, he describes Satan as in the ‘State of error’ and as in a condition wherein he cannot come to repentance.
Blake had a complicated connection with Enlightenment philosophy and because of his religious affiliation, he did not agree with the Newtonian view of the universe. This way of thinking is depicted in “Jerusalem” where he also illustrates his opposition to the ‘single-vision’ of scientific materialism.
In spite of his clear disagreement to Enlightenment philosophy, he reached at a linear aesthetic. This position was somewhat the same to the neoclassical engravings of John Flaxman than to the works of the Romantics. Consequently, he has been seen as one of the enlightenment poets and artists. This is because he was in agreement with that movement’s denial of received ideas, regulations, and conventions.
However, Blake was viewed as being in opposition of what he thought as the elevation of reason to the level of a tyrannical regime. In his disapproval of reason, law, and uniformity, he has been seen as contradicting the enlightenment principles. However, a number of scholars have argued that, in a dialectical sense, he employed the enlightenment drive of denunciation to disapprove narrow notions of the enlightenment principles.
In many of his poems and paintings, Blake talked about the concept of universal humanity, abhorrence to slavery, and strong belief in racial and sexual equality. For example, in one of his poems, “The Book of Thel,” he asked about the essence of living here in the world.
This poem is thought to be a composition in honor of his dead newborn child. Until his death on 12 August, 1827, Blake maintained an active interest in the social and political happenings that were taking place during that time (De Selincourt). He presented his statements using mystical symbolism.
His position on what he perceived as intolerable extended to the Christian faith. His religious views are depicted in Songs of Experience. In this book, he differentiates between the Old Testament God, and the New Testament God. The restrictions of the former were rejected while those of the latter were accepted. In response to Blake’s Songs of Experience, D.C. Williams (1899-1983), said that Blake used the literary work to depict the suffering and loss posed by the nature of society and the world of his time.
Throughout history, poets have been influenced to a large extent by the environment that they live in, and William Blake was no exception. His literary works have influential opposing views and comments concerning different social and political events during his time.
In particular, he talked about important issues regarding human nature, the oppressive British monarchy, and the Christian faith. These views were safe from prosecution. This is because he skillfully masked them in symbolic language that could not be understood by many of his adversaries.
Blake, William. The complete poetry and prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Anchor Books, 1982. Print.
Blunt, Anthony. The art of William Blake. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. Print.
Bronowski, Jacob. William Blake, 1757-1827; a man without a mask. London: Secker & Warburg, 1947. Print.
De Selincourt, Basil. William Blake. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1971. Print.
Frye, Northrop. Blake; a collection of critical essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966. Print.